The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic

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Based upon over 100 interviews and a wealth of new sources (private diaries, unpublished letters, archives of the CIA, MI5, the French Sureté, the German and Soviet communist parties), Koestler is a nuanced account of its subject’s turbulent public and private life: his drug use, manic depression, the frenetic womanizing that led to an accusation of rape, and the shocking suicide pact with his third wife in 1983. It also makes the case for Koestler’s stature as a major autobiographer and essayist as well as novelist. The result is a complex and indelible portrait of a brilliant, unpredictable, and talented writer, memorably described by one MI5 interrogator as “one third blackguard, one third lunatic, and one third genius.”

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Koestler Excerpt

On Tuesday March 1, 1983, Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia entered their sitting room at 8 Montpelier Square, London, sat down facing one another, he in his favorite leather armchair, she on the couch, and poured themselves their usual drink before dinner. Arthur’s was his favorite brandy, Cynthia’s was scotch. The only difference between this and a thousand similar evenings was the presence on a small table between them of a bottle of wine, a large bottle of tuinal sleeping tablets, a jar of honey, and some extra wine glasses. Arthur and Cynthia swallowed about half the tablets each, washed them down with wine and honey, then sipped their brandy and scotch. Within half an hour or so they were unconscious, within an hour fully dead, and they remained there, fully clothed, for a day and a half, until their Brazilian maid came to clean the house on Thursday morning.

The suicide was meticulously planned and carried out without a hitch. Several months beforehand Koestler had prepared a letter making it clear he intended to commit suicide of his own volition. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and lymphocytic leukemia, and the doctors had discovered an ominous new lump in his groin. He seems to have made up his mind on a Sunday. Koestler hated Sundays. He was fond of quoting Dostoevsky: “Even if you are in the deepest dungeon, you always know when it is a Sunday.”

It was entirely in character for Koestler to kill himself, asserting the kind of control in planning his death that had eluded him in managing his chaotic and crowded life, and it was equally characteristic of him to turn it into a public and political act. He was a vocal advocate of euthanasia, describing it as “the natural corrective to a biological handicap,” and his whole life had been spent in the service of one cause or another. It also brought to a sensational end a life that had had more than its share of drama, offering the popular press a field day. “Author and Wife Found Dead;” “Koestlers in Suicide Pact;” “Anti-Red Crusader and Wife in Suicide Pact;” “Wife’s Tragic Devotion,” were just a few of the headlines in the newspapers the following day, and his death made news around the world. As a veteran journalist as well as a novelist, Koestler would have savored those headlines and drawn satisfaction from the thought that his ability to provoke would extend beyond the grave, even if Cynthia’s death raised troubling questions that would linger to muddy his message.

Provocation and controversy were meat and drink to Koestler, elements of a tumultuous life that rarely enjoyed peace or quiet. His pugnacious personality was a lightning rod for strong feelings and extreme opinions, and he reveled in the notoriety they brought him. Like many short men (barely five foot six in his stockinged feet), he was incorrigibly competitive and relentlessly combative, quick to take offense and slow to forgive. Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition, he was never comfortable in his own skin, doomed to oscillate between arrogance and humility, like one of those mercurial Russians in the novels of Dostoevsky, whom Koestler so admired and wished to emulate.

There was another side to Koestler, however, that few beyond his immediate circle got to see, an undisguised vulnerability and painful honesty, a selfconscious shyness and morbid sensitivity, that combined with his boyish exuberance and devil-may-care daring made him a magnet for a certain type of woman. Mamaine Paget, his second wife, found the combination of his fiery, un-English temperament and extraordinary attentiveness irresistible. To the English novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, who lived with him for a while, he was a noble goblin, addicted to childish jokes, with a “continuous, crackling, almost irritable energy,” that made you feel that if you touched him “you would get an electric shock.” Several of the women he was passionately involved with stayed friends for life, and Cynthia, his third wife, demonstrated her devotion in the most dramatic way possible, when choosing to die with him. But his chronic promiscuity was a double-edged sword, leading many women to detest him on sight, or to regret ever getting involved with him, and on one drunken occasion, as we now know, his importunity crossed the line of acceptable behavior.

What made Koestler so exhilarating and often so difficult to be around was a manic depression that cause him to alternate between demonic glee, accompanied by an inflated sense of his own importance, and gloomy humility, powered by chronic self-doubt. He could be reckless and impatient at one moment, totally incapable of controlling his volatile temper, yet generous and tender the next. It’s no wonder he tended to think and write in terms of binaries and antitheses: yogi and commissar, arrival and departure, insight and outlook, lotus and robot. Alcohol (bolstered by benzedrine and other pep pills) was his drug of choice, rescuing him again and again from the ravages of a recurring inferiority complex, while deepening his dilemmas and getting him into more trouble.

Despite his urge to be a classic Casanova, Koestler just as often preferred the company of men, especially those like Dylan Thomas, Henry Green, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who shared his disregard for bourgeois politesse. More conventional friends secretly envied or despised his drinking and womanizing according to temperament, and welcomed or resented his forensic skills. In England John Strachey found Koestler “unpardonably brilliant,” Michael Foot called him the “most pulverizing arguer I have ever met, bar none,” and Orwell regarded him as a staunch ideological friend and loyal ally. In America he was admired by Mary McCarthy, James Burnham, and Philip Rahv, among others, for his political penetration and dialectical brilliance. Camus in France described him as “a man of substance” who could be relied upon through thick and thin, and Raymond Aron, no lightweight himself, called Koestler the “greatest of the engaged intellectuals” of the twentieth century.

What these admirers intuitively understood was that for Koestler, ideas were never just intellectual playthings, but part of his life’s blood, more palpable to him than most of the humans around him. His intellectual nerve ends were so finely tuned that he experienced the onset of fresh ideas like orgasms, and mourned their passing as the end of treasured love affairs. He lived for ideas and was ready to die for them, as he showed when incarcerated first in a Spanish jail and then a French concentration camp, and he insisted on following the logic of his inspirations wherever they led him—which late in life was to some extremely odd places, including a belief in the possibilities of extra-sensory perception and the powers of parapsychology.

Koestler was born in Hungary and fled with his family to Vienna in adolescence. He moved to Palestine and then to Western Europe, lived for a while in France, the Soviet Union and the United States, before settling uneasily in England, “perpetually in search of a country,” in Malraux’s words. He was a chameleon, a vagabond and a pilgrim, constantly changing and reinventing himself, inhaling, as it were, the essence of each place he stayed in, while remaining perpetually alien to his surroundings. Never fully Hungarian, not quite Austrian or German, a Jew uninterested in Judaism, incapable of being French, definitely not an Englishman, and unwilling to accommodate himself even to the melting pot of multicultural America, he wandered the earth like a modern Quixote in search of a spiritual homeland. And yet, knowing so many countries so intimately, he was never parochial or narrowminded. He understood the complex interplay in our world beween pyschology, culture and religion, and between competing national interests and political systems as few writers before him or since, and despite his Cassandra-like pessimism, he never abandoned his quest for a better life for mankind.

That quest was inspired by an Enlightenment dream of happiness and a just social order and the twentieth century will o’ the wisp of an earthly utopia. During his long life Koestler investigated a multitude of political movements, religions, and scientific disciplines, from Zionism to Catholicism and even Buddhism, from anti-fascism to communism and anti-communism, from astronomy and evolution to neurobiology and parapsychology. His odyssey spawned over thirty books, among them six novels, four autobiographies, four scientific treatises, four volumes of essays, three nonfiction investigation