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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis