Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
by Michael Scammell
Reviewed by Nicholas Fraser
The best and bravest reporters are expected to perform heroic feats on our behalf. They risk their lives for small amounts of money, and their reward is to see their work ranked as ephemera. Journalists react in different ways to this career dilemma -- by drinking too much, by abandoning journalism entirely in favor of more esteemed literary activity, or by venturing onto the shaky, overused bridge that separates the habit of reporting from the act of changing the world. Arthur Koestler, who described his work as "the subjective pursuit of objective truth," resorted at various moments to each of these expedients. Throughout a long career, from the collapse of the old Central Europe after the First World War to his suicide in 1983, Koestler was always curious, always exploring, and often, too, seeking to alter the way we see things.
When he was a Communist propagandist, Koestler resorted to lies on the grounds that the cause was a good one, but he displayed other compensating virtues for which he should be remembered and cherished. He was always ready to acknowledge that he had been wrong; indeed, his career was based on the acceptance of error. And he was without doubt among the great campaigners of his time. Koestler fought against the evils of Stalinism long before doing so was fashionable, against Nazism, against British officials who callously restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Later he began his own efforts in favor of freedom of speech, funding out of his royalties indigent authors exiled from Communist Europe. His campaign in Britain against the barbarity of hanging helped shift opinion against the death penalty, and he was an inspired proponent of penal reform, sponsoring a prize for prisoners who produced works of art. He was in favor of what he called "self-deliverance" -- the right to end one's life, which he and his wife exercised together, in a last act that tarnished his reputation yet was consistent with his views.
In his new biography, Michael Scammell rightly identifies as Koestler's finest work his early, unadorned prose rather than the often-patchy novels of ideas, or even the marvelously crafted but somewhat contrived volumes of autobiography, written in the 1950s from the perspective of relative comfort and diminished anguish. It helps that Scammell, a biographer of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the founding editor of Index on Censorship, is himself no mean reporter. Without ever minimizing Koestler's inadequacies, Scammell performs a much-needed act of restoration, separating the rumors surrounding Koestler's private life from what can reasonably be known. Most important for the reader, he conveys the aggressive brio of Koestler's story and the sheer excitement of his reportorial adventures in the twentieth century.
Koestler once described himself as a "Casanova of Causes." It would be fairer to call him a volte-face artist, who walked tightropes between precarious places and created drama out of sudden switches of belief. To be a skeptic, Koestler's career would seem to suggest, you have to change your mind, not once or twice but continuously. As a young man, he became in quick succession a Zionist, a believer in liberal scientific progress, and a Communist, dumping these belief systems as rapidly as he had acquired them. Koestler's previous biographer, David Cesarani, who appears neither to like his subject nor able to understand the compulsions that drove him, takes Koestler to task for being "the classic homeless mind: the emigre in search of roots, the secular skeptic yearning for a faith and a Messiah." And Koestler was indeed an exile who shifted from country to country as he acquired and shed allegiances. Scammell, however, finds much to admire in Koestler's twists and turns. Compared with his contemporary Whittaker Chambers, whom he admired, Koestler seems an altogether larger figure -- not a man waylaid, fallen in among ideological thieves, but a failed utopian, a combatant for the collective good who doubts his causes even as he chooses once again to enter the lists.
Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905, into a well-off Jewish family. He witnessed his first revolution at the age of thirteen, when the Hungarian middle class was destroyed by the brief Communist regime of Bela Kun and thugs known as Lenin Boys roamed the countryside. He became a Zionist in response to anti-Semitism at Vienna University, and he abandoned his studies and his career as a student fencer, fleeing to Palestine under the influence of the hard-line Zionist Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Perhaps inevitably, Koestler didn't like the dour Israeli settlers very much, and Palestine seemed to him a backwater. Paris, where he frequented brothels while working nights as a junior correspondent, reading European newspapers in search of copy, was more to his satisfaction, as was Berlin, to which he was summoned by the liberal Ullstein Press, becoming a science reporter and editor at the age of twenty-five.
Had Koestler lived in other, less crisis-ridden times, one could imagine him sticking to his well-paid job, driving around Weimar Berlin in his red Fiat, in search of sex. But restlessness and a sense that civilization was doomed drove him toward the Communist Party, and in 1932 he wangled a trip across Russia in order to write propaganda for the Soviet government. Crisscrossing the Soviet Union by rail, he visited the usual power stations, but he also witnessed the famine induced by collectivization and attended an early show trial.
Although Koestler was already a non-believer when he returned from the Soviet Union, he remained a member of the Communist Party throughout the Spanish Civil War with what appeared to be the reasonable justification that the Soviet Union alone opposed fascism. He went twice to Spain, first to Madrid as a propagandist for a Communist organization, then to Seville as a journalist for the British News Chronicle. Whether motivated by curiosity or sheer perverseness, he stayed behind when the city fell, and he was arrested and dispatched to Franco's Death Row. In Dialogue with Death, Koestler describes awaiting his fate at the hands of a firing squad. He thought about the books he'd half read and the ideas that gave some comfort, such as "Freud's theories about death and the nostalgia for death," thereby "merging my individual misery with the biological misery of the universe." Thus equipped, Koestler split his consciousness in two, as though observing a stranger. "The consciousness sees to it that its complete annihilation is never experienced," he concludes, with a degree of self-removal as admirable as it is eerie. "It does not divulge the secret of its existence and its decay. No-one is allowed to look into the darkness with his eyes open; he is blindfolded beforehand."
Any vestigial belief that the Soviet Union might represent the human future, however, was destroyed by the Hitler-Stalin pact. Darkness at Noon, Koestler's greatest book, was finished against the clock of history, in Paris and in a French concentration camp where he was interned as an illegal alien. The book opens with an explicit comparison between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. It ends with the execution of the Old Bolshevik Rubashov at the bottom of a spiral staircase, his pince-nez splintered and fallen to the ground. Darkness at Noon has been presented to generations of students as a canonical anti-Communist text, but, as Scammell adroitly shows, it is another Good-Bye to All That, a still-young man's farewell not just to Stalinism but to the great experiments of the twentieth century -- indeed, to any species of illusion. If you didn't believe in utopia, Koestler now reasoned, the privileging of ends over means could have no justification. And if there were no ends left to humanity -- this was certainly what Koestler continued to believe, for the rest of his life -- where did that leave us all?
In the short term, Koestler's life was dominated by more mundane questions -- Where and with whom should he live? Infatuated early on with the charmingly archaic mentality that still prevailed in Britain (when interned once again as an illegal alien, he was intrigued that British prisons were, unlike Franco's, without toilets, so that inmates were obliged to "slop out" each morning), Koestler soon saw that he could never really become English. He complained about the climate, the food; and he lamented the fact that Brits didn't understand or buy his books. Although one prominent critic dismissed Koestler on the grounds that one could never imagine him writing with passion about the distinctively British pastime of gardening, his work was accepted with alacrity where it mattered. As the editor of Horizon, Cyril Connolly published Koestler's work before Koestler could speak the English that became -- after Hungarian, German, Hebrew, French, and Russian -- his sixth language. (An omission of Scammell's otherwise admirably detailed book is a consideration of the degree to which Koestler's English-speaking girlfriends assisted him. Darkness at Noon was brilliantly translated from the German by his companion at the time, Daphne Hardy.) "I am not a friend of Koestler's," the tolerant, clubbable aesthete Connolly told Edmund Wilson. "As a person I think he is insupportable (like Marx). . . . Like everyone who talks of ethics all day one could not trust him half an hour with one's wife, one's best friend, one's manuscripts or one's wine merchant -- he'd lose them all. He burns with the envious paranoiac hunger of the Central European ant-heap, he despises everyone and can't conceal the fact when he is drunk, yet I believe he is probably one of the most powerful forces for good in the country."
It seems that Koestler had the run of the many available women in wartime London alert to the charms of a small, stocky, and pugilistic Hungarian who was relentless in the pursuit of sexual enjoyment. "I got you to allow me to make love with you by the usual old tricks and cunning," he wrote to Mamaine Paget, an important conquest who would later become his wife. "Without an element of initial rape there is no delight." In Mamaine he found a half-French beauty, a cultivated and congenial woman. Together they went to France, to Israel, and then to the United States. In postwar Paris, he and Mamaine went cafe-crawling with Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Although Beauvoir later described Koestler as "vain and full of self-importance," a less unsympathetic characterization is to be found in her Left Bank sex-and-the-philosophe roman a clef, The Mandarins. Here the narrator, clearly based on Beauvoir, recounts a hideous, alcohol-fueled one-night stand between herself and an anti-Communist Russian novelist named Victor Scriassine. "I had pity as much for him as for myself," the narrator concludes in true existentialist style. "Both of us were equally lost, equally disillusioned."
By the late 1940s, Koestler couldn't have remained outside the squabbles that divided postwar Europe, even if he had wanted to. When Darkness at Noon(elegantly retitled Le Zero et l'infini) was published to great acclaim in 1945, the novelist Francois Mauriac suggested that the book had won the election for the anti-Communist right. Koestler's fate was to be courted for his anti-Communism by those who didn't share his view of the world, and, predictably, to be reviled by Communist hacks. He was now faced with a dilemma -- should he moderate his tone, thereby becoming less unattractive to potential supporters of the independent, non-Communist left that he wished to create? As one would expect, he proved to be incapable of moderation. During a 1950 meeting of the newly created CIA front Congress for Cultural Freedom, held in occupied Berlin, Koestler told a crowd of intellectuals assembled from Europe and the United States that it was idiotic to preach "neutrality towards the bubonic plague." To the growing number who shared his loathing of Stalinism, Koestler's ardor was thrilling. But it was easy for Communist propagandists to portray him as a zealot. And Koestler alienated the squeamish -- among them such Oxford intellectuals as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper -- who now depicted the Congress as split between those, led by Koestler, "who, in order to combat totalitarianism, employ the same weapons as the totalitarians," and the "good European democrats" capable of expressing themselves more mildly.
Things were no better in the United States, to which Koestler repaired in 1950, buying a dilapidated farm where he and Mamaine struggled to cut the grass and squabbled with their liberal neighbors. Unwisely, he was outspoken when it came to giving advice to Washington apparatchiks, and the CIA men preferred to spend their money cautiously, on people whom they believed they could control. But Koestler continued to bombard them with proposals. It was his idea that the West should sponsor broadcasts to Eastern Europe, and it was he who first arranged funding for emigre writers, making money available to translate dissident works.
Amid so much activity, however, it is impossible not to sense a new, more boorish Koestler, domineering and intolerant toward those who didn't share his views. He was prone to ever-greater bouts of depression and manic rants. His two-volume autobiography is filled with personal detail, but it remains oddly impersonal -- by now Koestler's idea of himself as a Central European Augie March, in hopeful search of the next utopian solution and doomed to be speedily disillusioned, was fixed. Often the autobiographical books seem designed to conceal as much as they reveal. During the account of his railway trips across Soviet Russia, he recalls his seduction and betrayal to the secret police of Nadeshda Smirnova, a beautiful young woman of upper-class origins whom he encountered on a train. Koestler's description of the affair veers between boastfulness and self-hatred. "During my seven years in the Communist Party, the only person whom I denounced or betrayed was Nadeshda, and she was the person dearer to me than anybody during those seven years," he concludes, rather unconvincingly. "It is no exaggeration when I say that I would have died for her readily and with a glow of joy." But Koestler is honest enough to tell us that, whether she was murdered by Stalin's goons or not, Nadeshda's own parting gift to him was a bad case of gonorrhea.
Koestler's marriage was finally broken by Mamaine's persistent ill health and what she characterized, no doubt accurately, as his inability to love anyone, including himself. (He was already sleeping with his secretary -- the painfully shy Cynthia, who would eventually become his third wife -- enjoying what Scammell characterizes as a "sado-masochistic relationship" with her.) When Mamaine died of asthma two years after they finally separated in 1952, Koestler appeared heartbroken. "I killed her through blindness of the heart," he wrote in his diary. During this period of his life, however, he was also filling his diary with lists of conquests: "5 new Helenas during 5 week stay...Indian summer?" It is hard to imagine that the somewhat abrupt Koestler style of seduction would find so many takers these days. "He wouldn't tolerate any change of position, or, God forbid, let the woman go on top," one of the Helenas, interviewed in old age, recalled. After nearly fifty years of saying nothing, the filmmaker wife of a socialist politician told David Cesarani that Koestler had raped her following a Hampstead pub lunch. It was this encounter that led Cesarani to conclude that rape was "almost a hallmark of his conduct." Scammell contends that Koestler's alleged rapes were no more than what might be expected from a time in which male sexual aggression was more readily tolerated: "According to popular belief, it was a man's prerogative to press his claims by all possible means and a woman's duty to put up a show of resistance even if she was willing, so the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred." One can be sympathetic with Scammell's efforts while not quite accepting his conclusions. Far from clearing Koestler, or making him more sympathetic, he contributes to a bleak portrait of a man who needed women but persistently maltreated them.
George Orwell, who liked Koestler and was profoundly influenced by him, brutally reviewed one of Koestler's less successful novels in 1944, complaining of "a hedonistic strain in his writings," and suggesting that "his failure to find a political position after breaking with Stalinism is a result of this." Orwell was a bit of a prude (his Keep the Aspidistra Flying was a paean to domestic making-do), and by "hedonistic" he may merely have been expressing a mild distaste for Koestler's sensualism. But it seems equally probable that the pragmatically British Orwell wished his friend would adopt a like-it-or-lump-it, stiff-upper-lip attitude toward social democracy, instead of vainly casting about for answers to the problems of his time. Koestler was thin-skinned, and he took Orwell's criticisms personally. "He can't really have liked me. Twice he mentions hedonism. . . . [I am] a bitter man, a tortured mind -- but not a twisted one," he wrote in his diary twenty-five years later, revealing a frightening measure of self-knowledge.
Koestler's attitudes toward his own Jewishness were never resolved; indeed, they became more acutely contradictory as he entered middle age. He had rejected Zionism, but in the struggle against the British he sided with the extreme Irgun movement. (In Thieves in the Night, the hero helps organize terrorist acts; Koestler approved of violence for whatever he deemed a good cause, so long as victims were given advance warning.) In the 1950s, however, Koestler appeared once again to repudiate Zionism. Now that Israel existed, he suggested that Jews mustn't feel tied to the Jewish past. Indeed, Jews not living in Israel must discard their Jewishness -- as he had done -- becoming wholly assimilated. Isaiah Berlin, who believed that total assimilation was impossible, objected to these switches of dogmatic opinion. Koestler, he said, was a bully "too much under the influence of totalitarian systems of thought."
Koestler did entertain the notion of religious solace from time to time, but such urgings were displaced by skepticism, to which he was, in the end, unconditionally loyal. "Une vie ne vaut rien, mais rien ne vaut une vie" ("Life itself is worth nothing, but nothing is worth more than a life") was a phrase of Andre Malraux's that he liked to quote, and last-ditch humanism was the only program to which he ever signed up. In what proved to be a mistake, he resolved to put himself above the ideological fray, ceasing to say anything about his cherished political subjects. He was silent in 1956, when Soviet tanks appeared in Budapest, and again when Prague was invaded in 1968. About the decay of the Soviet empire he had nothing to say -- a bizarre omission. When Margaret Thatcher came to see him shortly before she was elected, he told her that he was finished with politics. "I will not be your Hungarian guru," he said.
Instead he repaired to the English countryside and played chess, preferring the company of his dogs to that of humans. In his later years, he wrote many books in which he alternately proffered science as a solution to the ills of mankind and attacked scientific pretensions on the grounds that science had become an orthodoxy as powerful and misleading as the Communism of his youth. Some of these books sold well, but without exception they have aged badly. Koestler attained brief moments of notoriety in the late 1960s when he said that man's violence might be tamed by the development of a drug that diminished aggression. He became famous for encouraging and even attending unsuccessful spoon-bending sessions. Koestler insisted that his later work was important; he was wrong, of course, but one must appreciate in the aging, cranky Koestler the true skeptic's disposition to overthrow any orthodoxy in sight.
On March 3, 1983, Koestler and Cynthia sat down in their favorite armchairs and ingested a fatal dose of barbiturates with their evening drinks. The seventy-seven-year-old Koestler, suffering from Parkinson's and leukemia, had long defended euthanasia as a rational ending of one's life, but in Britain he was thought to be responsible for the double suicide, having in a final act of arrogance convinced Cynthia, still young and healthy, that life wasn't worth living without him. Critics assailed him, too, for the bequest of a large sum to Edinburgh University for the study of abnormal occurrences. With the publication of the rape allegations in 1998, a Scottish feminist organization mobilized female students, prompting the removal of Koestler's bust from the lobby of the psychology department.
"Every writer is forgotten after his death," Koestler observed, but his own fate was to be remembered for the wrong reasons while his true significance was ignored. Koestler was the first to describe the "furniture removal vans" that were used to gas Jews in 1943. In the polemic "On Disbelieving Atrocities," written for the New York Times in 1944, he describes as "screamers" himself and those like him. Screamers do succeed in getting through, Koestler suggests -- but only for the odd ten minutes of half-distracted attention, before the too human desire not to know reclaims the listener and oblivion prevails. "A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland cause but a moderate uneasiness," he observes. "Statistics don't bleed; it is the detail which counts. We are unable to embrace the total process with our awareness; we can only focus on little lumps of reality." Koestler rejected the easy comforts of moderate uneasiness, and he never lost the ability to be shocked or to experience anger. He was so formidable a reporter, and a great writer, too, because although he was tempted by transcendence, he stayed with the lumps of reality, never abandoning them.
Nicholas Fraser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His essay on J. G. Ballard appeared in the October 2009 issue.