Arthur Koestler’s 20th-Century Darkness
The British writer Cyril Connolly, who was a journalist of genius but who wanted to be much more, said of Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) that he was perhaps a journalist of genius but also perhaps much more. Journalists even of genius are not often remembered a quarter century after their death, so it is the much more that warrants attention. Even that much has fallen into obscurity: the one novel that really made Koestler’s reputation in his day, Darkness at Noon, is rarely read any more. One is grateful, then, for Michael Scammell’s new biography, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic. Scammell, a Columbia professor and a biographer of Solzhenitsyn, spent more than 10 years working on Koestler, and during the past few years the book’s imminent publication has been announced several times, only to be subsequently withdrawn. That Scammell’s biography should appear at all is cause for renewed interest in Koestler; that it tells a gripping and exemplary tale is reason for serious reconsideration of Koestler’s place in 20th-century politics and literature.
Saul Bellow once said that a serious writer had to pass the worst of the 20th century through his soul as though he were grinding sausage. With Arthur Koestler it is hard to tell whether he was the writer doing the grinding or the sausage being ground. He led a peripatetic life of surpassing variety. Koestler was born a Hungarian Jew near the turn of the century and fled the “Judapest” of the fascist and anti-Semitic Horthy regime in 1919. He studied engineering in Vienna but spent most of his time reading Freud and Jung and Adler and took part in the roistering antics of a Jewish fraternity, becoming handy with a dueling saber, and knocking heads with Christian antagonists.
About the Author
Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.