Toggle between American and British book covers and critical reviews; American release available for purchase.
“This superb biography will certainly be the standard account of the most remarkable literary life story of our time.” —TLS. “An enthralling book.” —NY Times. “What a man. What a life. What a book!” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer. More »
The Solzhenitsyn Files
“An amazing compilation of once top-secret Soviet government documents… This newsworthy Book reveals the Soviet leadership as complacent, inept and out of touch with the masses.” —Publishers Weekly.
From Under the Rubble
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, et al
“A far reaching meditation on the human condition. I return to it again and again.” —John W. Sewell.
Russia’s Other Writers, Selections from Samizdat Literature
“An important contribution to the vast and continuing labor of correcting the distorted image of Soviet literature created by fifty years of suppression.” —Max Hayward.
A collection of extra research material I’ve gathered in my work on the book in PDF format.
Based upon over 100 interviews and a wealth of new sources (private diaries, unpublished letters, archives of the CIA, MI5, the French Sureté, the German and Soviet communist parties), Koestler is a nuanced account of its subject’s turbulent public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.”
Koestler is best known as the author of the classic novel, Darkness at Noon, as well as notable essays (The Yogi and the Commissar), autobiographies (Arrow in the Blue, The Invisible Writing), and scientific works (The Act of Creation, The Ghost in the Machine). He was one of the most fascinating and controversial intellectuals of his day, involved in and commenting on many seminal events of the twentieth century. Born in Budapest and educated in Vienna, he moved to Palestine in the 1920s as a committed Zionist; in the 1930s he joined the German Communist Party and travelled to the Soviet Union; as a foreign correspondent, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death in Franco’s Spain; he escaped Occupied France by joining the French Foreign Legion and in the 1940s was one of the first to warn of the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust. Having turned against communism, he gained international fame with his exposure of the show trials in Darkness of Noon. Koestler passionately opposed the death penalty but also advocated legal euthanasia, and in his later years became fascinated with parapsychology.
He began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In interwar Vienna he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer, he ran into Langston Hughes. Fighting in the Spanish civil war, he met W.H. Auden at a “crazy party” in Valencia, before winding up in one of Franco’s prisons. In Weimar Berlin he fell into the circle of the infamous Comintern agent Willi Münzenberg, through whom he met the leading German Communists of the era: Johannes Becher, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht. Afraid of being caught by the Gestapo while fleeing France, he borrowed suicide pills from Walter Benjamin. He took them several weeks later when it seemed he would be unable to get out of Lisbon, but didn’t die (though Benjamin, denied passage into Spain at the French border, took them and did).
Koestler wrote in German (the original language of “Darkness at Noon”) and English. He spoke Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and French, too. (Hebrew gave him trouble; characteristically, he blamed the language.) He was, in his own phrase, the “Casanova of causes,” from Zionism to the campaign against capital punishment, and he donated generously to many of them. He maintained lifelong relationships (including the occasional feud) with the writers, scientists, and political activists he met in the various places he visited. And he was a social and sexual torpedo. Academics generally avoided him, but he socialized and debated—alcohol, generously administered, was a necessary lubricant and invariably made him obstreperous and sometimes violent—with nearly everyone else in midcentury intellectual circles, from George Orwell and Jean-Paul Sartre to Whittaker Chambers and Timothy Leary. He was married three times, and he had literally hundreds of affairs. He was the sort of person who records his liaisons in a notebook.
Who now reads Arthur Koestler (1905-1983)? My guess: only a few people past age 50 and the occasional student of 20th-century political history. While biographer Michael Scammell argues for Koestler’s importance as a memoirist (“Arrow in the Blue” , “The Invisible Writing” ), the only book he’s still known for is “Darkness at Noon” (1940) — a novel describing how the revolutionary Rubashov is brainwashed into confessing to crimes he never committed. Everything else Koestler published now seems dated, largely forgotten or simply crackpot.
Yet, besides the novels and memoirs, that also includes moving and still provocative books on Zionism, sex, the Spanish Civil War, evolution and parapsychology. Koestler was, in fact, primarily a journalist of genius, a passionate witness to most of the political nightmares and cultural tumult of the early and mid-20th century. Along the way, he also managed to cruise the Arctic Circle in the Graf Zeppelin dirigible, spend weeks on death row in one of Generalissimo Franco’s prisons, make love to scores of women and drop acid with Timothy Leary.
History is a brutal sieve. Arthur Koestler is remembered now—if at all—for writing Darkness at Noon, a hand grenade of a novel tossed at Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin. Those 200 pages are all we retain off an intellectual nomad who stormed across the 20th century. He seems to have been everywhere, like an angry, book-spewing Zelig. Even a thumbnail summary makes me feel exhausted (deep breath): He grew up in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, witnessing revolutions and counter-revolutions. He was one of the first Zionist settlers in Palestine. He became a star in the Berlin of Sally Bowles’ cabarets and a rising Adolf Hitler. He was jailed and nearly shot by Gen. Franco. He fled the Nazis through Casablanca, Morocco. He gave Albert Camus a black eye, George Orwell a holiday home, and Soviet communism an enema. He had sex with supermodel twins, took magic mushrooms with Timothy Leary, and helped create Intelligent Design.
The opening pages of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon are thrilling to read. In a very few sentences, Koestler managed to wrap his arms around one of the huge and mysterious philosophical master-themes of the last two centuries, and, in a muscular feat of poetic compression, to reduce his giant theme to a handful of simple images:
The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.
He remained leaning against the door for a few seconds, and lit a cigarette. On the bed to his right lay two fairly clean blankets, and the straw mattress looked newly filled. The wash-basin to his left had no plug, but the trap functioned. The can next to it had been freshly disinfected, it did not smell. The walls on both sides were of solid brick, which would stifle the sound of tapping, but where the heating and drain pipe penetrated it, it had been plastered and resounded quite well; besides, the heating pipe itself seemed to be noise-conducting. The window started at eye-level.
And Rubashov observes the vista beyond the window bars: the snow, the moon, the Milky Way, a marching sentry, the yellow light of electric lanterns.
Michael Scammell’s “Koestler” is a rescue operation. Today’s well-informed reader may rightly remember Arthur Koestler as the author of the best-selling anti-Stalinist novel “Darkness at Noon” (1940) but also as a deeply flawed if not mentally unstable man who devoted his late-life energies to loopy researches into parapsychology, conducted a predatory sex life whose most distinctive feature was the rape of a good friend’s wife and, when terminally ill, persuaded his healthy middle-aged wife, Cynthia, to join him in suicide. Such, at least, was the impression left in 1998 by David Cesarani, Koestler’s previous biographer. All these and many other aspects of Koestler’s life Mr. Scammell examines carefully, enriching them with context and often pulling back from Mr. Cesarani’s harshest verdicts—for the most part, smartly and successfully.
New! 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.