During the Cold War, when communism physically enslaved half the world, it also morally enslaved the hearts and minds of Western intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who once said “an anti-Communist is a dog,” intending no compliment to dogs.
Growing up in Europe at the time, subject to the same fads and fashions as my peers, I felt besieged by the likes of Sartre and his minions, most of whom had never set foot in a communist country (as I had, several times). In May 1968 I found myself in Paris, at the height of the Marxist-inspired student uprising against De Gaulle. It was a baptism of fire that yielded many a Marxist convert, romantics all.
It was almost impossible, afterward, to find a coherent opposition to communism that wasn’t tinged with the monarchist or neo-fascist right. I opposed communism, of course, and thought of myself as a democrat, but who was I? A mere teenager, adrift. I longed to hear a mighty voice raised in defense of what I believed. On a friend’s advice, I turned to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, one of the great anti-totalitarian documents of all time. That, I felt, was all the vindication I needed. It still is.
In his day, Koestler, the ex-communist, embodied the conscience of the anti-communist. He was also a dedicated and intrepid reporter, a Tintin on steroids, adventurous to the point of absurdity. In 1926 he joined a kibbutz in Palestine; in 1932 he flew over the Arctic in the Graf Zeppelin dirigible; next year he traveled through famine-stricken Ukraine; during the Spanish Civil War, he was imprisoned by General Franco’s armies and threatened with execution; in 1940 he fled the Nazi invasion of France and, upon finding a French Foreign Legion outpost, joined on impulse. He dropped acid with Timothy Leary in the 1960s and advised Margaret Thatcher on her 1979 election campaign. He lived long enough to inspire in person the young writers Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes. And these are only a few of the names in Koestler’s Rolodex. Others, at random: David Ben-Gurion, Thomas Mann, Langston Hughes, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson. And on and on.
His life was busy, involved, and exciting, the kind of life people—intellectuals—don’t live any more. And although his flaws —selfishness, obsessiveness, occasional brutality—were great, so were his virtues. How many remember, for example, that Britain banned capital punishment—specifically, hanging—as the result of a campaign undertaken virtually single-handedly by him?
Koestler’s fame is diminished today; he is still read, but not as widely as he once was. There are several reasons for this: the inevitable posthumous downturn in any writer’s reputation, for one. For another, the great defining cause of his life, the struggle with communism, now has as quaint a ring to it as Manifest Destiny or la mission civilisatrice. Also, he was too wide-ranging for the specialized tastes of modern times. Not content to be just a novelist, or a journalist, or a science writer, or a memoirist, he wore all hats, with mixed success. Finally, there was the man himself: an old-fashioned mercurial Hungarian, egotistical and domineering, a prodigious drinker, and diehard and aggressive—some said abusive—womanizer. In short, an offense to modern sensibilities.
He wouldn’t have cared. Arthur Koestler ingratiated himself with whomever he needed in order to further the cause, or satiate the libido, of Arthur Koestler. When such persons proved resistant to his charms, he dropped them and moved on, usually to another rendezvous with love—or, occasionally, with destiny. For, as Michael Scammell points out in Koestler, The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, an exhaustive new biography that will remain the last word on this extraordinary man for years to come, Koestler displayed “a phenomenal instinct for somehow seeming to be around at so many turning points in modern history.”
The first turning point in Arthur Koestler’s history was his birth, in Budapest in 1905, “at the moment,” he says in his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue, “when the sun was setting on the Age of Reason.” He was a product of that great Jewish civilization of Central Europe, later annihilated by the Nazis, that also gave us Kafka, Heine, Einstein, Marx, Freud, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, and the Wittgensteins (and, at one remove, Disraeli, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper).
Arthur was the only child of Henrik Koestler, a moderately successful businessman, and Adele (Jeiteles) Koestler, daughter of a prosperous Prague merchant. Henrik and Adele were decent, respectable citizens of that more-or-less enlightened entity, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which multiculturalism meant just that and Jews, for the most part, were assimilated. At home the secular Koestlers encouraged culture and tolerance, but neither parent had the faintest idea how to raise a child, much less your standard introverted writer-in-embryo. There was no cruelty (except for a sudden, unannounced, unanesthetized tonsillectomy that haunted Koestler for years), but there was much indifference.
Both parents were often absent. Mother Adele was self-absorbed and nervous. (She was, for a short time, a patient of Freud’s, but fled in dismay, unnerved by the good doctor’s personal questions and fondling hands.) The tension between her and her only son never went away; it was only sublimated, suggests Scammell, in Arthur’s later compulsive womanizing. “It has been said of Ingmar Bergman,” Scammell observes, “that all his relationships with women were built on a desperate craving for mother love, and the same seems to have been true of Koestler.” Tellingly, and teasingly, Scammell places a passage from Georges Simenon at the head of the first chapter: “A novelist is someone who hates his mother.”
A novelist is also someone who grows up alone. Whatever his feelings toward his mother, Arthur, to all intents and purposes, raised himself. Lonely but observant, imaginatively aquiver, he devoured books of all kinds. He had an innate advantage from birth. In common with many of his fellow Central Europeans, he grew up speaking two languages: his own—Hungarian—and German, the lingua franca of Central Europe. He soon added English and French (Russian came later, and sporadic Italian). In all these languages he read widely, from Goethe’s Faust to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and the science fiction of Jules Verne, while becoming equally, if not more, engaged in the sciences. “The heroes of my youth,” he wrote, “were Darwin and Spencer, Kepler, Newton and Mach; Edison, Herz and Marconi—the Buffalo Bills of the frontiers of discovery.”
Young Koestler’s various interests were producing in him—in Nabokov’s famous formulation—“the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist.” From art he learned beauty; from science, observation. The stage was set for the greatest political novelist and reporter of the century, half-Zola, half-Zelig, to be in attendance at the twentieth century’s great events.
The first big event was World War I, but all Arthur remembered about it was bringing his worried father a bicarbonate of soda when it began and seeing the crowds in the streets when it ended. The first event that had a direct impact on him was the short-lived Hungarian Commune of 1919, during which a communist government was proclaimed by the charismatic Béla Kun (later executed by Stalin). Koestler never forgot the millenarian feeling, the gaiety, the gaudy posters: it was like one big street fair, and the beginning of something new and exciting. It was Koestler’s first experience of communism, the creed he would later embrace with passion and then denounce with equal or greater passion. “But,” he avers, “this later knowledge does not invalidate the hopeful and exuberant mood of the early days of the Revolution in Hungary.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive . . . (I’m reminded of Paris, and May 1968, mutatis mutandis.)
The Hungarian Commune went down for the count when the fascists came to power under Admiral Horthy (later a shill for Hitler), ushering in an ugly wave of anti-Semitism that drove the Koestlers out of Hungary, to next-door Vienna. There young Koestler showed great promise, not only as a student of science and engineering (Scammell notes that Koestler may have been the only intellectual of his time who could change a fuse), but also as a skirt-chaser and drinker.
He added “brawler” to these credentials when he joined the main Jewish student fraternity, the Unitas, which was where he got his first taste of that other ideology that would shape his early life: Zionism. He turned to it through no religious impulse. The Koestlers, as noted, were secular Jews. But in a practical sense, Koestler believed that the Jewish people would be better off—not ghettoized, hence not persecuted—in their own land, living according to socialistic principles.
Also, Zionism was a romantic endeavor, and Koestler was always a romantic. He chafed at being expected to take his place upon graduation among the respectable mediocrities of Vienna’s middle class. The wider world beckoned. So, under the influence of one of those messianic types who would show up in his life at regular intervals—“a long series of ‘knowing ones’ to whom I felt drawn as the years went by”—he set fire to his “matriculation book,” or “Index,” an irreplaceable record of his course attendance and exam results, without which no student could graduate. For Koestler, it was always all or nothing. “The burning of my Index,” he said, “was . . . . the end of my prospective career as a respectable citizen.”
From that moment on, he was forced to make his own way. It led him first to Palestine, as a reporter in the service of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the charismatic Russian Zionist. But in the rocky fields of the Holy Land, Koestler’s Zionism was sorely tested, and found wanting. Not for him the backbreaking labors of the kibbutzim. His skills as a journalist, however, were honed to a keen edge; he lived on the streets of Haifa, selling lemonade to finance a one-man press agency, interviewing Zionists and non-Zionists alike, Arabs, Jews, and colonialists, across the Middle East. But he was nostalgic for Europe, “thirsting for Europe, pining for Europe,” he recalled. He went back, and Zionism segued into a new obsession: communism.
“I had been disappointed by the provincial chauvinism of Palestine,” he wrote. “Now a new Zion was in sight, on an infinitely larger, all-embracing scale.”
Being a bourgeois communist was a good living, for a time. While working as a journalist in Berlin and Paris, Koestler dutifully peddled the Soviet line. He made his first pilgrimage to Russia agog for the People’s Paradise, and so wrote nothing then of the poverty and misery he saw. But the clear-eyed reporter in him made a mental note of these things and recalled them later, in stark honesty:
I reacted to the brutal impact of reality on illusion in a manner typical of the true believer. I was surprised and bewildered—but the elastic shock-absorbers of my Party training began to operate at once. . . . This ‘inner censor’ is more reliable and effective than any official censorship.
On the same trip, he traveled through Soviet Central Asia, where he ran into and traveled with Langston Hughes (one is tempted to say, as so often in Koestler’s life, “of all people”). Then Koestler’s communist masters ordered him back to Europe, where he continued cranking out the Party line —but not for long.
The Spanish Civil War changed his life. Posing as a journalist for the British paper News Chronicle, Koestler found himself in Málaga in 1937, as Franco’s Nationalist troops, assisted by nine Italian tank divisions, took over the city from the leftist Republicans. Fortunately for Koestler, his captors were unaware of his communist affiliations, or he would have been shot on the spot. But they imprisoned him on suspicion of spying, a capital offense; as far as he knew, he would simply be shot later.
Scammell masterfully describes this fearsome episode, which gave birth to Darkness at Noon, and which marked, in Scammell’s words, “the start of a precipitous descent into the twilight world of ideological outcasts and political prisoners that would define [Koestler’s] outlook for the rest of his life.” Scammell’s description of life in the cells reverberates with the claustrophobic dread so powerfully evoked in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, in various works of Dostoevsky—Notes from Underground, The Brothers Karamazov—and, of course, in Koestler’s own, especially Darkness at Noon. The nightly routine was merciless:
The ring of the telephone in the chief guard’s office at ten o’clock, the names read out and confirmed one by one, the slow midnight procession, the helpless protests of the prisoners.
Koestler’s wife and others, mostly in Britain, started a campaign to obtain his release, and did so, after three harrowing months. The campaign, backed by the Communist Party behind front groups, was so effective, and so unusual for the time, that Koestler emerged from prison a genuine celebrity—and a radically changed man. Prison did not bless him with the spiritual insights or secular sanctity of a Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, but it sharply refocused his view of human nature and politics, as he said later:
The consciousness of being confined acts like a slow poison, transforming the entire character. This is more than a mere psychological change, it is not an inferiority complex—it is, rather, an inevitable natural process. . . . Now it is beginning gradually to dawn on me what the slave mentality really is.
The fruit of Koestler’s incarceration and of his disillusionment with communism, which reached its climax during the Moscow show trials of 1938, was the novel Darkness at Noon. This is Koestler’s masterpiece not only because the main character is so compelling, but also because it derives its authority from Koestler’s own experience of imprisonment, interrogation, and the threat of execution. The story is straightforward, told with crystalline simplicity: Nicholas Rubashov, an aging revolutionary modeled on real-life victims of Stalin’s show trials, is thrown in jail on trumped-up charges of political treason and subjected to hours of questioning by an old colleague, a fellow servant of the Party. Pressed to confess, Rubashov recalls how much he had devoted himself to early promises of the revolution, and describes how thoroughly he, and everyone else, has been betrayed. In the end, hemmed in by hypocrisy and deceit, and tormented by the memory of what he once hoped for, Rubashov finds honor and liberation only in death.
[The Party’s] course had many twists and windings; such was the law of her being. And whosoever could not follow her crooked course was washed on to the bank, for such was her law. The motives of the individual did not matter to her. . . . The Party knew only one crime: to swerve from the course laid out; and only one punishment: death.
Darkness is all the more effective because the writing never calls attention to itself; in Koestler’s fiction, as in his other writing, he is anti-lapidary, but firmly on-message. In the best traditions of socialist realism, the narrative leaves us in no doubt as to where we are, what is happening, or what to believe. Freedom has been betrayed; the revolution is a sham; communism and fascism are partners in a dance of death. Scammell digs deeper and finds in the novel an existentialist ur-text:
Darkness at Noon powerfully illustrated the existential loneliness of the individual facing the inexorable forces of history, and was imbued with a revolutionary philosophy that made it that much harder for Communists and their supporters to dismiss out of hand.
The novel was published in 1940. It flopped commercially in Britain, which had other things on its collective mind that year, but the critics were mostly kind, notably George Orwell, who, with Orwellian prescience, saw where Koestler’s thinking would eventually take him:
If one writes about the Moscow trials one must answer the question, ‘Why did the accused confess?’ and which answer one makes is a political decision. Koestler answers, in effect, ‘Because these people had been rotted by the Revolution which they served,’ and in doing so he comes near to claiming that revolutions are of their nature bad.
Darkness at Noon was selected by the Book of the Month Club and became a huge success in the United States. It eventually made Koestler rich. Ironically, he was in prison when it was published, interned as an enemy alien in London’s Pentonville Prison, having just succeeded in fleeing Occupied France in the uniform of a Foreign Legionnaire. When he was released from prison, he gave full expression to his disillusionment with all totalitarian ideologies, not just Nazism, the enemy of the hour, but communism, too. With the zeal of the ex-convert, Koestler forged ahead, sounding the alarm about communism while devoting equal attention to the Nazis. He was among the first to warn the world of the impending Holocaust against the Jews.
In 1949, with ex-fellow travelers such as Stephen Spender and Ignazio Silone, he contributed to a collection called The God That Failed, an apologia for past communist sins, which Rebecca West called “one of the most handsome presents that has ever been given to future historians of our time.” In his segment Koestler chronicles the long progression of his infatuation in terms of faith and disillusionment, not reason: “A faith is not acquired by reasoning. . . . Reason may defend an act of faith, but only after the act has been committed.”
Socialism’s failure had long preoccupied Koestler. He made the point repeatedly that it all came down to a basic lack of empathy with one’s fellow man.
The reason [for socialism’s failure], I believe, was lack of imagination and, even more, lack of a human approach to the people. For ‘the People’ are regarded through the Socialist bureaucracy’s eyes as a target for propaganda, not as a living reality whose interests, tastes, and foibles must be understood and shared if you wish to change the face of the world. The Socialist party bosses . . . . came from the people but were not of the people; they tried to control and manipulate man without identifying themselves with him. Their voice was the voice of the pamphlet, of the lecturer . . . not the voice of a new humanity.
This astute analysis of a congenital human flaw is as true today as it was when Koestler wrote it, and will be just as true in centuries to come, as long as there are ideologies and bureaucracies and ideologues who set themselves up as other people’s guides, spiritual or political.
The heroic Russian effort against Hitler was not enough to deflect Koestler’s criticism. Stalin was evil; communism was at an economic and political dead end; the gulag was real. “Thirty years before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” Scammell observes, “[Koestler] described Stalin’s mass deportations from eastern Poland and the Baltic states, [and] the forced-labor camps.” Koestler bade farewell to communism with relief and righteousness, and some melancholy, too, as one regrets the lost dreams of youth: “Nothing,” he said, “is more sad than the death of an illusion.”
In January 1951 a stage version of Darkness at Noon won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Koestler donated all royalties to a fund for struggling authors.
Soon afterward, true to his mercurial nature, he lost interest in politics altogether. He declined to comment publicly on the 1956 uprising in his native country, Hungary, or on the 1956 and 1967 Israeli-Arab wars.
Instead, he developed into a jack-of-all-writing-trades, earning the scorn of the specialized professionals but retaining the support and enthusiasm of the reading public. His two volumes of autobiography, Arrow in the Blue (1952) and The Invisible Writing (1954), were popular successes, and deservedly so. Scammell forcefully makes the case that Koestler’s autobiographical writings deserve to stand next to Darkness at Noon as masterpieces of the literary art:
Arrow in the Blue was by far Koestler’s best book since Darkness at Noon and showed him writing at the top of his form . . . in a supple first-person voice that was delightfully varied, vivid, full of humor, and imbued with an ethical urgency that was Koestler’s most appealing quality and carried total conviction.
Indeed, reading Koestler’s account of his life is the next best thing to living an actual chunk of it. Here, in The Invisible Writing, is a grim, unforgettable snapshot-in-words of traveling through Russia during the famine of the ’30s:
The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of beggars in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows—infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 that had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. . . . My Russian traveling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who had resisted the collectivization of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms.
In his memoirs, Koestler charts a course between frankness and discretion. Notably, he avoids dwelling on the less agreeable aspects of his personality that came to the fore especially in his relations with women—his brutality, callousness, and egotism. Scammell points out that Koestler was never an easy man to deal with:
His pugnacious personality was a lightning rod for strong feelings and extreme opinions, and he reveled in the notoriety they brought him. Like many short men (barely five foot six in his stockinged feet), he was incorrigibly competitive and relentlessly combative, quick to take offense and slow to forgive. Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition, he was never comfortable in his own skin, doomed to oscillate between arrogance and humility, like one of those mercurial Russians in the novels of Dostoevsky, whom Koestler so admired and wished to emulate.
Pugnacity is one thing; rape quite another. Of the sensational and now notorious accusation by Jill Craigie, the feminist filmmaker and wife of the late British Labour leader Michael Foot, Scammell is respectfully dismissive, noting that the accusation was not made until nearly a half-century after the alleged event and that Craigie and her husband had continued to socialize amicably with Koestler after 1953, when the attack was said to have taken place.
Fair enough: Scammell is his subject’s principal advocate, as a biographer should be. He undermines his case somewhat, however, by adding, “the exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time,” and “the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred.” But he recovers his balance when he sums up, Solomonically: “The likeliest explanation is that behavior that wasn’t at the time seen as rape has since come to be regarded as such, and that it is necessary to keep both of the standards in mind when contemplating what happened.” Even Simone de Beauvoir, with whom Koestler once went to bed—and who detested him, in large part for political reasons—never accused him of rape; but the whole business casts a shadow over Koestler’s reputation that won’t go away.
The newly apolitical Koestler sought refuge in science, and wrote a number of popular-science books, among them The Sleepwalkers (1959), The Ghost in the Machine (1967), and The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971). The Sleepwalkers is a classic of the genre, a history of cosmology from Pythagoras to Isaac Newton, in which Koestler describes the modern worldview emerging in the seventeenth century under the inspiration of those Buffalo Bills of modern astronomy, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Their accomplishments, Koestler says, were made in a spirit of defiance, opposing the mainstream of science, which was rarely “scientific”: science “emerges in the shape of Janus, the double-faced god, guardian of doors and gates: the face in front alert and observant, while the other, dreamy and glassy-eyed, stares in the opposite direction.”
Throughout The Sleepwalkers Koestler takes provocative positions at variance with conventional wisdom, as was his wont. For example, according to him, Galileo was as much a victim of ill-humor and circumstance as of Church doctrine:
It is my conviction that the conflict between the Church and Galileo . . . was not inevitable; that it was not in the nature of a fatal collision between opposite philosophies of existence, which was bound to occur sooner or later, but rather a clash of individual temperaments aggravated by unlucky coincidences.
One may, I think, detect an autobiographical note here.
The Sleepwalkers, like all of Koestler’s science books, is a learned and highly entertaining survey. One of his great gifts as a writer was the art of spirited narration; the witty raconteur, not the barroom bore. But broadly informative as his science books are, they are also vehicles for his own views, which occasionally verge on the crackpot: ESP, up to and including the Israeli spoon-bender Uri Geller; the cosmic meaning of coincidence.
Koestler partook and wrote of other random interests, too, including Eastern spiritual teachings such as Buddhism and Hinduism, all-embracing creeds, which he discovered, upon close inspection during a trip to East Asia in the 1960s, to be quite unsuitable to one of his eternally divided temperament. His “split personality,” as he described it, always led him to embrace beliefs he later disdained. He was keenly aware of this dichotomy within himself, and attributed to it all the contradictions and paradoxes of his life and character: humaneness and brutality; romanticism and coarseness; generosity and self-absorption.
To talk about one’s own split personality is a special form of vanity—particularly in the case of Central Europeans fed on Goethe’s ‘Two souls, alas, inhabit my bosom.’ But if I am to remain truthful, the separate existence of those two souls in my bosom must be emphasized, for the split has remained with me, and the resulting tug-of-war is one of the recurring leitmotifs of this [memoir]. It is reflected in the antithetical titles of my books: The Yogi and the Commissar; Insight and Outlook; Darkness at Noon; Le Zero et l’Infini; Arrival and Departure; and so on.
In the end great honors came his way, along with brickbats. In 1968 he received the prestigious Sonning Prize from the University of Copenhagen “for outstanding contribution to European culture,” and in 1972 he was made CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II. These were welcome gestures, but ill health prevented him from enjoying them, or looking forward to a comfortable old age. In 1976 the previously indomitable Koestler was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and three years later with terminal leukemia.
It was enough for him. Unafraid of death, but dreading the long decline, he committed suicide with barbiturates and brandy in London in 1983. Joining him was his third wife, Cynthia, in her mid-fifties and healthy. This suicide pact has been almost as much of a matter of speculation as the alleged Craigie rape, but here Scammell deals deftly with accusations that Koestler bullied his wife into committing suicide by pointing out that at that stage in his life Koestler was “too feeble and too far gone physically and mentally to have any further control over Cynthia.” She also left a note saying she couldn’t face life without Arthur, and both had long been known as believers in euthanasia. Enough said: RIP.
Scammell’s biography is a magnificent accomplishment, on a level with the same author’s definitive Solzhenitsyn: A Life. My main quibble is with the subtitle of the U.S. edition: “The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic.” This is misleading. Koestler was no “skeptic.” On the contrary, he was fair game for any ideology that came along—he himself said he was “the Casanova of causes.”
The title of the British edition of the book, Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual, comes closer to capturing the essence of the man, who was indeed indispensable to his time. Unlike almost any other intellectual then or now, he laid his life on the line for his ideas. Rather than accommodate political or social injustice in exchange for a salary or a peaceful retirement, he took on his opponents one by one until he exhausted them, then he moved on to new ideas and new realms (and new enemies).
For all this—for this principled tenacity—he deserves to be remembered, and honored. Christopher Hitchens, who plays something of a Koestlerian role among today’s public intellectuals, observed that Koestler “left behind him a body of work that will always be absorbing and challenging to anyone who admires men of principle or who enjoys the battle of ideas for its own sake.” And the critic and novelist Cyril Connolly, a friend of Koestler’s, said of him that he was “perhaps a journalist of genius but also perhaps much more.” I would change “perhaps” to “certainly” in both instances and refer the matter to the court of posterity, in whose judgment I have confidence. As long as there are books and the freedom to read them, a freedom for which Arthur Koestler fought hard all his life, his work will be read.