Michael Dirda on Michael Scammell's 'Koestler'

(Courtesy Of Random House - Courtesy Of Random House)
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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, January 21, 2010


The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic

By Michael Scammell

Random House. 689 pp. $35

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" [1952], "The Invisible Writing" [1954] ), 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.

In every way, Dundi Dods Arthur Kosztler lived intensely. Born to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest, he grew up in cultivated and decadent Vienna. As a boy he was drawn to a career in science or engineering -- and was, as Scammell notes, perhaps the only intellectual of his time who could change a fuse. Like so many Central Europeans, the young Koestler possessed an enviable facility for languages and was thus able to work as a reporter in Palestine, France, Germany, Russia and Spain throughout the 1920s and '30s. He interviewed Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud, traveled around Central Asia with poet Langston Hughes, revered the writer-adventurer André Malraux and, when the Nazis invaded France, borrowed suicide pills from the critic Walter Benjamin. Benjamin ultimately used his, as did Koestler during a moment of desperation. But in the latter's case they upset his stomach and he vomited out the poison. Benjamin's stomach wasn't so sensitive.

After heroic efforts, Koestler eventually managed to escape to England, where he became a pal of George Orwell and turned himself into an English writer, virtually an establishment figure. During the 1940s the worldwide success of "Darkness at Noon" -- it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and an enormous bestseller in France -- made him rich, and the now former communist was able to afford a succession of homes in Paris and Austria, on the island of Ischia and in Bucks County, Pa. Koestler's postwar circle of friends was equally cosmopolitan, ranging from the existentialists Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (with whom he once spent a night) to the poets Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden to the critic Edmund Wilson and the Partisan Review crowd.

During the early 1950s, Koestler helped organize the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom (later revealed to be backed by the CIA), contributed a memoir about his disillusionment with the Party to the essay collection "The God That Failed" (1950) and spearheaded the movement to abolish the death penalty in England. But in the 1960s he grew increasingly fascinated by fringe science and wrote sympathetically about Lamarckism, ESP, levitation and psychedelic drugs. By the 1980s a man who once dueled with swords against anti-Semites in Vienna was regularly playing chess with the rising young novelist Julian Barnes. He had also joined a society espousing euthanasia and "self-deliverance." Finally, at age 77, suffering from Parkinson's disease and leukemia, Koestler successfully committed suicide, along with his two-decades-younger wife, Cynthia. She wrote that she couldn't face life without him.

Since his death Koestler's reputation has doubly faded: Not only are his books unread, but the man himself has been characterized -- by an earlier biographer -- as little more than a serial rapist and sexual bully. Despite his short stature and pugnacious look, the charismatic Koestler found it easy to pick up women, and virtually all of them agree he could be a brutal lover. Scammell does his best to explain Koestler's crass behavior as either typical of the male insensitivity of his generation or as compensation for an innate lack of self-confidence, verging on self-hatred. Maybe.

Certainly, the hard-drinking, promiscuous Koestler wasn't a happy man. Scammell relates this telling exchange between the author of "Darkness at Noon" and the author of "Nineteen Eighty-Four": George Orwell said, "When I lie in my bath in the morning, which is the best moment of the day, I think of tortures for my enemies." Koestler replied, "That's funny, because when I'm lying in my bath I think of tortures for myself."

Readers looking for a terrific biography, as well as a gripping work of intellectual history, shouldn't miss this record of "the literary and political odyssey of a 20th-century skeptic." Every page is enthralling, starting with the chapter epigraphs: "A novelist is someone who hates his mother" -- Georges Simenon; "One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life, with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, and from the fetters of one's own ever-shifting desires" -- Albert Einstein.

Of course, one expects such excellence from the multiply gifted Michael Scammell, the biographer of Solzhenitsyn, translator of Nabokov's "The Gift" (in collaboration with its famously difficult author) and the founding editor of the magazine Index on Censorship.

Koestler's friend Sartre always maintained that writers should address their own time and not worry about the judgment of posterity. Certainly, Arthur Koestler aimed in both his fiction and nonfiction to be relevant, to affect and alter the course of history. He was, as the French say, engagé, i.e. committed. As such, he identified with the tradition of social realism, once even dismissing the artsy experimental novels of Proust and Woolf. But theirs are the books that have lasted, not those powerful and occasionally tract-like works of John Dos Passos or André Malraux -- or Arthur Koestler.

In the epilogue to this work of attempted reparation, Scammell expresses the hope that it may lead new readers to Koestler's "Spanish Testament" (1937), "Scum of the Earth" (1941) and "The Yogi and the Commissar" (1945) as well as some of his later books. It would be good if this would happen, for the man was, like so many journalists, a witty and scintillating writer. But I won't be holding my breath.

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