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

Michael Scammell
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Hardcover, 29 Dec 2009 --  

Book Description

29 Dec 2009
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.”

Product details

  • Hardcover: 689 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (NY) (29 Dec 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394576306
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394576305
  • Product Dimensions: 23.3 x 16.3 x 4.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,501,595 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Book Description

From award-winning author Michael Scammell comes the first authorized biography of Arthur Koestler. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Michael Scammell won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography in 1985 for his life of Solzhenitsyn, and is the translator of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Solzhenitsyn, among many others. He is a former president of PEN American Center and a vice-president of International PEN, and has written regularly for the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. He teaches non-fiction writing and translation in the School of the Arts at Columbia. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book about Koestler 27 Mar 2010
If you have time to read only one book about Arthur Koestler, read this one. There are at least two other biographies:- one by Iain Hamilton written while Koestler was still alive - science-blind and very incomplete; and one by David Cesarani, hostile, unmasking, and almost as science-blind as Hamilton's. Michael Scammell has written a marvellous critical biography. He has been thorough. He pays attention to all aspects of Koestler's life and work. He writes beautifully. He is aware of Koestler's faults without this leading him into downright hostility. And he does justice to the extraordinary complexity of this unique and brilliant man.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A model biography 23 Mar 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Previous biographical efforts on Koestler have been under researched. Scammell makes up for this in spades: 571 pages plus 79 pages of notes. He has had access to private diaries, correspondence and even declassified official documents from several countries. He describes, sometimes at tedious but necessary length, K's complicated private life, his depression, alcoholism and serial womanising, but there are many arresting details. The title of "Darkness at Noon" was taken from the Book of Job, not Milton's Samson Agonistes and was chosen withou K's knowledge by the English translator in preference to the original title "The Vicious Circle". Sometimes comic - his publisher sent cigarettes to K when he was in Pentonville Prison as an undesirable alien, saying he would deduct the costs from K's royalties. Or the interrogator's report on his arrival in Britain "K is almost certainly a Jew but in view of possible repercussions from the News Chronicle, the question was not put". Read this book to find out on page 212 what K and Dylan Thomas did to Michael Foot's copy of "Darkness at Noon". Though K wrote two autobiographies, Scammell shows what he left out, which was quite a lot. His analysis of the relationship between K's personal experiences and his fiction is masterly.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thank you Michael Scammell 23 April 2010
I have been an ardent admirer of Koestler's ideas and writings for 25 yeards now. As you can guess, I was rather shocked when I read David Cesarani's biography of Koestler ("The Homeless Mind" : 1999).
Using the story of one woman 50 years after the event as a case for proving that Koestler was a "serial rapist".
I have read a lot of biographies in my life and I am convinced that a decent biographer would have been more careful and just mentioned it and left it at that.
Nobody will ever be able to prove what happened; but after this book nobody will be able to disprove it either. The book utterly destroyed Koestler's reputation when it came out. And mine as well...

Michael Scammel has just published a new biography of Arthur Koestler : "The Indispensable Intellectual".
Thank you Michael Scammell for putting things in a clearer perspective and raising some very convincing question marks around the whole story. Thank you also for writing the first biography that goes beyond retelling Koestler's own autobiography.

We must never forget that Koestler has always been despised as a 'renegade' by jews and communists alike. Cesarani, in the introduction of his book mentions the revulsion the name Koestler provoked when his own father heard Koestler's name; his father still being a dedicated communist.
I don't know whether Cesarani is a Jew, but he surely has strong Jewish sympathies if you look at his literary output. I am convinced that Cesarani, while writing his biography of Arthur Koestler, could not withstand the temptation of settling a score. Offcourse I can not prove any of this...
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Where other biographies of Koestler, including his own (Arrow in the Blue: The First Volume of an Autobiography - 1905-31) deal strictly with parts of the man's life and creation and are in a sense incomplete, Scammell's is a work of most thorough research and it finally brings it all together, warts as well the touches of genious that characterised one of the 20th century's most notorious intellectuals.

I think everyone who has read and been impressed by Koestler's work will benefit greatly from this biography - it will put so many things in context, including his unbelievable breadth of scientific understanding, his relatively peerless interdisciplinarity, as well as his excellent intuitive / insiders' understanding of the subject matters of both his fiction and non fiction work. If you marvel how the same individual could discuss the finer points of Lamarckism in The Case of the Midwife Toad and write probably the most inspired critique of communist trials in Darkness at Noon, be an authority on the process of creativity (The Act of Creation (Arkana)) and describe a scientific conference to a T in Call Girls, this biography is likely to provide pretty much all the answers.

While being much less critical of Koestler than some of his earlier biographers and leaving out much less than Koestler himself, Scammell by no means acts as an apologist or idolator.
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