Book Review: Night Falls on the City
Sarah Gainham’s reissued novel paints a compelling portrait of war-time Austria, reliving the fearful darkness of the Nazi time
The annals of publishing history are rife with writers lost in the grinding wheels of intellectual fashion. So it is especially gratifying when a deserving novel, like Sarah Gainham’s Night Falls on the City, is retrieved from obscurity.
A best-seller when it first appeared in 1967, this powerful work of descriptive fiction has been republished coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938, a chilling, and very intimate, depiction of these dark times. Through Gainham’s humanising descriptions, the fervour of the mob mentality and palpable anxiety stand in sharp contrast with the peaceful city of today.
Because it opens on a very different Vienna, of another, hardly recognisable day, Night Falls spans the war years with Tolstovian grandeur, recording the city’s changes, as everything from streets to train compartments become dirtier, food becomes scarce and civility falls away.
And there’s no shortage of spy thriller excitement. Cars jump curbs, and figures appear and recede into the collective dark. Gainham’s talent for detail is her strongest suit, intensifying every emotion. She is passionate about the region and despite her London background, most of Gainham’s writing focused on Central Europe. She came to Vienna in 1947 to work for the Allied
Four Power Commission, and later as a journalist for The Spectator and The Economist. The passion of that work and devotion is evident, and her experience goes far in telling personal histories.
Terror waiting in the wings
On the charged eve of the Anschluss, terror is waiting in the wings with the tanks "standing along the border on every road capable of carrying their weight, their blunt snouts menacing, the fingers of their guns pointing, their
swaying antennae humming with the tension of waiting." Vienna is both protagonist and stage, playing host to gritty wartime scenes.
The decline of the city, of morality and relationships, all painfully inevitable, are chronicled through rich prose. Vibrant pictures emerge of familiar streets and landmarks – Westbahnhof, the Rathaus, the Naschmarkt, against a surreally altered foreground of growing violence. The central character Julia Homburg is a leading actress in the legendary Burgtheater, married to Franz Wedeker, a politician who happens to be Jewish.
Under changing laws and tightening restrictions, it’s obvious that Franz must be hidden, and plans are made to do so. Of course, nothing is simple in the shadowy, uncertain world of the Third Reich.
Julia is plunged into a living nightmare: separated from her husband, reunited, separated again, as her life becomes shrouded in deceptions. Relationships are never transparent, betrayal always an unspoken threat. The slightest interactions, with an electrician or taxi driver, can mean disaster. Julia’s interplay with a doctor on Franz’s behalf is a Chekhov’s gun, a set-up for future complications. Anxiety mounts as the war machine progresses, intensely layered by dialogue and thought processes.
Everyone in this strange world is trying to abide by new laws and societal confines, while finding subtle ways to break them for personal benefit, and always keeping a step or two ahead of "them" – whoever opposes you on the other side. Avoiding missteps acquires new difficulty when what’s politically right is so inherently wrong, and the enemy fosters fear as a weapon.
Repeatedly, Julia receives the dreaded night visit from the Gestapo, sometimes without knowing why. But she adapts – she’s an actress at heart. Feminine wiles go a long way, she learns, in placating the right people to earn respite and favours.
As each character’s story complicates, the reader can’t help but identify – how do you respond to a Bacchanalian celebration of the Anschluss, or to a request to hide someone declared unfit for society? What lies are you capable of telling? If betraying a colleague or friend would guarantee your own safety, would you do it? Could you? Much of the novel’s lingering impact comes from the empathy stirred in the making of these choices.
Faced with harrowing decisions, characters don’t always react with admirable grace or moral uprightness. They lie, blackmail and deceive as personal intuition increasingly heightens in response to fear and oppression meted out by the regime. And those are the best: others feel the intoxicating
thrill of power, and it changes them.
The viciousness and glutted killing forever linked with the atrocities of World War II are portrayed with terrifying reality. A scene shows fresh Nazi recruits perpetrating violence against an elderly, defenceless Jewish scholar and his family. Gainham lays bare their thought processes, showing the swift slide into brutality as dark inclinations to violence were condoned to reign.
Everywhere, moral ambiguity
The intertwining stories reveal the personal changes in response to the new order; in one instance we see the moral ambiguity of Julia’s newspaper editor friend GyorgiKerenyi, who, while looking for his paramour in the aftermath of a public round-up, encounters waiting transports of elderly Jews. He only wants to save his unborn child, he admits, not undertake any action on a larger scale. Such an insight makes it easier to see into the puzzling whys and hows of the times. The stories of the era’s true heroes that have poured outover the years acquire deeper meaning after reading this, with characters’ instincts made so devastatingly clear.
One of the novel’s most heartbreaking aspects is Julia’s fading love despite her efforts to keep both Franz and her love for him alive. Julia falls for another, as her once-beloved Franzl’s personality and health dim away while in hiding. He is presumed dead to the world, having lost his former intellectual existence. In a way, another casualty of war.
But resourcefulness is Julia’s strength, her drive for survival at any cost. She shoulders potential repercussions and manages the frightening risks her secret entails, even when circumstances have drastically altered. Life, with its unanticipated twists and heartbreaks, marches on, regardless of the war outside, and we do what’s necessary to adapt and survive.
As one character confesses at the beginning of the book, "We discover something about ourselves in moments of crisis.
Night Falls on the City
by Sarah Gainham
Henry Holt & Co., 1967