All Antennae

John Banville

  • 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.

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