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Morality & Arthur Koestler

To the Editors:

In his review, or “biography,” of my book about Arthur Koestler [NYR, February 10], Julian Barnes charges me with “moral prating” and accuses me of exploiting the Koestler archive to produce a biography when the archive was closed to anyone with such intentions. Allow me to set the record straight.

Due to an arrangement between Michael Scammell, Koestler’s official biographer, and the late Harold Harris, Koestler’s lit-erary executor, the archive was barred to anyone engaging on a “biographical work.” But I was quite open with Harris and Scammell, telling them I was writing a book about Koestler’s Jewishness as reflected in “his life and work.” There was obviously going to be a biographical element to this project, but Harris gave me permission to use the archive. I met Scammell, discussed my project with him, and wrote to him about it; he made no objection.

Barnes speculates that, once inside, I found delectable material for a biography and “hoovered up the archive.” Yet there were vast expanses which I did not examine and subjects which I touched on only to provide the context for exploring Koestler’s Jewishness. More damaging for his fanciful explanation of my activity, Barnes notes that I did the bulk of the interviews for the book at the end of my research and concludes that I was “an archive man startled into the obligations of biography.” But if I inveigled my way into the archive in 1992 in order to write a biography, why on earth was I “startled” into biographical efforts in 1998?

Barnes labors the difference between a monograph and a biography, asserting that to gain access I pretended to be writing the one while in fact I was doing the other. He maintains that a monograph is “altogether more scholarly-sounding.” Yet my book has forty-three pages of footnotes and he admits it is “the work of a serious academic.”

This anyway begs the question of why the archive should ever have been closed to biographical intruders and authors of non-monographs. The explanation Barnes gives is unedifying. Due to the appearance of my book, he complains, “you can’t see the newspapers coming back for a second helping of serial rights when Scammell’s biography appears.” So, the restrictive arrangement was nothing less than a commercial monopoly over archival sources deposited in a public institution.

Perhaps Scammell’s monopoly explains his leisurely pace. He began his research in 1984. In 1998 Bernard Crick promised that Scammell’s book would appear in 2000. Now Barnes tells us that it will materialize in 2001. He accuses me of being a “tomb robber” but at this rate we will all be in our graves by the time Scammell’s official biography sees the light of day.

However, I patiently await its advent since I am curious to see how Scammell deals with the dark side of Koestler’s personality. In various utterances he has displayed a tendency to exculpate Koestler and disparage his accusers. He said of Jill Craigie, whom Koestler raped, that “I don’t think she was making it up, I just think the details may have been a little less lurid than described.” Perhaps in his long-anticipated book he will explain the difference between a “lurid” rape and a “less lurid” rape.

Barnes, who accuses me of “moral prating,” makes it clear that his friend was a bully, violent against women, a wife batterer, and a rapist. He is not appalled or disgusted; he treats the fact like a mildly reprehensible trait in an old pal. If “moral prating” means finding rape a bit more than saddening, I plead guilty.

As an example for his claim that I don’t understand Koestler or his relationships, Barnes mocks my observation that it was “paradoxical” for Mamaine Paget, Koestler’s second wife, to have made common cause with his secretary, Cynthia Jeffries, when the two women became the objects of Koestler’s abuse. Why shouldn’t wife and secretary rally to each other? The paradox comes from the fact that two years earlier Koestler began an affair with Cynthia while Mamaine was gravely ill in hospital. Barnes doesn’t mention this.

Nor does he refer to the illegal and dangerous abortions that were the price several women paid for their liaisons with Koestler, painful outcomes for which Koestler had little time or patience. Presumably any concern about this can also be dismissed as “moral prating.”

Barnes suggests that my intention in recording such failings was to belittle Koestler, but that is the effect of his review, not my book. In writing Arthur Koestler I intended to wrest attention back to Koestler’s accomplishments and his importance during the cold war, to explain the man against the setting of his times, and to account for his life and work in terms of his Jewish origins and all that they entailed. I don’t conceal my opinion of Koestler’s character, but I do my best to present the evidence fairly and so let readers make up their own minds.

Finally, what of the “biography” of Barnes’s review? In addition to having known Koestler himself, Barnes is, of course, married to Pat Kavanagh, who for many years was Koestler’s literary agent and close friend. Perhaps this is why his account of my book is little more than an apologia for a fallen idol and his tardy biographer.

David Cesarani
Department of History
University of Southampton
Southampton, England

Julian Barnes replies:

In 1993 David Cesarani applied to Edinburgh University Library to research a monograph on Jewish themes in Koestler. He was trusted in the archive. Six years later, his American publishers boast of a book which is “the first to make unrestricted use of Koestler’s private papers” and which draws on “Cesarani’s full access to the Koestler Archive.” Michael Scammell says that Cesarani has pillaged substantial amounts of biographical material specifically reserved for him; Robert L. Morris, Koestler’s literary executor and the Koestler Professor at Edinburgh, calls Cesarani’s behavior “seriously misleading on more than one occasion”; Dr. Murray Simpson, then Head of Special Collections at the Library, describes Cesarani’s silence over his book’s mutation as “grossly disingenuous.” Cesarani maintains he has deceived nobody and kept to his initial remit. As he likes to put it: “Let readers make up their own minds.” Cesarani asks if I consider his attitude to the Craigie rape “moral prating.” Not exactly. I gave various examples of his prating in my review. But I do find his desire to assure readers of the NYR that he is far more outraged by the story than either Michael Scammell or me startlingly smug. His current jeering at Scammell, who had believed him to be working merely on Koestler and Zionism, strikes me as repellently self-congratulatory.

I was a friend of Koestler’s, a longtime admirer, and a fellow writer. I don’t need a secret marital motive to spot a work falling into that category well described by John Updike—the biography designed to “reduce celebrities to a set of antics and ailments to which we can feel superior.” Cesarani quotes me numerous times in his book as a reliable witness to Koestler’s life; understandably, he doesn’t like it when I fail to return the compliment.

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