January 11th, 2010
Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
by Michael Scammell
Random House, 689 pp., $35.00
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).
Along the way he had lunch with Thomas Mann, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, made friends with George Orwell, flirted with Mary McCarthy, and lived in Cyril Connolly’s London flat. In 1940, Koestler was released from a French detention camp, partly thanks to the intervention of Harold Nicholson and Noël Coward. In the 1950s, he helped found the Congress for Cultural Freedom, together with Mel Lasky and Sidney Hook. In the 1960s, he took LSD with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, he was still giving lectures that impressed, among others, the young Salman Rushdie.
It is difficult, in other words, to think of a single important twentieth-century intellectual who did not cross paths with Arthur Koestler, or a single important twentieth-century intellectual movement that Koestler did not either join or oppose. From progressive education and Freudian psychoanalysis through Zionism, communism, and existentialism to psychedelic drugs, parapsychology, and euthanasia, Koestler was fascinated by every philosophical fad, serious and unserious, political and apolitical, of his era.
Nor were these shallow passions. His belief in communism led him to fight in Spain and travel in the USSR. His Zionism led him to a kibbutz near Haifa. At different times, he advocated the use of violence, whether to bring about a Communist utopia or to create the state of Israel. Even when he turned against his previous causes (and against his previous friends who still believed in them) he did so with real fervor. He is, after all, best known as an anti-Communist, not as a Communist, largely because of his best and most influential book, Darkness at Noon, a fictional account of the interrogation of a leading member of an unnamed Communist party. His involvement with Revisionist Zionism is also probably less well known than The Thirteenth Tribe, a book that argues that modern European Jews are descended from the Central Asian Khazars, and not from the Jews who lived in the Palestine of antiquity—a thesis which, whatever its merits, is hugely popular among the enemies of Zionism. Even so, when in the grip of one particular mania he was incapable of seeing the counterarguments: in the face of all rational argument, he even stuck to his late passion for telepathy and ESP—so much so that he left most of his estate to fund a professorial chair in parapsychology.
Koestler was equally likely to succumb to extreme passions in his personal life—notoriously so. He was variously in thrall to Jabotinsky, to his analyst, and to an extraordinary series of women. He was also consumed by violent hatreds—starting with his mother—and pursued many vendettas, against fellow writers (he was fiercely jealous of Hemingway, loathed Bertrand Russell) as well as romantic rivals (including Edmund Wilson) and ex-husbands. Eventually, he offended almost everyone he knew, but only after getting drunk with them first.
Even his entertainments often went to extremes, as this superb new biography well illustrates. Far and away my favorite Koestler moment—in a book full of amazing Koestler moments—is Michael Scammell’s description of an evening in 1946, during which Koestler and his then girlfriend (and later wife) Mamaine Paget went out drinking with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Camus’s wife, Francine. The festivities began with dinner in an Algerian bistro, continued in a dance hall “lit with pink and blue neon lights,” and then, at Koestler’s insistence, progressed to Schéhérazade, a nightclub filled with “violinists wandering about playing soulful Russian music into the guests’ ears.” There were arguments about communism, and about friendship. “If only it were possible to tell the truth,” exclaimed Camus at one point.
At about 4 AM, Koestler was pried away from the nightclub, and the group “repaired to Chez Victor in Les Halles for onion soup, oysters, and white wine.” Roaring drunk, Koestler threw a crust of bread across the table and hit Mamaine in the eye; Sartre, equally drunk, poured salt and pepper into napkins that he put in his pocket and said he had to deliver a lecture at the Sorbonne in the morning on “The Responsibility of the Writer.” Camus said, “Well, you’ll have to speak without me” (“Alors, tu parleras sans moi “). Sartre said he wished he “could speak without me too” (“Je voudrais bien pouvoir parler sans moi “) and collapsed into giggles.
Scammell, whose fine-tuned sense of irony serves him well here, describes that evening’s conclusion:
They broke up at dawn. Alone with Sartre, Beauvoir sobbed “over the tragedy of the human condition,” then leaned on the parapet of a bridge over the Seine and said: “I don’t see why we don’t throw ourselves in the river.” “All right,” agreed Sartre, “let’s throw ourselves in,” and began to cry himself. In another part of the city, Koestler too burst into tears as he stared into the Seine. Then he disappeared into a pissoir and shouted to Mamaine, “Don’t leave me, I love you, I’ll always love you.” They got home at about eight o’clock and slept all day, except for Sartre, who stuffed himself with pep pills and dragged himself off to the Sorbonne to give his lecture. It wasn’t possible even for an existentialist to address the students “sans moi.”
Leaving aside its entertainment value, that particular passage raises some interesting questions. We are not so many years removed from 1946, in the grand scheme of things. Yet much has changed since then, starting with the rules of acceptable public behavior. It is simply not possible to imagine any three prominent contemporary American public intellectuals—say, Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, and David Brooks—indulging in a night on the town such as that one, let alone weeping over the human condition and threatening to throw themselves into the Seine at the end of it. Hollywood starlets and pseudo-celebrities behave that way in our culture, not serious people.
More to the point, Koestler was, in our contemporary definition of these things, an alcoholic, as were many of the people around him. He was also, in our contemporary definition of these things, a sexual predator. He was blatantly unfaithful to all of his three wives, as well as to the other women he lived with. He flirted outrageously, and sometimes aggressively, with other men’s wives too. Just a few days before the evening at Schéhérazade and Chez Victor, Koestler actually went to bed with Simone de Beauvoir.
David Cesarani, a previous biographer of Koestler, has even described him as a “serial rapist.” Scammell disputes that accusation at some length. In the end, only one woman—Jill Craigie, the wife of the British Labour leader Michael Foot—ever actually accused him of rape, and there are some ambiguities about her story. She made the charge when she was in her eighties, and Koestler was dead. Others, including her husband, remembered the incident differently. Scammell notes these discrepancies, and convincingly dismisses some of Cesarani’s other accusations as unfounded. He also notes that the charge has nevertheless deeply tarnished Koestler’s posthumous reputation. This is not at all surprising. Even if “rape” is not the right word, some of the sexual behavior Scammell describes would, in the contemporary world, be considered absolutely beyond the pale—and probably illegal as well.
Nor are the rules of public behavior the only things that have changed. The professionalization of literary and intellectual life was underway even in Koestler’s lifetime, and he chafed against it. He disliked the lecture circuit and never had any real interest in teaching. He had very little time for universities in general. He also refused to be categorized as a simple “novelist” or “journalist,” and in the latter part of his career wrote books about science, philosophy, history, and psychology. He understood the term “intellectual” in a much broader sense than we do today, and felt comfortable ranging over a huge number of fields in which he had no professional expertise whatsoever. This approach to the life of the mind, perfectly acceptable in the Vienna of Koestler’s youth, simply looks amateurish from the perspective of the present. As a result, many of his later books have slipped off the radar and are long out of print. Others, notably The Thirteenth Tribe, are considered curiosities that appeal to conspiracy theorists, not scholars.
The most important change, however, is political. To put it bluntly, the deadly struggle between communism and anticommunism—the central moral issue of Koestler’s lifetime—not only no longer exists, it no longer evokes much interest. Thanks to the opening of archives, quite a few Western historians are, it is true, still investigating the history of the Soviet Union and of the international Communist movement. But outside of a few university comparative literature departments, Soviet-style Marxism itself is not a living political idea anywhere in the West. In the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash in the autumn of 2008, there were calls for a government bailout of the auto industry. No one—no major newspaper columnists, no leading politicians, no popular intellectual magazines—called upon the vanguard of the proletariat to rise up and overthrow the bourgeois capitalist exploiters. In the Europe of 1948, somebody would have done so.
What that means, though, is that the entire political context in which Koest- ler, Sartre, and Camus functioned—and in which Koestler’s most important works were written—is now gone. In the years following their debauched evening in Paris, Sartre and Koestler actually stopped speaking to each other. Partly this was personal: Sartre tried to seduce Mamaine, Koestler did seduce Beauvoir, and there were bad feelings all around. But the more important reason was political. After Darkness at Noon became a best seller in France, Sartre distanced himself from its author, on the grounds that Koestler, by publicizing the crimes of the repressive Soviet regime, was putting himself at the service of American imperialism and blocking the progress of the left. It was not that Sartre did not know about the horrors Koestler described—the prisons, the torture, and the labor camps of the Soviet Union—it was that he did not find them politically convenient. They gave too much encouragement to the bourgeoisie.
What was true of Sartre was true of many, many others, and not only those on the far left. In his superb recent account of the publication of Darkness at Noon and its impact on the Western public, Princeton literary scholar John Fleming writes that any appreciation of the heated international debate about the book “requires the reconstruction of some modes of thought nearly vanished from the earth.” Concepts like “belief” and “faith” do not figure very often anymore in contemporary Western politics—and even when they do (as perhaps they did in the 2008 American presidential election) they are almost always a preface to disillusion. In the 1930s and 1940s, by contrast, belief and faith mattered a great deal, and true Communists and fellow travelers did not become disillusioned. They simply altered their analysis of the current situation, put their trust in the ultimate wisdom of the Party, and progressed onward toward the construction of utopia.
Koestler had an almost unique ability to shake such people to their foundations. Unlike right-wing and even liberal critics of communism, he had a certain status on the cultural left. He was a victim of fascism, an ex-refugee, a familiar face in Comintern circles, a former combatant in the Spanish civil war. His devastating critique of the Soviet Union therefore had to be taken seriously by his former comrades. To some of them, he was a heretic, a defector, a traitor to the cause. To others, he became a hero.
As for Darkness at Noon, it was not just a popular book, it was one of the primary reasons that the Communist Party never came to power in France, a real possibility at the time. Hard though it is for us now to imagine, it was not at all obvious, in 1946 or even 1956, that Western Europe and the United States would remain solidly united for fifty years. Nor did it seem at all inevitable that the West would win the cold war. Along with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, Darkness at Noon was one of the books that helped turn the tide on the intellectual front line, and ensured that the West prevailed. But unless one understands all of that, the political and literary achievements of Arthur Koestler are, to a contemporary reader, easily outweighed by the extravagance of his sexual and personal transgressions.
For all of those reasons, Michael Scammell cannot have found this an easy book to write, and indeed it took him a very long time to write it. Scammell is the author of the definitive and deservedly celebrated biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, published in 1984. A few years after it was finished, he set out to follow up with a biography of Koestler. This turned out to be a major feat of endurance scholarship. By his own admission, he “followed [Koestler] to fourteen countries on three continents,” interviewed hundreds of people, and read through many boxes of archives. This effort has certainly paid off.
Because he has looked at all possible forms of documentation, he is able to reconstruct complicated scenes from Koestler’s life with real historical and literary flair. More than once, he tells us what is happening from several perspectives: what Koestler said, what Koestler’s then girlfriend said, what another person at the party remembered twenty years later, and how another writer depicted the event in his diaries. Scammell is also a scholar of Russian literature, and this shows too. Although this is a long book, it feels compact. None of the carefully selected details or quotations seems extraneous. The main characters are shown from every angle, with all of their faults and virtues. Koestler himself seems at times so alive he might leap off the page.
And yet the passage of time is a problem, if not for Scammell then for his readers. An elderly Central European acquaintance recently told me that in his youth, nothing was considered so tacky and outdated as art nouveau furniture. Something similar has happened to Koestler. At the moment, he still seems like yesterday’s man, unfashionable and obsolete. His better qualities might eventually be visible to a younger generation, just as an elegantly restored art nouveau table now appeals to collectors and connoisseurs. But a good deal of historical and literary work will have to be done, and more time may have to pass, before that is possible.
In the case of Koestler, a number of other things are also working against his posthumous reputation. One of these is the nature of his death, a double suicide, carried out in tandem with his wife. Koestler himself was seventy-seven years old and dying of leukemia. But his wife, Cynthia, was fifty-five and healthy. Unlike his previous wives, she was neither beautiful nor accomplished. She had been his secretary—in effect his servant—before they were married. Above all he admired her ability to take dictation. Though it seems that in the last part of their lives the power balance between them evened out, and though it is very clear that she was in full possession of her faculties at the time—she even had the presence of mind to cancel the newspapers—it is impossible to escape the suspicion that somehow, in an effort to achieve a spectacular grand finale, he bullied her into killing herself alongside him.
Cynthia’s death was not only distasteful to the public, it left Koestler’s literary estate without an obvious manager. Having persuaded numerous women to have abortions, he had no children, with the possible exception of one unacknowledged daughter (who had nothing to do with him, or he with her). By the time of his death he had fallen out with those of his contemporaries who were still alive. Most of his later books were financially and critically unsuccessful. His final legacy, that gift of money for the study of parapsychology, didn’t exactly enhance his reputation either. Nor did he have, as Orwell did, an obvious national audience. As a Hungarian Jew and native German speaker who wrote in English, he isn’t a natural part of anybody’s literary canon. There is an Orwell Society at Eton, but I doubt very much that there is a Koestler Society at any school in Budapest.
As a result, Koestler’s reputation has waned dramatically since his death. Although Darkness at Noon remains high on lists of “great books of the twentieth century,” his journalism, which in its time was at least as significant as that of Orwell, is hardly known at all. Before coming to write this review, I had not read Scum of the Earth, Koestler’s autobiographical and journalistic account of the fate of refugees in wartime France. I can’t remember anybody ever telling me to read it either. But because Scammell praises it, and because Scum of the Earth is still in print, I bought a copy. It was a revelation: astonishingly fresh, clear, and relevant, not only explaining the rapid collapse of France in 1940, but also illuminating some of the difficulties that France and other European countries still have in absorbing “foreigners” even today. After I’d finished, I lent the book to somebody else. And this, it occurred to me, is how a literary reputation revives.
Scammell has clearly set out to make this happen, and in that sense, this is more than a biography. It is an argument in defense of Koestler’s literary oeuvre, if not entirely in defense of Koestler himself. Scammell does not make excuses for his subject, and does not gloss over his many faults. But by recreating the historical setting in which Koestler lived and worked, by fitting him squarely in the middle of the great debates of the twentieth century, he makes his achievements much clearer to a contemporary reader—and thus there is a chance, at least, that he will succeed.
David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (London: Heineman, 1998).
John V. Fleming, The Anti-Communist Manifestos ( Norton, 2009), p. 65.
Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (Norton, 1984).