Michael Scammell came to the Prague book fair with two seemingly related tasks – to speak about his biography of Arthur Koestler, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic, and to participate in a panel on Index on Censorship, of which he was the founding editor. And while issues of censorship and state oppression no longer play a role in this city he first visited in 1967 at the height of the Prague Spring, Scammell acknowledged that the writer in him is well aware of the significance that Central and Eastern Europe’s troubled history has played in generating its tremendous literary output.
“A lot of intellectual ideas are generated by struggle,” Scammell said, adding that the subject of his previous work, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, provides a compelling individual example of where struggle might be necessary for a writer.
“In some ways, not all ways, censorship was good for his writing. It concentrated it. Until he was put in jail of course – that’s too much censorship,” he said. “In his later work when he was no longer under censorship he, to my mind, became too wordy.”
There is no question that today Koestler is known more as a name, as a part of history, than for what he actually wrote, with the sole exception of Darkness at Noon. Having left Slavic studies, Scammell now teaches nonfiction writing at Columbia University in New York, and it is through these eyes that he sees Koestler’s significance. “I think he’s a first-rate writer of non-fiction. He is trapped by the fact that a lot of people say that he is only famous for his anti-communism and we don’t have to read him for anything else.”
Scammell sees the critical misjudgment primarily in viewing Koestler as a novelist when he only wrote one novel of real distinction, and that his nonfictional, autobiographical work such as Dialogue with Death, Scum of the Earth, Invisible Writing, Arrow In The Blue and other assorted essays stand as his real achievement.
Koestler is hardly the only Central European intellectual to suffer from the tendency to reduce a writer’s work to its political dimension. In many ways, one of the casualties of the Cold War was the very existence of a non-political critical faculty.
Scammell thinks that the heavy emphasis on the political aspects of writing from the former Eastern Bloc is not nearly as imbalanced as it once was. As an example he cites the current prominence of Milan Kundera. Now known as one of the great proponents of untethering artistic creation from the political causes and circumstances surrounding it, it was only after going into exile in France that the Czech writer was able to make his views more widely known.
“I met Kundera when he first came out of the country and we all thought he was another oppositionist,” Scammell said.
Considering the current upheaval taking place in the Arab world and the fact that Arab writing was the focus of the Prague book fair where the interview was taking place, I asked whether Arab writers were not bound to go through the same process of more openly political writing receiving preference in the eyes of western readers, while other forms of fiction get pushed in the background.
Scammell compared the phenomenon to the beginning of his own literary and intellectual career in having learned Russian during his two years of obligatory military service in the British Army.
“Now the reason [for learning Russian] was military, but in fact we learned a lot about Russian culture. People like myself became professors of Russian literature and we taught Pushkin, Lermontov and Bulgakov – and the same was true in America. We were part of that wave that welcomed Solzhenitsyn and [Vladimir] Maximov, and later on, Havel here.
And I’m sure that’s happening with Arab writers, but at the same time it opens it up. And the hope is that it begins there and that there will then be a readership for other work.”
Scammell is also hoping that his biography will help open up a readership for Koestler’s nonfiction work as well, and plans to hold talks with the agents who handle the writer’s literary legacy to look into republishing the essays that have fallen into an unjustified eclipse.