I cannot recall a book title that was less well-shaped to its subject. Far from being a “skeptic,” Arthur Koestler was a man not merely convinced but actively enthused by practically any intellectual or political or mental scheme that came his way. When he was in the throes of an allegiance, he positively abhorred doubt, which he sometimes called “bellyaching.” If he was ever dubious about anything, one could say in his defense, it was at least about himself. He was periodically paralyzed by self-reproach and insecurity, and once wrote a defensive third-person preface to one of his later novels (The Age of Longing) in which he described its style as modeled on that of a certain “A. Koestler,” whose writing, “lacking in ornament and distinction, is easy to imitate.” The author himself was written off as “a much afflicted scribe of his time, greedy for pleasure, haunted by guilt, who enjoyed a short vogue and was then forgotten, like the rest of them.”
In fact, Koestler succeeded in achieving several things that transcended his own time and made him into what Danilo Kiš called the prototypical Central European intellectual. He was enabled to do them because he believed that the intellectual ought also to be a man of action. He took part in the antifascist struggles of the 1930s and ’40s first as a true-believing Communist and then as an ex-Communist, and out of this synthesis he generated at least one work of nonfiction (Spanish Testament) and one novel (Darkness at Noon), which between them helped redefine the essential struggle as the one against totalitarianism tout court. No other single individual, with the exception of George Orwell—upon whom Koestler had a marked influence—could claim as much. Second, he managed to register practically every phase, emotional and ideological, of diasporic engagement with Zionism. Third, he was able to demonstrate that an individual could make a difference in the battle of the behemoths that constituted the Cold War.
To be born Hungarian and Jewish and German-speaking is to start at a slightly odd angle to the world. For instance, Koestler was unusual in retaining what Michael Scammell calls “fond memories” of the 1919 Communist putsch in Hungary, a botched and bloody business that led many people to actually welcome the advent of the vengeful right as a deliverance. This right was organically hostile to Jewry, but not even that explains Koestler’s nostalgia for Béla Kun, which in any case makes an odd fit with his decision, as a refugee and student in Vienna, to join a nationalist dueling-and-drinking club that effectively molded young Jews into ersatz Germans. Once more his formation and evolution were against the traditional grain: most European Jews were drawn to Palestine by labor and socialist groups, but when Koestler set off for the Holy Land he did so as a consecrated follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky and the so-called Revisionists. Parlaying his fierce journalism from the Middle East into a job with a German newspaper syndicate in Berlin, Koestler was able to interview Einstein and begin a lifelong amateur engagement with science, while keeping up a keen interest in the subject of eugenics: a field that (in 1930s Germany, of all times and all places) he regarded as promising.
The word one might choose to describe this riot of enthusiasms and contradictions would be promiscuous. It would certainly sit very well with Koestler’s private life, which was a hectic, alarming, and sometimes violent blend of alcoholism and satyriasis. Scammell holds retrospective psychology to a minimum but cannot escape noticing Koestler’s flight from an overprotective mother or his keen awareness of his short stature. We have Koestler’s own word for it—in Arrow in the Blue, which I think is the best of his volumes of memoirs—that he habitually felt awkward and uneasy and sometimes an impostor. This book provides persuasive evidence of acute manic depression, combated in one way by sex and booze and in another by devotion to a series of causes. Otto Katz once said to him, “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, but yours isn’t a complex—it’s a cathedral.” Koestler liked this remark so much that he included it in his autobiography, thus attaining the status of one who could actually brag about his inferiority complex as if size mattered.
It was often believed in those days that absorption into the historic movement of the working class was the cure for the angst of the petit bourgeois and the deracinated intellectual. This could help explain the utterness of Koestler’s surrender to Communism. Not even a visit to the famine-racked U.S.S.R.—where he traveled around with a completely credulous Langston Hughes—was enough to unpersuade him. He set off for Spain and the civil war as a dedicated agent of the Comintern, and if the Spanish Fascists who arrested him had guessed his true identity, they would have shot him out of hand. Had they done so, they would have unknowingly dealt anticommunism a frightful blow. Koestler’s experience of Franco’s cells in Málaga, with victims dragged to execution almost every night, helped furnish the stark raw material for Darkness at Noon: certainly the best jail book since Victor Serge’s Men in Prison and almost as influential in combating Stalinism as Nineteen Eighty-Four.