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
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.
It could be argued that exclusion has inspired Jews to what DH Lawrence called “disinterested speculation.” They have stood outside local logics, surveying the world from an Archimedean platform which allowed them to put a lever to it. This has resulted in general theories of varying merit and use: Marxism and psycho-analysis are modern(ish) examples, but Spinozan philosophy is another, as is Christianity (Paul was a proto-diasporite). We need not repudiate Cesarani’s claim that Koestler’s ideas and obsessions were largely the consequence of his Jewishness. But the strands of his competence, as of his ambition, need to be distinguished.
In pre-war continental Europe, there were two main avenues to fame and fortune for Jews: the arts (if we include journalism and politics) and science (including medicine, mathematics and philosophy). The first category required individual brilliance; the second did too, but it also entailed collegiality. There were also at least two Koestlers. One wrote self-effacing (if never modest) works such as The Sleepwalkers, a study of scientific genius which emphasised its illogicality and haphazardness; another wrote Thieves in the Night and Darkness at Noon. Koestler the fact-finder, the enquirer and inquisitor, was the servant of both talents. Arthur one, the scientific journalist, although sometimes extravagant in his claims and hypotheses (as scientists, no less than Jews, can be), had a Gentile agenda and style: in a blind tasting, it would be weird to declare that The Case of the Midwife Toad, say, had a Jewish bouquet. Convinced that “Jewishness” explains Koestler in pretty well every regard, Cesarani makes small distinction between Arthur one, who seeks acceptance, if not quite anonymity, in the scientific and academic community, and Arthur two, the “unapologetic Jew” who wants to be the gypsy king of the world (and have the run of its harem).
In distinguishing between science (impersonal) and art (personal), I am not conceding-still less insisting-that art created by Jews always, and of necessity, has a distinct flavour. Does Camille Pissarro paint more Jewishly than Sisley or Renoir? The question of motivation is different: why a person paints is one thing; what is painted has to be another. Otherwise, artists would be as good or as bad as their motives, which-alas for the well-intentioned-is absurd.
Hot for hidden explanations, Cesarani probes the sub-text and springs locked closets. He seeks scandalous skeletons in the many cupboards of the peregrinatory Koestler’s many homes. Koestler’s sexual habits and appalling behaviour towards women begin to obsess the author; finally they become his overwhelming topic.
This whole scheme relies on passing off as discovery what is wished for a priori. Cesarani declares Koestler’s fundamental Jewishness and then reads the evidence in such a way as to prove his case. He regards sexual intemperance as repugnant and is duly shocked by what he hears. The shadow of the portraitist falls darkly into frame and, in my view, the shadow of the shadow of Stalin falls on Cesarani. This interesting and impressive biography is also something of a show trial.
cesarani foreshadows what is to come in his preface. The first thing he tells us is that Darkness at Noon was chosen by a “distinguished panel of writers and intellectuals, including Maya Angelou, AS Byatt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Styron and Gore Vidal… as the eighth best novel of the century.” If there were even a tincture of irony in his proclamation of this estimate, it might excite hopes of refreshing scorn for the ordinal fetish of neo-bourgeois society. Or if he showed any awareness of the comedy of modern celebrity which makes Arthur Schlesinger Jr.-the house toady of the Kennedys-into Lord Justice of Fiction and which promotes the author of Sophie’s Choice (once described as what “happens when Playboy magazine meets Auschwitz”) to the bench beside him, there might be some prospect of hilarity at the conceit of minnows affecting to rank sharks. Instead, Cesarani relies on his posh sources to certify literary qualities to which he himself is tone-deaf (notice the clich? “vice-like grip” on his opening page).
Cesarani’s consciousness is shaped by academic procedures and prudential deference: his preface is a red carpet unrolling before a train of notable helpers. This parade of chums is a warning to critics that the author is not alone. Even novelists such as Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, and Ian McEwan in Enduring Love, use forewords and postfaces in order to remind the reader of their sponsored eminence. We are Many, and Famous, they tell us; awards and rewards are my friends’ to bestow. Applaud or die.
If Darkness at Noon is indeed a masterpiece and a supreme anatomy of Leninist-Stalinist procedures, might it not be argued that the illuminating brilliance of the book should excuse its author from the invasive intuitions of what Henry James called “publishing scoundrels”? Why is it not enough to earn abiding respect by having written a roman ? th?se with a durability which transcends journalism and which, more than any text before One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, blew the whistle on communist Russia with devastating audibility, even if there were those who refused to hear it?
Oh, oh, oh! Am I claiming that, if their books are good enough, authors’ private lives should be closed to the curious? No. But to relish and retail the shortcomings of the famous (who seldom lack them) differs categorically from accurate appreciation of their work-and hence of what makes them interesting. After the revelations about Wittgenstein’s alleged appetite for rough trade, a man once wrote to me from Newcastle volunteering information about the public lavatories Wittgenstein attended, after work as a hospital porter during the war, and what happened in them. So much for the author of Philosophical Investigations.
Cesarani harps on Koestler’s personalities and faults, especially his-as George Mikes called it-Hungarian conduct towards women; and he also accuses him of at least one serious crime. When Koestler sets out to denounce communism, at the height of the cold war, more attention is paid by his biographer to how pissed he was before the event, and how boorishly he behaved to hangers-on afterwards, than to the substance of his address. The content of his work is scamped or patronised. For example, much play is made of the pretentious claim (not printed in Koestler’s main texts) that his scientific theories, or theories about science, might render him “a second Darwin.” What writers do not have ridiculous dreams of eminence? Nabokov made solemn fun of his own conviction that he would be aere perennius, which was wise of him, but did not mark a want of vanity. The treatment of Koestler’s final obsession with the paranormal implies that he was both ga-ga and megalomaniac in imagining that there was some “invisible writing” for which he alone had eyes. Well, Newton wasted a lot of time on alchemy, and so what?
Cesarani’s censoriousness is validated, I suspect, by that accusing cousinship, typical of some Jews, which mixes a certain pride in “our” exceptional achievements with a reminding wag of the finger which says: “Don’t think I don’t know what you really are!” Shall we ask, should we investigate what makes Cesarani so eager, or simply so disposed, to heap odium on his subject? Can biographers not have motives and secrets? Can they not, too, be deconstructed?
Cesarani is regularly (if sometimes anachronistically) shocked by Koestler’s sexual conduct. I am not referring only to the putative rape of Jill Craigie, which has so scandalised (some of) the female students of Edinburgh University that the author’s statue has been banished from their sight, on the grounds, apparently, that it eyed them in a brazen way and deserves defenestration. The chaste Cesarani winces on our behalf at Koestler’s recourse to prostitutes, which was quite usual in waltzing Vienna. Cesarani is particularly put off by Koestler’s penchant for treble acts. Such squeamishness may establish a man’s suitability for a mortgage with Scottish Widows, but how helpful is it when seeking to empathise with a lifelong dragueur? Cesarani deplores his subject’s phallocratic behaviour towards women, just as we might deplore the acquiescence of the noblest Romans and Athenians in slavery. Do we not, therefore, admire the Parthenon or read Catullus? The abuse of women was (if it is not still) a certificate of virility in many great men, of whom Bertrand Russell is, in many respects, a more lurid and despicable example. If we are to dispraise famous men, who is to be spared?
As for the rape of Jill Craigie (Mrs Michael Foot) which has made all the headlines, we need not doubt that force was used or that understandable shame explains why the facts have taken so long to come out. Without being ungallant, however, I was reminded of a judge who told me that the crucial questions in such cases were: “Did you bite him? Did you scratch him?” I daresay that fear and embarrassment and even a sort of generosity led Michael Foot’s wife to file no loud contemporary complaint. But the limitations of biography, especially when one witness is alive and another dead, are obvious here. Perhaps only a novelist (or the director of Rashomon) could bring the right kind of imagination to bear on such a case. We may have had the facts; we do not, and cannot, have them all.
Both Jill Craigie and Jane Howard, whom Koestler is said to have treated callously after making her pregnant, have a right to their grievances, but both were ambitious and experienced women who liked the company of the powerful and the famous. Both had enough intelligence to read Koestler for a dangerous man. Is it any disparagement to suggest that they might, at the time, have been excited by the risks they were taking? They did not deserve what he did, or is said to have done, but they were not foolish virgins and they knew Koestler’s character. We are entitled to wonder-as Cesarani did not, but should have-what they were doing with him.
The vilification of Koestler, egocentric as he may have been, has been altogether too gleefully undertaken. A biographer who looks to Simone de Beauvoir for reliable testimony should be reminded that she and Sartre were liars, fabricators and calumniators de longue date. Darkness at Noon had said everything which they should have said but dared not. Koestler constantly and accurately announced the truth which the cowardly Sartrean duo denied. What kind of reliable judges were they of his character? Would anyone dare to cite a Nazi’s opinion of Koestler, even if he were not a Jew, after he had been (as he was) the first intellectual in England to write, in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, about the Final Solution and the death trains?
Oh, but there’s a difference! Oh, but is there? Read carefully the passage at the end of his preface, where Cesarani is very candid in saying that, “Both my parents had been involved with the Communist Party in the Pink Decade.” It is piously filial to declare this, but isn’t there something a little too cosy about the suggestion that Mr and Mrs Cesarani were only doing what everybody, pretty well, was doing, by being a little pinker than most? More significant, however, is the peroration:
“My father’s faith was more durable [than my mother’s] and gently decayed into stoical support for socialism and its parliamentary vessels in the United Kingdom. His life story made me wary of those who dismiss the youthful adherents of the CP in the 1930s and 1940s as gullible, na?ve or ludicrously idealistic. To him the likes of Koestler would always remain ‘renegades,’ but he sedulously tracked down Koestleriana… He made me realise how Koestler’s writing had electrified those to whose experience it spoke. Koestler hoped that by writing books he would influence future generations. If it was necessary to avoid having children and the trivia of family life, that great end justified the means. Perhaps. By taking the responsibility of parenthood my father had a profound influence on at least one person: unobtrusively he taught me what justice means and what it is to live decently. He has not written any books, but this one is his all the same.”
This is a handsome and touching tribute. It also says more than may have been intended. Here, too, is a closet-and skeletons. Cesarani is a nice Jewish boy; he has been taught family values. His father, we are incited to believe, was exemplary in raising a son, whereas Koestler was vaingloriously pretentious in preferring a life of childless promiscuity which left him free to write for the ages. Well, with all faults, he did write for the ages, however perishable some of his stuff may be. Meanwhile, that Cesarani p?re refused to face the facts of communist practice is ascribed to the durability of his “faith.” Why not to blindness? Why not to moral dishonesty? Why not to Jewishness? What would Cesarani say of anyone who advertised equally durable loyalty to Nazism before “gently decaying” into a member of the Christian Democrats? And why is “stoical” an appropriate adjective here, as if it were a form of noble suffering to collapse into acceptance of democracy?
In the recent Le livre noir du Communisme (Robert Laffont, 1998), there is an 800-page factual compilation of the murders committed and deaths procured by communists: something of the order of 100m, if we include those who died of organised famine, which, in the 20th century, has happened only in countries dominated by Marxists. Anyone with honest eyes could have known, from 1918 onwards, that the Bolsheviks wilfully created a system of concentration camps, torturers and state terrorists. Nor was it impossible, or necessary, merely to guess such things; Bertrand Russell wrote with horror of the murderous glee with which Lenin spoke to him about summary executions. Less famous witnesses of brutality, fraud and sadism were hounded, often to death, by the lackeys of utopia.
As with the Holocaust, clear proof and declarations of murderous intent were ignored by fools or decried by scoundrels. Foot soldiers in the Party kept faith by persecuting the truth-tellers. Conniving intellectuals relativised, and still relativise, the facts-see Un pav? dans l’histoire (Laffont) for recent nuanced responses to Le livre noir. Not a few of the rank and file CP members were, I daresay, good family men; so, we are promised, were many Mozart-loving concentration camp guards who kept their faith in Adolf. Decent communists were also tools or fools. “Innocently,” they endorsed a conspiracy no less pitilessly dedicated to the systematic extermination of millions of human beings, whether because of their ethnic origin (the Cossacks) or on account of their putative class (kulaks, bourgeois and so on). No doubt many communists imagined-and taught their children-that justice was something which existed (only) in the Soviet Union. Now bring on those nice misguided Nazis.
It is not the least of Koestler’s achievements-and one which may well have driven him mad-that he saw the horrors left and right and fearlessly proclaimed both. In both cases he did so before almost anyone else; and in the face of abuse, hatred and intimidation. Thanks to Cesarani, he will now be remembered as the rootless crackpot sex maniac who banged a film director’s head on the kitchen floor and refused to use a contraceptive when making love to Jane Howard. Now think again about “He (Cesarani p?re) has not written any books, but this one is his all the same.” Indeed.