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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He contained multitudes, 19 April 2011
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This review is from: Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual (Paperback)
This is a masterly account and analysis of the life of a brilliant polymath, a deep and restless thinker, first, about the political and ethical problems of his time, and, later, about the place of humanity in the universe. He was an ex-Hungarian, an ex-Communist, an ex-Zionist. He was exuberantly "continental", a cosmopolitan, frequently moving homes from one country and even one continent to another; a journalist, a campaigner against capital punishment, a hectoring controversialist, a political novelist, a voluminous autobiographer. He was usually (but not always) selfish, financially generous, arrogant but self-critical, introspective, neurotic, a heavy drinker (and as such involved in several car accidents), manic-depressive, mercurial, sparkling, hot-tempered and uninhibited in behaviour, competitive, both repellent and charismatic, a thrice married, domineering and quarrelsome husband who treated his submissive wives as dogsbodies, a compulsive philanderer (in a notebook he listed "between a hundred and two hundred women" he had slept with by the time he was 35, and he kept this sort of thing up for years). Yet every time we think what a dreadful man he was, we have to remember the enormous number of establishment figures who, for all the quarrels they had with him, sought out his stimulating company and (if female) were open to be seduced by him. At least several of these women had the good sense to decline when, in later life, Koestler, often after the briefest of acquaintanceship, asked them to marry him.

The most dramatic years of his life were the 1930s and 1940s. He was an anti-nationalist journalist in Spain during the Civil War, taken and held prisoner for three months by the nationalists and saved from execution because he was ostensibly reporting for the News Chronicle. The account of his experiences there, "Spanish Testament", was his first major publishing success.

He was held for another three months during the Phoney War in a primitive French internment camp as a suspect communist (though he had resigned from the Party and was in the middle of writing "Darkness at Noon", the novel explaining how the Communists brainwashed Party members into confessions that would result in their executions) and was released when once again influential people in England interceded for him.

Briefly arrested again when the Germans invaded France, he bluffed his way out and was in hiding in Paris until he managed to join the Foreign Legion with false papers (as a Swiss citizen), and, after many heart-stopping moments, reached the South of France, then Oran in Algeria from where he wangled a passage to Lisbon. After two months there (during which he had a stormy affaire with a married American woman and had made a second failed suicide attempt), he got a place on a plane to England. His account of his experiences in France, "Scum of the Earth", would be another huge success.

When he arrived in England, he had his fourth spell (six weeks) in prison as a suspicious character. During that time "Darkness at Noon" was published. From prison he was conscripted into the Pioneer Corps, but pulled strings to get out of it in less than a year to join the Ministry of Information. He was soon part of the circle of the leading writers and thinkers in England, most of them on the Left.

When he visited France in 1946 and 1947, he was even more of a success there, especially in Existentialist circles, at least until his anti-Communism clashed with their sympathies for the Soviet Union. His anti-Communism and his urging that the United States must exert its influence against the Soviet Union had already made him famous in America and led to an invitation to the United States by the liberal Partisan Review; but he allowed himself to be courted also by the cold warriors of the American Right, to the dismay of his original hosts, especially when he sided with Senator McCarthy and with Whittaker Chambers (against Alger Hiss). He would, in its early stages, become the most prominent and most militant figure in the Congress of Cultural Freedom, created with the help of secret CIA funds (of which Koestler at the time was unaware) to counter the insidious headway made by Soviet propaganda. The irony now was that, being now excoriated by the liberal left, the right regarded him as unreliable because his latest novel, "the Age of Longing", showed the Communists as made of sterner stuff than their opponents.

Isolated as he felt in politics, in around 1955 Koestler gave up political writing and played no public part over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 or, despite his earlier writings about Israel ("Thieves in the Night", "Promise and Fulfilment") over the Six Day War in 1967. (And he was to write one more book on a Jewish subject: "The Thirteenth Tribe", in which he maintained that the Jews of Eastern Europe were descendants of the Khazars, and not of the Jews of Biblical Israel.) Instead, he turned to an interest in creativity in science and in the arts (writing "The Sleepwalkers" and "The Act of Creation") and in the nature of consciousness ("The Ghost in the Machine"). In this last book, Koestler saw man's inherent violence as having physiological rather than psychological causes, and, having long been interested in mind-bending drugs, believed that a cure for it would one day lie in chemical compounds. In "The Case of the Midwife Toad" he suggested that Lamarck might not have been "completely and entirely wrong". He took Extra-Sensory Perception seriously in "The Roots of Coincidence". These harmed his reputation in some quarters, but not in all: it was now (1971) that he was awarded the CBE.

A gentler Koestler emerges in the last few pages, as he became old and ill; and it was gently that he and his wife went into that good night together.
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Location: London United Kingdom

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