Just 40 years ago, he was considered one of Europe's great literary minds, and one of Zionism's most prominent intellectual stewards. Yet today, his reputation lies in such tatters that we need a new biography just to remind us that he wrote five novels aside from Darkness at Noon, as well as countless influential pieces of non-fiction.
What makes Arthur Koestler's fall into obscurity doubly surprising is that his intellectual trajectory ran alongside that of George Orwell, an author who couldn't be farther from obscurity if he were alive and writing today.
The similarities are startling: Both writers were leftists who awakened to the evils of jackboot ideology in war-torn Spain; both returned from the fight against Franco to denounce the propagandism of Europe's Russophilic intelligentsia; and both are remembered best by signature dystopic masterpieces in which they laid bare the frightening psychological engine at the heart of totalitarianism.
And yet Orwell's reputation is still strong despite a career cut short by illness in 1950, while Koestler's star faded long before his death 33 years later. So, why? This is one of the many interesting questions that David Cesarani raises in his dry, but methodically rendered biography, Arthur Koestler, The Homeless Mind (Random House, $45).
The pink decade of the '30s ended less than 60 years ago, but by post-Soviet lights, it seems more like centuries. Still, it is worth revisiting, if only to enjoy the highly charged political writing of the period. While modern authors and literary critics fight their culture wars over such issues as multiculturalism and feminism, mid-century antecedents such as George Orwell, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and Andre Gide wrote their great works in the shadow of real wars. Millions of lives actually were up for grabs in their struggle to disabuse Europe's Communists and fellow travellers of totalitarian sympathies. Between the publication of Darkness at Noon in 1940, and his abandonment of political writing in 1955, no author did more to further this effort than Arthur Koestler.
But, as Cesarani illustrates in his rigidly chronological account of the writer's life, anti-communism was just one of the monomaniacal phases that filled Koestler's 78 years. As a young journalist, he moved from Zionism to Marxism to communism to anti-communism. He then picked up with anti-communism as a novelist, shifted into anti-revolutionism, and then adopted full-blown anti-rationalism. He flirted again with Zionism after the Second World War, then launched himself into chest-thumping Cold War jingoism, and finally retreated full time into his cranky obsession with science, psychology, and the mysticism that had suffused his life's work.
From a literary point of view, however, Koestler's only works of enduring value came between Darkness at Noon and The God That Failed in 1950. Before this period, his writing consisted largely of straightforward reportage and boilerplate left-wing propaganda. Afterward, when the battle for the West's most influential minds had already been largely won, his writing became sententious and sophomoric.
Unfortunately, Cesarani does not concentrate his efforts on that jewel of a decade sandwiched in between. Arthur Koestler's early meanderings through Palestine and Europe are all recounted with abundant, and often excessive, detail. At many points, whole pages are devoted to endless descriptions of marginal figures who flitted through Koestler's life. Yet where more interesting details are concerned -- Koestler's many fantastic domestic disputes and episodes of continental debauch, for instance -- Cesarani errs on the side of stinginess. How much better the book would have been if the author had trimmed some of the dry factual tinder to make room for full-bloomed treatment of Koestler's more intriguing adventures!
On the other hand, Cesarani does not flinch from describing Koestler's many faults -- especially the author's despicable attitude toward women. As episode after episode reveals, Koestler was a pathological adulterer, a misogynist, and, on several occasions, an unrepentant date-rapist. He was also a hopelessly self-destructive, vain, arrogant, and self-pitying man who marred each of his important relationships with disgraceful, drunken rows. In other words, he was in every way the psychological antipode to the ascetic, sober, humble "Burma Sergeant" who authored 1984 and Animal Farm.
Moreover, as with all egomaniacs, Koestler had the tendency to externalize his most obnoxious qualities. In his autobiographical works, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, Koestler alternated between attributing his antisocial pathologies to dubious childhood traumas, and explaining them away by casting himself as the protagonist and victim of some redemptive cosmic journey.
What is odd in Cesarani's biography is that at the same time that he catalogues Koestler's many flaws, he seems anxious to claim him as one who "exemplified the Jewish experience in Europe during the twentieth century." In the book's early pages, especially, Cesarani eagerly traces each of Koestler's important life decisions to some profound but unspoken Judaic or Zionist impulse. The effort is hardly convincing, but even if it were, the reader is left wondering why anyone would want to claim this dissolute bully as one of their own.
But it was not just because Koestler was so disgusting in his personal life that his reputation has suffered. Unlike Orwell, who rejected doctrinaire communism in favour of democratic socialism, Koestler saw the socialist experiment as naive and anachronistic (and he said as much in the rather condescending obituary he wrote for Orwell). Although Koestler was quite positively against communism, he had no concrete vision of what should replace it. It was this intellectual failing that would ultimately nudge Koestler into useless teleological utopianism.
As with the life it describes, this biography fades into melancholy in its final chapter. Koestler died under bad circumstances -- a successful suicide attempt ending a nervous and itinerant life full of many attempts that were not. In a final Pharaonic gesture that cemented his reputation for cruel selfishness, he even convinced his perfectly healthy wife to accompany him into death. Sad to say, but it was an emblematic end to the life of the brilliant but despicable man who gave the world Darkness at Noon.