Koestler: the Indispensable Intellectual

Koestler’s life and death have been the stuff of lurid speculation. But, as a new biography shows, h

By way of several poignant and intractable cases, as well as some noisy polemics, the question of assisted suicide and euthanasia has recently come back into the news. There are obvious arguments on both sides, but those who favour Martin Amis's terminal Martinis for the elderly would be well advised not to adduce in evidence what happened on 1 March 1983. At their flat in Kensington, in London, Arthur Koestler and his wife, Cynthia, shared their own lethal cocktail of Tuinal and alcohol, and died together.

He was 77 and suffering from Parkinson's disease and leukaemia; she was more than 20 years younger and in perfect health. Koestler's reason for wanting to end his life spoke for itself, but Cynthia's own testimony is also clear. "I fear both death and the act of dying that lies ahead of us," she wrote in a postscript to his suicide note, but "I cannot live without Arthur". Double suicide "has never appealed to me", and yet "there is nothing else to do". Whether or not he had persuaded her to join him in death, he had clearly not dissuaded her. It was a sombre conclusion to one of the most dramatic lives of the 20th century.

Born in 1905 into a prosperous Jewish family in Budapest, Koestler was one more child of the Habsburg monarchy in its vivid last phase. When that empire imploded at the end of the First World War, and Hungary was shaken first by a communist coup and then by a rightist counter-coup, the Koestlers fled to Vienna, where Arthur studied engineering and physics, but turned to journalism and political activism.

Plenty of Jews of his background were drawn to Zionism, and plenty to communism. Koestler veered rapidly between both, and in their most intransigent forms at that. He went to Palestine in 1926, but found that kibbutz life didn't suit him. The Zionist movement had just been split by the brilliant and charismatic Vladimir Jabot­insky, whose militaristic and ultra-nationalist Revisionism challenged Labour Zionism. "Jabo" was just "the hero Arthur had been waiting for", writes Michael Scammell in this excellent new biography.

From there it was back to Europe and to Russia, where he underwent another conversion and became a Comintern agent, sent to Paris to help the indefatigable agitprop-meister Willi Münzenberg. With his life developing into the kind of schlock historical novel where the hero winds up everywhere the action is, Koestler found himself in Spain during the civil war. Caught and imprisoned by Franco's forces, he listened to the nightly rattle of firing squads, a fate he expected imminently. Thanks to intervention from London, he was released and reached England to write his powerful Spanish Testament.

In 1938, appalled by the Moscow show trials, Koestler broke with the communists and began writing Darkness at Noon, his best-known book, which penetrated the Bolshevik mind with unparallelled insight. He managed to get himself interned in France when war broke out, but was released again and made his way to England for a brief spell in the army. In the last year of the war, he was once more in Palestine, convinced that he could bridge the gap between the mainstream Zionists and the Revisionists.

After the war, Koestler championed anti-communism through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He later claimed not to have known that it was financed by the CIA, which might actually have been true in his case. As Scammell rightly says, the CIA, whose own political tendency was then very much liberal anti-communism, was chary of Koestler's zealotry. Then came another cause - a wholly admirable one: campaigning against capital punishment with a passion bred of his experiences in Spain.

By now he was famous and rich. Darkness at Noon was a bestseller in France after the war, to the fury of the Stalinoid literary-intellectual establishment there. For an example of the political becoming luridly personal, see the hila­rious description of an astoundingly drunken and argumentative night that Koestler spent in Paris with Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir.

After writing two excellent volumes of autobiography, but fickle as ever, Koestler turned to sundry new enthusiasms, writing eccentric, not to say downright cranky, books with unstoppable prolificity - one year trying to prove that most Jews were descended from the medieval Khazars, the next amateurishly plunging into biology or the paranormal in a way that excited derision from serious scientists. And so to the grim last chapter.

Although this official biography has been long in gestation, it was worth the wait. But then it's hard to go wrong with Koestler. In terms of in-your-face plot-line and human drama, his character and story would be implausible in a novel. One way of putting it is that Koestler was an extremist. Everything about him was exaggerated and heightened. His personality was extreme, as were his opinions and his conduct, from his capacity for alcohol to his sexual appetite. He may have been lucky to live as long as he did. A chain-smoker and ferocious drinker, he had a series of hair-raising drunken car crashes. His sex life might not have been so damaging to health, but it was just as reckless. Married three times, he pursued women relentlessly.

In 1998, David Cesarani published what Scammell describes as an "opinionated, thinly researched and heavily slanted biography, masquerading as a study of Koestler's Jewishness". That book dwelt heavily, and in prosecutorial fashion, on Koestler's taste for sexual violence. At the time, Cesarani was chided for being a censorious prude, and he certainly overdid it. However much he lamented Koestler's philandering, it is quite clear that when, for example, Koestler and de Beauvoir spent an unsuccessful night together, they were both too plastered to know what they were doing.

And yet, as often happens, the more objective and even-handed biography is the more damaging. One may admire Koestler as a writer, but it is hard to like him as a man after reading Scammell's book. Not even the most easygoing bohemian would wish to defend a man who wooed his second wife with the words: "Without an element of initial rape, there is no delight." It did not surprise me to hear, by way of hints from various women, that he was not in fact such a red-hot lover. "Initial rape" or not, the sheer gratification of getting a girl into bed was enough for him.

With biographies of writers and artists, the perspective is always distorted. What makes them great is not what they were, but what they did - the work, not the life. To be sure, in Koestler's case, it is impossible to make that distinction: his life was his work, and vice versa. And so, whatever one thinks of him, a biography is bound to be a rattling good yarn. All the same, it is his books for which he should be remembered. The best recommendation I can give for this book is that Scammell made me want to go back to Spanish Testament, Scum of the Earth, The Yogi and the Commissar, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, as well as that unsparing little book, Reflections on Hanging. They are surely a better legacy for Koestler than the manner of his life, or his death.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's "Yo Blair! Tony Blair's Disastrous Premiership" is published by Politico's (£9.99)

Koestler: the Indispensable Intellectual
Michael Scammell
Faber & Faber, 720pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN