SxS: The Blouse

by ALLAN REEDER


From Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, as translated by Daphne Hardy:

From time to time, when Rubashov was tired by dictating, he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move; then he found the phrase he had been searching for, and, resuming his wandering through the room, he went on dictating.

Nothing much seems to happen in this sentence of simple phrasing and language, but that what does happen is packaged into a single sentence of three parts, hinged by semicolons, is of interest to me. Part One prompts the question: Is something going to happen? Part Two answers: No. Part Three responds, Okay, then; where were we? But we’re told that this sequence of actions happens “from time to time” — that is, repeatedly; if that’s the case, the silent, still tension in Part Two increases.

I want to look more closely at that middle act: “under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move.” The whole sentence is written in a seemingly innocent third-person; this is mere reportage, just the facts. Reference to “the blouse,” with that definite article, appears at first to maintain this distance. But as I read what surrounds the blouse and hear the possessive pronouns — “… he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move” — I notice more that “the,” and, fleetingly, I sense a slight crack in the omniscient delivery; I receive Rubashov’s point of view, his desire, his focus on what comes between his hands and her warm skin.

And while we’re talking about what surrounds that blouse, it’s interesting that “the blouse” appears at the exact center of this construction, no?

From time to time, when Rubashov was tired by dictating, he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under   [27 words]

the blouse

her warm shoulders did not move; then he found the phrase he had been searching for, and, resuming his wandering through the room, he went on dictating.  [27 words]

Koestler, or his translator, has us join Rubashov in focusing on it.