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.

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

  1. Caroline: Balchin is marvellous, isn’t her? As you point out, not flawless, but who cares. Bureaucracy was, according to an interview I saw with film director, Michael Powell, Balchin’s Bete Noire.

    • I think he is great but I could understand if those work scenes were too much for someone.
      I thought he excelled at them. The absurdity of it all is captured so well. And the psychological insight is something else as well.

      • Sorry if I wasn’t clear. That’s the internet for you. What I meant was that director Michael Powell (who was a die hard fan of Balchin and read all his books) stated that Balchin had difficulty with working within a bureaucracy and I think that shows in his novels (the ones I’ve read).

        • No worries, I did get you. I just meant that I could understand if not everyone who reads the book would like that part. It takes up a lot of space in this novel. I thought itwas excellent and you could feel he knew what he wrote about and really hated bureaucracy.

          • In Mafalda (you know, my gravatar), the family has a turtle as a pet. Her name is Bureaucracy. It always makes me laugh. (btw, corporate life is more bureaucraZy)

    • He is extremely dry. It made me laugh quite often. It’s a bit hard to identify with the protagonists, it’s too cynical but it felt authentic. I was wondering so often how they dealt with the sleep deprivation. You must be on edge all the time.

  2. While I have not read Balchin it is amazing that he actually write this during the Blitz! That certainly gives the book a big dose of credibility.

    As you mentioned Caroline, it is amazing how people in the novel as well as in real life went about their everyday lives as best they could. Ironically Balchin was writing these novels while it the attacks were going on! This just reemphasizes the point!

    • It is amazing. I’m doing bad after one sleepless night. I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like. And it wnet on for months and months. You had to work anyway. And after a while, one house after the other, one street after the other were just gone. Erased.

    • You know, Romain Gary wrote Eucation Européenne during WWII. It’s a novel about the resistance and it was published in 1945. It takes place in forests in Eastern Europe and in winter. The characters fight in the snow and freeze and when Gary wrote it, he was a soldier, burning in the sun of the Middle East. People around him wondered how he could write in those conditions and imagine such a setting for his characters.

      Writers have unbelievable resources.

      • Thanks for mentioning this. That sounds like a book I need to read. I shouldn’t have stopped reading Gary after La vie devant soi, although I liked it.

  3. I was so upset that my library didn’t carry this one. It sounds fantastic. I guess the initial raids would be exciting, but I can imagine that the excitement would wane over time and that the fear would increase. Sounds like a very realistic character study.

    • Anna, I think it’s really worth reading. I could also understand that he was so cynical. It’s really gallow’s humour. It’s well shown that the first raids didn’t have a lot of impact but when they got heavier, they didn’t think it was all that funny any longer. It’s amazing to think, they were dinign underground and whenever they came up they were not sure what they would find. The end is quite tragic, btw. It was amazing to read this just after Coventry.

  4. Random thoughts:
    1. I am not British so please define the following: cove / bungho / bucked / savage / BF While you’re at it how about Bill: “I was feeling a bit straight-run and Life Buoy myself.” Say what?
    2. Dear Mr. Balchin, Roget’s Thesaurus has 19 words for being drunk. Only one of them is “tight”. As in “Marcia said, “Air raids always seem to make people get tight.’ ‘I’m not quite tight enough to be any good myself.’ I said, ‘Shall we get tight?'” I wish I had been tight while reading this book.
    3. I got a bad vibe on the first page when Bill meets two French officers and says “It struck me as odd that they should be around – unless they had decided to stay in England and fight with us.” Where the Hell were the Free French soldiers supposed to go after the fall of France, Mr. Balchin? Did you really live through the Blitz?
    4. I loved the dialogue. Bill is so snarky and biting. (Remind you of anyone?) The phone conversation about getting rid of Glynes is hysterical. But this charcacter trait was swamped by his cuckoldness.
    5. I do not know if I was more disgusted by the cuckolded or the cuckolder. Either way, by the end of the book I was hoping a bomb would drop on both of them. For Bill the tongue is definitely mightier than the fist. “‘If I can’t keep my wife without taking her boyfriends apart or running them out of town, it’s high time I stopped having a wife.'” Dude, turn in your man-card immediately! And the sad thing is the only man in England that Bill could probably have beaten up was Stephen. And what’s this boyfriends plural? I could have really liked this guy. As far as Marcia, would someone please slap her hard, but not be apologetic immediately afterwards? I enjoyed her death as much as Bill seemed to accept it.
    6. How subtle a transition from the unwashed masses of the tube to Hubbard’s hedonists. Thanks, we get it, Balchin.
    7. Funniest line: Bill “The great thing about the war is that there is equality of sacrifice. We are all in the front line now.” Hilarious!
    8. I feel dirty reading this book over Memorial Day weekend when we here in America are remembering our heroic warriors. Bill and the others are the opposite. I get the point about the Civil Service and enjoyed the satire, but the book just did not fit the weekend.
    9. I was on the edge of my seat for those departmental discussions. The graphic nature of bureaucrats getting their heads handed to themselves was stomach churning at times. I had to put the book down it could get so intense. It reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front”.
    10. By the end of the book I was literally begging that we not have another meeting between Bill and Stephen (as much as I enjoyed Bill’s snarky, sarcastic comments). Men were set back by this book. I am positive women enjoy it more and many would take perverse pleasure in it. Of course, that might depend on if they agree with: “Women don’t care about principles. They only care about people.”

    In conclusion, I enjoyed the dialogue and the satire of the bureaucracy, but the rest of the book sucked. The back and forth love triangle got tedious and aside from the Sarcastic, Cynical Bureaucrat Bill (as opposed to the Incredible Wimp Husband Bill), I hated all the characters. One dinner party + 500 pound bomb = happy ending for me.

    Bring on “Bomber”. Please!!!

    • Lol and lol.
      Men always think they would end the affairs their women have immediately but, believe me, it’s surprising what men put up with under certain circumstances. Not going to elaborate. Still, the back and forth did annoy me as well but that’s because we are not in it.
      I loved the wit and the satire and thought he captured the times very well. Living through similar meetings on a regular basis I enjoyed the descriptions but – some could/should have been shortened.
      The first line that you took offence with was sarcastic as well. I’m sute he knew they had to be there but by the time he wrote this, France had capitulated. Maybe Marcia is a symbol for France? Ha. There is a thought.

  5. I’m more interested in how people lived around and through the war than in the fighting aspects of it, so this sounds like a war novel I might actually be interested in reading. After reading Kevin’s comment, I am particularly looking forward to taking perverse pleasure in it. It’s not every day you get to do that!

    • I think you would like this. I thought it was believable form a psychlogical point of view. I perosnally suffered more for Marcia than for Bill. There is nothing worse than being confused about your feelings.

  6. Great review Caroline. I feel like reading the whole novel even though yo didn’t spoil anything.

    I guess it’s unusual for us who live in this peaceful time (thank God for that) to imagine such carefree attitude to exist at that terrible time. But when we think about it again, because it happened so often we tend to get used to it. Like in my country, corruption happens everywhere and everyone tends to say..well, it’s Indonesia what else can you expect?

    • Thanks, Novroz. I think it was very realistic. How else would they get through the days. They couldn’t know how long it was gping to last. Being cynical and “carefree” was a way to cope I think.
      I always thought that the Brits showed amazing resilience during WWII. He captures that very well.

  7. I’m so glad I stuck this out as I really did end up enjoying it and I agree it is a very unique book since Balchin was living through the Blitz as he was writing. I think there must have been a sense of not knowing what would happen so live life to the fullest–and maybe that’s why the affair was so lackadaisical–at least at the beginning. I was a little shocked that Bill not only knew about it but let it go on and even would dine with Stephen and his wife and Marcia! Some of the MInistry talk did go over my head, but I think he was spot on when it comes to how government agencies work (working for a state institution I see some of that myself…). It makes me curious to read more about the Blitz–though perhaps some nonfiction books. Bomber should make a good companion read. Have you read any of his other books? I’m tempted to try something else now.

    • I’m glad you liked it in the end. But the Minisry arts were somewhat dry. I liked them because Bill is such a witty character and he captured this well too. I have one or two diaries that have been written during the Blitz. I’d like to read these now. Bomber is an excellent companion, I think. It was Kevin’s choice. If we don’t like it, we can blame him. The first pages seemed very captivating.
      I didn’t think Bill was a wimp for acepting the affair. He didn’t take it seriously at first because he didn’t like Stephen and in te end, it got out of hands, I suppose.
      Guy has reviewed three others of Balchin’s novels and the reviews made me go and have a look. It’s possible that he one or the other of those he read are better than this even.
      I thought the wit was great. Just when I posted on Funny Novels, I read something that could easily have been included in that post.

  8. I’m really sad that I missed out on reading this one. I need to keep an eye out for a used copy of it since I think I would really enjoy it. My library has a BBC radio production of Bomber that I requested. It might be fun to listen to it and that way I can sort of participate in June.

    • I would have loved to hear what you think of it. Maybe you will find a used copy.
      I think Bomber is a book that should work very well in audio format. I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

  9. Nice review, Caroline. I liked what you said about how the book is a commentary on bureaucracy and how we can see it as a commentary on modern corporate life.

    • Thanks, Vish, te parts on bureaucracy worled so well. They were a bit long but when you’ve ever been in a similar situation it still made you laugh.
      The parts about the Blitz were were chilling.

  10. I can see why you ladies would like for Bill to be a role model for how a guy should react to his wife shoving an affair with a loathsome individual in their face and this may be typical of how some European men behave, but here in the States Stephen would be dead, Marcia would be bruised, and Bill would be acquitted.

    I had no idea 1940 London was equivalent to 1965 San Francisco.

    Why has noone compared this book to “Coventry”? Although just as repetitive, surely Coventry is a more realistic look at the Blitz. Surely Harriet, Maeve, and Jeremy are more typical than this trio.

    I am confused about a moment in the book. A guy comes to Bill with evidence that someone in the department had typed classified information on a typewriter and I assume it was a case of espionage. I said at the time – good now we will have some intrigue thrown into our discussion of blah, blah, witty blah. Then as far as I could tell, that subplot was dropped in favor of some more will she, won’t she. Did I miss something here?

    Carolyn, you did not define those words. No fair using a dictionary.

    • I found the depcition of Bill extremely modern. It’s the type of relationship you would indeed find in novesl of the late 60s and 70s or about them that’s true. It isn’t very typical but it’s not unheard of. I’ve seen men behave like this.

  11. I was pleased to be introduced to Nigel Balchin’s work and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Darkness falls from the air’, I did wonder why this novel had gone out of print – it deserves to be read by more people. In contrast to another of the reviewers I took pleasure in his use of language which seemed very much of its time and place and entirely appropriate with its British understatement for example about the dangers posed by falling bombs.
    I didn’t mind having to work out in places what the world war two slang meant For the record I think that cove = Bloke or chap but said in an appreciative way, bungho = goodbye, bucked = cheerful as in buck up old chap, and Sarrat being bucked at the prospect of going to discuss his proposal with the minister, BF =Bloody fool. I’m not sure exactly what ‘I was feeling a bit straight-tun and Lifebuoy soap myself’ means and neither does another Balchin fan who runs a website and comments on his use of language.

    http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/articles/article%20-%20Nigel%20Marlin%20Balchin%20and%20the%20English%20Language.htm

    However I took the reference to lifebouy soap to mean that Sarratt was feeling rather too clean and wholesome to be spending time in the brothel/strip club that his friend had taken him to.

    Although the book gets described as the classic novel of the Blitz to start with the bombs were more like a background thunder storm to the dramas involving Marcia and Stephen and all the internal politics at the ministry. Much of the latter reminded me of my earlier career working in London and the near impossibility of getting things through committees. Then by the end of the book the distant thunder which Bill has been ignoring like most of the population comes right up close and delivers a lightning strike. I felt terribly sorry for Bill and didn’t find him particularly cynical. I thought he was trying to do the decent thing by not making too much of a fuss to Marcia about Stephen so that the affair would run its course and she’d come back to him. She recognises it too
    Marcia said ‘You’re too bloody good to me, Bill’
    The same thought’s often struck me,’ I said ‘think I’d do better with a horsewhip?’

    And then a little later on the page Bill reflects as regards letting her go away with Stephen for a ‘last’ weekend.

    Actually, I thought she was asking for something you ought not to ask for. It was the first time I’d felt that.

    Heart-breaking.

    • I’m glad you liked it and like you I liked the use of the language. Sure some of the words aren’t used anymore or very British but I never felt I din’t understand.
      I thought he was very cynical regarding the war and his work, much less with Marcia and I perosnally could understand him. I think he loved her very much and knew that despite her adventure seeking nature, she was under a lot of stress due to the war.
      Ultimately he showed that although he reacted so cool, his feelings were very deep, possibly deepr than Stephen’s who was a real drama queen.
      I thought it was interesting how Balchin chose to tell this story. No background information. It was like opening a door, stepping through it and be in other people’s lives.
      I think anyone who has worked for a corporate company or with committees can relate to the parts about bureaucracy. Those elements are tragic as well.
      “Actually, I thought she was asking for something you ought not to ask for. It was the first time I’d felt that.” This quote struck me as well. I found it very touching. He doesn’t say a lot but one can feel, he is really hurt now.
      I wish Balchin was better known and hope to read something else in the near future.
      Thanks for the link and for participating in the readalong.

  12. You make me want to read it but after Kevin’s comment, I’m a bit afraid of the typical British vocabulary. All this of course if I can put my hands on a copy, since it’s OOP. It’s interesting that it was written when the events took place.

  13. kevin :
    … but here in the States Stephen would be dead, Marcia would be bruised, and Bill would be acquitted.
    Why has noone compared this book to “Coventry”? Although just as repetitive, surely Coventry is a more realistic look at the Blitz. Surely Harriet, Maeve, and Jeremy are more typical than this trio.
    I am confused about a moment in the book. A guy comes to Bill with evidence that someone in the department had typed classified information on a typewriter and I assume it was a case of espionage. I said at the time – good now we will have some intrigue thrown into our discussion of blah, blah, witty blah. Then as far as I could tell, that subplot was dropped in favor of some more will she, won’t she. Did I miss something here?
    Carolyn, you did not define those words. No fair using a dictionary.

    Hi Kevin
    Ah but your version of the plot would make an entirely different novel! I think Bill has such a low opinion of Stephen that it wouldn’t be worth killing him.

    I took the incident with Jacques coming to enquire about typewriters was not so much a sub-plot but an illustration of the atmosphere of paranoia about spies prevalent at the time. There was an awful incident during the Battle of Britain when an RAF pilot bailed out and landed in a field only to be beaten to death by a group of locals who refused to believe he was British.

  14. I never implied the language is a reason not to read the book. I enjoy British slang. It was fun trying to figure the words out. Of course, it helped that Balchin used the same words numerous times, (See my thesaurus comment.)

    I fail to see how a guy who is not the least concerned about his city being bombed would be paranoid about spies.

    Okay, if not killing Stephen, how about smacking him around a bit? Give the readers what they want Balchin! I would have been bucked for that.

    I forgot to mention I do not remember a single simile in the book.

    I half expected Oscar Wilde to be at one of the parties.

    By the way, I’m enjoying the comments more than the book.

    • Gosh…. I didn’t see that part of your comment Caroline quotes. What was wrong with my computer yesterday.
      Kevin, no, I didn’t think Coventry was more realistic. And after having read Balchin I know why.
      Humphreys is a contemporaray author thinkink how the people would have reacted. She wants us a contemporaray readers to feel all emotional about it. If you’ve ever been through something horrible you know that one doesn’t always react with crying and screaming and all that. Mosty certainly the British don’t but you can be numbed. I found the cynical way of dealing with it much more realistic. Plus they were still sort of far away, their country had not been invaded. Psychlogically this made a huge difference. And don’t underestimate Churchill. I find he had a huge influnence on the people. Whatever you think of him, and he must have been a controversial man, he inspired a great deal of confidence.

  15. I’m very interested in how people coped with the Blitz too, so will add this to my growing list. I never thought about the lack of sleep and didn’t realize people were living in the subway. Makes sense, though.

    • There isn’t much that affects me as much as not sleeping that’s why I always thought about that aspect. In movies you see how they are awake or run to the shelters in the basement or the Andersen shhleters in the gardens but they never mention sleep. I was sort of relieved to see that iwas right. That was a major problem. I suppose that is part of it, trying to demoralize a people by depriving them of their sleep.

      • I’m the same–can’t function when I’m sleep-deprived. The other thing that struck me was that people went to work. I kind of thought work stopped due to all the bombing.

        • I think that wasn’t possible. Imagine, it went on for months. The character in the book is a cilvil servant. I think those had to work anyway. It’s so hard to imagine.

  16. The bombing during the Blitrz was at night so daytime affairs would continue with a stiff upper lip. Also, people slept in the subway, not lived there.

    • You would have to go on working.
      Yes, true, they didn’t really love there but I think for some it was the same as they sepnt all the evenings and nights there. After all it wasn’t a bad book choice, don’t you think? It has triggered an interesting discussion.

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