- Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind by David Cesarani
Heinemann, 646 pp, £25.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 434 11305 0
Arthur Koestler was a journalist with pretensions to grandeur. Certain of his works justified these pretensions – for example, his masterpiece, the novel Darkness at Noon, and the two autobiographical volumes, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing – though not so triumphantly as he would have wished them to do or as, in his more confident moments, he believed they had. Throughout his career he suffered from the journalist’s fear of being merely clever, merely shrewd, merely in the know, incapable of the soaring inspiration, or, indeed, the inspired wrong-headedness, of the great artist or the great scientist. His was the classic 20th-century Mitteleuropean sensibility: deracinated, sophisticated, ambitious, self-doubting, hungry for experience, politically engaged, and racked by despair. Born into the comfortable if emotionally suffocating world of the Austro-Hungarian Jewish bourgeoisie, he saw the world of his childhood destroyed, and was never again able to find a place in which to belong. As David Cesarani puts it in the closing lines of this monumental (it is the only word) biography, for Koestler ‘home represented the secure bourgeois domesticity swept away by the Great War; home was a country that rejected him and connived in the slaughter of his family; home was a community united by a history, tradition, creed and culture that he despised.’ The biographer’s last word on the subject is a kind of syllogism: ‘Home finally was mind; home was homelessness; Koestler was the homeless mind.’
If he was homeless, he certainly did not lack for houses. After some years of struggle and sometimes genuine hardship – as a young man he knew hunger, and on more than one occasion was reduced to sleeping rough – he found financial success, if not security, with Darkness at Noon and the commissions that followed the acclaim with which that book was received in the Western world. He lived lavishly, and bought properties with almost obsessive frequency, led on by an enthusiasm that was never blunted by the repeated hard lessons of experience. Practically every house he purchased turned at once into an untameable white elephant. But his ill-luck with real estate was as nothing compared to his experience with motor cars. He seems to have got himself involved in an accident every time he ventured onto the road; so frequent were his traffic mishaps that he became convinced that there was a mystical element to them, that somehow his accident proneness on the highways of the world was a coded message to him from the beyond.
He was luckier with women, though women, for the most part, were not very lucky with him. Koestler’s womanising was a legend in his lifetime among those who knew him; now that he is dead and the Leperello-list of what in his day would have been called his ‘conquests’ can be made public, the case-history of his satyriasis provokes a sense of appalled wonderment. I had the impression, as I made my way through these pages, that Koestler propositioned almost every halfway presentable woman who crossed his path, and that a startlingly large number of his targets were perfectly eager to accept the proposition as offered. Cesarani is as baffled as any other homme moyen sensuel will be in the face of such tireless promiscuity, though he is quite certain that he disapproves of it, as he does of so many of his subject’s activities. Koestler himself, and at least one Hungarian friend, saw nothing odd in this bed-hopping. ‘In Central Europe,’ George Mikes wrote in defence of Koestler, ‘every woman was regarded as fair game. She could always say “no” and ... her no would be taken for an answer, even if grudgingly.’ Cesarani will have none of this political incorrectness, and stoutly declares: ‘There is evidence that as well as his consistent violence against women Koestler was a serial rapist.’ Phew.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 21 No. 4 · 18 February 1999
It has come to my notice that a serious error has crept into my recently published book about Arthur Koestler, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, reviewed in this issue of the LRB. Due to confusion at the editorial stage, on pages 379, 382, 386, 389 and 391 the names of Celia Kirwan and Cynthia Jeffries are transposed or muddled. I would like to put on record that the actions imputed to ‘Kirwan’ or ‘Cynthia Kir wan’ on these pages in fact refer to Cynthia Jeffries (later Cynthia Koestler) and not to Celia Kirwan (née Paget, later Goodman). I greatly regret the distress which this slip-up has caused to Celia Goodman. Along with the publishers, William Heinemann, I have taken the necessary steps to ensure that it is corrected in all future editions.
University of Southampton
Vol. 21 No. 5 · 4 March 1999
At the end of his review of David Cesarani’s Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (LRB, 18 February) John Banville describes Cesarani as ‘diligent’ and says ‘he has read everything Koestler ever wrote … no detail is too trivial for him to hunt down.’ This is not, however, wholly accurate. One of the important questions about Koestler, raised by Cesarani, is whether he tried to dissuade his wife from committing suicide with him. According to Cesarani, Koestler and his wife both left wills. The dates of those wills, what if any provisions were made in his will in favour of her, the bequests in her own, whether they had the same solicitors, and what instructions and advice on these matters each gave to and received from their solicitors might be of great importance in answering that question. For example, if Koestler made no provision for his wife it would be strong evidence that he expected and was content that she should die when he did, especially as his solicitors would have queried his instructions in view of her right in that event to apply to the court after his death for financial provision from the estate.
Yet despite the fact that wills are public documents it seems that Cesarani made no attempt to inspect them and that he did not ask to inspect the Koestlers’ correspondence with their solicitors in connection with their wills. He confined himself to looking at such references to the Koestlers’ wills and correspondence with their solicitor (about bequeathing their estates to a trust to set up a chair of parapsychology) as he found among the documentation in Edinburgh University Library, where he was working.
Vol. 21 No. 8 · 15 April 1999
John Banville’s review of David Cesarani’s biography of Arthur Koestler (LRB, 18 February) reminded me of something that has been nagging me since 1972, when I went to Reykjavik to cover the chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Koestler was there covering it for some prestigious newspaper. George Steiner was covering it for the New Yorker. I blush to say that I was covering it for Playboy and that the article, brilliant as it was, was never published. But here is the point. Either in an article or in person, Koestler used a mildly obscene German phrase, in speaking of his own passion for chess, to describe what he would do to his opponent’s Queen when he got hold of her. Alas the phrase has sunk down in my mental well where I have been unable to retrieve it. I think it involved some word like ‘putzli’. Can anyone enlighten me?
Vol. 21 No. 9 · 29 April 1999
Researching Arthur Koestler and his ties with the Russian novelist and prewar Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, I found, in the New Palestine of April 1928, an unknown essay by Koestler entitled ‘Jerusalem Letter: “Art as Propaganda”’. One paragraph particularly struck me: ‘Nothing is further from our thought than the idea of making Art subservient to political aims. No effort would be more fruitless and unreasonable, for the moment that Art obeys rules other than its own, it ceases to be Art.’ This suggested that he was much more politically sophisticated at this time than he let on in his autobiographical volume, Arrow in the Blue. He was not the naive convert to Communism he claimed he had been. He was, after all, started in journalism by Wolfgang Von Weisl, the right-wing former Austrian artillery officer, and wrote his first essay about Avigdor Hameiri, the Hungarian Hebrew writer who was rabidly anti-Communist. During the time Koestler was living with him in the Twenties, Hameiri was writing anti-Communist novels.
I had occasion to meet Eva Zeisl, a lifelong friend of Koestler on whose experience in the Lubianka he largely based Darkness at Noon. Zeisl spoke of Koestler with great fondness. She told me of youthful meetings with him, how he had taken her to hear Jabotinsky speak in Berlin in 1930, and how by the summer of 1932 he had become such a Communist Party stalwart that he would not talk to her about the famine he had recently seen inside the Soviet Union, because she was not a party member.
In contrast to David Cesarani, whose biography was discussed by John Banville (LRB, 18 February), I think that the key to Koestler’s literary works is to be found in his science books. In The Case of the Midwife Toad, for example, Koestler revives a scientific controversy on the theory of spontaneous regeneration, arguing that given the right environmental factors certain organisms can regenerate certain body parts. it’s the same argument he had been using regarding the Jewishness of Israelis, who he claimed lost their Jewish looks in the Israeli environment.
Vol. 21 No. 11 · 27 May 1999
I enjoyed Jeremy Bernstein’s recollection of Arthur Koestler’s banter in Reykjavik (Letters, 15 April). Putz is German/Yiddish slang for ‘penis’ – literally ‘prick’. I am reliably informed that the diminutive ending ‘-li’ is characteristically Viennese. However, since Putz is a noun and not a verb I’m not sure how much further this gets us in the quest to retrieve Koestler’s meaning.
University of Southampton