From Publishers Weekly
The protean Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) seemed to be at the periphery of great events and movements, from Zionism to the forked world of the cold war. Scammell, author of an award-winning biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, views Koestler with balanced patience in this somewhat overlong but definitive biography. A manic-depressive with a Napoleonic complex, Koestler relished feuds with fellow intellectuals such as B.F. Skinner and Isaiah Berlin. He rubbed elbows with Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir and Orwell. Gide, as Scammell points out, stung with his observation that Koestler was better off sticking to journalism. In fact, the last 20 years of Koestler's life were devoted to such flakiness as ESP and levitation. Koestler's dilettantish range of interests is so broad, it's difficult for the biographer to get his hands on his slippery subject. Even after his most successful novels, Darkness at Noon
and Thieves in the Night
, Koestler never let up. Yet his flip-flops on Zionism and his oddly passive reaction to the Soviet rule of his native Hungary might leave one pondering Koestler's legacy in our vastly different 21st century. 16 pages of photos. (Dec.)
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*Starred Review* “Who,” Michael Foot wondered, “will ever forget the first moment he read Darkness at Noon?” Yet behind an unforgettable novel, Scammell finds a forgotten author. With this biography, Scammell forcefully reminds readers why Arthur Koestler still deserves attention. A Hungarian-born intellectual who traversed the globe during his peripatetic career, Koestler repeatedly found himself in the perilous middle of epoch-making history, narrowly avoiding an executioner’s bullet in civil war Spain. But it is Koestler’s radical ideological shifts that make his work a fever chart for modern passions. In turn a Zionist, then an anti-Zionist; a Communist, then an anti-Communist; a pioneering existentialist, then a foe of existentialists; an exponent of empirical science, then a champion of parapsychology—Koestler offers an astounding diversity of perspectives. To be sure, Darkness—Koester’s harrowing exposé of the soul-crushing power of communism—deserves priority. But Scammell challenges the dismissal of Koestler as a one-book wonder, highlighting the enduring power of Dialogue with Death, Scum of the Earth, The Yogi and the Commissar, and other works. Attributing the recent neglect of Koestler’s oeuvre to the controversy surrounding his and his wife’s double suicide and to the malign influence of David Cesarini’s hostile 1998 biography, Scammell has set the stage for the rediscovery of a great writer. --Bryce Christensen