The Indispensable Intellectual
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Based upon over 100 interviews and a wealth of new sources (private diaries, unpublished letters, archives of the CIA, MI5, the French Sureté, the German and Soviet communist parties), Koestler is a nuanced account of its subject’s turbulent public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.”
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 investigations, and innumerable newspaper articles. He is most celebrated for his novel about Stalin’s show trials, Darkness at Noon, which became an instant classic after World War II and was on all high school reading lists during the Cold War. It has endured because, in addition to throwing a piercing light on the practices of Soviet communism, the novel offers profound insights into the psychological roots of the totalitarian mind (which manifests itself today, perhaps, in terrorism) and the plight of those who succumb to it. It is a novel of ideas and psychological tension in the manner of Dostoevsky and Conrad, and remains Koestler’s literary masterpiece.
Unfortunately, like many authors who write a masterpiece early in their careers, Koestler was repeatedly tagged as “Arthur (Darkness at Noon) Koestler,” an appellation he came to dread for its implication that he was a one-book wonder; and though the sheer bulk of his œuvre gives the lie to this view, his books are so varied in subject matter and so uneven in quality that it has proved extraordinarily difficult to arrive at a considered judgment. Moreover his reputation has fallen precipitously since his death, especially since the end of communism, leading many to dismiss him as insignificant and outdated. But such a judgement is superficial and premature, perhaps because critics have been looking for significance in the wrong places, for while it’s true that Koestler achieved prominence as a novelist, it’s equally true that none of the four novels that followed it come anywhere near his masterpiece in quality or interest. Nor, unhappily, do most of the scientific works to which Koestler devoted the latter half of his life, baffling literary critics with their technicalities and offending scientists with their polemicas and absence of experimental rigor.
The work that guarantees Koestler’s continuing importance, in my view, is not his fiction but his nonfiction, the five autobiographical works and the best of his literary and political essays that, apart from Darkness at Noon, constitute his principal contribution to twentieth century literature. Koestler was an essayist of great power and penetration. Alongside Orwell in England in the nineteen forties and early fifties, he poured forth a stream of inspired commentary (e.g. in The Yogi and the Commissar and The Trail of the Dinosaur) on some of the most acute social and political issues of the day, and was initially more prescient than Orwell about the totalitarian forces shaping the modern world. As for the autobiographies, Koestler’s first work in this genre, and in some respects his best, was Dialogue with Death, a piercing memoir about his imprisonment and near-execution in Civil War Spain. This was followed three years later by Scum of the Earth, both a documentary memoir of his incarceration in a French concentration camp and escape from the invading Germans on the eve of World War II, and a requiem for the anti-fascist left between the two world wars. “Memoirs of a Tightrope Walker,” the lead essay in The God that Failed, analyzed his seduction by communism and subsequent disillusionment with unrivaled dialectical verve and penetration.
His most ambitious works in this genre, however, were two volumes of straight autobiography, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, in which Koestler fashioned a new paradigm for the genre, treating his life and experiences as a prism through which to examine the extraordinary struggle of mid-twentieth century intellectuals to comprehend (and survive) two world wars, the Great Depression, and the rise of two seemingly irresistible totalitarian movements, fascism and communism. His response to those movements and their value systems took the form of a lifelong interrogation of the problem of individual freedom and the ethics of choice, and the conflict between collective necessity and individual morality, often summarized as the battle between ends and means.
These themes carried over into all Koestler’s novels, essays and scientific works, and if we examine them in the context of the memoirs, we see how they all, including even Darkness at Noon, operated on one level as thinly disguised autobiography. Koestler was a romantic rationalist, and his quest for a viable system of moral and spiritual values was based on the hope that secular legacy of the Enlightenment could replace religion and offer a reliable guide to human behavior (though there was also a frustrated religious dimension to his striving that he could never quite acknowledge). In the best of his books, his struggle to make sense of the world was illuminated by a quixotic hope that happiness on earth, some variant of the utopian dream, was somehow within reach if only one could find the right key to the door.
Late in life, in a burst of self-deprecation, Koestler once referred to himself as the “Casanova of causes,” hinting that while his causes were passionately embraced and worthy of devotion, the act of serving them was psychologically as important as the causes themselves. A close reading of his letters, diaries and books confirms that view, for Koestler’s quest for enlightenment was not some arid, abstract sort of search, but a deep instinctual urge, powered by personal unhappiness and psychological frustration, which started early in his life and continued to the very end of his days. This is not to devalue its results, which are there for all to see in his best books, but it was in fact the cause of causes lurking behind every other cause Koestler espoused and everything he wrote, emblematic of the twentieth century’s own flailings in its search for a workable form of utopia. Koestler was bound to fail in his quest, of course, but the quest itself was the point.×
Koestler eNotes coming soon
A collection of extra research material I’ve gathered in my work on the book in PDF format.
British & Other Reviews
Review from Australia compares Koestler and Solzhenitsyn biographies
Published a generation apart, both biographies are monumental studies in what it means to be a rare witness and an extraordinary writer.
Neal Ascherson, “Raging towards Utopia,” The London Review of Books, February 2010
Michael Scammell has devoted more than 20 years of his own life to producing this tremendous, absorbing biography, hoping to restore Koestler and his work to new generations. It was a bold thing to take on. In the first place, Koestler wrote two books — Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing — which are among the most powerful works of autobiography ever composed. To compete with them, or at least to cover again the same events and reactions, was courageous. Second, two other biographies in English already exist… but Scammell has little time for either work… Scammell is entitled to pass judgment on the research of others. His own is staggering in scale and detail. He had the good fortune to be shown all the wonderfully frank letters and diaries of Mamaine Paget, Koestler’s second wife, by her twin sister, Celia. But he has also found his way into Comintern files, into the sullen reports on Koestler kept by MI5 (‘one third genius, one third blackguard and one third lunatic’), into documentation from the Spanish Civil War, and into the partly unsorted mountain of Koestler papers at Edinburgh University, which holds his correspondence with hundreds of often famous friends and antagonists throughout the world. Scammell seems to have interviewed almost every surviving human being who knew Koestler, and many who died while he was working on the book. He found his way to the very cell in Seville prison where Koestler was held by the Fascists in 1937.Read More
Neal Ascherson, “Raging towards Utopia,” The London Review of Books, February 2010
Watched from a safe distance, Arthur Koestler’s life was like a Catherine-wheel breaking free from its stake. Leaping and spinning and scattering crowds, emitting fountains of alarming flares and sparks as it bounded in and out of public squares and unexpected back gardens, flinging dazzling light into dim minds, Koestler’s career left scorch marks and illuminations across the 20th century. When it finally stopped and the flames died, the darkness suddenly seemed absolute.
Now he is almost forgotten. Once, all students with a grain of discontent about their world read his books. Many of their university grandchildren, tomorrow’s intellectuals, have never heard of him. Some critics think that this oblivion is to do with the gigantic incorrectness of his personal life, mostly revealed after his death: the accusations of rape, or the charge that he bullied his final wife, Cynthia, into sharing their double suicide in 1983. A better explanation is the change of the times. The whole context in which Koestler fought, survived, preached and rampaged — the epoch of totalitarian dictatorships, millennial mobilisations and total wars — has vanished. And with it have gone (or at least temporarily subsided) the classic moral choices which overshadowed the consciences of so many 20th-century men and women: whether to sacrifice a society’s today for a ‘brighter tomorrow’, whether to ally with the lesser evil to overcome the greater, whether to shed innocent blood as the price of breaking humanity’s chains.
Michael Scammell has devoted more than 20 years of his own life to producing this tremendous, absorbing biography, hoping to restore Koestler and his work to new generations. It was a bold thing to take on. In the first place, Koestler wrote two books — Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing — which are among the most powerful works of autobiography ever composed. To compete with them, or at least to cover again the same events and reactions, was courageous. Second, two other biographies in English already exist: Iain Hamilton’s Koestler: A Biography (1982) and David Cesarani’s Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998). But Scammell has little time for either work. His bibliography dismisses Hamilton’s book as ‘superficial and ill-researched’, and Cesarani’s (the one which attacked Koestler as a serial rapist) as an ‘opinionated, thinly researched and heavily slanted biography, masquerading as a study of Koestler’s Jewishness’.
Scammell is entitled to pass judgment on the research of others. His own is staggering in scale and detail. He had the good fortune to be shown all the wonderfully frank letters and diaries of Mamaine Paget, Koestler’s second wife, by her twin sister, Celia. But he has also found his way into Comintern files, into the sullen reports on Koestler kept by MI5 (‘one third genius, one third blackguard and one third lunatic’), into documentation from the Spanish Civil War, and into the partly unsorted mountain of Koestler papers at Edinburgh University, which holds his correspondence with hundreds of often famous friends and antagonists throughout the world. Scammell seems to have interviewed almost every surviving human being who knew Koestler, and many who died while he was working on the book. He found his way to the very cell in Seville prison where Koestler was held by the Fascists in 1937. He sought out and questioned the Brazilian cleaner who entered the Koestlers’ London flat after their double suicide.
The book is full of ‘psychograms’. Most people who knew Koestler well, not least his many women, felt driven to sketch his extraordinary personality. Koestler himself wrote several mordant self-analyses. Scammell from time to time interjects his own ideas on what — his neglectful mother, his inner conflict over his Jewishness in anti-semitic Central Europe — made Koestler so pugnacious, so insufferably competitive, so tyrannical and ruthless with women and at the same time so passionate in his campaigns against cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy.
Anyone who knew that generation of Central European intellectuals, especially those of Jewish origins, will recognise some of the traits in Koestler’s character. But it seems to me that the roots of his recurrent miseries and explosions are less interesting than the roots of his furious creative energy. He shared with that generation a profound, Hegelian sense of dialectic process. ‘Being’ was also ‘becoming’, or it was nothing. Every context, every person was a seed with a destiny which must be realised.
To put it coarsely, something had to be done about everything. For instance, you could not just ‘be’ a Jew, quietly sitting in Prague or Vienna and enjoying a satisfactory middle-class Jewish existence. To be Jewish was a commandment to do something in order to hurry Jewishness towards its innate destiny (whether that was Zionism or assimilation in race-transcending socialism). It was not enough to be a scientist, when scientific discovery was destined to change the self-perception of the human race: a psychology researcher should let his ‘facts’ blossom into speculation about extrasensory perception or the power of thought to move objects. Abuses like the Soviet show trials, or British capital punishment or even quarantine for pets, contained the seeds of their own contradiction and demanded the instant organisation of campaigns. It wasn’t enough to be comfortably English, when England was destined to become part of a united Europe or perish. A dinner party difference of opinion could not be left unresolved but required Koestler to smash his opponent to a pulp (verbally) until his own correctness was vindicated. And a pretty woman was not there to be admired, but to be instantly besieged and rushed to her destiny in his bed.
This cosmic restlessness, this inability to leave anything as it was, infused Koestler’s whole life with energy. Roughly speaking, that life as described by Scammell falls into four phases. First came the years in which his lust for absolute certainties swept him into fanatical commitments, to extreme Revisionist Zionism and then to Stalinist Communism. In the next phase, the crust of these certainties suddenly gave way and he fell into the horrible underworld of his century: a prisoner of Franco, fearing execution every day, and then a desperate fugitive — a Communist Jew — as the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Profoundly changed by these experiences, Koestler emerged after the war as the most militant European intellectual to denounce Soviet Communism (French admirers credited his masterpiece, the novel Darkness at Noon, with preventing a Communist victory in the 1946 referendum on a new constitution), and his writings — journalism, novels, manifestos and memoirs — made him world famous. In a fourth phase, Koestler — now living mostly in Britain — gradually transferred his energies to science and its wilder frontiers. In a string of popular science books, he examined the intuitive roots of scientific discovery and the mystery of human creativity, and strove obstinately to resurrect Lamarck’s discredited evolutionary theory which held that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Brilliantly written though they were, these books provoked growing dismay among scientists, and by the time he died Koestler’s investigations into parapsychology and levitation were embarrassing many of his old supporters.
Arthur Koestler, born in 1905, grew up as an only child in a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest and Vienna. Alternately spoiled and neglected by his mother, he was an undersized, frantically competitive small boy notorious for his tantrums. It was not until he became a student in Vienna and joined a Jewish duelling fraternity that he had the blissful experience of belonging to a collective, of acceptance into a substitute family. The fraternity was simmering with revolutionary ideas about Jewish identity. Koestler came to Zionism because it seemed to offer a flight from traditional Jewishness, and he was soon bowled over by the charismatic Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of Revisionist Zionism (which wanted to impose a Jewish state on the whole of Palestine, including what is now Jordan). This was the first of Koestler’s surrenders to an absolutist ideal. He set off for Palestine, but soon discovered that manual labour on a spartan collective farm was not his style and returned to Europe. There, in 1930, he landed a job in Berlin with the Ullstein press empire. At 25 he was a successful science editor, writing on such subjects as new energy sources or quantum mechanics or Hubble’s ‘exploding universe’, and bluffing an interview out of Einstein. Nattily dressed, with a red sports car, a taste for whisky and a string of girlfriends, he might have seemed to have arrived. But he was restless, discontented with the reality of Zionism, hungry for another utopia.
Koestler’s conversions followed a certain pattern. First came a fit of blinding anger and hatred against oppressors — with Zionism, it was hatred of the Arabs and the atrocities they inflicted on Jewish settlers. Then followed a sense of revelation and great calm, an absolute conviction of rightness. In Berlin, he had friends of his own age who had joined the Communist Party, and — unusually for him — he found that he couldn’t batter down their arguments. Soon another fit of fury broke over him, ‘seething indignation’, a ‘furnace’, as he considered the injustices of capitalism. And then, once again, came the ‘mental explosion’, as ‘the whole universe falls into pattern … There is now an answer to every question.’
This is a version of the ‘conversion experience’ so familiar to the Protestant Reformation. Convulsions of self-loathing are followed by the delicious inrush of salvation: the certainty that one has been elected to the communion of saints, the ‘oceanic’ understanding of the One Truth, the One Word. Those who go through this kind of experience generally emerge as fanatical, even manic believers. Koestler certainly did. But it’s worth asking whether such conversions produced the sort of Communist the Party really wanted. Disciplined, working-class activists solidly loyal to the cause and the Soviet motherland were meant to be the Party’s core. Messianic intellectuals raving about how they had burst the chains of their bourgeois inhibitions and found the key to the universe: they could be very useful, if correctly handled, but they would never be completely reliable.
Koestler joined the Communist Party, but behaved more like an enthusiastic fellow-traveller than a trusty cadre. Visiting the Soviet Union in 1932, he acquired what Scammell neatly calls his ‘bifocals’: his capacity to witness appalling destitution and muddle and discount them against his vision of the glorious Soviet future (‘temporary setbacks’). ‘Only slowly,’ he wrote, ‘does the newcomer learn to distinguish … underneath a chaotic surface, the shape of things to come, to realise that in Sovietland the present is a fiction, a quivering membrane stretched between the past and the future.’ Koestler spent a year and a half in Sovietland, journeying through Ukraine, Russia and Soviet Asia, and in Moscow met Bolshevik heroes like Radek and Bukharin. But the travel book he wrote afterwards was rejected by the Soviet publishers as ‘frivolous’. The shock of discovering that he was not fully trusted — and he never was — began the slow process of his disillusion.
In 1933, the Comintern sent him to Paris, where he joined the great propagandist Willi Münzenberg and a constellation of German left-wing refugees from the new Nazi regime in the ‘anti-Fascist struggle’. These were hungry years for Koestler, but prolific. The Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge by Dr A. Costler earned him a little money, but he also wrote a curious novel for teenagers, Comrade Dickybird, which got him into hot water for ‘ideological errors’ with his Party cell. It was now that he married Dorothee Ascher, the first of his beautiful, intelligent wives, under his customary conditions of ‘no children and no monogamy’.
When the Spanish Civil War began, Münzenberg sent him to Spain under cover as a journalist, where he landed his first and only scoop. In Seville, he walked into a group of German pilots flying for Franco — a story which rang round the world as the first solid proof of Nazi involvement. But in early 1937, Koestler’s luck ran out. Reporting from Malaga, he was captured when the city fell to the rebels and imprisoned as a spy. He spent the next three months in jail in Seville — the first of many prison sojourns over the next few years — expecting death at any moment and listening as men in the cells on either side were dragged out for execution. An international campaign for his release, led by Dorothee but expertly managed by Münzenberg, eventually succeeded. But this experience, unforgettably recorded in his Dialogue with Death, changed Koestler for ever: ‘the most decisive period in my life, its spiritual crisis and turning point’. It was not just that his own mental torments revealed to him the horrific falsity of the Moscow show trials and the ‘slave mentality’ demanded by both Stalinism and Fascism — the core perception of Darkness at Noon. It was also the beginning of his slow conversion to ‘bourgeois liberal values’: to the importance of truth and doubt, and above all to respect for individual human life (which bore fruit 20 years later in his campaign against the death penalty). And it was in the Seville cell that Koestler began his search for transcendental certainty, for a ‘higher order of reality … a text written in invisible ink’ which was to fascinate him for the rest of his life.
Koestler’s ordeal and the publication of Dialogue with Death made him a celebrity. Back in Paris, he resigned from the Communist Party but asked that this should remain secret. With Fascism rampant across Europe, he was not ready for final and public defection. In a letter to his Party cell, he attacked the corruption of Communist ideals but was still hopeful: ‘The Soviet Union is left. Not Stalin, but the Soviet Union. It’s the only hope offered by this miserable century. It’s the foundation of the future.’
When war began in 1939, Koestler was still in France. By now, his first marriage had come apart and he was living with the young English sculptor Daphne Hardy. She was to be his companion through much of the terrifying episode in his life described in Scum of the Earth: internment as a dangerous alien in the camp of Le Vernet in the French Pyrenees, flight from the advancing Germans through a disintegrating France, enlistment in the Foreign Legion in order to reach the port of Marseille; a breakdown and several suicide attempts (‘It’s world history I’m weeping for … tell the world how my life ended,’ he said as Daphne left him in Biarritz). He managed to reach Morocco, then Lisbon and finally, through a combination of luck and desperate importuning, wangled himself onto a British airliner heading for Bristol. It was November 1940.
Darkness at Noon — the title was chosen by Daphne Hardy — was published in December 1940, while Koestler was being held in a cell in Pentonville prison as an illegal immigrant. Released after a few weeks, he chained Daphne to the task of typist and translator as he started work on Scum of the Earth, which appeared in July 1941. Here he made plain his final disillusion with Soviet Communism following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and with France, depicted as betrayed by its corrupt ruling class. The book was an enormous success in Britain and the United States, in contrast to Darkness at Noon, whose full impact — ultimately far greater — was delayed until the first years of the Cold War.
After Orwell’s 1984 it was to become the most influential political novel of the 20th century. As an account of idealism and loyalty trampled by a ruthless totalitarian system, it is matchless for its eloquence and passion. And yet doubts persist about its central drama: the notion that the grotesque confessions at the Moscow trials were in a sense voluntary, the final sacrifice of men who offered their lives and integrity as a last service to the cause they loved. Was it really like that? Only a few days ago, I met a Gulag survivor who insisted that Koestler had been correct ‘absolutely, in every detail’ about the motives of those victims who admitted the absurd charges of espionage and terrorism and asked for the death penalty. And yet other survivors, especially those condemned in the Soviet-orchestrated show trials in Prague in the 1950s, objected that this explanation was fanciful: the confessions were extracted by old-fashioned torture, including sensory deprivation and sleep denial, and by false promises that the death penalty would not be carried out. Scammell, while making the point that Koestler did not deny an element of ‘physical coercion’, seems inclined to accept that he was right about the decisive effect of psychological blackmail, which played on notions of ‘objective’ guilt.
In wartime Britain, Koestler was conscripted briefly into the Pioneer Corps, which he escaped by unconvincing pleas of unfitness and by pulling some powerful strings. He was rapidly found a job in the Ministry of Information. By now, he was well connected. Cyril Connolly and ‘the Horizon crowd’ had adopted him, at first an odd and slightly pathetic foreigner in crumpled battledress. He came to know Spender, Orwell, MacNeice, Philip Toynbee and John Lehmann, and was invited to their parties. TheTribune left-wingers adored him; Michael Foot (as he put it himself) ‘fell an immediate swooning victim to his wit, charm and inordinate capacity for alcohol’, and to his murderous style of argument: ‘Koestler got you in a corner, with all escapes blocked, and machine-gunned with fact, analogy, the superabundant debating skill.’ David Astor, at the Observer, fell equally heavily for ‘this small passionate man with his excruciating accent, his self-mockery and his devotion to his political friends in Europe’.
Women fell too. Koestler was insatiable, lusting especially for upper-class English girls, and he was frank about enjoying a bit of rough. ‘Without an element of initial rape there is no delight,’ as he put it. Most of his conquests seem to have hated that part, but forgave him for the sake of his charm, the electric excitement of his company. Why so many husbands and other male rivals forgave him, or at least never set about him, remains a mystery. Connolly, unaware that he was sharing Barbara Skelton with Koestler, wrote:
Like everyone who talks of ethics all day long, one could not trust him half an hour with one’s wife, one’s best friend, one’s manuscripts or one’s wine merchant — he’d lose them all. He burns with the envious paranoiac hunger of the Central European ant-heap, he despises everybody and can’t conceal the fact when he is drunk, yet I believe he is probably one of the most powerful forces for good in the country.
Daphne, bullied, exploited and serially cheated on, moved out in 1944. By then Koestler had met and fallen in love with Mamaine Paget, beautiful and in most things — apart from forgiving Koestler’s awful behaviour — wise. There followed seven years of violent rows, partings and reconciliations, to which their marriage in 1950 made little difference. But her early death in 1954 devastated him, and of all his partners, Mamaine had the surest hold on what affection he could spare from himself.
Returning to postwar France, he and Mamaine had plunged into the Existentialist circle. This was the first of many rampages in which political argument alternated with stupendous drinking bouts, a relationship repeatedly broken and resumed until the chasm between Koestler’s crusading anti-Communism and Sartre’s visceral anti-Americanism grew too wide to bridge. Scammell recounts the all-night drinking binges (‘spectacular bacchanals’ on vodka and champagne) as Koestler, Mamaine, Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir staggered from one nightclub to the next, parting at dawn in floods of alcoholic tears. On separate occasions, a drunken Koestler blacked the eyes of both Mamaine and Camus and punched Beauvoir into bed (she, at least, never forgave him); Mamaine had a short, intense affair with Camus; Sartre made a pass at Mamaine and had a glass flung at him by Koestler.
The intellectual product of all this was slight, apart from Beauvoir’s thinly disguised description of Koestler’s lovemaking in The Mandarins. In the world outside Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the bars of Montparnasse, André Malraux disdained Koestler’s project to found a ‘League for the Rights of Man’, while the French Communist Party assailed ‘Judas Koestler’ for his ‘intolerable insults to France and its courageous people’. The fact was that his real impact on French politics was over by the time he returned to Paris: Darkness at Noon (Le Zéro et l’infini) had already sold 300,000 copies and would sell an astounding half-million by 1947, and the damage it did to French Stalinism would never be made good.
On his first visit to the United States in 1948, Koestler was lionised in New York and Los Angeles. But now and on his next visits he confronted a very Koestlerian dilemma: whether to ally with the bad in order to defeat the worst. Anti-Communism in America, as he found it, was not a united front but an uncivil war between two factions. Old leftists and liberals disenchanted with Stalinism hated the extreme right (the Un-American Activities inquisition was just getting going), which in turn dismissed the Partisan Review crowd as irrelevant pinkos. Koestler’s heart was with the leftists, some of them his old comrades, and for the rest of his life he continued to think of himself as in some sense a left-winger. But he brought from his Communist years a sense of the brutal necessities of struggle, and he insisted that American liberals must accept the support of the powerful right wing in any common resistance to Soviet expansion. In 1950 he refused to join the protests against the Alger Hiss trial, certain that Hiss was a spy and that his uncouth, much mocked accuser Whittaker Chambers was telling the truth. Later still, he derided the horror of most of his friends over the McCarthy witch-hunts as frivolous and exaggerated.
He made the same harsh choices over the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which emerged in 1950. Koestler was beyond question its spiritual father: it was a version of his League for the Rights of Man idea, its form designed to counter the proliferating ‘peace campaigns’ and ‘congresses of progressive intellectuals’ which were in effect Communist fronts. Koestler was not aware for some time that his idea had been covertly adopted and funded by the CIA. When he did find out, he was not in the least surprised or scandalised. So what? The imperatives of the struggle justified all sorts of deception. A similar dilemma soon surfaced within the CCF, which held its first congress in West Berlin on the day the Korean War began. The group of old socialists around Ignazio Silone wanted the CCF to concentrate on social and economic issues, and to avoid political alliance with American capitalism. Koestler wanted an all-out political crusade, and gave a tremendous speech in Berlin, declaring that there could be no neutral ground in the battle between ‘total tyranny and relative freedom’. What he didn’t know was that the CIA, anxious to keep the American connection hidden, preferred the Silone line and found Koestler altogether too militant and inquisitive.
In 1950, he impulsively bought a farm in Pennsylvania and moved there with Mamaine. He had resigned from the CCF a few months before, for reasons that even Scammell has been unable to reconstruct: possibly a nervous crisis brought on by a violent drinking bout, possibly the realisation that forces behind it no longer trusted him. At Island Farm, he drove ahead with new ideas, including a fund for refugee writers and a ‘Deminform’: a battery of radio stations aiming news and free discussion into Eastern Europe and the USSR, which the Americans eventually established in the form of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
His behaviour at Island Farm was as wild as ever. Drunken car crashes, the pursuit of neighbours’ wives and quarrels with friends brought Mamaine to the edge of despair. And there was a new woman on the scene. Cynthia Jefferies, a pretty young South African, had become Koestler’s secretary in Paris and — when more interesting women were not around — his mistress. Now he brought her over to Island Farm. This was the most discreditable and yet enduring of all his relationships. Brutally bullied, treated as a secretarial slave and a sex slave when he felt like it, Cynthia meekly submitted to a string of abortions over the years. Koestler’s friends liked her, but were horrified by her obvious misery. And yet Cynthia was not quite the doormat she seemed. To be with Koestler, always on call for his wants, was the life she had chosen, and she refused to give it up. Mamaine, in contrast, returned to London and decided on separation.
Koestler soon followed her, buying an expensive flat near Harrods. With Mamaine gone, he trapped a fresh parade of clever, independent-minded women into his life, some of whom managed to remain his friends after escaping. It was now, in 1952, that he apparently raped Jill Craigie, the wife of Michael Foot, on her Hampstead kitchen floor. Scammell is uneasy about this scene, which Craigie didn’t reveal until the mid-1990s, and remarks that ‘the exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time.’ True enough, but rape it pretty clearly was, and — as Scammell’s biography shows — Koestler had abundant form in that particular ‘exercise of male strength’.
By now, he was writing Arrow in the Blue, soon followed by The Invisible Writing. Of all the genres Koestler tried, this line of spiritual and political autobiography suited his talents best. Next came Reflections on Hanging, a gruesome and closely researched polemic which shook Britain’s educated public to the marrow and opened the way to the abolition of the death penalty a few years later. But by the later 1950s, his interests were turning more and more to science, or rather to the links between scientific discovery, intuition and non-rational perception. The Sleepwalkerscalled for a reconnection of science with religion. The Lotus and the Robot, written after a visit to India and Japan, concluded that Eastern spirituality was mostly useless, with the exception of Vinoba Bhave’s philosophy of grassroots socialism. There followed a string of books about cosmology, evolution, extrasensory perception and even the notion (The Ghost in the Machine) that human aggression arose from a ‘self-integrative drive’ which could perhaps be controlled by medication — a ‘mental stabiliser’ pill.
Exhilarating and original, some of these books were widely read, but scientists and Koestler’s legion of political enemies pounced on their weaknesses. And in his last years the thinker who had once preached Marxist determinism became a free-will fanatic, searching desperately for evidence that would rehabilitate Lamarckianism. In his 1971 bestseller, The Case of the Midwife Toad, a wonderful scientific detective story, he merely suggested that Lamarck might not have been entirely wrong, but — for once — he was understating his own convictions.
All through this biography runs the thread of Koestler’s engagement with Jewishness, Zionism and the nascent state of Israel. His sometimes clumsy but blazingly eloquent novel Thieves in the Night (1946) used his own experiences to tell an epic story of young pioneers laying down their lives to found a Jewish state in Palestine. Drawn as he had been to the extreme Revisionist wing of Zionism, Koestler later produced uneasy justifications for Irgun terrorism. He condemned indiscriminate murder, but asserted that ‘we have to use violence and deception to save others from violence and deception,’ and that ‘the arsenic of ruthlessness, injected in very small doses [could be] a stimulant to the social body’. And he appalled moderate Jewish opinion by arguing that diaspora identity was a fallacy: Jews should either go to Israel or abandon the idea that they could exist as a distinct nationality elsewhere in the world.
As Scammell shows, Koestler was never at peace with his own Jewish identity. Characteristically, he tried to solve his personal problem by inflating it to historic dimensions. The Thirteenth Tribe, written near the end of his life, attempted to prove that Ashkenazi Jews — the main body of European Jewry — were not ethnic Jews at all but the descendants of the Khazars, Turkic nomads from Asia who had converted to Judaism in the eighth century. To the dismay of most Jews, the book was a huge success and is still quoted with delight by Israel’s hostile neighbours.
Koestler finally married the patient Cynthia in 1965, but only because he couldn’t take her with him to a fellowship at Stanford if she was not his wife. From now on, he was to become slowly more dependent on her. In his old age, they lived mainly in a house near Cambridge, and friends who visited noticed that while Koestler was as bossy and rude to her as ever, Cynthia was beginning to dominate the marriage. In 1982, suffering from advancing Parkinson’s and leukaemia, Koestler decided that it was time to leave, and composed a lucid suicide note. A much later addition, signed very shakily by Koestler, stated that Cynthia had decided she could not live without him and would take her life at the same time. This postscript seems to have been written shortly before they took their barbiturates and whisky on 28 February 1983. Cynthia was a healthy woman of 55, and Koestler has been fiercely reproached for coercing her into sharing his suicide. But Scammell and others — and I find their case convincing — object that Koestler would not have wanted to ‘vulgarise’ the drama of his own sovereign self-extinction by turning it into a joint suicide pact. Cynthia, now in charge, felt otherwise, and she got her way.
Did Koestler change the world? He certainly changed Britain, whose insular complacency never ceased to enrage him. The abolition of capital punishment was partly his achievement. The Fund for Intellectual Freedom which he launched in 1950 was an inspiration for Writers and Scholars International, which in turn generated Index on Censorship. He left almost his entire estate to fund a chair for parapsychology at Edinburgh University, which still survives. But his most lasting legacy to this country, narrow in scope and yet a triumph of humane imagination, are the Koestler Awards for artistic work by prisoners, which still draw thousands of applications every year.
Elsewhere, his tempestuous leadership of anti-Communist crusades in the Cold War has left little trace. The impact of his writing on postwar French politics belongs to history, and so does the influence of Thieves in the Night on the UN’s decision to recognise the state of Israel. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty — inspired by his Deminform proposals — still exist, but their importance has dwindled since the collapse of Soviet Communism. His twin autobiographies and Scum of the Earth will always be read by those who want to understand the European 20th century, but his other political novels and polemics, even Darkness at Noon, have receded towards obscurity. As for his popular science books, especially the ventures into fringe psychology and non-rational cognition, it’s usually assumed that they do not deserve revival. That could be a mistake. Koestler’s grasp of science was wilful and erratic. But one can predict that the last word has not been said on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, or even on what is unwisely termed ‘extrasensory perception’. Robert Chambers, the pioneer of popular science journalism, infuriated Darwin by anticipating some of his conclusions in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation — but for all the wrong reasons. By the end of this century, it’s possible that Koestler’s apparently eccentric theories will be regarded in the same way.
It’s easy to conclude that Arthur Koestler was a disastrous human being, insufferable as a lover or husband and often as a friend. But he was precious to many people, including some of those whom he hurt, not only for his piercing intelligence but for his bursts of generosity and empathy. David Astor told Scammell that he had found Koestler ‘lovable because of his sensitivity to people, and because of the sense of excitement he brought to everything he did’. Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had a brief affair with him, called him ‘a noble little goblin’. She wrote after his death that he was ‘entirely brave; had courage on every level, physical, moral and spiritual … His capacity for indignation — that invaluable ingredient for making things happen — remained with him always.’ Koestler, who often hated himself, would have been consoled by that epitaph.×
Noel Malcolm, “Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell: review,” The Sunday Telegraph, February 14, 2010
The God that Failed was the title of one of the most influential books of the mid-20th century, a collection of essays by people who had become disillusioned with Communism. Arthur Koestler’s essay, ‘Memoirs of a Tightrope Walker’, described how he had struggled, like other loyal Party members, to stay on ‘the tightrope of self-deception’, finally plummeting off it after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Other famous contributors included André Gide, Stephen Spender and Ignazio Silone; but none of them, at that particular time, had quite the celebrity status of Arthur Koestler.
John Carey, “Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell,” The Sunday Times, February 7, 2010
The most spectacular aspect of Arthur Koestler was his sex life, and the main problem it poses is how he found time for it. Michael Scammell’s magisterial biography tells us that Koestler, in his role as journalist and novelist, obeyed a rigorous work ethic, got up at 7am, had a cold bath, then slogged away at his writing until late in the evening. Yet he also womanised on a heroic scale. Sometimes he had five affairs on the go at once, gleefully documenting each in his diary. One astonished bedmate stumbled upon a list naming “between 100 and 200” of her predecessors. He kept up his strike-rate by cutting down on preliminaries. “He barely gave you time to get your clothes off,” recalled one former girlfriend. Foreplay was redundant since Koestler believed that women like to be forced. “Without an element of initial rape there is no delight,” he explained to Mamaine Paget, his second wife.
Victor Sebestyen, “Arthur Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell,” London Evening Standard, February 4, 2010
AN MI5 officer interrogated Arthur Koestler in 1941 when the writer sought refuge in Britain after a dramatic escape from a French concentration camp. The spook made an instant judgment: “He is a third genius, a third blackguard and a third lunatic,” he reported to his superiors.Read More
Victor Sebestyen, “Arthur Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell,” London Evening Standard, February 4, 2010
AN MI5 officer interrogated Arthur Koestler in 1941 when the writer sought refuge in Britain after a dramatic escape from a French concentration camp. The spook made an instant judgment: “He is a third genius, a third blackguard and a third lunatic,” he reported to his superiors.
In this magisterial and subtle biography, Michael Scammell alters the percentages — from this account Koestler emerges 60 per cent a genius, while the other two qualities are again divided equally.
Scammell makes no effort to hide his subject’s flaws or to shy away from controversies — Koestler’s frantic womanising and, possibly, a rape; his manic depression, alcoholism and pill-popping; the way he bullied the women in his life; the sinister suicide pact in 1983 with his (third) wife, a healthy woman nearly a quarter of a century younger than him; his eccentric beliefs, towards the end of his life, in a range of weird paranormal phenomena.
This is a skilfully structured work. Scammell enthusiastically recounts the titillating material and it is vastly entertaining. But at the end, one wonders, as the author intends us to do: does it matter that Koestler chased almost anything in a skirt? Here is the man who wrote one of the most influential and important novels of the 20th century, Darkness at Noon, and created a fresh style of searingly honest autobiography with books such as Arrow in the Blue, in which he never portrayed himself as a saint.
Koestler could behave boorishly as he drank a river of booze and downed vast quantities of “uppers” such as Benzedrine. But not while he worked. From the Thirties to the Seventies he wrote the most powerful, coherently argued indictments against totalitarianism of both the Right and Left. His work inspired generations living under tyranny to struggle for freedom. It is interesting, but is it important that he could be an utter bastard, an Everest of selfishness?
Scammell recounts Koestler’s early life, from his birth in Budapest in 1905, as an adventure story. He was at the vanguard of almost every intellectual movement of the last century. Convinced that the “Jewish Question” would be a key future issue — how right he was — he went to Palestine in his twenties.
He abandoned Zionism, however, and the Communist Party became his life from the early Thirties. Doubts arose when he covered the war in Spain as a journalist. He was imprisoned by Franco’s fascists as a communist spy. Sentenced to death, for months before he was released he expected each day to be his last.
He turned against communism — at a time when fashion was in favour — largely because of the Stalinist show trials in 1938. After the Spanish Civil War he moved to Paris and began to write Darkness at Noon. But after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940 he was arrested again because of his communist past.
Much of the book was written in a concentration camp, from which he was helped to escape by his then lover. He made his home uneasily in Britain, a country he never understood. He was always more popular abroad.
Here, we don’t think of intellectuals as a class. Throughout much of the world, Koestler was the greatest public intellectual of his era, at a time when such people existed. In France or the US he was treated like a celebrity as he fought the Cold War with all his might.
But there’s no way of getting away from Koestler and sex — though it is just as interesting to point out that he is perhaps the only author who changed the language he wrote in twice (first from Hungarian to German, then to English) while maintaining a high standard and making oodles of money. The sheer volume of his sexual conquests was breathtaking. Some women complained he was “rough” (Sonia Orwell). Simone de Beauvoir was disappointed by the brevity of the experience. But as Scammell points out Koestler retained a large number of women friends who cared for him deeply.
Scammell deals even-handedly with the charge that in the Forties Koestler raped Jill Craigie, Michael Foot’s wife. It may have happened, though in his lifetime of pursuing women nobody else made such an allegation. On the other hand, Craigie and Koestler remained friends for decades, and she made the claims in her eighties when he was long dead and she was occasionally confused. In the Forties the difference between bad sex and rape was more blurred than it is now.
Most of Koestler’s earlier biographies have homed in on his lechery, for commercial reasons. This is a warts-and-all work, not with only warts. Koestler was a super-sophisticated man. At last, in Michael Scammell, he has a sophisticated biographer who can place his subject in context.×
John Gray, “Life Of A Giant,” Literary Review, February 1, 2010
‘I was born at the moment when the sun was setting on the Age of Reason.’ Appearing at the start of Arrow in the Blue, one of the memoirs that were his most lasting achievement, this judgement could have been made by any number of Arthur Koestler’s contemporaries. A sense of having entered the world at a point when it was descending into madness shaped his generation. Koestler and his contemporaries could not help seeing the break-up of Europe’s high bourgeois civilisation as a catastrophe. For nearly all of them, a breakdown of rationality defined the epoch. For many, communism was not so much an attack on Europe’s bourgeois civilisation as an attempt to renew it in a more durable form.
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