A Very Foreign Foreigner

Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell

Books Literature
Arthur Koestler: Eternal outsider

Arthur Koestler had a fear that he would be forgotten and his books unread. He hoped he was a great man, for some of the time he was certain of it, but then anxiety would creep up on him. Darkness at Noon was world-famous, yes, strangers would tell him how it had influenced them. But was he then a one-book man? Why were his writings about science neglected? Surely he was raising cosmic questions in front of people who weren’t listening.

His was an archetypal 20th-century life. To have been born in 1905, at the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to bourgeois Jewish parents, was a destiny in itself. Millions in his position were to be the target simultaneously of the Soviets and the Nazis and fortunate if they survived. His adventures were all to do with escape, hurtling off to Palestine, inventing himself in Berlin as the science correspondent of the Ullstein press, joining the Communist Party and travelling in the Soviet Union under the shadow of Stalin, reporting on the Spanish Civil War, reaching England in the crisis of 1940. By then, he had survived a death sentence in Spain and been imprisoned in three countries. Darkness at Noon was published when he was in Pentonville, struggling with the process familiar in British prisons of slopping out. 

Rebecca West, Cyril Connolly, Paul Willert, an ornament of MI5, and above all George Orwell, had the imagination and first-hand experience to appreciate that Koestler was saying vital things about historic events. Orwell responded warmly to Spanish Testament and Darkness at Noon and if relationships had worked out a little differently the two might have been brothers-in-law. Instead of being flattered to have Koestler among them, however, the English tended to resent him. He coined the word “absolutitis” for the commitment to causes that he observed in himself, but to others he appeared a model of recklessness and exaggeration.

Which was worse, people wondered, his communism in the Thirties, or his anti-communism at the start of the Cold War? Didn’t his devotion to the Congress for Cultural Freedom make him a CIA stooge? And who did he think he was, scaring everyone with all those Nazi atrocities? Osbert Sitwell, for one, thought Koestler had made it all up as propaganda, and that at a time when Adele Koestler, his mother, was in danger of being deported from Budapest to Auschwitz. In another mark against him, Koestler was a Zionist, a follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky, all blood and iron, only to conclude that Jews had either to go to Israel or stop being Jews at all, and in any case they were Khazars from somewhere out East, if they only knew it. In the eyes of keepers of public opinion like Hugh Trevor-Roper, Raymond Mortimer and Peter Quennell, Koestler was a very foreign foreigner. I once heard W. H. Auden say he didn’t like him because he didn’t like underdogs. Provinciality went hand-in-hand with snobbery. An ersatz gentleman, Koestler didn’t look right in tweed suits, and hadn’t quite mastered the language, the troublesome “w” and the phoneme “th” giving him away as a cut-price Joseph Conrad. England had taken Koestler in, so it was thought patronising of him, even downright ungrateful, to criticise it as the best country to sleep in, and go banging on that it was now committing suicide through bad government.

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Scammell published a first-rate life of Solzhenitsyn, and seems to have been working ever since on this biography of Koestler. Almost 100 pages of notes record the interviews he has conducted, and the published or unpublished material in at least five languages he has tracked down. The book pulls off the difficult feat of doing justice to Koestler’s achievements while making no attempt to hide that he was to blame for a good deal of the dislike and outright hostility that other people felt towards him. Altogether an impossible character, he was vain, quarrelsome, opinionated, and at the same time insecure. Sidney Hook, also no mean polemicist, said that Koestler could recite the two times table in such a way as to antagonise his audience. Koestler himself recognised that his inferiority complex was the size of a cathedral. A near alcoholic, he would drink disastrously, losing control, crashing his car, hitting his companions, making passes at any and every woman. Afterwards guilt rose in a tidal wave. Impulsive efforts at repentance led him to change wives, houses, countries of residence, in cycles that kept repeating. Scammell diagnoses Koestler variously as a pessimist, a romantic, an egotistical perfectionist, a manic-depressive, a walking bundle of raw nerve-endings. Several times he tried to commit suicide, in the end successfully. 

Sexual promiscuity seems to have been a defining characteristic, “pathological” in Scammell’s view. A previous biographer accused Koestler of being a rapist, even a serial rapist, but the evidence for this is too slight to be believable. Seemingly some emotional balance went wrong in his youth, when for no discernible reason he decided that he could not love his mother and he always treated her abominably. In the lengthening trail of wives and mistresses he carried cruelty to the point of sado-masochism. If Scammell is right, here was a Don Juan whose hatred of women was the expression of self-love. 

A book of this length is bound to have mistakes. King Faisal of Iraq was not the son of Ibn Saud, Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy is not a novel, Galileo’s villa at Arcetri is not outside Venice, for Lord Shelbourne and C. V. Wedgewood read Lord Selborne and C. V. Wedgwood, John Grigg was never a Member of Parliament, and so on. The big picture is right, however. “Absolutitis” left Koestler a victim, but also an invaluable witness. In a time when this mattered, he had the courage and the talent to describe the reality of Stalinism and Nazism as he had lived it. Written with the admiration for his writing and the regret for his personal flaws that Koestler deserves on both scores, this monumental biography ensures that he is not forgotten.