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Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
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Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic

by Michael Scammell

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From award-winning author Michael Scammell comes a monumental achievement: the first authorized biography of Arthur Koestler, one of the most influential and controversial intellectuals of the twentieth century. Over a decade in the making, and based on new research and full access to its subject’s papers, Koestler is the definitive account of this


From award-winning author Michael Scammell comes a monumental achievement: the first authorized biography of Arthur Koestler, one of the most influential and controversial intellectuals of the twentieth century. Over a decade in the making, and based on new research and full access to its subject’s papers, Koestler is the definitive account of this fascinating and polarizing figure. Though best known as the creator of the classic anti-Communist novel Darkness at Noon, Koestler is here revealed as much more–a man whose personal life was as astonishing as his literary accomplishments.

Koestler portrays the anguished youth of a boy raised in Budapest by a possessive and mercurial mother and an erratic father, marked for life by a forced operation performed without anesthesia when he was five, growing up feeling unloved and unprotected. Here is the young man whose experience of anti-Semitism and devotion to Zionism provoked him to move to Palestine; the foreign correspondent who risked his life from the North Pole to Franco’s Spain, where he was imprisoned and sentenced to death; the committed Communist for whom the brutal truth of Stalin’s show trials inspired the superb and angry novel that became an instant classic in 1940. Scammell also provides new details of Koestler’s amazing World War II adventures, including his escape from occupied France by joining the Foreign Legion and his bluffing his way illegally to England, where his controversial novel Arrival and Departure, published in 1943, was the first to portray Hitler’s Final Solution.

Without sentimentality, Scammell explores Koestler’s turbulent private life: his drug use, his manic depression, the frenetic womanizing that doomed his three marriages and led to an accusation of rape that posthumously tainted his reputation, and his startling suicide while fatally ill in 1983–an act shared by his healthy third wife, Cynthia–rendered unforgettably as part of his dark and disturbing legacy.

Featuring cameos of famous friends and colleagues including Langston Hughes, George Orwell, and Albert Camus, Koestler gives a full account of the author’s voluminous writings, making the case that the autobiographies and essays are fit to stand beside Darkness at Noon as works of lasting literary value. Koestler adds up to an indelible portrait of this brilliant, unpredictable, and talented writer, once memorably described as “one third blackguard, one third lunatic, and one third genius.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Arthur Koestler exposed his mind and body to the fearful spectrum of twentieth-century ideology like a healthy man volunteering for a life of radiation therapy. He left behind his books, trays of x-rays in black and white, strangely beautiful and dreadfully revealing. Scammell's admirable biography gives full run to Koestler's body, mind, and work, and so helps us to see modern intellectual politics in its mesmerizing brilliance and depth."—Timothy Snyder, Professor of History, Yale

"There is virtually no current of twentieth-century achievement and conflict to which Arthur Koestler did not contribute in a creative and clairvoyant way. Darkness at Noon may have changed history. To Koestler's manifold passions and anguish this finely researched, incisive biography does justice—where justice is the key and challenging requirement. Michael Scammell has produced a compelling, intensely gripping study. Even the porcupine-tempered Koestler would have been proud."—George Steiner

"Elegant...A fine biography that leaves few leaves unturned, and that should revive interest in Koestler’s work."—Kirkus, starred review

"Scammell has set the stage for the rediscovery of a great writer."—Booklist, starred review

"As Scammell's fantastic account makes clear, Koestler was hardly a skeptic. He was an impassioned believer who swerved this way and that—Zionism, communism, anticommunism, science, and-pseudoscience—searching for the absolute that would save him (and us all)"—Newsweek

"A prodigy of research in many languages, and a scrupulous piece of fairminded advocacy." —New Yorker

"Scammell’s ‘Koestler’ is unlikely to be surpassed. This is Koestler in full—sins and virtues measured fairly and thoughtfully. Can a man with such flaws be a great man? As a friend noted: ‘Koestler was the embodiment of an uncompromised, unafraid, international idealism.’ There can be no greater compliment." —Wall Street Journal

"Judicious and insightful."—San Francisco Chronicle

Michael Dirda
Readers looking for a terrific biography, as well as a gripping work of intellectual history, shouldn't miss this record of "the literary and political odyssey of a 20th-century skeptic." Every page is enthralling, starting with the chapter epigraphs…Of course, one expects such excellence from the multiply gifted Michael Scammell
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The protean Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) seemed to be at the periphery of great events and movements, from Zionism to the forked world of the cold war. Scammell, author of an award-winning biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, views Koestler with balanced patience in this somewhat overlong but definitive biography. A manic-depressive with a Napoleonic complex, Koestler relished feuds with fellow intellectuals such as B.F. Skinner and Isaiah Berlin. He rubbed elbows with Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir and Orwell. Gide, as Scammell points out, stung with his observation that Koestler was better off sticking to journalism. In fact, the last 20 years of Koestler's life were devoted to such flakiness as ESP and levitation. Koestler's dilettantish range of interests is so broad, it's difficult for the biographer to get his hands on his slippery subject. Even after his most successful novels, Darkness at Noon and Thieves in the Night, Koestler never let up. Yet his flip-flops on Zionism and his oddly passive reaction to the Soviet rule of his native Hungary might leave one pondering Koestler's legacy in our vastly different 21st century. 16 pages of photos. (Dec.)
Kirkus Reviews
The first major biography in a quarter-century of Arthur Koestler (1905-83), today best known for the anti-Soviet novel Darkness at Noon (1940). Scammell (Writing/Columbia Univ.; Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, 1984), translator of Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, among others, has a handful of a subject in Koestler, who roamed continents and disciplines and gave new dimensions to the term "intellectual outlaw." He was "Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition . . . [and] never comfortable in his own skin, doomed to oscillate between arrogance and humility." Zelig-like, Koestler was everywhere at once, it seemed, throughout the most important episodes of the 20th century. He interviewed Sigmund Freud, carried documents that implicated the Nazis in the collapse of Republican Spain, hung out with Timothy Leary and Wernher von Braun, palled around with terrorists and Hollywood screenwriters and was known to Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini. Amid all that, he found time to write a half-dozen novels, countless articles and other books, growing improbably more prolific as he grew older. Scammell is more admiring of Koestler than other biographers (such as Iain Hamilton), who have ranked him as a middling novelist and willfully ignorant pop scientist. Yet Scammell somewhat wearily writes, after recounting Koestler's championing of the Israeli magician/charlatan Uri Geller, "he pursued the grail of proving extrasensory perception to the end of his life, regardless of what the majority of his contemporaries (and his public) thought." In this elegant biography, Scammell shows a troubled and sometimes troubling soul with an almoststereotypically meddlesome mother-"Don't you have even a single nice memory of your childhood and youth?" she once demanded of him-and plenty of demons, susceptible to quack theories and big ideas. But he also generated big ideas for their own sake, led the life of the independent intellectual to the hilt and essentially lived as he wished. A fine biography that leaves few leaves unturned, and that should revive interest in Koestler's work.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


A novelist is someone who hates his mother.

—Georges Simenon

when koestler came to write the first volume of his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue, he began by casting his “secular horoscope.” He took a copy of the London Times published on September 6, 1905 (one day after his birthday) and studied its contents to discover what “influences” might have been at work on the global environment into which he was born. Skimming the advertisements and some minor news stories of the day, his eye came to rest on two weightier items: “Fierce Fighting in the Caucasus,” about an anti-Jewish pogrom in Baku and the forcible suppression of a strike; and “Disturbances at Kishineff,” describing an attack on Russian workmen and Jews attending the funeral of a murdered woman.

The Russian workers’ movement and the impending revolution of 1905 were both gathering steam at the time of Koestler’s birth, and the situation of the Jews was implicated in both. Equally fascinating to Koestler was a Times editorial on the Treaty of Portsmouth between the Russian tsar and the emperor of Japan to end the Russo-Japanese War. The editorial extolled the virtues of the victorious Japanese, their “subordination of the individual to the tribe and the state,” and their “monastic discipline,” which it contrasted with the “excessive individualism” of the West. For Koestler, who had yet to make his own visit to Japan, the editorial had a sinister ring: “The clock that struck the hour of my birth also announced the end of the era of liberalism and individualism, of that harshly competitive and yet easy-going civilization which had succeeded in reconciling, thanks to a unique kindly-callous compromise, the slogan of ‘survival of the fittest’ with that of ‘laissez faire, laissez aller.’?” After listing some luminaries active in science and culture (Einstein, Freud, Tolstoy, Kipling, Cézanne, and Matisse among others), he concluded pessimistically: “I was born at the moment when the sun was setting on the Age of Reason.”1

The horoscope was a trick, of course. Looking back, Koestler picked out the events that suited him and arranged them to fit what he conceived to be the essential pattern of his life, yet for his biographer it has its uses. Strikes, pogroms, anti-Semitism, wars, the rise of the “first modern totalitarian state,” and the decline of liberal humanism—as well as striking achievements in science and the arts—all were to spark his creativity in the course of his life, while the decline of the Age of Reason became an obsession of his later years. Just as important as the subjects was the nature of the selection he made. Everything Koestler found worthy of inclusion in his horoscope was external, public, social, political. There was nothing inward or intimate in that list, little to hint at the complex psychological life and excruciating personal struggles of the person writing it.

It wasn’t that Koestler considered such things irrelevant. Later he paused to consider the two main motives for writing autobiographies, “the Chronicler’s urge” and the “Ecce homo [behold the man] motive,” both intended to transcend the isolation of the self. The chronicler stressed external events, the contemplative stressed internal processes. A good autobiography needed both. Koestler admitted that though he had once vowed to write an intimate autobiography in the tradition of Rousseau and Cellini, he had shrunk from the “process of self-immolation” that their confessions had entailed. Acknowledging the tortured nature of his own psyche, he declined to investigate it closely, preferring not to look too deeply into the convoluted contours of his mind and motives. It was not uniqueness that Koestler sought in his self-examination but universality, confirmed by his description of the two volumes of his autobiography as “the typical case history of a member of the Central-European educated middle classes, born in the first years of our century.”2

Koestler was writing in a tradition of autobiography that he adapted and improved upon to suit his particular purposes, and that has been all but superseded by the tell-all memoir of our own day, but he didn’t ignore his emotional life altogether, particularly when it came to his childhood. Though his narrative is sparse, he lets his guard down freely in places, for, under Freud’s influence, he came to regard his childhood experiences as the source of his later unhappiness.

A striking example occurs in the opening of chapter four, where Koestler arrives at the moment of his birth. “I was born in the eighth year of my parents’ marriage,” he writes, “their first and only child, when my mother was thirty five. Everything seems to have gone wrong with my birth: I weighed over ten pounds; my mother’s labor lasted two days and almost killed her. The whole unsavory Freudian Olympus, from Oedipus Rex to Orestes, stood watch at my cradle.” Oedipus, be it noted, slept with his mother, and Orestes murdered his, a fair indication of Koestler’s conflicted emotions, so perhaps it’s not surprising he got the details wrong. He was born in the sixth year of his parents’ marriage, not the eighth, and his mother was thirty-four, not thirty-five. Neither error is significant in itself. What is interesting is that Koestler’s mother was alive and well at the time he wrote his autobiography, but he couldn’t bring himself to consult her. He found it extremely hard to write about his childhood at all, and dreaded her reaction. “The awareness that she is going to read this passage in print has the same paralyzing effect which prevented me as a child from keeping a diary—knowing that wherever I hid it, it would be found and read by her.”3

Adele Koestler was eighty and Koestler forty-six when he wrote this, but he still feared her every bit as much as in childhood. Her mother love, according to him, was “excessive, possessive and capricious,” partly because he was a late and only child, but also because she was plagued by ill health and the extreme changes of mood they brought in their wake. Her loving tenderness would give way to violent outbursts of temper, and vice versa. The son claimed he was traumatized. Tossed constantly from “the emotional climate of the tropics to the arctic and back again,” he developed an early conviction of personal guilt and shame that never left him. The very chapter in which Koestler recounts his childhood is called “The Tree of Guilt.”

It’s hard to say how just this is, or when Koestler started to blame his mother for his later miseries. His few childhood letters to her that have survived are conventionally effusive and adoring, but there are very few from her to him, and her frequent absences from home suggest that she was indeed a cold, egotistical, and selfish person, whom he held responsible for his own mood swings, inferiority complex, rootlessness, and obsessive search for nirvana in the arms of countless women. It has been said of Ingmar Bergman 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. Daphne Henrion, who lived with Koestler for some years and translated Darkness at Noon, said that Koestler thought of his discarded mistresses the way he thought about his mother, and invariably recoiled once he was done with them. Throughout his adult life he remained uniformly hostile to Adele and rarely consented to visit her, though she lived in a boarding house for “Jewish Ladies” (for which he paid) only a few miles from his house in London and survived, as if to spite him, to the ripe old age of ninety-nine. Her existence was kept a close secret from all but his most intimate friends, and when she died, he downed several stiff brandies before attending her funeral, accompanied only by his agent’s secretary.4

Koestler’s father, Henrik, was a different story. Henrik was a businessman in the clothing trade, whom Koestler recalled as “energetic and quick in his movements, impeccably dressed, unfailingly optimistic in business matters and hard-working.” Henrik had a gambler’s instincts and a weakness for get-rich-quick schemes that often got him into trouble, but until the Depression was always able to recover himself. As a child Arthur barely knew him. He thought of him as a remote but kindly figure who “loved me tenderly and shyly from a distance” but with whom he never had an intimate conversation in his entire life. Koestler had little of his father’s optimism, but he inherited his work ethic, his gambler’s willingness to take risks, and his miraculous ability to land on his feet.5

In his autobiography Koestler paints a humorous picture of his family as a bunch of parvenus who came out of nowhere, flourished briefly in Vienna and Budapest in the early years of the twentieth century, and were destined to vanish, either as victims of the Holocaust or through emigration and exile (since he was an only son and childless, he thought of himself as the last of his line). There is some truth to this picture, but it also helped to conceal some details that Koestler preferred not to reveal. For example, he said his paternal grandfather, Leopold Köstler, had been a Russian Social Revolutionary who escaped to Hungary during the Crimean War, perhaps after absconding from the Russian army. This story speaks to Koestler’s love of Russia and has been accepted by everyone who writes about him, but the fact is that revolutionary movements didn’t come into existence in Russia until several years after the Crimean War, and the Social Revolutionaries didn’t appear on the scene until three decades later. Koestler was abetted in his legend by the fact that Hungary and his few surviving relatives were locked behind the Iron Curtain when he wrote about them (and, to be fair, out of reach for any research of his own).6

A moldering register of births, marriages, and deaths in the neglected synagogue of the eastern Hungarian town of Miskolc reveals that Leopold did serve in the army—not the Russian but the Austrian army (the first in Europe to allow Jews to enlist). Whether he held a commission is unclear, but he resigned from the infantry in Komárom in northwest Hungary in December 1859, and eighteen months later, as a minor government official, was sent east to serve in Miskolc. In 1861 he married Karolina (also known as Leah or Leni) Schön, the daughter of a well-to-do timber merchant, and settled down to family life. According to Koestler, Karolina’s father made Leopold manager of his highly lucrative sawmill, and when the mill mysteriously burned to the ground a few years later, Leopold and Karolina moved their family of two boys (Jonas and Heiman) and two girls (Zsanett and Betti) to Budapest.7

In deference to rising Hungarian nationalism, Leopold Magyarized his name to Lipot, and he ran a clothing store in Budapest until his retirement in 1882. He seems to have done well enough, for Koestler remembered seeing him in a morning coat, with packages of expensive lace, silk scarves, and other luxuries in his apartment (when Leopold’s younger son, Heiman, went into the textile business, he was following the family tradition). Jonas became an accountant and later a paint wholesaler, while Zsanett married a bank clerk and Betti a printer. The family was not in the least bohemian or revolutionary but solidly middle- and even upper-middle-class.8

As for Adele’s side of the family, the Iron Curtain gave Koestler good reason to conceal his mother’s true name, but it also conveniently enabled him to conceal her descent from one of the most distinguished Jewish clans of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He called her “Hitzig,” but her true name was Jeiteles, and she could trace her ancestry not to the legendary high rabbi Loeb, the sixteenth-century creator of the Golem, as Koestler mistakenly thought, but to another celebrated holy man, Rabbi Loeb ben Simon, who lived in Prague a half century later. Other notable forebears (not mentioned by Koestler) include Mishel Loeb, a prominent physician and essayist in the eighteenth century; his son Judah, a poet, orientalist, and educator, who invented the Hebrew term Haskalah to describe the Jewish Enlightenment; and Judah’s son Andreas, who wrote poetry under the name of Justus Frey (Beethoven set some of his poems to music). A later descendant, Isaac Jeiteles, was a popular Austrian novelist who published more than a hundred books under the name of Julius Seydlitz, and Adele’s grandfather Israel Jeiteles was one of those rare Jews able to display the emperor’s royal warrant on his notepaper. His son Jacob (Adele’s father) managed the Bohemian branch of the family’s financial interests and married Wilhelmina Reiner in Prague. They had three children: Rosa, born in 1870; Adele, born in 1871; and Otto, born in 1872. By 1876 the family had moved back to Vienna and Jacob had established his own business as an importer and wholesaler.9

On his mother’s side, then, Koestler’s forebears were wealthy, famous, and well connected. Adele herself grew up in luxury, “pretty, witty, and much courted,” seemingly with the whole of Vienna at her feet. A studio portrait of her when young shows a fine head of hair framing a handsome, high-cheeked face, with bangs curling low over her broad forehead. In another she’s wearing a fox fur and a broad-brimmed hat, her head tilted provocatively back, fixing the camera with bold, almond-shaped eyes (which Adele bequeathed to her son). Adele was educated in German, French, and English, attended art school for a time, and used to lunch occasionally with her aunt Eleonore, a formidable lady who ran a famous high school for young ladies known colloquially as the Jeiteleum. A progressive woman with feminist instincts, Eleonore persuaded her high-strung niece to consult a promising young Jewish physician named Sigmund Freud about a persistent tic that was bothering her.

Adele was not impressed. “Freud massaged my neck and asked me silly questions,” she complained to Koestler some fifty years later. “I told you he was a disgusting fellow.” She told Kurt Eissler, secretary of the Sigmund Freud Archives, that she had visited Freud only reluctantly (“you were held to be half-crazy if you went to Dr. Freud”) and had disliked him on sight, mainly because of his black side-whiskers. She said that while massaging her neck Freud had asked her if she had a sweetheart. Shocked, she refused to answer and hurried away as fast as she could. Freud’s interest in sex was “scandalous and outlandish,” and though her girlfriends couldn’t wait to hear about her visit, Adele claimed that no one in her circle took him seriously.10

Adele’s father, Jacob, was said to have been ruined when one of the Jeiteles girls married a “villainous adventurer” who induced him to endorse a loan and then defaulted on it, causing Jacob to go bankrupt and flee to America. As a companion piece to the story of grandfather Leopold appearing out of Russia, this account of another grandfather disappearing to America has a seductive symmetry, but Jacob didn’t exactly disappear. In 1900 he was living on West Fifty-third Street in New York City, and by 1902 was on East Seventy-first Street, giving his occupation as “president” (although of what isn’t clear). He established businesses downtown and uptown, became treasurer of a company called Lispenard, and was last heard of in 1910, living on West 120th Street. In July 1907 he wrote to Adele from the Berkshires, sending her, “in exchange for your beautiful photos,” a postcard of himself relaxing in a rocking chair, holding a walking stick and petting a dog. The mystery of why he emigrated and what happened to him remains unsolved, and Koestler was disinclined to unravel it.11

The Jeiteles girl who married a “villainous adventurer” was Adele’s elder sister, Rosa, and the adventurer was her Hungarian husband, Siegfried Aldor, who lived in Budapest. One result of the financial scandal was that Adele and her mother were forced to move to Budapest to live with Rosa and Siegfried, though it’s surprising that they should have chosen to live with the “villain” (if indeed he was) who had been the cause of their misery. As women unaccustomed to work, they probably had no choice, but the move constitutes another mystery that has never been resolved.12

Meet the Author

Michael Scammell is the author of Solzhenitsyn, a Biography, which won the Los Angeles Times and English PEN’s prizes for best biography after its publication. He is the editor of The Solzhenitsyn Files, Unofficial Art from the Soviet Union, and Russia’ s Other Writers, and has translated Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other Russian authors into English. His reviews and articles have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Harpers, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and translation in the School of the Arts at Columbia University in New York.

Michael Scammell has been shortlisted for the LA Times biography prize.

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