Banquo: How goes the night, boy?
Fleance: The moon is down. I have not heard the clock.
Macbeth, I, ii.
This morning at class I read a few pages from The moon is down, Steinbeck’s novel on the Nazi occupation of Norway, and like every year, every time, the chapter on Alex’s trial gave me goose-bumps.
Even though some critics dismiss it as simple propaganda (which it was: Steibeck was asked to write a story that would be circulated in the European countries under German occupation), this short novel, written in almost basic English, is almost perfect in its simplicity. Each character and episode will have echoed in the minds of those who read it in clandestinity: the collaborators and the brave opposers, the women who have to choose whether to accept help from the invaders, the acts of rebellion and the consequent retaliations. The public trials where everything is already written.
We read from Chapter 1 and Chapter 4, which I partly reporting here.
In the little palace drawing room the lights were on and the lights shone on the falling snow outside the window. The court was in session. Lanser sat at the head of the table with Hunter on his right, then Tonder, and, at the lower end, Captain Loft with a little pile of papers in front of him. On the opposite side, Mayor Orden sat on the colonel’s left and Prackle was next to him – Prackle, who scribbled on his pad of paper. Beside the table two guards stood with bayonets fixed, with helmets on their heads, and they were little wooden images. Between them was Alex Morden, a big young man with a wide, low forehead, with deep-set eyes and a long, sharp nose. His chin was firm and his mouth sensual and wide. He was wide of shoulder, narrow of hip, and in front of him his manacled hands clasped and unclasped. He was dressed in black trousers, a blue shirt open at the neck, and a dark coat shiny from wear. (…)
“‘These facts have been witnessed by several of our soldiers, whose statements are attached. This military court finds that the prisoner is guilty of murder and recommends a death sentence.’ Do you wish me to read the statements of the soldiers?”
Lanser sighed. “No.” He turned to Alex. “You don’t deny that you killed the captain, do you?”
Alex smiled sadly. “I hit him,” he said. “I don’t know that I killed him.”
Orden said, “Good work, Alex!” And the two looked at each other as friends.
Loft said, “Do you mean to imply that he was killed by someone else?”
“I don’t know,” said Alex. “I only hit him, and then somebody hit me.”
Colonel Lanser said, “Do you want to offer an explanation? I can’t think of anything that will change the sentence, but we will listen.”
Loft said, “I respectfully submit that the colonel should not have said that. It indicates that the court is not impartial.”
Orden laughed dryly. The colonel looked at him and smiled a little. “Have you any explanation?” he repeated.
(…) Are you sorry you did it?” He said aside to the table, “It would look well in the record if he were sorry.”
“Sorry?” Alex asked. “I’m not sorry. He told me to go to work – me, a free man! I used to be alderman. He said I had to work.”
“But if the sentence is death, won’t you be sorry then?”
Alex sank his head and really tried to think honestly. “No,” he said. “You mean, would I do it again?”
“That’s what I mean.”
Lanser said, “Put in the record that the prisoner was overcome with remorse. Sentence is automatic. Do you understand?” he said to Alex. “The court has no leeway. The court finds you guilty and sentences you to be shot immediately. I do not see any reason to torture you with this any more. Captain Loft, is there anything I have forgotten?”
“You’ve forgotten me,” said Orden. He stood up and pushed back his chair and stepped over to Alex. And Alex, from long habit, stood up respectfully. “Alexander, I am the elected Mayor.”
“I know it, sir.”
“Alex, these men are invaders. They have taken our country by surprise and treachery and force.”
Captain Loft said, “Sir, this should not be permitted.”
Lanser said, “Hush! Is it better to hear it, or would you rather it were whispered?”
Orden went on as though he had not been interrupted. “When they came, the people were confused and I was confused. We did not know what to do or think. Yours was the first clear act. Your private anger was the beginning of a public anger. I know it is said in town that I am acting with these men. I can show the town, but you – you are going to die. I want you to know.”
Alex raised his head and then dropped it. “I know, sir.” (…) Orden said softly, “Are you afraid, Alex?”
And Alex said, “Yes, sir.”
“I can’t tell you not to be. I would be, too, and so would these young – gods of war.”
Lanser said, “Call your squad.”
Tonder got up quickly and went to the door. “They’re here, sir.” He opened the door wide and the helmeted men could be seen.
Orden said, “Alex, go, knowing that these men will have no rest, no rest at all until they are gone, or dead. You will make the people one. It’s a sad knowledge and little enough gift to you, but it is so. No rest at all.”
Alex shut his eyes tightly. Mayor Orden leaned close and kissed him on the cheek. “Good-bye Alex,” he said.
In the light of the novel’s title, Mayor Orden’s last words to Alex are a reference to Macbeth: just after Duncan’s murder, Macbeth confesses to his wife
Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Later in The moon is down, in chapter 6, Steibeck returns to the motif of sleep, or rather the lack of it in connection to oppressors. A small meeting is held at Molly’s house (Molly is Alex’s widow):
Orden began slowly. “I want to speak simply. This is a little town. Justice and injustice are in terms of little things. Your brother’s shot and Alex Morden’s shot. Revenge against a traitor. The people are angry and they have no way to fight back. But it’s all in little terms. It’s people against people, not idea against idea.”
Winter said, “It’s funny for a doctor to think of destruction, but I think all invaded people want to resist. We are disarmed; our spirits and bodies aren’t enough. The spirit of a disarmed man sinks.”
Will Anders asked, “What’s all this for, sir? What do you want of us?”
“We want to fight them and we can’t,” Orden said. “They’re using hunger on the people now. Hunger brings weakness. You boys are sailing for England. Maybe nobody will listen to you, but tell them from us -from a small town – to give us weapons.”
Tom asked, “You want guns?” (…)
“No, tell them how it is. We are watched. Any move we make calls for reprisal. If we could have simple, secret weapons, weapons of stealth, explosives, dynamite to blow up rails, grenades, if possible even poison.” He spoke angrily. “This is no honorable war. This is a war of treachery and murder. Let us use the methods that have been used on us! Let the British bombers drop their big bombs on the works, but let them also drop us little bombs to use, to hide, to slip under the rails, under tanks. Then we will be armed, secretly armed. Let the bombers bring us simple weapons. We will know how to use them!”
Winter broke in. “They’ll never know where it will strike. The soldiers, the patrol, will never know which of us is armed.” (…)
Winter said, “If they will even give us dynamite to hide, to bury in the ground to be ready against need, then the invader can never rest again, never! We will blow up his supplies.”
The room grew excited. Molly said fiercely, “Yes, we could fight his rest, then. We could fight his sleep. We could fight his nerves and his certainties.”
Finally: every time I teach this novel I think of our own, Italian resistance to the nazi. There were many brave people, men and women, young and old, who fought the occupants. Unfortunately, there were many more collaborators, people who had supported the local fascist regime before it collapsed. Many of them simply got off with murder after the war, and they contaminated the memory of the Resistance, so that even now, when the victims of nazi atrocities are commemorated someone will say that there would have been no victims, if no one had fought the Germans in the first place.
During the occupation of Norway, when the clandestine fighters killed a German, the Germans would kill several Norwegians, exactly as they killed Italians, or Russians or French. It did not stop the Norwegians. The Germans had to go. It didn’t stop insurgents elsewhere, including here, but it bothers me greatly that here we cannot just remember bravery and have a clear view of right and wrong.
I’ll close with Mayor Orden’s words to his friend the Doctor:
“Do you remember in school, in the Apology? Do you remember Socrates says, ‘Someone will say, “And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life that is likely to bring you to an untimely end?” To him I may fairly answer, “There you are mistaken; a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong.”‘