The restless spirit of Arthur Koestler

Last train to nowhere.

This profile of Arthur Koestler appeared in the New Statesman in July 1954. Like all profiles in the magazine from this period, it was unsigned. Koestler was an occasional contributor to the NS in the late 1930s and early 1940s, under Kingsley Martin’s editorship. Koestler’s masterpiece, the novel “Darkness at Noon”, was reviewed for the NS in January 1941 by George Orwell, who read it as an “interpretation” of the Stalinist show trials of the late Thirties “by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods”.

When Hardwick built the great arch which leads to Euston Station, he named it “the Gateway to the North”. On every great Continental railway station should have been inscribed: “The Gateway to Utopia”. Did not Robert Owen describe his co-operative system as “the railway which would take men to universal happiness”? The metaphor had point: until Iron Curtains descended, railways offered men escape – from one country, one way of life, to another. And of Hungary, above all, was this true. Paris and Western civilisation were at one end of the line; Constantinople and the Orient at the other. Budapest was a gloried gypsy-encampment; Hungarians never forgot their nomadic origin. Intellectual life in Budapest was intense but intellectuals had to be European or nothing; and they took advantage of their railway. Budapest provided Europe with musicians, film stars, playwrights, economists – all travellers by train.

Arthur Koestler is the most complete example of this destiny. He describes his autobiography – the second volume of which has just been published – as “the typical casehistory of a member of the Central European educated middle classes, born in the first years of our century”. He is the man without roots, the man whose mind is his only fortune, the man who is always in search of perfection. By the middle of the century, he has become the man who knows that perfection can never be found and so concludes that nothing can be found. Here, too, the disillusioned intellectual is typical of his age. We should perhaps quarrel with one word of the description. His case-history is “typical” only in being extreme. Koestler has gone further than others in quest of Utopia and has been correspondingly more disillusioned. Most men have few roots; Koestler is untypical in that he has none at all. And of course the claim to be typical reveals a false modesty quite out of tune. His transcendent abilities make him far from typical. Many men have had Koestler’s experiences, or some of them. No one else could have transformed them into perhaps the most remarkable autobiography since the Confessions of Rousseau. Whether we admire or dislike him, learn from him or repudiate his instruction, there is no denying his literary gifts. Koestler is typical only in the way that Bernard Shaw claimed to be normal.

And yet, if we can tear ourselves away from Koestler’s magic and look again at the record, we may wonder if his case-history is so representative after all. No doubt many intellectuals ran after Utopias between the wars; and no doubt all were somewhat disappointed. But did any run as hard as Koestler or end up in such complete disillusionment? Indeed, how many ran at all seriously? “Parlour Bolshevism” was the most popular game of the Thirties; Koestler never played it. His present fate bears witness to this. Other intellectuals have dabbled in Communism at one time or another. They have sloughed it off, and the flirtation might as well never have been. But Koestler is still obsessed by it. Though he may be without roots, he has put out tentacles and now cannot detach them. He himself asks – why do men write autobiographies? and he answers – as a cautionary tale. But this is not always the true answer, certainly not true in his case. Men also write autobiographies in order to relive the past, to experience again their triumphs or, it may be, their failures. The interwar years were, for everyone, years of folly and disaster – for Koestler more than for most. One might imagine that he would like to turn his back on them. On the contrary, he writes of nothing else, just as Dickens could never get the boot-blacking factory out of his mind.

There are, then, two Koestlers – the literary artist who is immersed in the past; the human being who has to make do with the present. All Koestler’s writings depict the interwar years. In his private life, he says, he searched always for the perfect woman, the Helen of Troy, and was, as in politics, inevitably disillusioned. Outside, he discovered two Utopias. There was the Zionist Utopia in Palestine, and the Socialist Utopia of the Soviet Union. Both have given him material for novels, for volumes of essays, and now for his autobiography. In each case the material stops in 1940. Thereafter, Koestler implies, the two fraudulent Utopias were just the same, only more so. Both again have another curious characteristic in common – Koestler had lost faith before he set eyes on them, or so he implies nowadays. He knew before he reached Palestine that he could not live the Utopian life of physical labour; this Utopia, even if it had some sort of existence, was not for him. Still more, his entire account of Soviet Russia in the Thirties is shot through with contempt and ridicule. Quite rightly: there has never been a community further removed from Utopia than the Soviet Union of the great famine and the great purge. But did Koestler not observe anything of this at the time? Did he – a mature journalist and political student – fail to notice the starving peasants on the railway platforms? He suggests now that he noticed them only unconsciously or accepted the twaddling excuses of Soviet publicity. Surely there is quite a different explanation. The Soviet fraud – the contrast between Utopia and reality – made Communism all the more attractive for him. It is an old story that the highest form of belief is belief in the impossible; and Koestler shared this emotional satisfaction with the early Christians.

 

Vicky's portrait shows a man too questioning to play "parlour Bolshevism", too engrossed in his own drama to transcend it.

Belief, not a settled way of life, was what Koestler was seeking for in the interwar years. Zionism involved digging. He gave it up. Communism meant for him writing articles, delivering lectures; and he clung to it, by his own account, long after his inner faith had been shaken or destroyed. It never seems to occur to him that Communism may be a way of arranging economic life as well as a system of political tyranny. In Soviet Russia he met propagandists, secret policemen – and beautiful women. He hardly mentions the worried managers of factories or even the engine drivers. The Utopian train is assumed to run itself. The important thing is the discussion in the railway carriage, not the men who somehow make the train go. The Soviet Utopia of Koestler’s dream did not exist. But he does not now see Soviet Russia by the cold light of reality. He has merely turned things upside down; and what was once Utopia has become instead Hell on earth, a place almost equally imaginary.

The political idealist is likely to be disappointed when he comes into contact with life. Koestler was certainly disappointed; and in this he was “a typical case-history”. In the harsh years before 1939 the idealist might expect to end in prison; here, too, Koestler was typical – no man has been in more. But the sorts of prisons he fell into were not at all typical. Siberia and Nazi concentration camps were the typical prisons of the 1930s, crammed with political idealists. Koestler never entered either except in imagination. His prisons were in Spain, in France, finally at Pentonville. Experience of these is less common, and less representative. Koestler has “green fingers” so far as prisons are concerned. He can hardly go anywhere without finding himself in jail. But they are jails of an old-fashioned type, clumsy, brutal, careless, but not the jails of the new totalitarian tyrannies. It would be unfair to say that Koestler was happy only in prison. But it is not unfair to say that only there did he find inner peace. He describes the rest of the spirit which came to him at the prison window, the mystical experience which revealed to him “the invisible writing”. At last the train had brought him somewhere. In prison Koestler had arrived.

But in Western Europe life does not end in prison. The prison gates open; and life has to begin. It is a stroke of profound symbolism that Koestler’s autobiography closes when he left Pentonville. No more Utopias; no more prisons, except as a casual touch of luck. Instead, one would suppose, drab reality. Life brought to Koestler success as an author, material rewards which satisfied his “hedonism”, and a comfortable house in Knightsbridge. He could be admired, respected, at ease. But this was not what he wanted. Where previously he had been embittered at failure, now he must be embittered at success. He claims to have grown roots in England; but the way he displays it is to describe England as “a kind of Davos for internally bruised veterans of the totalitarian age”. He is exasperated with English softness, exasperated with the low sales of his books here, exasperated that English people do not bestir themselves against Communist tyranny. In England, he writes, “I am only read by highbrows, and even by them only as a penance”; and he refers to the English gift “of looking at reality through a soothing filter”.

Perhaps Koestler is not a reliable or penetrating judge of English ways. Perhaps “their lotus-eating disposition” covers a deeper understanding of reality than he supposes. Englishmen are aware of the concentration camps and the gas chambers, but do not regard them as a profitable topic of conversation – or even of literature.

Why should we go on talking about things that are both absurd and repellent? There is no “Communist tyranny” in England: few vote Communist here. Besides, to quote Koestler, even English Communists are “certainly closer to the Pickwick Club than to the Comintern”. He condemns, or perhaps praises, them for indulging “in humour and eccentricity – dangerous diversions from the class struggle”. Dangerous diversions, we might add, from the anti-Communist struggle also.

Koestler’s new fervour sets out to be as fierce as his old. Only he now denounces what he once idealised. He condemns himself for being blind and ignorant. But it is difficult to believe that his new judgements are any more reliable. A political authority who took as long as Koestler did in facing the evil side of Soviet Communism has surely disqualified himself as a guide for the future. Instead of beating a new and bigger drum even more loudly than before, he had better retire from the band. And this is what Koestler has really done, though he is unwilling to admit it. The greatest virtues of his autobiography are not political penetration or religious mysticism; they are “humour and eccentricity”. Struwwelpeter was written as a warning tale; but it has brought entertainment to countless nurseries. Koestler would like us to see in him the fanatic of anti- Communism, the martyr in search of a stake; and we do our best. But he preaches with such gusto, describes his sufferings with such gaiety, that we pay him the greatest of compliments. We refuse to take him seriously. He has qualified as an honorary member of the Pickwick Club.

Arthur Koestler was the author of six novels, six volumes of autobiography and several other works of non-fiction. He died on 1 March 1983 in a suicide pact with his third wife, Cynthia Jefferies

 

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle