Arthur Koestler

An extract from the forthcoming second volume of memoirs by David Pryce Jones

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Arthur Koestler in 1960: His novel “Darkness at Noon” led the way to the  intellectual discrediting of communism  (© Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A few years ago, I was in Budapest walking down a slightly dingy street when I caught sight of a tablet at first-floor level on the wall of one of the buildings.  The young Arthur Koestler, who was born in 1905,  had lived here in an apartment that he wrote up as a monument to a lost ideal of home: “stuffed with plush curtains, antimacassars, tassels, fringes, lace covers, bronze nymphs, cuspidors, and Meissen stags at bay”. From here he set out to go to university in Vienna and on to Jerusalem, Berlin and Moscow, with interludes in prison and detention camps, condemned to death as a communist by the Franco regime in Spain and then again by the Communist Party as a renegade.

The world had been bewildered by trials in the Soviet Union in which Stalin’s closest colleagues confessed to acts of treason they could never conceivably have committed, in other words consenting to their own judicial murder. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon offered the insight that these men were persuaded that their death was in the higher interest of the Party and it was doctrine that the Party could not be mistaken. Far less cerebral in fact, the self-incriminations were brought about by threats and beatings, but Koestler’s novel led the way to the intellectual discrediting of communism until Solzhenitsyn began publishing. Koestler further summed up his whole experience in The Invisible Writing, two volumes of autobiography destined to be read so long as anyone is still interested in right and wrong. That tablet in Budapest recognises that Koestler truly influenced the hopes and fears let loose in the contest to take control of the future known as the Cold War.

Once or twice in the early 1960s I wrote to Koestler suggesting that he contribute to the Spectator. It was a forlorn hope; he already had more commitments than he could manage. But on Sunday mornings his friends were in the habit of coming round for a drink, and politely he invited me too. He lived in a large house, a mansion really, in Kensington, and I was a short walk away in a street just around the corner. I was apprehensive. After saying that it was an honour to meet him, what small-talk could possibly follow? Besides, I’d heard about a lady who was supposed to have approached him at some gathering and said, “Mr Koestler, I’ve just been reading Darkness at Noon,” and was about to add that this was for the seventh time as the book had changed her views about everything, when he cut in, “And about time too.”

Koestler’s Sunday mornings had the atmosphere of a highbrow salon. Anti-communism was the agreed ideology of those present. Mel Lasky, editor of Encounter, used to praise him to his face. Others there included Iain Hamilton, Koestler’s first biographer, George Mikes, Michael Polanyi, Denis Gabor and the broadcaster George Urban, and perhaps Ed Shils (who coined gayim as the collective plural for homosexuals by analogy to goyim, the Jewish collective plural for Gentiles). One Sunday, I believe in 1963, Goronwy Rees, one of the rare outspoken anti-communist academics, took the floor to announce that  Anthony Blunt had tried before the war to recruit him into the KGB. Next to me was John Mander, then literary editor of Encounter. I asked him if he’d just heard what I’d just heard. “Oh, didn’t you know, that’s Goronwy’s party piece.” Some 15 more years had to pass before the country learnt what was common knowledge in Koestler’s circle.

“We failed to see,” Koestler reproaches his generation, “that the age of Reason and Enlightenment was drawing to its close.” In one of his essays, “On Disbelieving Atrocities”, all the more memorable because it was published in January 1944, Koestler describes himself as a screamer, a Cassandra: she screamed until she was hoarse and the Greeks still entered Troy. A character in one of his novels speaks for Koestler: “Europe is doomed, a chapter in history which is finished.” The sense that he’d got away with it so far but wouldn’t always be able to, infuses pretty well everything he wrote, and I imagine that this vulnerability was always working away in him. “England is the best country to sleep in,” was a favourite truism of his. The Latin for ostrich is struthio; Old Struthians is the label he attaches to the British for their similar habit of hiding their eyes from reality. Suicide of a Nation? is a collection of essays he edited in 1971, by which time he thought that the question-mark of the title was superfluous. January 14, 1971, happens to be the date he wrote below his signature in my copy of The God That Failed, a book that more than any other understood belief in communism as a superstition, a quasi-religious phenomenon.

I could never quite make out why this quintessential Central European intellectual tried to pass himself off as an English gentleman, dressing the part. It didn’t quite succeed because the hand-made clothes were so perfect that they gave away the disguise. The Hungarian accent couldn’t be squared either. Cynthia Jefferies, formerly his secretary and then his wife, was some 12 years younger than him and temperamentally incapable of criticising him. In an incident recorded by George Mikes, the Koestlers were playing Scrabble when Arthur put down “vince”. Surprised that Cynthia should question this, he explained to her that it meant flinching slightly with pain. He owned a house in Alpbach in Austria, and drove his car from there to Kensington. Parking, he rammed hard into the car ahead, and then in reverse hard into the pillar-box behind. Intending to be helpful, a policeman pointed to the Austrian number plates and suggested that Koestler was not used to driving on the left. “You think I am a bloody foreigner?” was Arthur’s response, and I have it on good authority, “couldn’t you see ze vindscreen vipers voodn’t verk?”

The English edition of Darkness at Noon is a translation from its original German, and it was published shortly after Dunkirk. As if that wasn’t handicap enough, most of the edition was destroyed in the blitz. After the war, Calmann-Levy, most venerable of firms, brought it out in French as Zéro et l’infini, François Mauriac wrote a review and by the end of 1946 half a million copies had been sold. Cassandra all over again, Koestler was in the position of an insider privy to secrets that the Party imagined would never be exposed but which now gave him authority to go against fellow-travellers and the current Left Bank attitudinising about Stalin and communism.

At the point in the mid-1960s when I was getting to know Koestler, Alain Oulman telephoned me. I had never heard of Alain — Pitou as he was known — but he contacted me because the Oulmans were distantly related to the Fould-Springer side of my family. They lived in the Portugal of Antonio Salazar, the most glum of European dictators. Apparently the illicit Communist Party had held a conspiratorial meeting in the Oulman house not far from Lisbon. Pitou said he had known nothing about it, but he nevertheless thought it prudent to settle in London and afterwards Paris. The Oulmans had shares in Calmann-Levy. Two elderly uncles, both of them directors, were retiring and there was nobody but Pitou to run the business. About 30 years old, he had very little or no experience of publishing, but Koestler was obviously an invaluable property and my role was to help cultivating him, mostly by accepting invitations to one or another of the nearby Kensington restaurants. Pitou’s wife came from one of the English families in the Portuguese wine trade. Koestler kept on probing whether she, born a Christian, would try to give a Jewish education to the child she was expecting. Better not, in his opinion. When I asked why he did not write a sequel to Promise and Fulfilment exploring today’s Jewish identity, he answered, “A dog does not return to its vomit.” On another occasion, Clarissa brought up the name of Jenny Trower, who had been her father’s social secretary in the Washington embassy and had fallen in love with Koestler. He denied all knowledge of her. When Clarissa then told him that she’d just heard Jenny had taken her own life, he swung round: “Now you have spoiled my evening.”

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Koestler happened to be ahead of me as I was boarding the flight to Iceland and so we took seats together. It was the first week of July 1972 and we were off to cover the Spassky-Fischer chess championship, he for the Sunday Times, I for the Sunday Telegraph.  This was widely perceived as a test of strength between the two sides in the Cold War. The awe I had initially felt towards him had long since subsided. To think of him as impatient or intolerant was to fail to perceive that he was governed by deep and admirable rage against the infamy of the times. As soon as we were in the air, a voice on the intercom asked Mr Arthur Koestler to make himself known. The airline was offering him a courtesy drink. A stewardess arrived with a bottle, a large home-brew kind of bottle without a label and poured a mug for him and one for me.  He drained it straight down so the stewardess could pour another. I could not come to terms with a brew like this so early in the morning, so he drank mine too. Soon closing his eyes, he lay back: “But zis iss murder.”

Once in Reyjavik, we stepped straight into slapstick. Bobby Fischer had not arrived and might never leave the United States. The opening ceremony was held in a dark, half-empty theatre without him. According to the grapevine, Spassky was longing to give an interview to Westerners but could not escape the KGB agents escorting him. So we went to his hotel and found him and half a dozen KGB in one of the public rooms on the first floor. He made for the lift and so did we. On the landing, the KGB froze him out, managed to crowd all non-Russians into the lift and then deposit them on the ground floor.

Could the restaurant where we took our meals really have been called Nausea? The place had its comic turn too. A man alleged to be the Icelandic national poet was lying at the foot of the bar. Every so often he would haul himself up, point a finger and bellow, “I know you! You are Hungarian, yes! But not Koestler — your name is Istvan Szabo!” and then relapse to his position on the floor. A reporter once more, Koestler was in his element. “He sniffs the air with animal cleverness,” I wrote in my diary, “he makes me think of an otter, trim, the coat in tip-top condition.” Psychologically Fischer had won before he had moved a single piece against Spassky. The attendant grandmasters agreed that Fischer was a genius, and Koestler had a characteristic phrase for it: “He has understood better than anyone else the midfield aura of the queen” (in his pronunciation “ze qveen”).

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One of Koestler’s campaigns was to lift quarantine restrictions on animals brought into the country. In the end, the local butcher, Mr Major, tied a huge bone to Koestler’s front-door with the message, “With the Compliments of the dogs of Kensington.” To this day, I think of this if I’m ever in Montpelier Square. At the beginning of 1983 I arranged to call round. It must have been about six o’clock in the evening when I got there. Koestler was alone in the sitting room. When he suggested that we have a drink, I stood up; the bottles and glasses were virtually within reach. But no, I was instructed to send for Cynthia in the kitchen downstairs, she would have to stop whatever she was doing, come up the staircase and pour our drinks. She hardly spoke, she did not give herself a drink. I was made to summon her to come up a second time to pour again. Koestler meanwhile reminisced about his arrival in Britain in May 1940. The authorities informed him that he could take whatever time he needed to see Darkness at Noon through the press and enlist only when ready along with other refugee professors and artists in the Pioneer Corps. Very civilised, he said, a contrast to the way he’d been detained and threatened in France: “It wasn’t the Home Office that naturalised me, it was Cyril Connolly.” Michael Scammell, Koestler’s sympathising biographer, quotes a letter that Connolly wrote to Edmund Wilson at that time, conceding that Koestler was insupportable but “probably one of the most powerful forces for good in the country”.

1983 was also the year when the two Koestlers ended their lives in a suicide pact carried out in the room where once friends and kindred spirits had gathered on a Sunday morning.  In the manner of the ancient Roman falling on his sword, Koestler preferred the dignity of death to the suffering inflicted on him by incurable disease. Cynthia’s decision to die with him is, in Scammell’s words, “a mystery the bystander cannot penetrate”. But she was 55, and that silent figure summoned to serve something to drink is disturbingly submissive, caught in the kind of rite the Aztecs once practised in Mexico.