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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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war