The Afterlife of Arthur Koestler

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 is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.