A review of Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell.

Coming face to face with one's favorite author, Arthur Koestler warned an admirer in 1975, is "a bit like having a wonderful meal of goose liver and then meeting the goose."

Something similar applies to reading a really thorough biography of a writer one has long admired. Michael Scammell's new biography of Koestler was ten years in the making and, Scammell tells us in the acknowledgments, took him to fourteen countries on three continents. Such diligence, by a seasoned translator and biographer, could hardly fail to shed light on Koestler's ideas, and on how his very eventful life shaped his writing. By the time you set the book down, though, you are thoroughly acquainted with the goose.

Born in 1905, Koestler belonged to that "witness generation" of Western intellectuals who were seduced, or at least tempted, by Communism, but who had their eyes opened and became voices for reason and liberty during the Cold War. Ignazio Silone (born 1900), Whittaker Chambers (1901), Malcolm Muggeridge and George Orwell (both 1903), James Burnham and Raymond Aron (both 1905)—these were the chroniclers of lost political illusions in the middle of the 20th century. Koestler and Silone were both among the six writers who recorded their disenchantment in the 1949 book The God That Failed.

Koestler's acquaintance with Communism was early and direct. Raised in Budapest, at age 13½ he became a citizen of the second Communist state in history, Béla Kun's Hungarian Soviet Republic. Koestler's family were, like Kun's, irreligious Jews (Kun=Cohn). When, after four months in power, the Kun regime was swept away by the reactionary and antisemitic Miklós Horthy, the Koestlers fled to Vienna.

Arthur never again spent much time in Hungary. (The longest spell, described with much warmth and color in one of his autobiographical books, was during the summer of 1933.) He attended a technical college in Vienna but became a Zionist and dropped out of college to go and live as a pioneer in Palestine. There, after a spell of near-starvation, he slipped into journalism, and for the rest of his life made his living by writing: in German and Hungarian until 1940, thereafter in English.

Michael Scammell deals briskly with those early years. The main thing he uncovers for us is some clarification of Koestler's fraught relationship with his mother, Adele. She was an inattentive parent and perhaps, to her son's knowledge, an unfaithful wife. "Resolute, temperamental, caustic, and irritable," Koestler called her, and he nursed his resentments through to Adele's death in 1960, aged 90. Scammell, speaking of Koestler's 1952 memoir Arrow in the Blue, tells us that:

Another tutelary god hovering over the autobiography was Sigmund Freud…. Koestler interpreted his promiscuity, for example, in Freudian terms, ascribing it to his inability to separate from his mother.


Adele actually had a consultation with Freud when a young woman in Vienna around 1890, and Koestler himself called on the father of psychoanalysis in 1938. Nervous, he misspoke, addressing Freud as a Nobel Prize winner. "Well, you know," replied Freud, "I am an old Jew now, but they never gave me the Nobel Prize."

* * *

The goosiest aspect of Koestler the man was that promiscuity. Koestler is fairly frank about it in his autobiographical books—Arrow in the Blue includes a nostalgic 14-page account of prewar Parisian brothels—but Michael Scammell chronicles the full scale of Koestler's sexual adventures and misadventures—the "ruthless intensity" with which he pursued women.

There were three marriages, none of them featuring an enthusiastic groom. Mamaine Paget, the second Mrs. Koestler, reported to her twin sister after the wedding ceremony that: "He loves me as much as he is capable of, which isn't much."

The third marriage, in 1965, was to Cynthia Jefferies, a South African secretary Koestler had been sleeping with occasionally since first employing her 16 years earlier. Doggedly loyal though somewhat out of her depth in Koestler's multilingual high-intellectual circles, Cynthia stayed with Koestler to the end.

Scammell's account of Koestler's decision to marry Cynthia is unsparing. Koestler had been offered a visiting lectureship at Stanford, but feared to leave Cynthia behind in England, as she was in depression and quite dependent on him; "but the United States was such a puritanical country that if he took her, he would have to marry her." (How long ago that seems!) Koestler seriously contemplated suicide as an alternative to the marriage; but the couple were wed at last in New York, with the James Burnhams as witnesses and sole guests. Suicide came later: the ailing husband and his healthy wife died together from self-administered drug overdoses in 1983.

Whether married or single, Koestler seduced innumerable women. The sex act was, though, entirely recreational for him. He had no wish to be a father—because of his own unhappy childhood, he claimed, but more probably from sheer selfishness and lack of interest in child-raising. Mamaine's twin sister wrote: "He rightly surmised that children would seriously interfere with his work and thus prove an intolerable source of irritation to him." Koestler came, as the English say, from Havington, not Givington. Italian socialite Janine Graetz was the only person to bear Koestler a child. This was in 1955, and much against Koestler's wishes; he did his best to ignore his daughter.

For all this wealth of experience, Koestler was a brusque lover—a stranger to foreplay, according to one of Scammell's informants. Sometimes he was more than brusque. Following his seduction of Mamaine in the spring of 1944, he wrote her a half-apologetic letter: "I know that I behaved in a rather swinish way…but I still believe that is permissible if the result is enjoyed by both. Without an element of initial rape there is no delight."

This is the context for the claim by Jill Craigie, wife of British politician Michael Foot, that Koestler, drunk, had taken her by force in 1952. The claim was made in 1994 or 1995, Koestler long dead and Craigie well into her eighties. Many doubted it, not least because the Foots had happily socialized with the supposed rapist for years afterwards—they had been guests of honor at Koestler's 70th birthday party. There was a terrific fuss nonetheless, and Koestler's name is still mud in feminist circles.

* * *

His career as a journalist led Koestler into the dramatic adventures of his late twenties and thirties. He joined the German Communist Party in 1932, traveled in the USSR, and reported on the Spanish Civil War. In the course of the latter he was arrested by Franco's forces and spent three months in a jail cell daily expecting to be shot. Released and back in Paris—his base after Hitler's takeover of Germany—he resigned from the Party and joined other expatriate German anti-fascists in founding a political magazine, Die Zukunft (The Future). In was in search of contributions that he had called on Freud.

Soon he was swept up in the chaos and paranoia of the phony war, and then of the German blitzkrieg of France. After hair-raising escapades and two more spells of internment he washed up in Britain, and quickly turned himself into an English-language writer. Along the way he blended his Spanish prison experiences and his inner knowledge of Communism into a gripping novel about an old Bolshevik arrested in Stalin's purges. Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, made Koestler's name. It was far and away the best piece of fiction he ever wrote.

After losing his faith in Communism Koestler drifted away from politics altogether. The early years of the Cold War filled him with dread. He dabbled in organized anti-Communism—the CIA-linked Congress for Cultural Freedom and an offshoot, founded by himself, the Fund for Intellectual Freedom. Scammell makes it clear that Koestler had not the temperament for committee work, and his inner political fires were burning low. That restless intellect needed another outlet.

The decisive turn came in 1959 with the book The Sleepwalkers. Essentially a history of cosmology from Pythagoras to Newton, this was a labor of love for Koestler, a book he felt driven to write. The writing of it took him three years—more time, I think, than he gave to any other book. It brought fully to life, like characters in a good novel, people who had, to non-specialist readers, been only names attached to theories: Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Galileo. It was opinionated and argumentative. At the heart of the book, says Scammell, "lay Koestler's conviction that the psychology of scientific investigation was as irrational and unpredictable as the processes of artistic discovery and the wellsprings of religious inspiration."

From here on Koestler regarded himself as a science writer. Unfortunately he had trouble getting scientists to agree. The Sleepwalkers was acceptable enough, being a work of history and philosophy of science. (In the latter respect it prefigured Thomas Kuhn's landmark The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published three years later.) The contrarian dabblings in biology and psychology that followed in the 1960s and '70s were, though, ill-received.

These later books have their charms—Koestler could hardly write a dull sentence—but few of those charms are of a kind to appeal to the true scientific spirit. Scammell reports on a scathing review of The Act of Creation by eminent British biologist Peter Medawar in 1964: "Medawar said…Koestler clearly didn't understand either the procedures or the sociology of science, and his scientific manners were deplorable."

Though broadly in sympathy with Medawar here, I believe Koestler deserved better. His imagination was, like Freud's, more literary than scientific. Seduced by the aesthetic lure of his own metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes, he constructed thought-systems—metaphysical speculations—to fit them. This won't do as rigorous science, but that does not mean there is no place for it in human endeavor. The atomic theory of matter was metaphysical speculation for 2,000 years before it turned out to be true. I don't know how many people have heard of, for example, panpsychism; but I am sure the number would be less than half as large if not for Koestler.

* * *

The most active and interesting portions of Koestler's life—his Spanish adventures, the internments, high-literary hobnobbing with Orwell, Sartre, Chambers, et al.—are well within living memory; yet already they seem remote. The age they belong to seems in some way to be, if I may use a Kuhnism, incommensurable with ours. What has changed so much in a lifetime?

What has most obviously changed is the position of the European peoples relative to the rest of humanity, in numbers and development. Koestler's home ground was Europe, together with Europe's settler extensions in North America and Palestine. Other places barely existed for him.

The only exceptions are India and Japan, where Koestler traveled on a lecture tour in the first few weeks of 1959, in his 54th year. He got a book out of the trip—The Lotus and the Robot (1960)—one of his best, though much of it cobbled together from observations by other writers. His interest in those places was, however, religious and psychological. Scammell: "[The trip] was shaped as a quest for enlightenment, and it was clear that Koestler liked the Indians but disliked India, and disliked the Japanese but liked Japan." Culturally and politically these were fringe zones, far from the heartland of real, European civilization.

That excursion aside, the world beyond Europe and North America occupied very little space in Koestler's imagination. Scammell's book has no index entry for "Islam" or "Muslim." Arabs are mentioned only in the contexts of Palestine and Zionism. Africa, China, Indonesia, and Latin America are not mentioned at all. Koestler was an unreflective universalist so far as human group differences are concerned, but had very little actual acquaintance with non-Europeans.

Free of race consciousness himself, he was baffled when he encountered it in others. His meeting with the black American poet Langston Hughes is illustrative. The two met by chance in a guest house run by the GPU (i.e., Soviet secret police, precursor of the KGB) in Ashkhabad, capital of Soviet Turkmenistan. Koestler took to Hughes at once, writing in his autobiography: "He was very likeable and easy to get on with, but at the same time one felt an impenetrable, elusive remoteness which warded off all undue familiarity."

Scammell fills in what Koestler missed:

This was the normal response of a black man to a white in those days, but for Koestler it was a new experience…. "K is a white man. He doesn't understand," Hughes wrote in his notebook, later adding: "To Koestler, Turkmenistan was simply a primitive land moving into twentieth century civilization. To me it was a colored land moving into orbits hitherto reserved for whites."


Koestler's unselfconscious universalism sits oddly with his youthful Zionism. Scammell untangles the contradiction. He places Koestler's attitude in the context of enlightened Jews' flight from their own Jewishness during the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the flight described at length in Yuri Slezkine's 2004 book The Jewish Century. The Jew from whom these Jews were fleeing was capitalist, religious, and tribal, so they would be socialist, atheist, and universalist.

Scammell quotes Koestler's lifelong friend Manès Sperber as saying that Koestler became a Zionist "not because of his Jewishness but against it. It was a kind of Zionism that wanted to prove that the Jews were Gentiles, that is, non-Jewish. What those young people were trying to prove was not that they had the courage to be Jews, but that they had the courage to be like everybody else." Hence Zionism. The Gentiles all had their own countries; why should not the Jews?

Near the end of his life Koestler had another try at squaring this circle with his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe. Here he took on a historical, or pseudo-historical, topic: the Khazars, a Turkic people who ran a prosperous empire on the South Russian steppe in the middle Middle Ages, and whose ruling dynasty converted to Judaism around A.D.800. Koestler argued that refugees from the collapsing Khazar Empire migrated into Eastern Europe, mingling with small Jewish populations already there to form the original Ashkenazim. The actual evidence was thin and circumstantial; but, says Scammell, "Koestler transformed possibility into probability, arguing that the Khazar contribution to the genetic makeup of modern Jews was ‘substantial, and in all likelihood dominant.'"

Though a best-seller, The Thirteenth Tribe, because of its implications for Jewish identity, was more of a succès de scandale than a succès d'estime. It is not uncommon to meet Jewish people who know Koestler's name only from this book.

The Khazarian hypothesis was not utterly implausible, given the state of knowledge at the time, but genetic researches have since exploded it. There is a good account of the issue in chapter 9 of John Entine's 2007 book, Abraham's Children. Entine concludes: "The Khazarian theory has been put to rest, or at least into perspective…. Most Jewish males appear to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean, with at most 20 percent showing a central Asian origin, similar to that of most Europeans."

* * *

After The Thirteenth Tribe Koestler wrote only one book that was not an anthology of earlier pieces: Janus: A Summing Up. This is a non-fiction work of 14 essays, rehashing in condensed form the ideas Koestler had put forward in his pop-science books of the 1960s and 1970s. The essays have titles like "Beyond Eros and Thanatos," "Lamarck Revisited," and "Free Will in a Hierarchic Context." Scammell uses Janus as a hook on which to hang a thumbnail sketch of Koestler's main obsessions and his intellectual development:

Science…paired with politics in Koestler's mind. He had started out with politics…and had repeatedly run up against a problem that he was only dimly aware of at first, namely that politics couldn't seem to answer the existential question of "how to live." This was the implied or underlying question in all Koestler's work…and though he later substituted science for politics, he had still failed to find satisfactory answers.


The alternatives to politics and science were philosophy and religion.

I think this puts too much lipstick on the goose. Certainly Koestler, for all his selfishness, had a core of decency. The story of his final break with Communism, told in chapter 36 of The Invisible Writing but resistant to brief quotation, makes this plain. That his central concerns were ethical at any level, though, I seriously doubt.

They were, it seems to me, more purely spiritual and intellectual. Koestler wanted a faith, a big and optimistic one, and he wanted to understand things. He wanted to decipher the invisible writing, the script of the shadow-play we call consciousness—the filtered, muddled, disorderly, fugitive images and impressions that are all we can apprehend of the world.

Politics and science seemed the most promising approaches. Unfortunately Marxism, the politics that first got Koestler's attention, was a pseudo-politics, and Freudianism a pseudo-science. He tried again with real science, but did not have enough of the early rigorous mathematical training necessary to a properly scientific outlook—nor, perhaps, the temperament. He returned at last to pseudo-science, bequeathing most of his estate to a university chair for the study of parapsychology.

To the degree Koestler is worth remembering, it is as an observer and a writer. "A journalist of genius," Cyril Connolly called him. He was a good novelist when completely engaged, as he was with Darkness at Noon. On the evidence of The Sleepwalkers, he might have made a fine academic historian, except that Earth never bore a man less suited to academic life. Arthur Koestler brought a keen observational intelligence to bear on the world around him, and on himself. He could turn a memorable phrase in at least three different languages. Not much; but not nothing—far, far from nothing.