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Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic Hardcover – December 29, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

*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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (December 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394576306
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394576305
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.7 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #967,912 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Scammell, biographer, critic and translator, was born in Lyndhurst, England, and moved permanently to the USA in 1985. He has written award-winning biographies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler, and has translated many books from Russian, including works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Solzhenitsyn. He is the founder of the British human rights magazine, Index on Censorship, and has taught at Cornell and Columbia universities. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Dynes on February 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Arguably, Arthur Koestler was the ultimate emblematic figure of the twentieth century. He was everywhere--Hungary in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Palestine in the early twenties, Weimar Germany, the USSR in the 1930s, France during the "hollow years" of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, and Britain and the US during the Cold War. His books span an extraordinary range of fields. They are written in sparkling English, in fact his fourth language.

Apart from his exciting (sometimes all-too-exciting) life, Koestler ranks in my view as a major thinker. Having been a Communist for seven years, he thoroughly unmasked that noxious set of illusions, notably in his "Darkness at Noon," perhaps the greatest political novel ever written. The left, of course, has never forgiven Koestler's "apostasy." In addition, his scientific trilogy, with "The Act of Creation" at the center, has held up remarkably well.

Scammel's book, based on an astounding quantity of research, is by far the best account, demolishing many myths. Among these is the extreme charge that Koestler was a rapist. To be sure, he was a womanizer, but ranked far below, say, Warren Beatty in that realm.

Some have found Koestler's complex views on Israel and the Jewish role in contemporary society disturbing. Yet they are based on much relevant experience and reflection. His controversial book on the Khazars, "The Thirteenth Tribe," has a new actuality, as DNA research, which he did not know about, trickles in.

It's all in this amazing, encyclopedic work, which is truly worthy of its subject.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Herbert L Calhoun on March 13, 2010
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Schrammell wrote this book with care, leaving nothing to chance. The result is a monumental work that contextualizes an important twentieth Century intellect, Arthur Koestler.

Spread out on display for us to sample (in almost 700 pages) are the many facets of Koestler's life: the inner and outer turmoil, the brilliant and the profane, the deep and the shallow, the cowardly and the brave, the inveterate ladies man (the serial polygamist) and the insecure (mother hating) troll; both his many good and a few of his bad ideas. They are all carefully indexed and calibrated by Koestler's writings, which parallel his intellectual growth and development. They are all here in rich, carefully mined and uncovered, "living prose."

The vantage point offered here is a product of Koestler having grown up in the right places at the right time and having the right constellation of experiences. He was literally baptized in Europe's intellectual fast lane. He rose from the lowest rung of the journalism profession, to a threadbare starving novelist, and finally as a man of distinction and of letters. And throughout it all, even though he was often the "youngest and almost always the prickliest man on the block" and often the "odd man out," this "electric eel" of a man, held his own and never once was found intellectually wanting. His intellect range over such a wide range of subjects, that today, being able to do so, would never be though of. He was equally facile in discussing Quantum Physics, Political Science, Psychology or art and Anthropology. It is the depth and breath of his knowledge that makes Koestler seem like the last of the Twentieth Century Intellectual Renaissance men.

He migrated to Israel, became a Zionist and lived briefly in a Kibbutz.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Peter Gerhard on January 30, 2010
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I have just read the book about Koestler written by Michael Scammell. This book is a well-written and fascinating biography.This is simply the best book about Arthur Koestler that I have ever read and I have read a lot of books about Kostler. I have in my bookshelves eight other books about Koestler: David Cesaranis book "Arthur Koestler, John Atkins "Arthur Koestler", Mark Levenes "Arthur Koestler", George Mikes'"Arthur Koestler", Christian Buckards "Arthur Koestler - ein extremes leben", David Anderssons "Arthur Koestler", Ian Hamiltons "Koestler" and finally Michel Lavals "L'homme sans concessions". I have read them all and I find Scammels book being number one. Read it!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cary B. Barad on August 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
If you have a day job and are limited in the amount of time you can devote to recreational reading, be prepared to spend a considerable portion of your free hours completing this voluminous biography. The rewards are many, however, particularly if you have a strong interest in twentieth century world history.

Needless-to-say, Koestler was an egocentric one-of-a kind, who lived through and experienced the full gamut of momentous social, political and literary movements--including the rise of Zionism, Nazism, Communism, existentialsm, Freudianism and all the rest. He met with notables throughout the world, escaped death and imprisonment numerous times, had innumerable sexual affairs and struggled with unending emotional tumult.

So..a lot of ground is covered, and the author does a very good job of pulling everything together and holding one's interest. The overall product is further enhanced by a sizable number of period photographs.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By John A. Curtiss on February 11, 2010
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This biography is a compelling read because it is imaginatively written and in an entertaining manner takes the reader through the life of an extremely gifted journalist and political activist who constantly searched for the truth in himself and in the events leading up to and following WW II. I bought this book after first reading a stimulating review appearing in the Wall Street Journal and after reading Koestler's Darkness at Noon. About half way through this biography I was motivated to buy and read Koestler's Dialog with Death.This biography provides interesting insights into the Spanish civil war, the progress of WW II in Europe, the rise and fall of Communism and the birth of Israel.
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