Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From the Air (1942) Literature and War Readalong May 2012

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

I have always wondered how people lived during the Blitz. How they coped with the fear, the chaos, the exhaustion and lack of sleep. I have seen a couple of movies set during WWII. Something that struck me more than once was the depiction of the Londoners during the Blitz. More than one movie showed them dancing or dining all through an air raid. Almost as if nothing was happening. I always wondered if this could have been the case. And what about the air raids that went on during the whole night? How would you cope with that? A lot of the questions I had have been answered by Darkness Falls From the Air. While I’m sure Blachin took some liberties and may have exaggerated, I think it still manges to give a good impression. It is one of the rare books that has been written during the Blitz which makes it especially interesting. Balchin worked as a psychologist for the British War Office and later as Deputy Scientific Advisor to the Army Council. Both occupations can be felt throughout the novel.

What I liked is how the main characters’ personal story, their marriage, work life and the war are interwoven.

In the beginning of the novel, the air raids aren’t as frequent at night and whenever a bomb falls down somewhere, Bill and his wife Marcia go and watch because it’s to a certain extent exciting. They do not feel threatened at all. They dine in underground restaurants and sleep in their own apartment. But the longer the war lasts, the more precarious the situation gets. People start to live in the tube and Marcia and Bill move to a hotel as their apartment house has no shelter. They still go out and dine underground and walk around the city to see the damage but it starts to become a bit less carefree. What gets to Stephen the most is the lack of sleep.

The day raids were dying down now. I suppose the pace was too hot to last. But to make up for it the nights were getting rougher than ever. The chief difficulty was to get enough sleep to keep going. Everybody was turning up at the office looking half asleep and sour as hell. I think it was this which led up to my row with Lennox. Lord knows there were enough reasons for quarreling with Lennox even if you were sleeping eight hours a night. When you got dow to an average of about three the thing was a certainty.

The narrator of Darkness Falls From the Air, Bill Sarrat, is a public servant. He must be one of the most cynical characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I didn’t expect this to be an amusing book but it was. Grim but funny. Passages like the one below illustrate what type a of person Sarrat is. He has an acute sense of the times he’s living in but at the same time he evades self-pity because he ultimately doesn’t take himself too seriously.

I’d decided that, what with work and Marcia and one thing and another, I was getting out of touch with the war. So I got out an atlas and Whitacker’s Almanack and so on and studied the war. That took about ten minutes. Then I tried forecasting the next bits. The last time Ted and I did that was at the beginning of the year. Ted put down that Germany would invade Switzerland, and that Japan would have a crack at Burma. I said that Germany would attack Hungary and Rumania and that Turkey would join up with us. The next morning Russia invaded Finland. An experience like that takes the heat out of you as a prophet.

The book follows three different narratives. The first is the marriage between Bill and Marcia which becomes more and more dysfunctional the longer the war goes on and the deeper Marcia entangles herself in her love affair with Stephen. The second story line centers on the depiction of life during the Blitz. The third narrative strand evolves around Bill’s occupation as a Civil Servant. The absurdity of the bureaucracy stands in stark contrast to the urgency of the matters they deal with. While “there is a war on”, they spend hours and days in useless meetings. Half of the staff is unprepared while others try to sabotage great projects out of sheer jealousy or incompetence. These parts reminded me so much of corporate life where people who have no clue will add tons of comments, questions and words of caution to a well prepared concepts just to pretend to be involved and competent. Additionally nobody wants to take a decision and those who work and think are the one’s seeing the useless people being promoted because they are in the way and no one knows how to deal with them otherwise. All this is captured by Balchin and these elements made this a very amusing book.

Blachin was, as I have mentioned, working as a psychologist and that shows in the parts dedicated to the love triangle. While I could have slapped Marcia and her vain lover Stephen, the discussions, the back and forth and Bill’s analysis of the whole story rang remarkably true.

While Darkness Falls From the Air has been called the novel of the Blitz, which it certainly is, it’s an amazing analysis of bureaucracy and a hopeless marriage. This was my first Balchin and I’m glad I discovered this author on Guy’s blog. It isn’t a flawless novel, it could have done with some editing but the voice and the tone are unique and the grim sense of  humour appealed to me a lot.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

*******

Darkness Falls From the Air was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Bomber by Len Deighton. Discussion starts on Friday June 29, 2012.