When Arthur Koestler killed himself in March 1983, he left a suicide note in which he expressed “some timid hopes for a depersonalised after-life.” Whether or not he has attained this (and whether, if depersonalized, you are aware that what you are experiencing is an afterlife, or any other sort of life), he has certainly had visited upon him a personalized afterlife. It goes by the name of biography.
This is neither surprising nor wrong. Koestler was an engagé intellectual, a novelist of political ideas, a journalist, agitator, propagandist, and causist up to his final action: his suicide was in part the culmination of an argument for the right to do so, an exemplary act when taken by itself (which it wasn’t, inevitably, given the accompanying suicide of his wife, Cynthia). He was someone who used and offered up his own life as evidence. Born in Central Europe, politically forged by events in its eastern extremity (Russia), politically reoriented in its western extremity (Spain), tempted first by a home in the hot southeast (Israel), eventually ending up as a citizen of the cool northwest (Britain), Koestler could and did argue that his vagabonding, questing, hunted, and haunted existence was as archetypal as European life can get this century. He put it forward as such in his two volumes of autobiography, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing.
He also sought, not unnaturally, to control his own version of his life by appointing, correcting, and then litigating against his first biographer, Iain Hamilton, whose rather broken-backed account appeared in 1982. Since Koestler’s death, Michael Scammell has been working on the official biography. David Cesarani’s large account of Koestler’s life and thought, which with considerable slyness avoids referring to itself as a biography, is the work of a serious academic and a biographical opportunist. The malign, if normally unintended, consequence of much modern biography is that the subject’s achievements are belittled, or mis-shadowed, by hitherto unknown details of his or her private life. Cesarani certainly accomplishes this, but also manages something stranger: a parallel mis-shadowing of his own scholarship. The biography of this biography is at least as contentious, and as compromising, as is the book itself.
Toward the end of his life, Koestler used to ask himself and others the question, “Is it better for a writer to be forgotten before he dies, or to die before he is forgotten?” He did not, perhaps, anticipate a third possibility: that of being forgotten (or at least neglected) as a writer but remembered instead as a case. This seems increasingly the effect of modern literary biography. A few years ago, when the “case” of Philip Larkin was occupying the nonliterary pages of the newspapers, the chairman of Faber and Faber, Larkin’s long-term publishers, told me he couldn’t understand why his firm hadn’t been more attacked for what it had done. What did he mean? Well, making money out of Larkin and then publishing the letters and biography which ruined his reputation.
This was true in the sense that Larkin may have lost those readers, and those potential readers, who want to be assured in advance that the author is a decent chap who shares their views and prejudices. Only those hardened in the opinion that the work should stand by itself and that even the best biography is likely to be distracting if not positively noxious would have remained unaffected. Distracting? Well, how about this? A play has recently opened in Scarborough called Larkin with Women. It depicts this most private of poet’s relationships with three key women in his life—all of whom, incidentally, are still alive. The Times of London review ran beneath the headline “Philip’s Sexual Larks Laid Bare On Stage.”
A more complex case is that of Iris Murdoch. John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris has been greeted by some as a great modern love story, by others as an honorable and necessary speaking-out about the bewildering misery of Alzheimer’s, and by yet others as an astonishingly blithe intrusion by a husband into his own wife’s privacy. When the book came out, two longstanding friends of Murdoch’s used exactly the same phrase to me on separate occasions: “Iris would have loathed it.” Bayley certainly portrays his wife as a person of considerable reserve, a reserve he then violates without comment. But he also cheerfully admits that whereas Iris Murdoch was irrefutably good, he himself is “not good inside, but I can get by on being nice.” I was quite prepared to dislike his memoir, and surprised to discover, despite a certain central evasiveness, a work of tender precision. Describing his wife in all her final feebleness, as a panicked, incontinent woman whose brain is overstretched by watching the Teletubbies, doesn’t diminish her as a novelist; indeed, the reader’s awareness that she had no decision or rights in the matter gives her a certain separateness, even dignity.
In Murdoch’s case, and Larkin’s, and Koestler’s, newspaper serialization has been a distorting factor in public discussion of the case. You cannot expect a biographer, or a publisher, to refuse the money and the free advertisement that comes from selling extracts; equally, you cannot expect even a high-minded broadsheet to do anything except fillet out the most salacious, discreditable, or controversial items and then run them as representative of the whole book. Sometimes the author may be dismayed by the version thus presented; sometimes he may be positively collusive. Bayley, for instance, preceded his memoir with a taster piece in the news pages of the London Sunday Times, describing how he had set Murdoch on the lavatory and wiped her bottom before taking her off to London for her last literary party. Not unarguably nice, perhaps. And then the broadsheet serialization will be followed up by other newspapers with a less central interest in the biography, except as a case for discussion.
At the time of Cesarani’s publication, I was rung up by a French journalist checking that Ihad been a friend of Koestler’s. Yes, in his very last years, I replied. So what do you think, he asked, of this new book which says he was a rapist? Wondering why I had picked up the phone, I replied, rather grimly, that I thought Koestler’s analysis of Soviet communism was unaffected by the news. Yes, but do you feel differently about him, knowing that he raped someone? Well, he is dead, Ireplied, aware that I was hedging. Yes, but if he was alive, would you think differently of him? Yes, I probably would, I replied.
Something of this shorthand exchange goes on when we read biography: the texture of real acquaintance is often replaced by a series of questions to answer, positions to assess, judgments to take. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is qualitatively different. Koestler himself was aware of this process. In an essay about his friend Richard Hillary (the RAF pilot whose return to air combat in 1942 can be read as a sort of romantic assisted suicide), he addressed the Englishman thus:
Writing about a dead friend is writing against time, a chase after a receding image: catch him, hold him, before he becomes petrified into a myth. For the dead are arrogant; it is as hard to be at ease with them as it is with someone who has served with you in the ranks after he has received his commission. Their perverse silence has a numbing effect: you have lost the race before it started, you will never get hold of him as he was. Already the fatal, legend-forming mechanism is at work: these pleasant trifles are freezing into Biographical Anecdotes.
The arrogance of the dead. Some biographers respond with humility, others with a competing certitude. Valerie Grove, biographer of the poet Laurie Lee, and before that of the dramatist and children’s writer Dodie Smith, recently described her reaction to being offered the Lee project: “I hesitated. I had enjoyed writing the biography of Dodie Smith: she had left a treasure trove of diaries and most of her friends were dead, so it had been straightforward. To write about a living person would be another matter.” You mean, it’s easier if you’ve never met the person and most of her friends are dead? Shouldn’t this make it…harder? And as for the partiality of diaries…
David Cesarani puts a new spin on the biographer’s conceit. Though Koestler himself is safely dead, there are a number of people who had known him still inconveniently hanging on. Cesarani writes: “In the course of my research I conducted interviews with many of those who knew Koestler. I treated the results with caution since, over time, Koestler either beguiled or alienated those who came into contact with him.” Well, that’s put them all in their places. “Wherever possible,” Cesarani continues, “…I have relied on his own diaries, letters, notebooks and published writings, along with those of his contemporaries.” Not that Cesarani trusts Koestler’s autobiography or diaries either. But at least papers can’t answer back.
According to Michael Holroyd, once you are dead the biographer owes you nothing. Naturally, he or she owes you the duty of work, with both head and leg, of imagination, of humility (the biographer is always less important than the biographee); but beyond this, Holroyd is certainly right. The biographer is more an examining magistrate than counsel for the prosecution or defense. This does, however, leave open the question of where he or she is coming from. Long after novelists have abandoned the pretense of divine status, life-writers have clung to it. Here, the biography implicitly states, is the objective truth about the creature under examination; here are the key facts, the emotional turning points, the requisite local color, and the final judgment on the work. This is the person’s life with the boring bits taken out; it is the boned-and-rolled joint.
But this can never be the case. Cesarani, honorably if self-damagingly, explains exactly where he is coming from. Both his parents were Communists in the Thirties. “My mother broke with Communism soonest” (he means, I hope, “sooner”), but his father’s “faith was more durable” until it “gently decayed into stoical support for socialism.” However, it was more as a personal than political counterexample that Henry Cesarani was valuable to his son. Koestler wrote books and hoped to change, even save, the world: “If it was necessary to avoid having children and the trivia of family life, that great end justified the means. Perhaps.” I.e., perhaps not. For compare the case of Cesarani père: “By taking the responsibility of parenthood my father had a profound influence on at least one person: unobtrusively he taught me what justice means and what it is to live decently.”
It’s hard to think of anyone not getting it in the neck from a biographer certain that he knows what it is to live decently. And Koestler, some of the time, did not live “decently.” Of course, what he did most—and most interestingly—was write. But when he wasn’t writing he often drank, sometimes heavily, he drove his car when over the limit, he got into arguments and fights—and sometimes all of the above on the same night. And then of course there is the sex. Koestler was very keen on it (he even co-wrote a couple of encyclopedias on the subject); he didn’t believe in sexual fidelity, either from a biological or temperamental point of view; he found, when in a prolonged sexual relationship with a woman, that an “incest barrier” erected itself (Cesarani takes this to mean that he felt he was sleeping with his mother, but surely the implication is one of sisterly familiarity); he chased, with success, a large number of women throughout his adult life.