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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Koestler Conundrum

By Norman Lebrecht / September 27, 2005

If Arthur Koestler were alive he'd be having a 100th birthday party this month, and who's to say he isn't? For Koestler became so convinced of the existence of an afterlife that he left the bulk of his estate to the University of Edinburgh for the purpose of founding a chair in paranormal studies.

It is for such oddities that he is chiefly remembered, for irrational enthusiasms and for the appalling manner of his death: a suicide pact forced in March 1983 on his much-younger wife, Cynthia, who was in thrall to his formidable mind. A posthumous biography by Professor David Cesarani exposed Koestler as a habitual beater of women and occasional rapist. One of his victims was Jill Craigie, wife of his good friend, the Labour politician Michael Foot. A lion of literary London, his works published in a uniform Danube Edition, Koestler was not a very nice man nor, by any reckoning, a moral paragon. When the rapes came to light, Edinburgh took down his bust (though it hung on to his money).

The trashing of Koestler's personal reputation, warranted as it may have been, has eliminated him from public memory. Koestler is no longer mentioned in the same breath as Orwell and Sartre as a maker of modern thought, nor as a formative influence on Margaret Thatcher. Few still read his twenty-odd books and fewer still his lapel-gripping journalism. Koestler has come as close as any published author can ever get to being a non-person, his centenary passing without a ripple of remembrance.

That cannot be allowed to persist, least of all in the Evening Standard where Koestler wrote regularly in the 1940s and where Foot pronounced him 'the greatest foreign novelist since Joseph Conrad paid us the compliment of writing in the English tongue.' Born in Budapest under the Habsburgs, his first language was German and he blazed a trail in Berlin papers, finding news value in quantum physics and generally broadening the range of topics that readers expected to meet over breakfast. He flew in a Zeppelin to the Arctic, roamed across Soviet Asia and reported perceptively from Jewish villages in Palestine; his 1946 novel, Thieves in the Night, is a documentary account of pioneer idealism.

Trading Zionism for Communism, he went to Spain to report the Civil War for the News Chronicle, was arrested by Franco's Falangists and held in a death cell, becoming a cause celebre for liberal England which secured his rescue in the nick of time. Disenchanted with Stalin, he exposed the Moscow show trials in Darkness at Noon (1940), a novel that is intimately informed by the fatalism that Koestler himself experienced in prison. 'I no longer believe in my own infallibility,' says his protagonist, Rubashov, 'that is why I am lost.' After Darkness in Noon, no free person on earth could believe in the benign nature of the Soviet Union.

Koestler rejected Communism as inherently inhuman, beyond reform and without redeeming values. He quoted Picasso's famous saying, 'I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water,' and bluntly overturned it: 'I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and the corpses of the damned.' In a post-War that favoured the Left, Koestler contributed the cornerstone essay to The God That Failed, a 1950 symposium edited by Richard Crossman which did more to undermine Soviet legitimacy than the combined might of the Nato powers.

As a polemicist, Koestler was irresistible. He led the fight in Britain against capital punishment with Reflections on Hanging (1956) and carried the argument to a personal extreme by appealing to the Israelis not to execute Adolf Eichmann, whose genocide had consumed many members of his family.

He was never predictable, often inconsistent, sometimes downright hypocritical. He championed euthanasia, but opposed abortion. When Cynthia fell pregnant he twice ordered her to abort, refusing to have a child that might bear his name.

He longed to be the popular historian of science that Ernst Gombrich was of art, but he could not resist a good story, regardless of empirical truth. In The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971), acclaimed by George Steiner as 'a superb intellectual thriller', he sought to rehabilitate the fraudulent Viennese biologist, Paul Kammerer. Scientists recoiled in dismay.

An early dabbler in LSD, his convictions turned wackier with advancing age. The Thirteenth Tribe (1976) sought to prove against all genetic evidence that most European Jews were descended from the ninth century Khazar kings of Central Asia and had, therefore, no claim to Palestine. A recantation of Koestler's Zionism, it was welcome propaganda for Moslem fundamentalists.

In Life After Death, Koestler developed with Arnold Toynbee a rationalist case for resurrection, or at least the transcendence of some kind of soul. He was thrilled when the rock group Police made an album with the title, and some of the ideas of his counter-behaviourist study, The Ghost in the Machine, which warned that the world was heading for self-destruction. Stricken by Parkinson's and leukaemia, he ended his life, and his wife's, with a fistful of pills.

More English eccentric than European intellectual, there was a restlessness to Koestler, an urge to challenge and be damned, that is the hallmark of many good journalists but does not warrant prolonged consideration. Koestler's singular gift was a facility for assimilating technical argument on a grand scale and presenting it as a set of binary choices, right or wrong, in a narrative style as fluent as any novelist's (though his idol was the stodgy Thomas Mann).

A new biography is promised next year from Professor Michael Scammell of Columbia University, a combative critic of Cesarani's sexual revelations. At this distance of time, it may well be that the nastier aspects of his life have faded beyond relevance and what remains is a body of work that contains three distinct masterpieces.

Darkness at Noon stands with Animal Farm and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as a deathless Cold War classic. Arrow in the Blue is a growing-up-in-Mitteleuropa memoir of unexampled clarity. And The Ghost in the Machine, for all its woolly admonitions, still provides food for thought about man's role on earth. The philosopher A J Ayer (who cannot always be believed) claimed that Koestler told him he would like to be remembered as the 20th century Darwin. Preposterous as that may sound, I suspect that our descendants will still be arguing about some of his books a hundred years from now.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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