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.
At times, the habit became compulsive to the point where Koestler was dismayed, even sickened, by his own hedonism; but Cesarani has got there long before him. When Koestler is twenty-six and still unmarried, he is rebuked for “lust and perpetual infidelity,” and for “sleeping his way through Berlin at the rate of one girlfriend every four to six weeks” (it’s to be hoped Cesarani is never signed to write the biography of a rock star). A continuing misdemeanor of Koestler’s was to remain on good terms with many of those he had slept with; so at one point he has a regular “sociable lunch” with—and here Cesarani’s adjective should be exactly weighed—“a grisly assembly of ex-lovers.” When a “strikingly pretty young Turkish woman” who works for the UN writes to Koestler offering to “rush at” him, and subsequently comes to London and effects the offer, you might judge this a free and as far as we know painless exchange of sexual favors between consenting adults. Cesarani takes it as proof that Koestler’s “sexual opportunism” went to “astonishing lengths.”(Whose opportunism?)
He finds the open relationship with Mamaine Paget doubly disturbing. After Koestler had a mutually unsatisfactory one-night stand with Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, Mamaine had a brief, passionate affair with Camus. Cesarani finds this “extraordinary conduct,” even though, or perhaps more so because, they were frank about it. “Conventional morality seems to have had little purchase in these circles,” he sniffs. Mr. Pooter comes to Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
That other self-reproaching hedonist, Cyril Connolly, also gets a stiff wigging for “indolence and general uselessness.” Uselessness? Connolly was a fine critic, an important literary editor (printing, inter alia, Koestler’s early warning about the Nazi death camps), a key promoter of modernism, and the author of at least one book that has lasted half a century. This doesn’t impress Cesarani, who can spot a pleasure-monger at a hundred paces. Connolly and his pal Peter Quennell (another good critic, editor, and biographer) hit the discard pile for being “louche, posturing, ineffectual underachievers.”
It’s not just the smugness of these judgments; it’s more that, on a level of human understanding, Cesarani so often simply doesn’t get it. It clearly puzzles and disturbs him that despite Koestler’s unconstrained approach to sex, and his bad behavior when drunk, women liked him, enjoyed his company, and remained loyal friends. In the early 1950s Koestler lived for a while at Island Farm in Delaware with his then second wife, Mamaine Paget, while his future third wife, Cynthia Jefferies, was acting as his secretary. Ulcerous and irritable, Koestler began quarreling with Mamaine. After a while, he turned on Cynthia, whose hay fever medication often made her nod off during dictation. Cesarani writes: “Paradoxically, his bursts of fury against Jefferies cemented an alliance between the two women.” That “paradoxically” tells you all you need to know about what Cesarani doesn’t know.
But what about the rape? In August 1998 Jill Craigie, filmmaker wife of Michael Foot, the one-time leader of the Labour Party, told Cesarani that in May 1952, after a pub-crawl in Hampstead (during which she drank only ginger beer), Koestler attacked and raped her at her flat. She did not tell anyone, not even her husband, for nearly fifty years; obviously, there were no witnesses, no police report, no corroborating evidence. She died in December 1999. Her account, though it stands by itself, sounds absolutely true. (After the pub crawl Koestler bullied her into making lunch for him, presumably as a way of getting into her flat. Consider this detail no one could ever have made up: “After the meal Koestler helped to wash up.”) There seems further evidence—though in any case Cesarani rushes to judgment—that Koestler was sexually violent toward women at other times.
How to react to this, as a friend, as a reader of Koestler, as a reader of this biography of Koestler? Edinburgh University, which received about a million pounds under the Koestlers’ wills for a chair in parapsychology, reacted not by closing the department or returning the money but by removing Koestler’s bust from display: an act of statuarial unpersonning worthy of the communism he spent much of his life exposing. The novelist Frederic Raphael, defending Koestler, concluded with the question: “If we are to dispraise famous men, who is to be spared?”
For the last two decades, I have remembered Arthur Koestler as a generous, hospitable, funny, courteous, and endlessly stimulating friend. I am saddened by the discovery of his violence (both sexual and nonsexual) toward women; he is diminished as a person in my memory. At the same time, I find Darkness at Noon just as impressive a novel as I ever did, and Koestler’s views on communism, Zionism, capital punishment, suicide, and the quarantining of dogs as lucid, intelligent, and convincing (or not) as I did before. The Times Literary Supplement, perhaps briefly remembering its Murdoch ownership, ran a front-page strapline of “Does Brilliance Excuse Rape?” I think we can all answer that one, as we can whether or not a rapist can be brilliant. Is there an irony that Koestler loathed and fought totalitarianism, yet in his private life could be overbearing and oppressive—totalitarian if you want to stretch that word? Certainly. Might there be a connection between experiencing the threat of ultimate violence (weeks in Seville prison in 1937 expecting to be shot alongside his colleagues) and the subsequent infliction of violence on others? Possibly. Does this make him a hypocrite whose written testimony we should ignore? Hardly. It’s not a case of either/or; it’s a case of both/and. Villon was a poet, a thief, and a murderer. Should we dispraise famous men? Where dispraise is due, yes. And the more so since fame can be deceitful and coercive toward those who are impressed by it. We need the valet’s view to counteract the spin doctor’s.
In the long run, time forgives; in the short run, people don’t. In this respect, Raphael is right. There are those who use the life as the point of entry to the work, rather than the other way around. There are people now who won’t read Larkin’s poetry because in his private correspondence he said disparaging things about some people who weren’t white, male, and English (as well as saying lots of more important things). But time is on Larkin’s side, as it was on Villon’s. How far it is on Koestler’s side is less clear. For those growing up after the collapse of communism, it must be difficult to imagine a time when such a system appeared to have historical inevitability on its side, when the truth of its nature was violently contested, when the psychology of its commissars was of world interest.
Cesarani in his introduction claims that by the time the Wall fell Koestler was regarded as “a half-forgotten crank who was reviled as a philanderer and wife-beater when he was recalled at all.” This seems to me grotesquely false, and also preening: Watch me give as much intellectual respectability as I can back to the wretched fellow. Raphael’s judgment, perhaps a deliberate echo, is that “thanks to Cesarani, he [Koestler] will now be remembered as the rootless crackpot sex maniac who banged a film director’s head on the kitchen floor.” Add the words “and then raped her,” and that would seem to be the case for the moment.
Cesarani is Professor of Modern Jewish History at Southampton University, author of a history of the Jewish Chronicle, and of a book about Britain’s use of SS labor after the war. In June 1993 he applied for access to the Koestler Archive at Edinburgh University library, describing his area of business as “Koestler’s Jewish identity and themes in his life and work.” Since Michael Scammell was still working on his official biography, Cesarani was asked to sign an undertaking that his research would be “confined solely to the project stated above and will not be used in the compilation of any biographical work about Arthur Koestler.” He wrote to Scammell in the same year, telling him that he proposed “to examine Koestler’s Jewishness as the hidden thematic of his life and work.”
What happened between that proposal and this book? According to Cesarani’s preface, “An investigation into Koestler as Jew broadened into an account of Koestler the man and his achievements as a whole.” Put differently, Cesarani got access to a previously uncontaminated archive, knowing it was especially reserved for Scammell, and couldn’t believe his luck. “Broadened”: rather a slippery word, the more so when the book, rather than the author, is the subject of the verb. Did Cesarani alert the library, Koestler’s literary executor, or Scammell to the fact that his work was “broadening”? Obviously not. He hoovered up the archive, made a break for it, and carried on pretending he wasn’t writing a biography. He’s still doing so. The only problem is that his book looks like a biography, is narrated like one, weighs like one, and even has the bonny-baby-to-elderly-sage photos (many from the Edinburgh archive) of a biography.
During a brief exchange with Scammell in the TLS, Cesarani quoted the authority of a letter sent by Koestler’s executor, Harold Harris, to the Edinburgh library “giving his permission for me to use the archive for a study ‘which will seek to reevaluate Arthur Koestler’s life and thought in terms of his Jewishness.’ I think it is fair to say that the finished volume conformed to this remit.” It’s revealing, however, to note the exact point at which Cesarani chooses to start quoting Harris’s letter: after the word “study.” “Study” is a rather capacious word; a study might well grow, or, in Cesarani’s preferred verb, broaden. But the word in Harris’s letter which Cesarani here replaces is “monograph.” This is what Harris, who has died since, thought he was giving permission for. Something altogether more scholarly-sounding; something much less inclined to broaden. So a monograph becomes a study becomes a biography, though both Cesarani and his publishers avoid the B-word as much as possible (according to his TLS letter he has written only a “work,” “study,” “volume,” and “book”). Scammell would be entitled to regard Cesarani as the literary equivalent of a tomb-robber. And what price now Cesarani’s complacent assertion that his father “taught me what justice means and what it is to live decently”?
There is another telling aspect to the book’s “broadening”: that it seems to have happened remarkably late. Despite Cesarani’s assertion that those who knew Koestler were either “beguiled or alienated,” he still conducted “interviews with many of those” who knew him. How many is many? Not as many as you might think. Cesarani lists a mere fifteen at the back of his book; though more revealing than their sparseness is their spread. Two in 1994, two in 1995, none in 1996, none in 1997, then eleven between April and August 1998. The impression of an archive man startled into the obligations of biography seems confirmed.
The pity of it for Cesarani is that he is clearly well equipped to write that monograph on Jewishness in Koestler. One of Koestler’s many significant journeys was between the presumption of assimilation and the necessity of separatism. From his first visit to Zionism’s Utopia in 1926 to his last, rancorous encounter with postwar Israel in 1948, from Thieves in the Night to the late, controversial The Thirteenth Tribe (which seeks to prove that most Jews are descendants of Khazars rather than biblical patriarchs), Koestler’s attitudes to his own Jewishness, to Zionism, and to Israel oscillated extremely, in reaction to subjective circumstance and to objective political reality. At times (as when writing his autobiographies) Koestler maximizes his assimilation; at others he is more acknowledging, or patriotic—though that was never a straightforward business for one who wrote, “Self-hatred has been the Jewish form of patriotism.” Cesa-rani follows the twists and turns, the suppressions and the clarities, with considerable skill and pertinacity. “Finished Palestine book—and with the whole problem,” Koestler noted hopefully after completing Promise and Fulfilment. But the problem never was finished at any level except the religious (Koestler was always stalwartly irreligious). As Cesarani sums it up: “The attempt to flee Judaism was the quintessential act of the modern Jew: it was, itself, a badge of identity.”
This is sober, well-judged work which only occasionally loses sight of its own importance, as, for instance, in the following bizarre claim about Darkness at Noon: “The most important fact about the novel is the one that is least remarked upon in crit-ical studies: the central character…is a Jew.” But then Cesarani has little understanding of or interest in the fiction as fiction; it is mere code for the life and the ideas. And as a biographer, he is simply the wrong man for the job. He brings family values to bear on a man who for most of his life rejected them. He brings a hedge-lawyer’s judgmentalism to bear on a divided, self-conflicted, often self-despising personality. He is a man who puts quotation marks around the phrase “night life.” He thinks that contradictory opinions and contradictory behavior are best explained by hypocrisy. He dismisses Harold Harris’s attempt to understand the Koestlers’ joint suicide as “elegant,” and then produces his own, which owes more to geometry than psychology. His expressions of sympathy for the women in Koestler’s life come to seem patronizing; made uneasy by Koestler’s dynamic attractiveness, he imagines that women can only have stayed with him if they were weak and he was a bully.
It is, finally, Cesarani’s moral prating that seems—that broadens into—his most exasperating characteristic. One evening in 1971, after a succession of domestic and professional irritations, Koestler worked himself up into a state in which, according to Cynthia’s diary, she “thought he was going to kick the [TV] set over.” It appears to be an established biographical fact that the set remained unkicked, but enough has been done to offend Cesarani and his fabled sense of decency. “On such occasions,” he sighs, “one looks in vain for evidence of the ‘power and nobility’ of Koestler’s thought.” Note the slimy use of “one.”
The pity of it for Scammell is that Cesarani has written what is known in journalism as a spoiler. You can’t see the newspapers coming back for a second helping of serial rights when Scammell’s authorized biography appears. Nor can you see too many readers with an appetite for both biographies, given the efficiency of Cesarani’s tomb-robbing. Those with a particular interest in Koestler’s Jewishness, those keen to disapprove, or to salivate over Biographical Anecdotes, may want to read this book. Everyone else should wait until 2001 for Scammell.
February 10, 2000