Arthur Koestler: 20th Century Man

It is “best reads of the year” time, so for this Best Reads I am writing about one of the best books I read in 2011.

Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell (The US edition is titled Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic)

In the early decades of the 20th century there was no shortage of calls for a “new man” to emerge. The New Soviet man, the “virile” new man of Fascism and Nazism’s blond beast have all faded into the realm of warped and misguided fantasy. Not only do these types no longer exist, they never really existed at all, however much there were moments where it must have seemed they were coming into being.

Yet there was another type of person, a real-life contemporary to these mad scientist experiments, that has fallen into virtual extinction: the cosmopolitan Central European intellectual, in fact, the very type of person all these totalitarian creatures found most threatening. And one of the last and most enigmatic examples of that type was Arthur Koestler, who died at his London home by suicide on March 3, 1983 and who has finally been granted an account of his life worthy of its inherent complexity.

Koestler’s life and work cannot be summarized in a short review. You should read the biography and, of course, the work itself. It is impressive that in this book of almost 600 pages there is no fluff, no extended information on early childhood that nobody needs to know or rushes through to get to the parts that feel relevant to the mature writer and thinker. From his youth we get the key issues of language (for example, that German was his mother tongue though he knew his multiplication tables initially only in Hungarian), his love of reading and his inclination for science that was to play such an important role at various points in his life.

In Budapest in the decade before World War I, anti-Semitism was already a significant presence and Scammell shows the traces it left in his subject’s later unwillingness to identify himself as Jewish at all, not to mention his extremely controversial book on Judaism, The Thirteenth Tribe, in which Koestler postulated that European Jews actually descend from the mass conversion of the Khazar peoples.

For the totalitarian regimes Koestler’s destiny would be so intimately linked with the term cosmopolitan was unambiguously negative. For the Soviets it became a euphemism for Jews, a way to make anti-Semitic aspersions without sounding like Nazis. For those, on the other hand, who respect the intellectual accomplishments of the type of Central European writer and thinker of which Koestler was a prime example, the term is naturally considered a compliment. After all, it implies a grasp of numerous languages, the experience of living in many of the great metropolises of Europe and beyond, of having an outlook that is the opposite of the narrow focus of the specialist.

For Koestler though, particularly when he was young, his cosmopolitan background was a more ambivalent experience, being more the result of his father’s wildly fluctuating business fortunes that had their family not only crossing between countries and languages but between different economic levels and drastically different social situations. During his youth Koestler experienced both postwar luxury in Vienna as well as Béla Kun’s short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, his early life foreshadowing the ideological leaps and breaks the mature Koestler would make later on his own volition.

Scammell’s book doesn’t aim to substitute for Koestler’s own extensive autobiographical writings. In an interview I did with him earlier this year Scammell stressed that it is Koestler’s non-fiction that marks him as a major writer more than the one great novel for which he is generally cited, Darkness at Noon. What this biography does though is trace the extensive influences that went on to form Koestler’s encyclopedic mind, from the cultural giants of the capital of Central Europe such as Karl Kraus and Otto Weininger, to Koestler’s experience with Zionism, to the ways Koestler’s reading of Dostoevsky and contact with the Russian language paved the way for his interest in and enthusiasm for the newly formed Soviet Union.

For how closely Scammell follows Koestler’s intellectual development he is just as thorough keeping track of his means of earning a living, his cast of lovers and friends. He even keeps tabs on the young and often despondent writer’s suicide attempts. Some of the most fascinating pages in the book are devoted to unfinished projects and roads not taken, such as the bizarre idea to write a sequel to Jaroslav Hašek’s Czech classic The Good Soldier Švejk called The Good Soldier Schweik Goes to War Again (nixed by the Communist Party for its pacifism) or his attempt to make money by writing thrillers.

It was his experiences in The Spanish Civil War that made Koestler famous worldwide, and Scammell insists that it was Spain that forged Koestler’s philosophy and mature writing style:

“Málaga was the first of at least a dozen cells that Koestler was to occupy over the next five years, marking the start of a precipitous descent into the twilight world of ideological outcasts and political prisoners that would define his outlook for the rest of his life.”

From this point on Koestler’s writing gains a harder edge, starting with Dialogue with Death, his work no longer corrupted by ideology. It wouldn’t be long before he resigned from the Communist Party, leaving himself in a kind of limbo, a searcher for utopias without a clear belief. Koestler described himself as feeling like an “unfrocked priest.”

The outbreak of World War II and internment of German and Austrian refugees along with undesirable aliens led to Koestler’s confinement France’s Le Vernet internment camp. Upon his release and return to Paris, and with the German army about to invade the country, Koestler and his latest amour, English sculptor Daphne Hardy, holed themselves up in their seventh floor apartment and sped through work on finishing the novel and English translation of Darkness at Noon:

“Rarely can a major novel have been written at such breakneck speed or under such conditions of chaos and fear, with arrest and persecution a palpable threat and whole chapters written inside a concentration camp. No wonder it reeked so claustrophobically of prison and paranoia, and no wonder Koestler entered so effortlessly into the thoughts and dreams of a trapped official doomed to execution.”

Though Koestler’s subsequent novels never reached the level of Darkness at Noon, Scammell mines them for numerous interesting intersections with their author’s intellectual and political preoccupations, as well as the fact that he wrote them in a third language, English, an extraordinary feat which has been taken far too little note of. The postwar years brought Koestler into contact with the French existentialists, an encounter that took place across café tables in Montparnasse, in journals, and in one memorable night of heavy drinking, dancing and furtive smooching at a Paris nightclub (the affairs that grew out of it were between Camus and Koestler’s then lover Mamaine Paget, as well as a brief and cold one-night stand between Koestler and Simone de Beauvoir).

Another fascinating episode is Koestler’s return to Berlin with the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1950. It was the site of his conversion to communism and now he was returning to the former German capital as the ideology’s bitter opponent. Darkness at Noon had made him famous in the US for the past decade but the book had continued to be banned in Germany due to the unwillingness of the British authorities to offend the Soviets. The German edition finally appeared in 1949. The conference took place during extreme heightening of Cold War tensions, with its opening day coinciding with North Korea’s invasion of the South.

Even as he grew older and his literary skills waned Koestler remained ahead of his time, his later work moving into Eastern religions and psychedelic drugs before they became counterculture staples. In examining Koestler’s interest in paranormal phenomena, Scammell connects his most obscure and questionable claims with the same basic questions that had occupied Koestler from the beginning and whose roots could be found in dramatic form in Darkness at Noon and Dialogue with Death.

Because Koestler lived through such varied experiences, was in contact with so many of the significant intellectual and artistic figures of the 20th century  and confronted so many of the ideas that made their way through those tumultuous times, reading this biography is much more than just reading about an individual’s life.

Photos (all courtesy of faber and faber) – 1) Arthur Koestler in hiding at Adrienne Monier’s apartment in Paris in May 1940, 2) Cover of UK edition, photo by Pat English, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, 3) Michael Scammell, photo by Stephen Scammell

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Categories: Best Reads, Book Reviews


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2 Comments on “Arthur Koestler: 20th Century Man”

  1. 10/12/2011 at 8:53 am #

    This review comes just in time for me. Koestler is a writer I’ve been meaning to explore and I wasn’t aware of this biography. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’m slightly more familiar with the Koestler of the paranormal years but I need to read Darkness at Noon.
    I don’t know why he reminds me of Mircea Eliade. Perhaps because of the term “Cosmopolitan Central European intellectual”, I suppose. For me Eliade is one of the greatest examples of that kind of person.


  1. Arthur Koestler, Kim Philby and the myth of gradual progress | literalab - 02/01/2012

    […] life. Yet the example he chooses to represent a more typical “discontinuity” is the life of Arthur Koestler, a restless, multilingual, ideologically and intellectually inquisitive wanderer who was so […]

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