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

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses