A Different ‘Darkness at Noon’ - Arthur Koestler

Last July a German doctoral student named Matthias Weßel made a remarkable discovery. He was examining the papers of the late Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht for a dissertation on Arthur Koestler’s transition from writing in German to writing in English at the end of the 1930s. Oprecht was a left-wing fellow traveler who had founded his famous publishing house Europa Verlag in Zurich in 1933, and was well known for his anti-Nazi views and support for writers in exile, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Ignazio Silone—and the young Arthur Koestler. Weßel told me that at the time, “I was looking for letters and royalty reports, because I wanted to know how many copies were printed of the first German edition of Koestler’s Spanish Testament.” He failed to find the answer to his question, but while looking over the Europa holdings in the Zurich Central Library he came across a cryptic entry: “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.”

This was extremely odd. Weßel knew of no such novel (Roman) in Koestler’s German writings, but the name Rubaschow rang a bell. Rubaschow (in English, Rubashov) is the hero of Koestler’s finest novel, Darkness at Noon. Weßel hardly dared think about what he had found, suspecting a sequel or perhaps a false entry, for it was well known that the original text of the novel—the last one Koestler wrote in German before he switched to English—was lost during his flight from France at the start of World War II. That was seventy-five years ago and it has never been seen since. With trepidation, Weßel ordered a scan, which showed a typed carbon copy, with corrections in Koestler’s handwriting. The date on the title page, March 1940, was the date on which Koestler is known to have finished the novel. There was no doubt. Weßel had stumbled across a copy of the German manuscript of Koestler’s masterpiece.

The implications of Weßel’s discovery are considerable, for Darkness at Noon is that rare specimen, a book known to the world only in translation. This peculiar distinction has been little discussed in the vast critical literature about Koestler and his famous novel. In my lengthy 2009 biography of Koestler I barely touch on it, yet the phenomenon is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the novel has been translated into over thirty other languages, every one of them based on the English edition, meaning that they are not just translations, but translations of a translation. This includes the German version, which Koestler himself translated back into German in 1944.

It is not certain that the Zurich typescript is the absolutely final version of Koestler’s novel, but it’s undoubtedly very close. Weßel has compared it with Koestler’s back-translation, and while the plot and characters are the same, he has found a host of discrepancies between the two. “The more pages I analyze,” Weßel wrote in an e-mail,
the more the differences between the Zurich MS, [the English] translation and Koestler’s retranslation add up. The deviations vary widely in quality and quantity, but taken together the versions are so different in content and style that there can be no doubt that a new German edition…is not only justified but rather absolutely necessary.
It’s hard to believe the same author could have produced two such different versions of his own novel, until one remembers that Koestler was working from the English edition the second time around. In the intervening four years he had learned to think and write in English himself, which helps to explain why the discrepancies were so wide. When he ran into trouble with his translation into German he consulted some native German speakers for advice and showed a sample to Rudolf Ullstein, scion of the great German publishing house (for which Koestler himself had worked in the 1930s). Ullstein noted that Koestler was using “a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions” in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal. After further drudgery, Koestler acknowledged his limitations and asked another German friend to revise the entire translation for him, but the final version, with all its weaknesses, was still his.

With the original text of Darkness at Noon now available, Weßel hopes it will help to secure for Koestler a much better literary reputation in Germany than he has had up to this point. Koestler’s prison memoir, Dialogue with Death, incorporated into Spanish Testament and praised by Orwell, Sartre, and Camus, among others, was written in German, along with his two major novels, The Gladiators and Darkness at Noon, but neither of the novels has appeared in its original form, only in translations into German from the English versions of the originals (The Gladiators was translated from a translation by Edith Simon). As it happens, I found four copies of the German original of The Gladiators in a Soviet archive many years ago, when doing research for my biography, but I was forbidden to copy the novel or bring it out of the country.1 Weßel plans to obtain and publish it now, and calculates that the publication of both The Gladiators and Darkness at Noon in their original German will sway German critical opinion and vanquish the widespread idea in Germany that Koestler wrote important works only in English.

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