The Poetry Of The Barred
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A soul hung up, as ‘twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins

— Andrew Marvell, ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’



When George Orwell reviewed Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s newly-published novel of politics and prison, he reached precisely the wrong conclusion about the text.

Then again, this was 1941: Hitler was predicting his ‘greatest victory’ on the Western Front; Roosevelt was about to declare his ‘Four Freedoms’ of universal human rights; Stalin’s Great Terror had only recently subsided; and Koestler had just been released from Pentonville prison, not long after having been imprisoned in France, and not much longer after having been imprisoned – and sentenced to death – in Spain.  And Darkness at Noon was the tale of an old Bolshevik leader, Rubashov, who is seized in the night, placed in solitary confinement, interrogated, put on show trial, and executed.  It seems reasonable for Orwell to have believed that the novel’s primary significance would be historical:

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow ‘confessions’ by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods.

But what matters most in Darkness at Noon is Rubashov’s toothache.


Perhaps because politics and history are what put people in prison, prison literature tends to feel political.  Its authors are certainly often informed, if not motivated, by the tragedy of first-hand experience: Koestler belongs to a long genealogy of novelists, from Cervantes to Dostoevsky, who have known a cell from the inside.  In the twentieth century, as Joseph Brodsky put it, ‘imprisonment of writers practically comes with the territory’ – and this abundance of experience, and the way prison forces its inmates’ attention on the metaphysical concerns of time and space, have made it ‘practically the midwife of literature’.

Moreover, and regardless of the author’s intentions, prison literature can have political and historical effects of apparently seismic scale.  George Steiner said that Darkness at Noon ‘changed history’; Anne Applebaum believes it to be ‘one of the books that helped turn the tide on the intellectual front line, and ensured that the West prevailed’.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prison novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, meanwhile, has been credited with breaking up the USSR: according to the glasnost-era journalist and editor Vitaly Korotich, ‘the Soviet Union was destroyed by information, only information. And this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day’.  So inseparable does this type of literature seem from its historical moment that Vladimir Nabokov, in the foreword to his own prison novel, Invitation to a Beheading, has to disavow any allusion to either the Bolshevik or Nazi regimes.  Incidentally, Nabokov also disavows being influenced by Franz Kafka, another writer of what essentially are prison novels (like The Trial, or The Castle), and whom John Updike diagnosed with ‘seeming prophecy … of the atrocious regimes of Hitler and Stalin’.  Even Kafka was apparently making a commentary on forms of totalitarianism that he had not yet seen.

Orwell was right, of course, to observe in Darkness at Noon a profound interest in history and politics.  Its content, in large measure, is political debate – about the responsibilities and value of the individual versus the collective, and whether presumed ends can justify unconscionable means.  The form is essentially classical.  Plato’s Crito, for example, is a dialogue in prison between Socrates, who phlegmatically – Socratically – awaits his execution, and his friend Crito, who wants to persuade him of the virtues of escape. Darkness at Noon is a series of dialogues between Rubashov and his interrogators, and within Rubashov himself, about fundamentally the same question – whether to accept, for the benefit of agreed systems of government, the specious charges that would put him to death.  In interrogation, Rubashov finds himself at the receiving end of reasoning he has long espoused.  His actions have been deemed contrary to the aims of the Party, and he must confess them publicly so that the masses can understand them and advance.  He is merely one man, and a man is defined as ‘a multitude of one million divided by one million’; ‘the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community’; and to think otherwise, as one of his jailers scoffs, would be to accept the absurd Christian proposition that the individual is ‘sacrosanct’ and ‘that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units’.  Rubashov is terrified, resistant, confused and inconsistent, but under the blinding glare of the interrogator’s lamp, the logic appears sound.  His confession is the self-destructive consequence of his own political theory, and it represents a triumph of communist ideology.

And yet, Koestler’s method perpetually shows that in the struggle for the novelist’s attention, the individual always wins.  History is not his subject: Rubashov is.  In all his meandering, lucid and flawed stream of consciousness; in his guilt at remembered sins, his relief at no longer having to fear arrest; in his inability to resist making glib small talk with his captors, just ‘to awaken some human warmth’; in the way he habitually rubs his pince-nez on his sleeve, and the way he leans his forehead against the windowpane – the same gesture, incidentally, that Dickens has Mr Dorrit make when he remembers prison in a moment of shame.  Standing at that window on one occasion, Rubashov looks across the bleak yard at the structure of the building, and wonders –

What were the two thousand men doing who were walled into the cells of this bee-hive?  The silence was inflated by their inaudible breath, their invisible dreams, the stifled gasping of their fears and desires.

Rubashov knows so little about his fellow inmates because, in its impenetrability and scale, the prison is designed to perform the act of anonymisation that the communist ideology requires.  But Koestler, who looks carefully at one cell in particular, is performing the opposite function.  There is a point in Dostoevsky’s prison novel The House of the Dead, which was based on his own time in a Siberian labour camp, when the narrator realises that he has wrongly imagined the experience to be monolithic.  He had looked at his fellow prisoners as groups of ethnicity or class, ‘trying to sort the whole prison into categories’, when in fact

reality is infinitely diverse compared to all, even the most clever, conclusions of abstract thought, and does not suffer sharp and big distinctions. Reality tends towards fragmentation. We, too, had our own particular life, of whatever sort, but at least we had it, and not only an official, but an inner life of our own.

The author’s task is to examine that inner life, and his tool is the microscope, not the panoramic lens.

Under that carefully magnified gaze, the great prison novelists find a series of insights about life inside the cell.  One is their characters’ seemingly constant ability to be distracted from despair.  Even in their most hopeless moments, they are forever making curious, clear-eyed observations that serve as a tonic for the pain.  This is Rubashov when he first arrives in prison and realises he is doomed to be shot:

He knew at the same time that his condition was reprehensible and, from a certain point of view, unpermissible, but at the moment he felt no inclination to take that point of view.  Instead, he observed the play of his stockinged toes.  He smiled.

It’s like Fagin in the dock in Oliver Twist, awaiting the jury’s almost certainly life-ending verdict, who finds himself wondering what the jurors have eaten for supper, and how the judge manages to get dressed into his complicated robes:

Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was.

The mind refuses to disengage, just as the body refuses to give up its physical pleasures, like Ivan Denisovich’s nibble of hard-earned sausage, or Nabokov’s hero Cincinnatus enjoying the warmth of the rainbowed patch of sunlight on his wall.

Those consolations are largely instinctive or passive, but the prison novelists also regularly demonstrate a tension between captivity and agency – a flowering of free will, in an environment doing everything to extinguish it.  Even Solzhenitsyn, who clearly was motivated at least in part by a desire to expose the Gulag’s brutality towards its subjects – who argued in his Nobel acceptance speech that writers should ‘go to war’ by fighting violence with truth – produces a hero who declines to be a victim.  From the moment he wakes to the moment he sleeps, Ivan Denisovich is constantly acting to his advantage: hustling for extra rations or for prime position near the fire, manipulating the guards into dismissing him from work, striking bargains that win him gifts from his fellow prisoners’ care packages (hence that sausage).  A day filled with such successes is a bearable one – ‘a day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day’ – and Ivan Denisovich goes to sleep ‘fully content’.  The mind never loses its agency.  Even Rubashov ends up making an active choice, albeit a self-destructive one.  In this sense he is just like Kafka’s K in The Trial, who eventually decides very consciously to give up resistance and walks himself off towards his execution.  ‘“The only thing I can do now,”’ K tells himself, ‘“the only thing for me to go on doing is to keep my intelligence calm and discriminating to the end.’”  And once he has ‘set himself in motion […] the relief his warders felt was transmitted to some extent even to himself.’

Prison seems to accentuate the mind’s ability to accept, to adapt, even to alter reality.  The paragon here is Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading, whose dreamlike creativity is constantly revealed to be more powerful, more real, than the cold stone walls around him.  Cincinnatus cannot even rest his forehead on the windowpane, because the window in his cell sits at the end of an angled cavity in the thick prison wall: clambering hopefully up towards the bars he discovers only a written message on the stone from a previous inhabitant: ‘“You cannot see anything.  I tried it too.”’  Yet more than once he simply walks out of his cell and makes his way out of the fortress and through the city to his family home.  These are dreams, but of such detailed lucidity that they are infinitely more tangible than the vague blankness of his cell – he passes an open door ‘with the sign “office” in mirrorlike inversion’ and a flash of moonlight glistening on the inkwell in the desk, slides down a steep bank of ‘dewy’ turf, brushes against ‘a shrubbery in greyish bloom’, hears a dog rustle alert on its chain but not bark, smells ‘a wave of fragrance’ drifting over from the public park.  On one quiet night, ‘with the stone darkness for background’, Cincinnatus pauses to consider the cast of characters he has met so far in captivity: ‘it was the very first time that his imagination was so condescending towards them.’

And only as he reviews each figure, observing them in crisp, Nabokovian detail, do they start to become real: ‘by evoking them – not believing in them, perhaps, but still evoking them – Cincinnatus allowed them the right to exist, supported them, nourished them with himself.’  This is the meaning of the end of the novel, when Cincinnatus, lying ready on the executioner’s block, suddenly changes his mind and walks off to his freedom. The world around him begins to crumble into nothingness, unable to compete with the vitality of his thought. The imagination triumphs over crude ‘reality’.


There is another reason why Cincinnatus can walk away: there have always been two versions of him. He is in prison because the citizens of his city don’t trust him. Much as he tries to hide it, he has a ‘certain peculiarity’: he is ‘impervious to the rays of others’; he’s ‘opaque’. His body is like a curtain or carapace concealing something inside: and when alone in his cell, free from judgmental eyes, he first takes off his clothes, then goes further – ‘he took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk’.   Writing in his diary much later, Cincinnatus begins to understand that this suspicious hidden core is of course his truer, more essential self.

I had a strange sensation last night – and it was not the first time – I am taking off layer after layer, until at last … I do not know how to describe it, but I know this: through the process of gradual divestment I reach the final, indivisible, firm, radiant point, and this point says: I am! Like a pearl ring embedded in a shark’s gory fat – O my eternal, my eternal … and this point is enough for me – actually nothing more is necessary.

And so, at the moment he is due to be killed, after the executioner has asked him to count down from ten, that inner self determines its own freedom: ‘one Cincinnatus was counting, but the other Cincinnatus had already stopped heeding the sound of the unnecessary count.’   Cincinnatus’s crime had only ever been briefly stated, and it was ‘gnostical turpitude’ – the Gnostics having held a particular belief in the divisibility of body and spirit.  Because somewhere hidden under the hauberk of Cincinnatus’s rib cage, just as within Andrew Marvell’s ‘chains | of nerves and arteries and veins’, sits the thing that most concerns Nabokov: the other Cincinnatus – his soul.

Which brings us back to Rubashov’s toothache.  In prison, it bothers him regularly; it attacks him with agonising force.  At first, the pain seems to be a physical affliction, a detail of incarceration – the doctor won’t see him even as the presumed abscess seems to widen, and the warders deal with Rubashov’s complaints by skipping his meals. Gradually, though, Rubashov realises that the pain tends to accompany memories of the individuals he has loved or wronged.  Specifically it accompanies the details that, in remembering, make those individuals real: the stutter of the young man whom he betrays to the authorities, the curve of the neck of his secretary and lover, whose arrest he doesn’t try to overturn. And it often arrives when Rubashov imagines himself hearing from the strange entity he calls the ‘grammatical fiction’. The structure of the novel takes him through a series of dialogues – an extended sequence of interrogations with one policeman, then a second, and ultimately with the ‘grammatical fiction’, which is a voice in Rubsahov’s head. To his logical, communism-steeped mind, this entity makes no sense. It is almost impossible to identify, or even hear, but when it does it seems to address him, ‘against all grammatical rules’ in the first person singular, as ‘I’ instead of ‘you’: ‘the habitually silent partner spoke sometimes, without being addressed or without any visible pretext; his voice sounded totally unfamiliar to Rubashov, who listened in honest wonder and found that his own lips were moving.’  There are no ways to approach this entity directly, but at times it ‘would respond unexpectedly to a tune, or even the memory of a tune’, or it would express itself through ‘the compulsion to rub one’s pince-nez on one’s sleeve, the impulse to touch the light patch on the wall of Ivanov’s room’ or – with ‘a sharp attack of toothache’.  The toothache is Rubashov’s soul.

Joseph Brodsky, who was better acquainted than most with incarceration and the politics that tends to idolise it, once said that ‘the surest defence against Evil

…is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.

The great prison novels are not so much concerned with exposing evil as they are with offering this antidote to it. Their primary goal isn’t to provide insight into the totalitarian method, but to look deeply into its crowds, through the walls of one particular cell and under the skin of its inhabitant; to champion the uniqueness of experience rather than the universality of it. Prison literature’s concern is the concern of all literature, only focused by its expansion of time and its miniaturisation of space: to see and to make visible its subject – the person inside.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera