Anyone who reads this blog regularly may recognise this book; it was recommended by Patrick McGrath in the interview I posted with him recently. I had (just about) heard of Nigel Balchin before this: there’s a battered copy of his novel A Way Through the Woods in my local Waterstone’s, under its film-tie-in title of Separate Lies. It’s been there so long it feels like an old friend. A little further investigation shows Balchin was the author also of The Small Back Room, made into a 1949 film by the great Powell & Pressburger (though one of their lesser works). Hazel, who commented on this blog, showed that it was an older generation who were most familiar with Balchin, and a thorough piece by Clive James in 1974 – a few years after Balchin’s death – found his best known books then ‘still selling well’. Sadly, thirty-odd years later, his best known contribution to our current culture is probably that, as an employee of confectioners Rowntree, he is credited with inventing the bubbles in the Aero bar, and the Kit-Kat.
In reading Darkness Falls from the Air (1942), an immediate problem of expectations arises. The book comes strongly recommended by a favourite author – and haven’t I been let down in that regard before? (Martin Amis, I can never love Nabokov or Bellow as much as you do. But then, who can?) In particular, McGrath describes the book as having “the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read.” Well, apart from the fact that I would apply that particular epithet to McGrath’s own Dr Haggard’s Disease, this is practically a disappointment waiting to happen.
Our narrator is Bill Sarratt, a civil servant with an unfaithful wife and a extraordinary degree of coolness toward the bombing of London during the Blitz (“They seemed to be dropping a hell of a lot of stuff – far more than earlier in the evening. I heard several sticks of three land, and once two fell close enough to leave me waiting for the third with a lot of interest”). His wife’s lover, Stephen, tries to match him for cynicism.
Marcia and Stephen turned up about five minutes after I got there. I thought they made a pretty pair, and didn’t much like it. Marcia was all smoothed out and sparkling like women are after that sort of thing, and Stephen was looking big and handsome and haunted and so like a creative artist that you wouldn’t have thought he’d have the nerve to go around looking like that. They were very much together, and I felt like a stockbroker uncle taking the engaged couple out.
I said, ‘I’ve ordered you some smoked salmon honey, right?’
‘Lovely,’ said Marcia. ‘Bloody day?’
‘Average,’ I said. ‘I think I may commit suicide soon.’
‘You can’t do that,’ said Stephen. ‘I thought of it first. Besides, why worry? If you wait a week or two you’ll probably be killed anyhow.’ He drank some sherry and looked haunted.
The sense of ironic detachment even extends to Sarratt’s apparent acceptance of Marcia’s lover. The chaos of wartime seems to be reflected in his psychology: all bets are off, normal rules of engagement are suspended. The wit comes so thick and fast (“I tell you about my bomb?” says the proprietor of the local Italian restaurant. “No. And you aren’t going to now,” replies Sarratt. “Otherwise I shall show you my operation”) that we know it must be covering over something else. “I do loathe this facetiousness of yours,” Stephen tells Sarratt at one point. “Why do you do it? It’s horrible. It’s macabre.” But the trace of something that lies beneath shows when Marcia and Sarratt do have an argument – about Stephen – and they still “hung on to each other” while there were “occasional bumps going on outside.” The word ‘outside’ – making a unit out of Sarratt and Marcia, pitting them against the world instead of against one another – is the first sign of a chink in his armour.
When he’s not pretending not to care about his wife and her lover, Sarratt is faced with a working day as tangled as his personal life. At his job in the Civil Service, his time is taken up working on nebulous projects which never come to fruition, while bureaucratic doubletalk and pointless personnel shifts bring to mind the satire of Yes Minister. And the mess of ineffectual government recalls the line in Fawlty Towers: “How did they ever win the war?” It’s easy to forget on reading it now that at the time of publication, nobody knew how the war was going to end, which makes Balchin’s willingness to give his character such an insouciant attitude to the German bombings all the more bold.
Fred Giles came in and said one of the messengers had been killed in last night’s raid, plus wife, plus son, plus daughter, plus son-in-law. They were in an Anderson. It was a direct hit. Fred said, ‘Somebody was going to start a fund for the family and then they found there wasn’t any family.’
This knowing take on the British stiff upper lip and muddling through, studded almost sickeningly with ice cold bons mots, can only go so far without becoming tiresome, and at 200 pages Darkness Falls from the Air doesn’t outstay its welcome. By the now-legendary ending (“It seemed to me that the thing wasn’t as over as it ought to have been”), we have seen another side not only of Sarratt but of Balchin: the tension in the closing scenes was recognisably from the same hand as the nerve-shattering bomb-disposal sequence in the film of The Small Back Room.
There’s even room for optimism of a sort, though it’s typical of this tricky and intricate novel that you have to fight your way through a lot of cool wit and understated tragedy to find it.
If it came to that I was in a better temper myself. The sun was shining and altogether it looked like being one of the better days. I felt that one of the better days was due anyhow.
Postscript: If the above hasn’t persuaded you to try this fine novel, then let Patrick McGrath himself have a go. Be warned though that he loves that ending so much, he can’t resist giving it away.