THE 19th-century novel provided a vehicle for heroic attempts to explore an enormous range of human dilemmas and social issues. Arguably one of the finest such works remains little known outside its native Australia: This is His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke (1870; available in a Penguin paperback). If only it had been written in French or Russian, we would probably regard it as a major triumph of the century.
His Natural Life tells the story of an Englishman transported to the Australian penal settlements for a murder which he did not commit. However, the plot falls into insignificance besides the author's central themes: the nature of captivity and imprisonment, and the psychological devastation wrought upon the inmate, the captor and the polluted society in which both exist.
Clarke is not primarily a sensationalistic author, but we find here a frank and startling depiction of topics rarely addressed in English fiction before the 1950s. The homosexual rape of new inmates is an accepted fact of life; escaping convicts are forced to resort to cannibalism; and sadism is a pervasive theme. All are seen as inevitable by-products of the degrading penal system; the very title "his natural life" is a sardonic reflection on the extreme unnaturalness of this inverted and perverted world.
His Natural Life touches on ideas of oppression and liberation, both personal and political, which are so fundamental to much of our post-1945 literature. It is a deeply rewarding book.
State College, Pa.
ARTHUR KOESTLER's 1941 novel, Darkness at Noon, recounts the harrowing tale of N.S. Rubashov, loyal Communist Party functionary, who has worked tirelessly instigating revolution abroad, abandoning comrades to the executioners' bullets when expedient, including even his lover Arlova.
Then come the great purges of the 1930s, when all Russia writhed to Stalin's sadistic whims and capricious cruelty and which not even Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik, is able to anticipate or escape.
Dragged from bed in the middle of the night, Rubashov is thrown into prison, where, alone, he at last confronts the Revolution that for years demanded the unquestioning sacrifice of his individuality and now stands ready to claim his life as its due.
Even as he weakens under interrogation, Rubashov systematically unravels the Party's cornerstone doctrine -- "the end justifies the means" -- and spins out its threads of starvation, enslavment and death. It is a lesson the reader will not easily forget.
And it is a lesson chillingly underscored by the characters: the robot-like interrogator Gletkin, whose one slip into humanity foreshadows his eventual fate, the grim-faced soldiers who escort weeping prisoners to their doom, the prisoners themselves, simple peasants, bewildered, terrified, stoic.
Though permeated with a great sadness, Darkness at Noon offers moments of humor, kindness and, yes, hope. For Rubashov does not totally despair. He nurtures the hope that someday a movement will arise, one which will inspire "a million individuals to form a new entity which, no longer an amorphous mass, will develop a consciousness and an individuality of its own.
Today, in Eastern Europe, Rubashov's hope is fulfilled.
Goya the Great
LION Feuchtwanger's 1951 historical novel, This Is the Hour, at first glance is about Don Francisco de Goya and the notables and others given immortality by his painting. Yet it is not primarily about Goya, a contradictory and passionate man touched by insanity, or his associates enmeshed in the rigid etiquette of the Spanish court. Rather, the book is really about Spain and the Spanish at the end of the 18th century, which is to say that the novel is about chivalry, cruelty and pride.
We see this great country through Goya's paintings. Feuchtwanger describes in marvelous detail what Goya was trying to express and how he did it with an almost barbaric feeling for color, flashing jewels and rich costumes, sometimes contrasted with the cold, austere, frequently hideous faces of the subjects. At other times Goya developed a shimmering impression of light to express softness and beauty. Feuchtwanger describes the emergence of each painting with an understanding and love of the subject that will cause any reader to look at Goya's work with new eyes.
This Is the Hour was published by Viking and was translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter and Frances Fawcett. It is out of print and can sometimes be found in secondhand stores.
ELLEN M. HILL
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