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Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual Paperback – 3 Feb 2011
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'Magisterial and subtle biography ... this is a skillfully structured work ... most of Koestler's earlier biographies have homed in on his lechery, for all commercial reasons. This is a warts-and-all work, not with only warts. Koestler was a super-sophisticated man. At last, in Michael Scammell, he has a sophisticated biographer who can place his subject in context.' --Evening Standard
'Magisterial biography ... [Scammell s] book is an exercise in rehabilitation and will surely become the definitive life.' --John Carey, Sunday Times
'Powerful new biography ... this is an immensely thorough biography which explores the whole range of Koestler's achievements ... the research that has gone into this biography is prodigious.' --Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph Book of the Week
Award-winning author Michael Scammell's Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual is the first authorized biography of Arthur Koestler.See all Product description
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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.
There is the Spanish Civil War (K covered it, then was imprisoned by Franco and nearly executed), the flight of Central European Jews to Palestine (K went back and forth several times, in different capacities: emigrant, journalist, political player), the rise of Nazism (K watched it happen around him), the start of the Second World War (K was stuck in France initially, then got out), the experience of war from the Home Front, the political turbulence at the end of the war (K was involved with the Communists), the Cold War (disillusioned with Communism, K was a uniquely influential Cold Warrior), and much much more - the Secret Speech, Hungary, the Berlin Wall, its all there.
Along the way we meet so many of K's close friends (Sartre, Orwell, Camus, and many many more), even find out how Capital Punishment ceased in Britain (K personally master-minded much of the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment). Where might one stop in describing what this book covers, and how well it presents history as an urgently lived experience.
You must read this book. You owe it to yourself. You must must must! It is that good.
Fluently written - it is a joy to read - and systematically researched, it truly is a great book. No library covering history and international affairs in the mid 20th century is complete without it.
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