Thanks to David Cesarani's biography, Arthur Koestler will be remembered as a crackpot sex maniac. This is a travesty of the man who, for all his faults, saw the truth of both Nazism and Stalinism before the rest of his generation. What motive can his biographer have had for such a demolition?by Frederic Raphael / March 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the thoroughness of its research, David Cesarani’s biography of Koestler has much in common with his earlier Justice Delayed, an accusingly accurate account of the Attlee government’s recruitment of part of an SS division to work in English mines immediately after the war. Justice Delayed was both brave and-if what is overdue can be-timely. Arthur Koestler, a no less accusing analysis of a key witness of our time, has a somewhat different thrust.
Koestler was a hallowed figure in my youthful literary pantheon, not only for Darkness at Noon but also for Thieves in the Night and, in particular, Scum of the Earth and Dialogue with Death. How lucky to have had such frightfully memorable experiences and how adult both to have been in the Party and to have seen through it, all before he was 35!
My only personal contact with him was when I edited Bookmarks, a volume of essays compiled to raise funds to campaign for Public Lending Right. Already shaken by Parkinson’s disease, he contributed punctually, although he had warned that writing in English was still a labour. This non-sexual act of altruistic solidarity was, of course, too trivial to warrant mention by his biographer.
Cesarani’s important and, I fear, definitive study has been copiously if not always adequately reviewed. The central issue has often been missed-or ducked. Michael Shelden, for example, contrived to avoid using the embarrassing word “Jew” in his long TLS piece (unless he was being clever-like Georges Perec when he avoided employing the vowel “e” in a whole novel). Yet Cesarani tells us specifically that The Homeless Mind, as he subtitles his work, began as a study of “a Jew who exemplified the Jewish experience in Europe during the 20th century.”
Shelden’s reticence suggests either that the author failed to deliver on his initial intention (he did not), or that insistence on Koestler’s Jewishness struck his critics as beside the point, which surely merited remark. Perhaps it is felt that Koestler was such a rampant Jew that it would be disobliging to mention what were so obviously typical characteristics. The curiosity of Jewishness lies precisely in the imprecision of what defines it. Yet there remains the conviction-shared by Jews and their enemies alike-that something must.