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.

Literature and War Readalong May 28 2012: Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin

I had never heard of Nigel Balchin before reading a few intriguing reviews on Guy’s blog (herehere and here). When I looked him up and saw he wrote a novel – Darkness Falls From the Air – which is called the “classic novel of the London Blitz” and written during the Blitz in 1942, I was keen on including it this year. Balchin seems one of those authors hardly anyone knows anymore but those who rediscover him are usually enthusiastic. It even seems that he is Patrick McGrath’s favourite novelist.

After having read about the bombing of Coventry written by a contemporary writer it will be interesting to see how someone handles the Blitz who has actually experienced it.

Here are the first sentences

I stopped at about seven. There was too much stuff on my desk to have a chance of getting clear that night, and I was tired of it. I felt pretty guilty coming downstairs, and had to tell myself  that this was the first time this week that I had stopped before eight.

Two French officers were just coming in the front door as I went out, and I did the bowing and waving act that I always do to them. It struck me as odd that they should still be around – unless they had decided to stay on in England and fight with us.

*******

The discussion starts on Monday, 28 May 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

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.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.


July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.


August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.


September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.


November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.

*******

How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.

*******

This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.