Koestler: The Lit­er­ary and Polit­i­cal Odyssey of a Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Skeptic

Michael Scam­mell
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
It might not be obvi­ous to many read­ers why they should want to lift — much less read— a 689 – page biog­ra­phy of the writer Arthur Koestler. Even those who read Dark­ness at Noon many decades ago and found it mov­ing, might feel that his­to­ry has moved far along from the days when Stal­in­ism was con­tro­ver­sial. Jew­ish read­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, may feel some lin­ger­ing unease over the way Koestler buried his ear­ly Zion­ist sym­pa­thies once he became absorbed in East-West issues and then lat­er wrote about Jew­ish Khaz­ari roots and assim­i­la­tion. And yet, any read­er will­ing to invest seri­ous time with this remark­able biog­ra­phy will feel well-reward­ed. For Koestler’s life, which spanned from 1905 to 1983, reads like a his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry. This is a man who strug­gled with all the major events of his times — two World Wars, Zion­ism, com­mu­nism, Nazism, McCarthy­ism, East­ern mys­ti­cism, and much more. He argued with Sartre, Camus, de Beau­voir, Leary, Hux­ley, and Orwell. He bed­ded too many women to list. But beyond his con­nec­tions, Koestler was a man of uncan­ny fore­sight — dis­cussing the degen­er­a­tion of total­i­tar­i­an states before this was obvi­ous, study­ing Kepler’s sci­en­tif­ic process before Kuhn pub­lished his trea­tise on par­a­digm-shifts, vis­it­ing the yogis of the East before the rest of the West dis­cov­ered ashrams,
exper­i­ment­ing with hal­lu­cino­gens and para­psy­chol­o­gy long before most peo­ple even knew what they were. As biog­ra­ph­er Scam­mell right­ly real­izes, to under­stand how Koestler lived in so many worlds, one must explore the details of his life — his argu­ments with col­leagues, his alco­hol-fueled binges, his chaot­ic affairs with his friends’ wives, his impul­sive house pur­chas­es, his behind-the-scenes phil­an­thropy, and, of course, his strug­gles to fig­ure out what to write. Read­ers who know noth­ing of Koestler will find this work engross­ing — but for polit­i­cal and lit­er­ary his­to­ri­ans of the 20th cen­tu­ry, it may well be indis­pens­able. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photographs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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