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Night Falls on the City by Sarah Gainham

Night Falls on the City (1967)

by Sarah Gainham

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At times difficult to read, a fascinating novel exploring life in Vienna from the Anschluss to the end of the second world war. At times a story of compromise and collaboration and at times a story of quiet and dangerous resistance it felt much more ‘real’ than many second world war novels I have read.

Plot in a Nutshell
Night Falls in the City opens in Vienna in 1938 on the Eve of the Anschluss. Julia Homburg is an actress and her husband Franz, a left wing politician who is also Jewish. Both are initially reluctant to recognise the changes coming and then drawn into intrigue needed to protect Franz and his family . The novel spans the course of the war and follows Julia and her friends as they adjust to life under the Nazis as their enlightened world changes beyond recognition.

Night Falls in the City is not a novel to rush with. I initially struggled to embrace the story through the first 5-100 pages. It was written in the late 60’s and at times this shows in the language. Sentences are very long and often complex and I found myself having to re-read paragraphs from time to time. There is also a large cast of characters introduced early on in the novel. They predominantly represent the liberal intelligentsia and interconnect. There is also an assumption that the reader understands some of the more recent history of Austria which characters refer to regularly without a great deal of explanation. It is however very much worth sticking with.

The novel worked on two levels for me. I was fascinated by the characters who felt incredibly real. The Austrian cast were privileged and painted with all their flaws – be it Julia’s arrogance and coldness or Hella’s parsimony and need to be seen to be successful. Gainham also avoids caricature when describing the small number of German soldiers, policeman and bureaucrats who become part of Julia’s world. I was quickly invested in seeing how they coped with and survived the increasingly difficult environment.

Beyond the characters and their experiences Gainham also tells a mirroring story of Vienna (and to a lesser extent Austria). The story opens on a beautiful, enlightened City but the Anschluss quickly highlights the darker parts of life that were not far from the surface. As we follow Julia we also follow Vienna as compromises are made until by the end of the novel the city is dirty and heavily damaged.

Gainham writes with a huge amount of detail. We see the inner thought processes of a number of the characters and the City is also presented in tiny details. There is moral ambiguity throughout; we see the unconscious and accepted bias that many had for not just the Jewish people, but also gypsies and the Slavic nations. Early in the novel there is a scene of horrific violence against an elderly Jewish man; most turn away and do nothing.

In a Europe where the far right is again on the rise the novel offers a timely and sometimes difficult insight into where appeasement and compromise can lead.

A final note whilst this works as a stand alone novel it is in fact the first in a trilogy. I will be seeking the final two books out ( )
  itchyfeetreader | Jul 23, 2018 |
This was a powerful book. I found it to be engaging and well-written. Most of all, though, the author conveyed some remarkable insights into the mentality of people under great stress. The author's fond portrayal of prewar Vienna, seen through the eyes of the main protagonist, has given me the urge to visit that city again. This is a re-published gem that is well worth a read. ( )
  oparaxenos | Nov 27, 2015 |
"Night Falls on the City" is the first book of a trilogy that takes place in Austria during the years 1938 through 1945. In novels taking place in Europe during World War II, it is common to encounter stories of military conquest and defeat, underground espionage, and the Holocaust of concentration camp atrocities. Very few stories center around the trials and tribulations of other European civilians.

Sarah Gainham (alias Sarah Rachel Stainer Ames) was twenty eight years old when the war started and lived in Great Britain until 1947 when she moved to Austria and married a German correspondent for the “Sunday Times”. She later became a journalist herself and wrote several books. Although she did not experience the war from a Nazi occupied country, she did get to see the immediate after-affects.

"Night Falls on the City" is a realistic tale of the pain, sorrow, and loss suffered by a beautiful and famous Austrian theater actress. She lives through the entire war with her Jewish husband (who is presumed to have escaped the country) secretly hidden in a secluded storage room of her apartment in Vienna. Not exactly an “ordinary” citizen, Julie Homburg uses her celebrity status to survive. She continues to work for the theater throughout the war. To avoid suspicion, she socializes with Nazis and dates an Austrian civil servant. Nevertheless, she endures Nazi interrogations, food shortages, disease, filth, and never ending fear. Of course you know she survives because, after all, this is a trilogy, but the book does not lack suspense.

I had always imagined throughout the war years in every country invaded by the Nazi’s that if you were a law-abiding (non-Jewish) citizen you were relatively safe from persecution. This book presents a whole new perspective. In addition to those of Jewish descent, anyone who was a registered communist or socialist or openly supported an opposing political party and gypsies were immediately rounded up and deported to camps. Anyone who disobeyed a law as minor as avoiding a curfew or appeared in public without proper ID could get shot on sight. Anyone who showed open disrespect for a Nazi in uniform, got caught “looking suspicious”, was on a “wrong” mailing list, or was simply rumored to have done something unpatriotic were exposed to hours of interrogation and often disposed of without much opposition from the general public. The hospitalized old, frail, and mentally ill were almost always sent to camps. Most citizens tried to keep a low profile, avoid suspicion, mind their own business. In fact, the deportations were vastly ignored. If it didn’t directly effect someone personally... it was best to pretend it never even happened. As a result, the average Austrian civilians turned their back on their Jewish neighbors and friends or savagely aided in their persecution. It was every man for himself.

Sarah Gainham’s writing style is mediocre. Sentences sometimes lack logical structure. But after a few chapters, it is easy to become so absorbed in the story that the unpolished sentence form becomes a minor detail. "Night Falls on the City" is a captivating tale of love and hate, good and evil, human strength and weakness, and the hell-on-earth nightmare brutality of war under Nazi domination, and later the Russian occupation. Anyone with an inexhaustible interest in World War II tales would appreciate this book’s descriptive references to obscure wartime scenes such as Julie Homburg’s impression as a famed actress on tour in Poland... the eerie pretense of normalcy and the subtle display of contempt for the German man in uniform. However, from a Jewish standpoint, "Night Falls on the City" barely skims the surface of the evil insanity of the Third Reich. Books two and three of the trilogy are "A Place in the Country", and "Private Worlds." ( )
  LadyLo | Apr 12, 2013 |
From the nazi takeover of 1938 to the 1945 Russian invasion, actress jennie homberg devotes herself to the task of concealing her Jewish husband and sees with bewildered horror the devastation of a beloved city.
  edella | Jul 15, 2009 |
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The unlit auditorium of the huge theatre was a constant presence of authority and grandeur, containing in its looming interior the promise and threat of the evening lights and chatter, of the public who were its loving judges.
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Book description
This extraordinary and controversial novel is about Vienna; it centres on the fate of a classical actress, from the Anschluss of 1938 to the Russian invasion of Austria in 1945.

Julia Homburg's husband is a socialist politician, scholar and philosopher; he is also a Jew. The moment the advance agents of the Nazi Terror reach Vienna, the ancient crucible of an ordered and cultured society, the whole framework of his life is smashed: he must flee or hide, change suddenly from a man of position among friends into an outlaw; if caught he will be tortured and killed.

Julia succeeds in hiding him for all of the war years in their Vienna home.

This is the central thread of a story that holds many others; that embraces the destinies of a great cast of characters throughout the long rape of Viennese civilisation and culture. These charters are brilliantly imagined and developed, from Kerenyi, the man of independent mind always close to arrest, to Ruth, the helpless victim of the black madness that overtook Europe.
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This is an intense tale of love and betrayal set in wartime Vienna. Vienna, 1938: a place of high culture, gilded opera houses and intellectual salons. Beautiful actress Julia Homburg and her politician husband Franz Wedeker embody all the enlightened brilliance of their native city. But Wedeker is Jewish and just across the border the tanks of the Nazi Reich are primed for the Anschluss. When the SS invade, lists are drawn up and disappearances become routine, Franz must be concealed. With daring ingenuity, Julia conjures a hiding place. In the shadow of oppression the old certainties evaporate; the streets are full of spies and collaborators, allegiances shift and ancient hatreds resurface. A clear conscience is a luxury few can afford and Julia finds she must strike a series of hateful bargains with the new order if she and her husband are to survive.… (more)

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