Faith is the central problem of our age, argued Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography “Witness.” Chambers wrote at the height of the McCarthy era, when the Americans were concerned about the Red Scare and Congress (notably the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee) actively investigated Soviet espionage.
As the Cold War heated up, Chambers asserted that the East/West divide was a conflict of visions: a spiritual battle between faith in God and faith in man. The Communists envisioned a future where man replaced God as the creative force in the World. Karl Marx and his acolytes believed man could begin the world anew. How would the West respond? That answer was left to a secular Jew.
Chambers considered Arthur Koester his greatest contemporary. Koestler, like Chambers, was a disillusioned Communist most known for his 1940 novel “Darkness at Noon,” a fictional depiction of the Moscow show trials written to commemorate Koestler’s comrades who lost their lives during Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s.
Koestler was a man attracted to a cause. He went to Spain during the Civil War and found himself locked up in a fascist prison. As a youthful Zionist, he dropped out of university and moved to Palestine. As an old man, he became vice-president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society; after receiving a cancer diagnosis, he decided to end his life by mixing booze and barbiturates.
Koestler had much to say about the Communist threat during the height of the Cold War. His 1950 novel “The Age of Longing” did just that. Set in Paris during the 1950s, the city is on the verge of a Soviet invasion. Koestler argued that the Europeans’ loss of religious faith threatened to destroy their will to resist Russian aggression.
The novel’s protagonist, Hydie, is a young American living in France after fleeing a religious convent in her early 20’s. Hydie lost her religious belief while working as a nurse during the war. Entrusted to care for an eight year old girl with cerebral meningitis, Hydie’s faith is shattered when her patient says: “I think He’s gone crazy.” Shortly after leaving the Church, she married, divorced, and moved to Paris, where her father worked as an American military adviser.
She befriends Julien, a hero of the French Resistance and a poet. Through him, she meets a number of Eastern European émigrés and intellectuals. All are disillusioned men of the Left who believe the Party betrayed the ideals of the Russian Revolution after becoming a totalitarian system under Stalin. Hydie bonds with these men and they begin calling themselves Apostates All, because they are not forgiven by others (either their comrades or their fellow Christians) and are unable to forgive themselves.
Hydie desperately wants to believe again. Early in the book, she kneels down and cries out: “Let me believe in something.”
At a Bastille Day party, she meets a young Soviet embassy official named Fedya Nikitin. She’s drawn to him by his secular faith in History and by the confident way he carries himself. They begin dating and Hydie’s relationship with the Apostates cools.
Dramatic world events take place as Hydie and Fedya see one another. Stalin dies and people believe a new day has dawned. The threat of an immediate Soviet invasion abates.
Quarrels between the European émigrés break out. Many believe the terror is over. Some insist that political opponents (i.e. those who break with or criticize the Party) will receive amnesty, habeas corpus rights will be restored, and censorship will be lifted. They believe a period of glasnost has arrived.
Julien thinks this view is nutty and argues that the Soviet system is wicked and incapable of reform. His friends disagree; they are true believers in History and insist Stalin’s terror was an aberration on the road to a workers’ paradise. They head east.
Meanwhile, Fedya and Hydie’s relationship blows up. One night while making love, Nikitin tries to convince Hydie that all human behavior is conditioned. Hydie is humiliated and breaks things off.
She calls Julien to reconnect. He shocks her with news of Fedya’s job, which he didn’t want to share while she was seeing him. Nikitin is in charge of collecting names of Soviet political opponents, who will be removed after the Communist invasion.
Meanwhile, events in the Soviet Union take a turn for the worst. Julien’s fears were confirmed. His friends were arrested. Some were sent to the gulag, others were shot. Fears of invasion re-emerge.
All of this shocks Hydie, who feels she’s been dooped by her former lover. She feels like she’s the last to know about his true mission.
Hydie goes to her father, but he tells her there’s nothing he can do. Diplomatic immunity protects Nikitin. The French government doesn’t want to create an international uproar, and will neither detain nor expel him.
Hydie persists and heads to the French security office. There she meets an officer named Jules Comanche. Comanche tells her that nothing can be done. This revelation only infuriates Hydie.
She insists that Europe is asleep and needs to wake up the Communist threat. Comanche disagrees. He says that Europe knows it faces an existential crisis, but doesn’t know what it stands for or what it’s prepared to die for. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were abstract principles, he argues. They aren’t religious pieties.
In fact, Comanche argues, the French haven’t believed in anything since the French Revolution. Their world turned upside down when the Bastille fell. Faith died and people were still looking for something to replace it.
The Colonel agreed. After discussing Nikitin with his daughter, he writes in his diary: the age of longing has troubled Hydie since she left the convent. It haunts everyone today and is exacerbated with the absence of God. This plague has affected Europe since the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. Now, the Colonel believed, the plague has peaked.
Angry that diplomatic protocols prevent Nikitin from being punished, Hydie buys a gun and plans to shoot him. One evening she confronts him at his apartment. But Fedya is unconcerned when she points the gun at him.
He pours a drink. Hydie asks about her émigré friends. He tells her about their crimes and punishments. She says their convictions were a miscarriage of justice. He admits that unfortunate things were happening in his country, but he claims they’re necessary measures needed to help his country realize a socialist future.
Ugliness had always existed in the world, Nikitin says. The Soviets were building a new society and History required them to fight all counter-revolutionaries. Purges were used to realize an egalitarian world. Fighting was ugly, but necessary. Only the future mattered. The rest was trivial.
The book ends in darkness. Fedya’s oration crushes Hydie’s concentration. She has a crisis of confidence and begins to think killing Fedya is futile. The Communist faith was impenetrable. Its members were willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Surely they would prevail in an existential struggle. After all, what was the West prepared to die for?
Hydie shoots Fedya in the groin. The French expel her and her father. She leaves France as she entered it: an unbeliever. Like her contemporaries, she is without faith in a chaotic and troubling world.
Koestler ends the text with a diagnosis of his age: 20th century man lived under the curse of Reason, which rejected God without offering an alternative. The absence of faith threatened Europe’s survival.
Koestler’s warning came sixty years ago; the Age of Longing persists.