When Arthur Koestler and Rebecca West died within days of one another, the muses of high journalism must have gone into deep mourning. For these two, the Hungarian-born wanderer and the rooted Englishwoman, were among the royalty of the craft.
Both of them wrote better than people should be allowed to write. They were natural reporters, with that unfailing eye for the essential, telling detail that distinguishes description from laundry lists and catalogs.
Here, for instance, is West at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, noticing Hermann Goering's "soft and white and spongy hands." The courtroom, she says, "was full of Goering's fingers . . . weaving impudent gestures of innocence in the air."
Possibly the wittiest writer of her time, Rebecca West loved the sly twist. She is writing, for instance, about a celebrated English murder trial, and an eccentric English barrister, Mr. Christmas Humphreys, questioning a man accused of brutal murder and mayhem: "(He) asked him . . . whether he had not taken a blond girl called Teresa out to a nightclub and paid the bill with a rubber check . . . (suggesting) that this was the kind of thing that stabbing and cutting up people led to if done too often."
Koestler was a more cerebral writer, and his word play not quite in West's class. But it could be sharp. Reminiscing on his youthful pioneering days in a Palestinian kvutsa (rural commune), he recalled that its cloistered life eventually domesticated the inhabitants entirely: "They resembled habitu,es of tuberculosis sanatoria who, like birds with clipped wings, never stray far from protective shelter."
They were, of course, more than stylists. Both Koestler and West saw deeply to the peculiar distresses of their time. And what they saw, from two utterly different starts, was much the same-- an age stirred like an anthill, confused about its loyalties. Koestler at length went back to his original journalistic specialty, science; but it was his evocative writing on Central Europe's halfhearted romance with communism ("The God That Failed") that will be read for a long time to come.
In America, Rebecca West is best remembered, and justly so, for her brilliant book, "The Meaning of Treason," which scrutinized that recurrent problem as tellingly as it could be done. In the early 1960s, she went back to the subject and found that there had been a certain deterioration in the quality of treason.
Once it had been idealistic--perversely so, in the case of Lord Haw-Haw and others of the World War II vintage of Nazi collaborators; now it had become another symptom of bureaucracy, overpopulation and moral confusion: "The existence of a huge accumulation of unguarded secret documents extends the same invitation to thievery as the huge number of automobiles which have to be left in the street because their owners cannot buy garage space," she observed. So in the "new age of treason," the offenders tended to be "people who have no ideological interests at all but who have rejected all moral taboos and will pursue any prohibited activity, provided it brings them sufficient reward in money, power or security."
How keen that diagnosis was we have seen in practically every security-breach trial of recent note. For it usually appears that simple greed, not zeal for a treasonable cause, has provided the motive.
What, then, was their secret?
Both Koestler and West understood a distinction often clouded in workaday journalism: the distinction between the News and the Story. Modern electronic conveniences have provided us a 24-hour blizzard of "news"--X did this, or said this, to Y--so that unsorted information piles up in huge drifts. Most of us, most of the time, are scrambling to make some sense of it. We know the news, too much of it usually. But what is the story?
Journalism (this is our dirty little secret, perhaps) is really just another branch of storytelling. It is a business of finding themes and patterns, many of them arbitrary, that seem to make sense of events.
Koestler and West were extraordinary storytellers. The story might be, as he once said, that of "a mass migration of the sons and daughters of the European bourgeoisie trying to escape from the collapsing world of their parents." Or it might be, for her, the intricate world of treason. But in whatever form or variation they told their stories, they gave shape to the news and helped us see a baffling world with fresh eyes.