on 24 January 2010
While it's nice to see he's not completely forgotten, it would have been great if the author had stuck to biography instead of moral condemnation for incidents unproved, and behaviour in conformity with the social standards of his time. Imagine if we had to rummage through the diaries of all the literary, or for that matter, philosophical, musical, etc greats in search of un-PC behaviour, and on finding something does does not conform to today's illiberalist notions of correct social behaviour, condemning their characters, and possibly even their work as a result. Imagine if we not only used their diaries, but took as statements of fact ANYTHING recorded by anyone who once knew the artist. We would have to eliminate much of our favourite music and art from Koestler's generation and before. We must judge these individuals by what was politically correct in THEIR day, not ours, and we generally do this if the artists behaved themselves, and didn't attack what we hold dear.
That is part of the reason why this book is not an objective study. In his life, Koestler upset a large number of people from many different social groupings, be they communists, fascists, Nazis, Indians (his assessment of Gandhi), death penalty supporters, Darwinists, scientists from various fields who opposed his views, the French, the English sometimes, many others, but perhaps most importantly, the Jewish people. His attitude in Promise and Fulfillment plus supporting essays he wrote a bit later were unforgivable for many Jewish people, and he crowned it all much later with The Thirteenth Tribe, which proposes the theory that many Jews of Eastern European origin are in fact Caucasians.
Leaving aside the validity of his statements regarding the Jewish people, it is quite clear when looking at all his works, mostly with absolutely no connection with Judaism, that his Jewishness was not a personal obsession. This is where the author's personal feelings come into play and prevent his assessment of Koestler from being objective. As an important writer of books on Jewish-related themes, he has made a great contribution in that field, and I believe initially his intentions were good in helping keep Koestler's memory alive. Sadly, the removal of Koestler's bust from the University of Edinburgh following the belief that Koestler was a 'serial rapist' show just how alive and well Koestler's favourite concept of Bathwaterism is. One does not label another a serial rapist until that individual has been found guilty in a court of law, and Cesarani's evidence for this is seriously lacking. Thus, he may have brought Koestler's name back into the public eye, but at the great cost of blackening a great man's life.
Those who choose to discard Koestler's contribution to 20th century thought because he did not conform to today's idea of political correctness, which in a hundred years will no doubt itself be considered politically incorrect, besides this book and many others like it, are doing themselves a great disservice. Koestler's various analyses of the wide range of interests he put his heart into were deeper and far-reaching than anyone else's of his time and since. Just compare his masterful 'Reflections on Hanging' with Albert Camus' comparatively unconvincing 'Reflections on the Guillotine'. It is a shame that despite being nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, society was unable to show it's gratitude for his grand contribution while he was alive, but considering the lesser talents to which it has been, and still is today awarded, and the politics behind the prize, it is perhaps better so.
It must be remembered that Cesarani is a typical specimen of the species 'Homo Castratus', who sees female abuse in one-night stands, tolerates female adultery but not male (many of his Koestler's girlfriends were two-timing him, or were married women cheating on their husbands), and sees debauchery in an all-nighter at a nightclub. How he'd judge half the people I know, male or female, would be interesting. What is evident though, is that one would have to live the life of a saint to come through the Cesarani PC-analysis unscathed. The bigger problem, though, is that Cesarani allows his disapproval of Koestler's lifestyle (which one can't help wondering if he secretly envies, so extreme is his criticism) to cloud his judgement of Koestler's work too, resulting in him giving a negative slant whenever possible, while glossing over Koestler's good side, like his extreme generosity (such as setting up a fund to support penniless emigrant writers, helping out a number of strangers who asked for financial help through the post, being overly generous to ex-wives and girlfriends, etc).
According to Cesarani, Koestler's greatest work is his journalism, this despite the impact The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine had on the academic world, and the multitude of symposia and congresses he was invited to as a result, besides the doctorate and honorary degrees he later received. It seems Cesarani is saying the hundreds of academics who respected Koestler's contributions to science were all wrong, were all fooled by a novelist turned pseudo-scientist. But in fairness to Cesarani, one must compare his life as a modern American university professor, living in the PC-minefield that is the modern American university, with that of Koestler's, a seemingly endless round of drinking, partying, women vying for his attention, as well as artistic and commercial success, all a result of his unique talent plus a charismatic and sociable personality. When one makes this comparison, the reasons for Cesarani's envy become only too clear.
As far as the allegations of hating women go, keep in mind that Koestler maintained close relations with most of his ex-girlfriends and ex-wives until his death, and helped out his ex-wives on numerous occasions long after their separations. The most vigorous supporters of Koestler were often women, including many who Cesarani accuses of abusing or raping! On the contrary, Koestler both loved and needed women in his life. Far from hating them, if anything, he simply loved them too much...
This book is still worth getting despite my three stars due to the lack of other material on Koestler, but always remember to keep your PC-filter switched ON. That is the only way you can be assured of 'historical correctness'.
PS - I'd advise anyone interested to have a look at the reviews of this book on the American Amazon for a more balanced view. Readers in that country are more familiar with Cesarani and his type and give the book a more realistic assessment than the only other reviewer of the book here.
(January 2010 update: Michael Scammell has just written the definitive biography on Koestler. You can forget about this book now.)