The tangled history of literary production and manuscripts is often actually quite interesting. I recently started reading Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ a book that had long been sitting on my shelf unread. I’d always wanted to read it to contrast and compare with all the George Orwell material I’d read on the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War. A few short chapters in however I learnt two interesting and troubling facts about the book and the author.
Firstly, the book as we have it was only a rather hasty translation by English sculptor Daphne Hardy, Koestler’s partner at the time, in the spring of 1939. She recorded in her journal that she was translating the novel (in their tiny apartment in Paris) almost at the same time as Koestler was writing it (in German). Hardy was not a professional translator and would ask Koestler’s advice over certain words and phrases. Koestler’s English at the time was not too hot and so the finished product was rather rough and ready. In the panic and mayhem of the advancing German army Koestler’s original was left on the kitchen table, Hardy’s translation had been sent to Koestler’s English publisher Jonathan Cape ten days before they fled south to escape the occupation. By the time Koestler got to do a back-translation four years later he had learnt to speak, write and think in English and had trouble recalling exactly how he’d phrased things in the original German version. He even called on German friends to remind him how certain things were said in German and so on. Wind forward to July 2015 and a German doctoral student, Matthias Weßel, discovers the original German typescript in the papers of Swiss publisher Emil Oprechet who founded the famous Europa Verlag publishing house in Zurich. How it ended up there is another long and fascinating story but it made me reflect that my own problems with my manuscript were, in the wider literary scheme of things, rather mild by comparison.
As a consequence of Weßel’s discovery ‘Darkness in Noon’ will be republished in Germany with a new English translation to follow and having seen a number of the differences, I’d say the new edition is likely to be quite different and superior. This classic novel as it stands at present and in the form it’s been known for half a century has some rather clunky elements and it’s now very clear why. The differences are not simply, awkward phraseology either. There are elements that are mildly misleading. To take just one example, on the contents page of my copy of the novel it reads, ‘The First Hearing’, ‘The Second Reading’, ‘The Third Reading’ and ‘The Grammatical Fiction’. This terminology is clearly not correct, anyone familiar with the setting, which is fictional but obviously intended to depict the show trials held in the USSR during the thirties, will recognise that a better and more accurate translation for ‘hearing’ would be ‘Interrogation’. Similar examples are legion and at times Michael Scammell, one of Koestler’s biographers, says ‘Almost comical’. ‘Darkness at Noon’, when it was published, was revealing, for the first time to many readers in the West, just how harshly dissenters to Stalin’s Russia were being treated. Even with a rather ham-fisted translation it still became a classic, in its rediscovered form we will see just how much more powerful it may be. So my dilemma this week was do I continue reading the copy I have or wait for the new version?
This became a very mute issue, when I discovered a more troubling issue about the author himself. The ‘literary storm’ caused by Professor David Cesarini’s biography of Koestler in 1999 had completely passed me by. Jill Craigie author and filmmaker (and wife of former Labour leader Michael Foot) had revealed to Cesarini that she had been raped by Koestler in 1951. Cesarini also said Craigie may not have been his only victim. There is a short piece about this in the BBC World Service ‘Meridian’ programme on IPlayer if you’re interested and want a quick potted version of what happened. Anyway this was a shock to me and has rather put me off reading Koestler’s book at all. The question of whether we should or should not read authors who have committed such crimes is not straight forward. One is rarely in exact moral alignment with the authors one reads, in fact that’s part of the reason one reads, to get a different point of view from one’s own. I’ve also found that it’s generally best not to put one’s literary heroes too high up on that pedestal they almost always tumble at some point.
George Orwell for example, one of my favourite authors, slept with prostitutes whilst married, which doesn’t exactly endear one to him. But rape is rather more brutal and difficult to forgive, somehow, even murder seems less distasteful when one is assessing the character of someone. Caravaggio for instance killed a man and yet, without knowing much about the circumstances, I’ve always felt this must have been a great personal tragedy which he regretted and which informed his art. I am ready to be proved wrong about Caravaggio’s character but I can see circumstances where one accidently kills or is forced to kill. The likelihood however of this being the case with relation to rape is, in the former impossible (how could you accidentally rape somone?) and in latter could only happen in very extreme circumstances.
The truth is I suppose I will quite possibly still read the ‘Darkness at Noon’ but my reading will be utterly coloured by my knowledge of the author’s personal conduct. Koestler may well have been a good writer and written a damming portrait of the moral transgressions of the Soviet authorities but whilst being despicable to other human beings himself doesn’t negate his observations it certainly makes one wary of feeling one can/should/will empathize with all he has written. For me there is a loose analogy with the good moral codes one finds in belief systems other than one’s own. Whilst one may agree with the moral tenants put forward, one can still be troubled by the individuals who deliver such articles of faith and the atmosphere of belief they create.