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.

The evidence that Cesarani adduces in support of this accusation, and it is damning, is an account of a strange and shocking encounter between Koestler and Jill Craigie, the wife of Michael Foot. One morning in 1952 Craigie had driven Koestler around Hampstead Heath on yet another of his house-hunting expeditions, which degenerated into a pub crawl, though Craigie drank only ginger beer. Afterwards Koestler bullied Craigie into making him an omelette at her home. The meal done with and, rather prosaically, the washing-up finished, Koestler, in Craigie’s words, ‘suddenly grasped my hair ... pulled me down and banged my head on the floor. A lot.’ She fought back, succeeded in breaking free, and rushed outside in great disarray. Not knowing what else to do, she waited some time in the hope that Koestler would cool down, then went back into the house. ‘And it started all over again: very, very violent, mostly pulling hair ... In the end I was overborne. I was terribly tired and weakened. There’s a limit to how much strength one has and he was a very strong man. And that was it.’ Understandably, given Koestler’s eminence and the attitudes of the time, Craigie took no action on the assault, and did not even tell her husband; in fact, she was to keep the secret for half a century. Craigie believed Koestler’s behaviour was of a pattern, and Cesarani agrees: ‘Koestler had beaten and raped women before; over the next few years it would be almost a hallmark of his conduct.’

Whether or not he was the monster of Olympic-standard depravity and overweening selfishness that his biographer portrays, Koestler was certainly a man of enormous appetites and irresistible, and mostly unresisted, urges. He could also be, on the good evidence of his friends and of the very many women who loved him, a genuine charmer. A couple of pages after charging him with being a rapist, Cesarani quotes Celia Goodman, the twin sister of Mamaine Paget, Koestler’s second wife, saying of him that he was ‘incredibly generous’ and ‘tremendously brave, both physically and morally ... The thing about Arthur was that he made life fun, that’s to say, if he was in a good mood: he always liked having fun.’ One of his lovers, Janetta Jackson, judged him ‘very glorious to be with, a very exciting person to have to talk to.’ And Cesarani himself delivers this assessment: ‘If he was intemperate, obsessive, egomaniacal, bullying, petty, selfish, arrogant, lecherous, duplicitous and self-deluding, there was another side to him. Koestler was lauded for his warmth, kindness and generosity. He could be immensely charming, funny and interesting.’ If he was in a good mood.

Cesarani is robustly and unapologetically Freudian in his search for the roots of Koestler’s ills and urges. Indeed, Koestler’s formidable, highly-strung mother, Adele, had a consultation with the good Doctor himself when she was 19, though after the first visit she did not return for more. Adele, who came of a prominent Prague family, was brought up in Vienna, and when her father’s business failed she was forced to go to live with her married sister in Budapest, a city the Viennese considered the capital of barbarism; in all her years there Adele never learned Hungarian, and spoke German at home. Lonely and dowry-less, she was lucky to find a husband in Henrik Koestler, a fellow Jew, of Russian ancestry, who had started his career as an errand boy with a drapery firm, but, through energy and application, got a job as a salesman, and later started his own firm, travelling all over Europe selling textiles. Despite these early successes, he was to lose his fortune not once, but twice, the second time irretrievably.

Adele Koestler was 35 when Arthur, her only child, was born on 5 September 1905. From early childhood he was ruled over by a series of nurses and nannies and governesses, and a fearsome family maid, Bertha, who imposed an iron regimen consisting mainly of don’ts, and under which it was impossible for a spirited and strong-willed child such as Koestler not to offend. In his autobiography he wrote: ‘But these were all explicit, identifiable offences; the dark menace of life consisted in acquiring guilt without noticing it.’ Of his relations with his father he wrote: ‘we liked and respected each other with the guarded reserve of strangers thrown together on a train journey.’ Thus Koestler’s childhood is a classic psychological case-history: strong mother, diffident father, rules, violations, guilt. Like many other victims of the primitive medicine of the time, he recalled with horror an operation to remove his tonsils, conducted without anaesthetic. ‘These moments of utter loneliness, abandoned by my parents, in the clutches of a hostile and malign power, filled me with a kind of cosmic terror.’

Koestler never forgave his mother for his childhood; his wife Mamaine recalled how one evening in 1949, when Koestler was well into his forties, Adele visited them at their house in Paris and Koestler quizzed her about the facts of his boyhood. ‘K.’s face during this conversation was worth seeing, but fortunately [Adele] didn’t seem to notice – the sparks of hatred flashed from his eyes, he grinned fiendishly.’ That which does not kill one makes one strong, remarked Nietzsche, whom Koestler had read in his youth: certainly, Koestler’s early years did much to strengthen him – or at least to harden him. After unhappy school years he went to study at the Vienna Technische Hochschule, where, no doubt to his surprise, he was blissfully happy. He read widely, studied assiduously, argued politics and aesthetics, drank a great deal, and slept with every girl he could get his hands on. In these years he familiarised himself with the work of the new scientists such as Einstein and Heisenberg, and developed that fascination with science that was eventually to take over his intellectual life entirely.

Another interest was Zionism. At the Hochschule Koestler joined Unitas, a militant Jewish student society, and came under the influence of a number of Zionist zealots, particularly the right-wing activist Vladimir Jabotinsky, a character straight out of Conrad. As Cesarani the Freudian observes, ‘Koestler was forever in search of his father, who had been so physically and emotionally absent in his youth,’ and the fiery Jabotinsky was an ideal father-figure. There was also the matter of the land of his fathers. In 1925 Koestler dropped out of university, and the following year travelled to Palestine, the first of many visits he would pay to that country, all of them difficult, some disastrous. There is no doubt that he loved Palestine, but it also infuriated him, and in some of its aspects disgusted him. ‘Instead of Utopia, I had found reality; an extremely complex reality which attracted and repelled me.’ Cesarani is particularly schoolmistressy on Koestler’s attitude to his Jewishness, and the biography at one level is a continuous and increasingly rancorous dialogue on the subject between the biographer and Koestler’s ghost. Certainly Cesarani can find many passages in Koestler’s writings which, had they not been written by a Jew, would be considered rabidly anti-semitic. Joseph, the hero of the novel Thieves in the Night, which is set in Palestine, looks about at his fellow Jews and feels ‘revulsion against this assembly of thick, curved noses, fleshy lips and liquid eyes’. It was ‘no good denying to himself that he disliked them, and that he hated even more the streak of the over-ripe race in himself’. Elsewhere, Joseph describes the Jews as ‘the exposed nerve, an extreme condition of life’.

If Koestler’s feelings on his own Jewishness were ambiguous, to say the least, he had no doubts on the Jewish question in general. Asked to contribute to a collection of Jewish writing, he replied: ‘I don’t quite see the point of an anthology of this kind. I believe that the term “Jewish” should be reserved for the Hebrew Nation in Palestine, and that all those who do not opt for it should stop regarding themselves as a separate community.’ Not being a Jew, I would not presume to enter this debate, except to remark that, as an Irishman living in Ireland, I find it irritating to hear Americans whose great-grandfathers came over on the Famine ships describing themselves as Irish; and my irritation swells to fury when the same American ‘Irish’, in the name of patriotism and love of ‘the old country’, donate money to terrorist organisations. The nationalism of the diaspora can be even more lethal and wilfully blind than the native variety.

In 1927 Koestler secured a job with Ullstein, the influential and liberal, and highly profitable, German newspaper chain. As Cesarani declares, he had found his métier. ‘In later life he would write novels, plays, memoirs, essays, literary criticism and popular science, but nothing as consistently excellent as his journalism.’ This judgment is sound, I believe, though Koestler himself would have been chagrined to hear it. Cesarani again: ‘sadly, he enjoyed journalism far more than he valued it as a mode of expression or a social function.’ Yet it was journalism that brought him to the life of travel and adventure that he craved.

What he craved also was political commitment. As his enthusiasm for Zionism waned, he made what Cesarani sees as the logical transfer to Communism. He joined the Party in 1931 and, on a visit to Russia that year, Koestler the former Zionist had ‘the consciousness of having set foot at last in the new land of promise’, and experienced one of those moments of almost religious transcendence in which ‘intellectual conviction is in complete harmony with feeling, when reason approves of your euphoria, and your emotion is a lover to your thought’. The euphoria did not last. On an extended working trip to the USSR in 1933, he became disillusioned with the Communist system, although in face of the growing threat of the Fascist movement he kept his doubts to himself for a long time, and even tried to overcome them. His experiences as a journalist in Spain during the Civil War further hardened his attitude towards Communism, although it was at the hands of the Fascists that he came close to losing his life. Having written articles highly critical of the Republicans, he was captured during the fall of Malaga in February 1937, and was imprisoned in Seville until the following May, spending much of his time in solitary confinement and in constant fear of the firing squad.

Out of his experiences in Russia and Spain came Darkness at Noon, which was published in 1940. Cesarani quotes Michael Foot to apt effect:

Who will ever forget the first moment he read Darkness at Noon? For socialists especially, the experience was indelible. I can recall reading it right through one night, horror-struck, overpowered, enthralled. If this was the true revelation of what happened at the great Stalin show trials, and it was hard to see how a single theoretical dent could be made in it, a terrifying shaft of darkness was cast over the future no less than the past.

The novel’s significance is entirely disproportionate to its literary worth. It stands at the middle of our century as a testament to the rejection of ideology as a legitimate political strategy; as such, it can be seen as one of the opening shots – as one of the opening barrages – of the Cold War. Whether or not one agreed with Koestler – and he was a relentless and at times hysterical Cold Warrior – one must admire the clear-headedness and courage of his recantation. If, as Cesarani claims, Koestler regarded science as politics by other means, one might further claim that he regarded fiction in the same light. Such a contention would not have pleased him, but he could hardly have denied that for him art was only justified when the artist was totally and consciously engagé. But there is another, perfectly legitimate view that the only worthwhile art is that which is wholly autonomous and free of coercive doctrine, even doctrines of liberalism and right behaviour.

Cesarani is bitterly amused by the Olympian calm of the tone of voice adopted by Koestler the memoirist. The chaotic reality of his life was, on Cesarani’s unchallengeable testimony, significantly at odds with the image presented by the autobiography. The record of drinking binges, sexual debauchery and public and domestic violence is hair-raising (after a night of drunken excess the famed author of The Yogi and the Commissar punched a French policeman, thus giving a Paris sub-editor his headline of the month: ‘Yogi hits Commissaire’). The many women who fell under the spell of his sexual attraction were, in some cases knowingly, asking for trouble. He bullied them, browbeat them, betrayed them, and always they came back for more. He seems to have found every kind of woman attractive but the ones he chose to live with were of a type: intelligent but self-effacing, dependent, and with a streak of childishness. The most interesting, in Cesarani’s account of them, was Mamaine Paget, who loved Koestler but was sufficiently assertive and self-protective to break free from him and make a life for herself. His third wife, Cynthia, subsumed her personality entirely into his, even to the point of joining him in a suicide pact. When they died together, in 1983, Koestler was a sick old man, but Cynthia was, despite rumours at the time, a healthy young woman. She had given her life to Koestler, and now, it seemed, she had given him her death as well. As Celia Goodman observed, ‘I would not have expected it of Cynthia. On the other hand, she couldn’t have lived without him.’

From the Fifties onward Koestler abandoned politics in favour of science and, later on, pseudo-science, including ESP. From Insight and Outlook in 1949, through The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine of the Sixties, to the ridiculous The Challenge of Chance: A Mass Experiment in Telepathy and Its Unexpected Outcome, Koestler sought to establish himself as a new Darwin, a scientific revolutionary of the atomic age. Urging him on in this foolhardy ambition, which he had neither the learning nor the originality to realise, was not only his inveterate hunger for fame and intellectual respectability, but a genuine desire to locate the source of that ‘oceanic feeling’ of oneness with humanity and nature and, perhaps, the supernatural, which he had experienced at critical moments in his life, and which he was convinced was evidence of a reality beyond the visible world. As A.J. Ayer said of him, ‘his mind has displayed a religious rather than a scientific bent,’ while Malcolm Muggeridge felt he was ‘all antennae and no head’.

The follies of his old age contributed to the posthumous eclipsing of his reputation – it is hard now to remember just how famous he once was – but it is unfair, and highly ironic, that an age which has seen the collapse of Soviet Communism should have forgotten a man whose contribution to that collapse cannot be overestimated. Darkness at Noon will live, however its power may pale for a post-1989 generation, and the autobiography is a powerful and telling document in the history of this terrible century. He deserves to be remembered also as a bridge between the ‘two cultures’; The Sleepwalkers, his account of cosmology from the Greeks to Einstein, is still a wonderfully exciting and informative book. It was his misfortune as a writer that his best work was done in the inevitably ephemeral medium of journalism. As his biographer says, ‘if he had a genius it was for reportage.’ That is not as damning a judgment as some may think.

Pity the biographer who discovers, when it is too late, that he disapproves of and even actively dislikes his subject. David Cesarani’s remarkable achievement is to have made out of the action-packed life of this extraordinarily vivid, adventurous, contradictory, dark and valiant personality a pedestrian and at times risibly purse-lipped biography. He is diligent, scrupulous, anxiously fair-minded; he has read everything Koestler ever wrote, and has talked, it must be, to everyone still living who ever knew him: no detail is too trivial for him to hunt down and, having cornered it, to insist on sharing with his readers. He is a master of the biographer’s craft; what is missing is the art.