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Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic Hardcover – December 29, 2009
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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
Top customer reviews
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.
Heretofore I had simply equated Arthur Koestler with "Darkness at Noon." While this linkage remains important, having read Mr. Scammell's book, I am now more fully aware of the full literary and personal life (draped with women at every turn) of this quite interesting, restless, pugnacious man of ideas.
He was one of a number of Left journalists who worked to defeat Fascism through reportage. But after a period of gullible servility to his Soviet handlers, he suddenly turned against them (a dangerous thing in those days). Thereafter he wrote painfully honest journalism, culminating in his successful novel, "Darkness at Noon." This novel, based on the Stalinist show trials in Russia of the 1930s, went to the heart of Soviet tyranny and mindtwisting. It was a model for Orwell's "1984," and turned many a wavering intellectual away from the siren song of Russian Communism.
Michael Scammell's "Koestler" is a long and incisive biography that lays out the background of Koestler's life and work. The result of detailed research, it is certain to be the authoritative biography of this interesting and important political writer. Koestler is perhaps one of the most insightful European intellectuals to have seen through Soviet communism and written about it convincingly. His other writings, philosophical and scientific, amount to a considerable oeuvre of a man bound on a journey of discovery, though now somewhat neglected.
He was friends with Orwell and other English writers, rubbed elbows (and apparently traded blows) with the Parisian Existentialists, and knew many prominent scientists, as well as a few Cagliostros.
Physical courage was one of his admirable traits, and he had some talent for lit crit (witness his praise of Golding's THE
INHERITORS, for example).
He spoke the truth about Russian communism, but some of his contemporaries did so more eloquently and cogently.
Why then do I give four stars to this bio about an individual who I think is very louche and overpraised? Probably because it's fascinating to see how hollow a man he was, given his immense reputation a few decades back.
It's not so much the debunking as the feeling that if the truth were told about several of his contemporaries, they too would be shown as fakers to one degree or another. It's a trend that's needed in literary biography: not defamation but truth!