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Book Review: Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic by Michael Scammell

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While back in the middle of the last century, Arthur Koestler was considered one of the leading literary lights of the period — a journalist and novelist, an intellectual whose work not only captured the current zeitgeist but might well be the recognized voice of the era for ages to come, though  today it would seem that light has somewhat dimmed. Koestler's work, other than Darkness at Noon, the novel that made him famous, is little read and gathers, as the author himself was wont to forecast, dust. Michael Scammell's new biography, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, will do much to rehabilitate the man and his work for this new century's readers.

Koestler's problem is that he doesn't fit nicely into any of the standard literary or political niches. Early on, he embraced a kind of utopian Communism which he found embodied in Russia, only to reject it as totalitarian dictatorship as a result of Stalin's pact with Hitler during WWII and the show trials of party members in various iron curtain countries after the war. He was unable to join with other European intellectuals, like Sartre, in supporting Russian actions as necessary means to a greater end, and turned with some reservation to American democracy instead. Indeed, Darkness at Noon is his impassioned attack on the degeneration of the Communist ideal under Stalin. Still even here, he was uncomfortable with the right wing passions of the McCarthyites as indeed they were with him. He found himself in the middle of two extreme political points of view, neither of which he could accept, nor they him.

As a young man he supported Zionism, even managing a permit to travel to Palestine to join a kibbutz, only once there to discover that pioneer life was a bit rough for him. Moreover, here too he was caught between two conflicting ideologies — those who looked for political solutions to get the British to stand behind the Balfour Declaration and those revisionists who espoused terrorist action as the only way to pressure the Brits. Unlike his attitude to Soviet expediency, Koestler saw in the revisionist ideas and actions a legitimate example of ends justifying means. His novel Thieves in the Night uses his experiences in Palestine to develop his political position, and again put him in the position of alienating not only the conventional Zionists, but the British as well. Later in life his ideas about race and assimilation placed him outside the mainstream of Israel and its supporters.

There is even a question about where to place Koestler as a literary figure. He was born in Hungary, but when he wrote, it was in German and then in English. He became a British citizen, but he lived much of the time in France and the United States. He began as a journalist, and continued writing for periodicals throughout his career. His greatest work was in the novel, and though he wrote several more works of fiction, he never managed another as good. It was not until he turned to autobiography, according to Scammell, that he once again produced work of similar quality. Finally in the last stage of his life he turned to writing about science and then to the paranormal. There are so many variants to his life and work that it becomes difficult to find a cubby hole in which to place him.

Scammell paints a picture of the man that is not always very flattering. Fond of intellectual debate, Koestler was often contentious and overbearing in argument, sometimes resorting to violent behavior in the heat of the moment. His belligerence is traced at times to feelings of inadequacy because of his short stature, at times to embarrassment about his heavy accent, at times to his ego, plain and simple. He drank too much. His womanizing was legendary; he liked to keep score of his conquests in his diary. He felt that an element of force added spice to love making, and he wasn't beyond physical abuse. There was even an accusation of rape by one of his lady friends (an accusation Scammell denies). In a time before the feminist revolution, he treated his women like servants.

Nonetheless, he was a familiar of many of the most important figures of the twentieth century, and Scammell offers nice little character touches of many of them. Simone de Beauvoir complains about Koestler's poor performance after he insists on getting her in bed. Camus makes a pass at Koestler's wife-to-be while dancing at a night club and writes romantic letters to her signing himself Tinkie. Whittaker Chambers spends half a day working on his farm, half a day working on his writing. Bertrand Russell reacts to his wife's accusation that she was raped. Edmund Wilson proposes to Koestler's lover, Mamaine. Erwin Schrodinger is afraid of wasps and Koestler makes him a gift of a fly swatter to defend himself. Walter Benjamin shares the morphine he is hoarding to commit suicide with Koestler in case he is caught by the Fascists.

Koestler is a book that captures the man, his significance to his own time and his importance for ours. It is well documented and eminently readable. It’s the kind of biography that will have you at the local library looking for a copy of Darkness at Noon or either of Koestler's two autobiographical works, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, the books that most recognize as the author at his best.

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