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Ann M. BegleyAugust 30, 2010
Koestlerby Michael ScammellRandom House. 720p. $35

The Budapest-born British author and political activist Arthur Koestler was a man of controversy in death as in life. Hands trembling with Parkinson’s disease and diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, he nonetheless continued to write, albeit with great difficulty, until a swelling in the groin indicated a metastasis of the cancer. And so in 1983, at his home in London, he, at age 77, together with his third wife, Cynthia Jefferies, age 55, killed themselves with an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol.

His suicide note reveals "timid hopes for a de-personalized after-life beyond the confines of space, time, and matter.... This 'oceanic feeling'  has often sustained me," he confides, "and does so now...." Koestler had long been in favor of euthanasia, and so it was not surprising that--his body deteriorating and death imminent--he chose to take his life. But why, it has been asked, did he consent--as he clearly did--to the simultaneous suicide of his healthy and much younger wife? Eyebrows were further raised when his will disclosed that he had left the bulk of his estate to found a chair of parapsychology at Edinburgh University. His best-known scientific publications are Roots of Coincidence (1972), an attempt to establish a relationship between extrasensory perceptions and quantum physics, and The Challenge of Change (1973), a study of coincidences and their relationship to the hypotheses of Carl Jung.

In his meticulously researched authorized biography, Michael Scammell, a scholar and translator of Russian literature, paints the portrait of a combative man, quick to take offense and slow to forgive, "Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition," forever oscillating between arrogance and humility. Suffering from a form of manic depression, he treated the ailment with large quantities of alcohol, bolstered by an assortment of drugs: in the 1960s he took LSD with Timothy Leary. He partied hard, drinking and arguing politics and philosophy all night and well into the morning with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.

Labeled a sexual predator by friend and foe alike, he flirted outrageously with other men's wives. A compulsive adulterer, he was repeatedly unfaithful to all three of his wives as well as other women he lived with. As one critic put it, referring to Koestler's dizzying list of seductions, philandering on this scale is neurotic. David Cesarani, in a previous biography, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998), goes so far as to call his subject a "serial rapist." Scammell disputes this charge at some length, pointing out discrepancies in the various allegations. Still, he quotes from one of Koestler's letters that "without an element of initial rape in seduction, there is no delight." Said to have had misogynist tendencies, Koestler bullied the numerous women with whom he had relations, insisting on an abortion if they became pregnant. Nonetheless there was, it seems, an unacknowledged daughter with whom he refused to have any contact.

Koestler abandoned his university studies in Vienna to travel to Palestine in order to participate fully in the Zionist movement. Although his enthusiasm was short-lived, the four years he spent in the Middle East jumpstarted his career in journalism. Returning to Europe, he traveled extensively, “perpetually in search of a country”—to use Malraux’s words—before settling in England. Working primarily in Paris and Berlin, he interviewed heads of state, prominent literary and political figures—greatly enhancing his reputation. As a writer, he changed languages twice: first from Hungarian to German, then from German to English. Like many intellectuals of the 1930s, he looked upon the Soviet Union as the hope of the future and joined the Communist Party. Glossing over the patent evidence of mass starvation he encountered in “the promised land,” he wrote a laudatory account of the forced collectivization.

In Spain during the Civil War, he was imprisoned under sentence of death but was eventually exchanged for the wife of one of Franco’s ace fighter pilots. In France, he was interned in a Vichy concentration camp for six months as an “undesirable alien,” an experience that engendered Scum of the Earth (1941), his first novel written in English. To escape the Gestapo, he joined the French Foreign Legion. Then, upon arriving in North Africa, he deserted and made his way to England, where, lacking an entry permit, he was once again imprisoned pending an investigation of his case. As soon as he was released, he volunteered for army service.

His romance with Communism over, he published his best and most influential book, the devastating anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon (1940, translated from German into English in 1941), an event that catapulted him to international fame. Over the years, espousing many causes, Koestler wrote over 25 novels and essays, biographies, five autobiographical works, a volume on the history of science, as well as a considerable body of articles on subjects as varied as Eastern mysticism, evolution, psychology, genetics, neurology, chess and the paranormal—to mention only some. He was awarded the prestigious Sonning Prize for outstanding contribution to European literature and was made a Commander of the British Empire.

And yet Koestler’s reputation has waned, as is evidenced by the absence of any major commemoration on the centenary of his birth. This is partly due to his obsessive interest, during the last years of his life, in the paranormal, to his stance that Jews should either migrate to Israel or assimilate completely into their local cultures and to the view expressed in The Thirteenth Tribe (1976) that the bulk of modern Jewry is not of Palestinian but Caucasian origin. Then, to be sure, his countless sexual transgressions have deeply tarnished his reputation. But the primary reason is, perhaps, that the central moral and political issue of his time and the subject of his greatest work, the struggle against Communism, no longer evokes much interest.

Michael Scammell’s hefty volume (with 16 pages of black and white photos) is more than a detailed account of a man’s life, an insight into his oeuvre and a recreation of a historical period; it is an effort, in elegant prose, to revive a literary reputation that has declined.

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