Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
By Michael Scammell
(Random House, 689 pages, $35)
Arthur Koestler’s both a necessary and a troublesome subject for biography: necessary because his best works rank among the classics of literature, and troublesome because of the varied quality of his other writing and the dark turbulence of his personal life. Darkness at Noon, his 1940 novel about an aging revolutionary facing a show trial in Soviet Russia, was listed at number 11 on Modern Library’s list of the best 100 novels of the 20th century; furthermore, he wrote several autobiographical works and political essays that earned him an eminent place among pro-Western Cold War intellectuals. Yet by the end of his life, Koestler was somewhat ambivalent about his legacy as a political novelist and journalist, preferring instead to write about psi waves and ESP, and to fund studies in parapsychology. And his intellectual wanderings were accompanied by romantic ones, for this self-described “Casanova of causes” was a Casanova as well — with a string of relationships and marriages built and broken, and sometimes rebuilt, and sometimes rebroken.
Fortunately, he’s found a talented and diligent biographer in Michael Scammell, whose 1985 biography of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a PEN Center prize. Scammell writes dispassionately and evenhandedly about this passionate man and his uneven career; he resists the temptation to throw stones, but still leaves no stone unturned. Consequently, this biography feels definitive, in the definitive sense: one can come to it knowing a lot or a little about its subject and come away sated, with no desire and — more importantly — no need to read any other biography. And yet one does end up wanting to read more of Koestler’s writing, the memorably incisive political essays and the forgettable lesser novels, the highly acclaimed autobiographies and the oft-derided scientific and pseudo-scientific tracts.
“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 Dostoyevsky, whom Koestler so admired and wished to emulate,” Scammell writes in the course of his masterful introduction. Perhaps because of this dissatisfaction, Koestler wandered the wastelands of the 20th century in search of a variety of promised lands: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. And yet every one he found, he found wanting — and if it was not that way when he got there, he made it so through his own conduct, good and bad: his intellectual rigor and his demanding nature, his perverse willingness to alienate those who also called it home, and his zeal in searching for something more for them, and for himself.
As a young man he was a committed Zionist, but he alienated many Jews by saying that all should either move to Palestine or assimilate. He later became a Communist, but grew disenchanted with his comrades’ willingness to make the present imperfect for the sake of an imagined perfect future, a theme he later explored in Darkness at Noon. (During this period, he was also imprisoned by Franco’s forces while reporting on the Spanish Civil War, an experience which added verisimilitude to his masterwork.) After the Second World War, he found a home among Western Europe’s leftist intellectuals, but found them more concerned with being fashionably anti-American than with true intellectual rigor.
(For many on the left, it is the height of intellectual sophistication to look for parallels between totalitarian regimes and their foes, and to either abandon both by conferring moral equivalency upon them, or sing the praises of the totalitarian regime while enjoying the freedoms of the West. Koestler, who had lost friends in the purges, had the moral courage to pick the right side in the Cold War — unlike, say, his friend Sartre, who professed to be pro-Soviet and anti-American even though his books were widely read in the latter country and banned in the former one.)
After the Second World War, Koestler again dabbled in Zionism, even writing a novel that many claimed was a justification of terrorism on behalf of the nascent Jewish state, but far later in life he published The Thirteenth Tribe, a controversial best-seller that claimed most Eastern European Jews were not descended from the original Israelites, but from a tribe from the Caucasus called the Khazars. (This book was seized upon by neo-Nazis and some Arabs as negating the need for a Jewish state; meanwhile, one Jewish journalist called Koestler “a typical, old-fashioned, self-hating assimilationist.”) By this time, too, Koestler had toured Asia — long before it was popular to do so — as well as abandoned politics for science, and then abandoned science for the pseudo-scientific.
Scammell does an admirable job making sense of this restlessness, both quoting Koestler’s highly acclaimed autobiographies and stepping back to add perspective. Koestler saw his own “thirst for the absolute as ‘a kind of stigma,’ condemning him never to find satisfaction in the world around him, and he came to think that it was informed by his intense unhappiness as a child, his insecurities, and his search for love and acceptance in a cruel world,” Scammell writes, then cites Koestler’s own observations on the subject: “‘It was the same quest and the same all-or-nothing mentality which drove me to the Promised Land and into the Communist Party. In other ages aspirations of this kind found their natural fulfillment in God.'”
As Scammell notes, Koestler was no simple follower of trends. Rather, he tended to embrace causes before they were popular, then abandon them once they had become so. This desire to be (in the words of another biographer) “a man against” sometimes had a notable influence on the world around him; one observer credited Darkness at Noon‘s popularity in France as being “the most important factor tipping the vote against the Communists” during that country’s constitutional referendum in May 1946, which saw the Communists defeated by a 52-48 margin. Similarly, Koestler became a leading early advocate for abolishing capital punishment in his adopted home, the United Kingdom. However, this same oppositional streak, this same tendency to become dissatisfied with what had once enchanted him, was perhaps responsible for Koestler’s relentless womanizing. “Like everyone who talks of ethics all day long one could not trust him half an hour with one’s wife, one’s best friend, one’s manuscripts, or one’s wine merchant,” one contemporary said. “[H]e despises everybody 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.”
This tension between Koestler’s often-admirable public life and his less-than-admirable private one makes for lively biography; some of his drunken escapades with Sartre, Camus, and their various wives and girlfriends make for scenes of surreal hilarity, in which the three intellectuals ended up coming off more like the Three Stooges. During one night of carousing, Sartre propositioned Koestler’s soon-to-be second wife, Mamaine. Koestler “scrambled up the stairs on all fours, still determined to tackle Sartre over Mamaine. When Camus tried to intervene, Koestler lashed out, giving Camus a black eye. Camus leaped at Koestler and had to be clawed off by the others, and Koestler disappeared into the night.” To his credit, Scammell pauses here and there to tear apart Koestler’s occasionally self-serving or evasive excuses for such behavior, but doesn’t use those excuses as an excuse to tear down the man himself. Scammell seems determined to keep his subject in check for the sake of honesty and accuracy, rather than destroying him for the sake of the biographer’s own ego; he even takes the time to dispute some of the less scrupulous claims from earlier biographers, rather than settling for easy potshots of his own.
If there’s a problem in this biography, it lies less with the biographer and more with the life being chronicled; Koestler’s life had a sort of reverse dramatic arc. His early years were spent engaged in a variety of dramatic pursuits — journalism in Palestine, an odyssey above the Arctic on the Graf Zeppelin, a trip across the Soviet Union during which he roomed with Langston Hughes — and his middle years saw him actively engaged in fighting the Cold War on the intellectual front, but his later days saw him settled into an uneasy domesticity with his third wife, Cynthia, while his prestige and influence waned. Dabblings in parapsychology aside, Koestler’s later years were uneventful — that is, until the March evening in 1983 when he and his wife settled down for their normal pre-dinner cocktails, which they consumed with a prodigious dose of sleeping pills. They ended their lives in a peaceful and meticulously planned double suicide which nonetheless, like so much else in Koestler’s life, stirred up controversy; while he was in his 70s and in failing health, his wife was in her mid-50s, and presumably facing many more healthy years; despite her explanation of her decision on a postscript to his suicide note, his critics contended he had used his influence over her to cheat her out of a full life.
Scammell uses this incident to open the book in dramatic fashion, which is somewhat unfortunate in that it diminishes its impact at the end and further flattens the dramatic arc. Also, his introduction to the book is stunning, but this leaves the ending and conclusions feeling a little flat by comparison. One is inclined to complain a little, but it feels like nitpicking-worthy of Koestler, perhaps, but nitpicking all the same. For this issue is a mere trifle when placed against Scammell’s considerable accomplishment in taking Koestler’s story off the dusty pages of his own writings, fleshing it out with prodigious research and meticulous interviews, breathing new life into it through his own excellent writing and analysis, and making the man feel full and real once more.