Arthur Koestler


OF LIVING English novelists I like Koestler the best.”J his was said to me recently by a friend in France, where Darkness at Noon has, in translation, enjoyed a sensational success. “He is wonderfully living,” I answered, “but he is not English; he is not a novelist; and how far is he, as a writer, even likable?”

Take first the matter of nationality, which here is crucial, for Mr. Koestler s books are packed with observations upon national character. He is a Hungarian Jew educated in Austria. Bilingual by education, he has had to learn a third language in which to write. This he has done with signal success: his English is fluent, neat, and highly readable. But it has no personal flavor. Finding a page torn out of one of his books, you might guess it was Koestler by the content, but never by the rhythm or the choice of words. In this he falls short of Conrad, who also had to learn the language in which he wrote.

Second: Is he a novelist? The answer depends on your definition. Four of his books are in the form of fiction. The Gladiators, the earliest, is a novel about the Spartacist revolt in ancient Rome. It is a brilliant essay upon the nature of revolution and the revolutionary. Darkness at, Noon presents the Moscow Treason Trials as it were in miniature, and explains the authors disillusionment with Soviet Russia. It is deeply convincing and moving, as well as painfully exciting. It throws a flood of light on revolutionary psychology, but again the characters are representative rather than individual. The characters in this book,” the author explains, are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of N. S. Rubashev is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory.”

Arrival and Departure comes nearer to being a novel than any of the others; and, probably for this reason, it is much the least successful of Mr. Koestler ‘s books. It is the story of a Communist intellectual who has escaped from prison to a neutral country where be discovers through psychoanalysis the explanation alike of his courage and his occasional weakness. The book is remarkable in its horrifying pictures of life under the Nazis, and of refugees in Lisbon, but the love story is embarrassing. Thieves in the Night, Mr. Koestier’s latest book, is prefaced by the statement: “The characters in this book are fictitious. The happenings are not.”

A true novelist may, like Tolstoy and George Eliot, be concerned to illustrate a philosophical point of view; he may even, like Dickens and Zola, be anxious to bring about particular reforms; but he must, I suggest, be also supremely interested in the personal relations between individuals. These occupy Mr. Koestler ‘s attention only in so far as they can be used to illuminate ideological struggles and the nature of the revolutionary or his opponent. Fiction, in fact, is not his aim but his instrument— an instrument that he uses with deadly precision and efficacity.

If I find Mr. Koestler’s writing unlikablc, it is because he accepts as normal what I believe and hope is abnormal—because he treats ordinary, peaceable enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable. I am a conservative only in that I prefer old governments to new ones. Old governments have lost their fangs; or rather, having no reason to fear the people, they have no reason to inspire fear in the people. And under such governments — American or British, Swiss or Swedish, whether republican or monarchist makes no difference — men and women can, except when menaced by foreign powers, give themselves, their day’s work done, to such enjoyments as their temperaments require, — making music or love, fishing or studying,— in the confidence that neither their religion nor their political opinions will expose them to persecution.

The notion of happiness has in Europe — and I cannot, alas, altogether exclude England—become discredited. We have had to be stoical to survive, and stoicism has become a habit. Europeans have become addicts of calamity. Our most imperious need is to rehabilitate enjoyment. The prophets to whom we should listen are Montaigne and Voltaire—Voltaire who fought like a tiger against intolerance, but who never forgot the supreme importance of happiness. I find Mr. Koestler ‘s writings dislikable because they neglect the necessity or even the existence of gardening.

Mr. Koestler will answer, with complete justice, that you and I have had no more direct experience of fanaticism and revolution than of leprosy or bubonic plague. Even war, though the older among us have twice been more or less directly involved in it, strikes us as essentially abnormal. Contrast our lives with Mr. Koestler’s; read Spanish Testament and Scum of the Earth. He is an expatriate who has become an exile. He has been hideously persecuted both as a Socialist and as a Jew. He could have escaped from Europe years before the war, but he preferred to remain where he could most effectively fight the powers of evil. He has been imprisoned and sentenced to death in Spain. He has been in prison in France and even in England. He has lived in hourly danger of capture and torture by the Gestapo. Though he eventually escaped into security, many of his friends have either killed t hem selves or been murdered.


AN experience in some ways even more agonizing and mutilating to Mr. Koestler has been a loss of faith. For seven years, one of which he spent in the U.S.S.R., he was an active Communist. Then, in 1937, came a staggering shock: he discovered Soviet Communism to be “the greatest farce the world has ever seen.” The reasons for this conclusion are very lucidly exposed in The Yogi and the Commissar as well as in Darkness at Noon.

His conversion was incomparably more than a change of opinion such as in the United States turns a Republican into a Democrat, or in England a Labor man into a Conservative. It can be better compared with the loss of faith that obliges a Jesuit to desert his Order, his priesthood, and his belief in the Church. Seven years of his life had been sacrificed for what he now found to be not merely mistaken but actively wrong. Mr. Koestler remains a Marxist. He is not a Trotskyite, nor have the mildness and th1 native empiricism of the English Labor Party any appeal for him. He is not merely independent; he is, or feels, isolated.

It is probable, therefore, that like almost all Communists who have lost their faith, he suffers, consciously or unconsciously, from unreasonable feelings of guilt. (Arrival and Departure must certainly not be taken as autobiographical, but it reveals a preoccupation with the neurosis of a revolutionary that would hardly exist in a man unaware of his own neurotic symptoms.) If, as I have suggested, Mr. Koestler seems to turn a blind eye to such ordinary experiences as a happy marriage leading to a congenial family life, it is probably because he feels impelled, predestined, to guerrilla loneliness, a mixture of Don Quixote and a rogue elephant.

As a writer he is inspired by hatred and contempt, profound though his sympathy, his selfidentification, may be with the displaced and persecuted who are treated as the scum of the earth. The trouble is that his condition is more wretched than theirs. If ever they escape to safety, they may resume their lives. But he can breathe only in the climate of violence. How far this obligation affects the man as well as the writer l do not know; but his extraordinary talent is undeniably focused upon manifestations of cruelty and intolerance. He ends Scum of the Earth with these sentences:—

. . . this is our unique and ultimate war aim: to teach this planet to laugh again. At the moment we are still howling like dogs in the dark. I wish the time of laughter had come.

It is doubtful whether the time for laughter ever will come, ever could come, for Mr. Koestler. He has forgotten, if he ever knew, how to laugh, except in mockery.

He has been compared with Jean-Jacques Rousseau: his love and pity for humanity turn easily to distrust or contempt when confronted with ordinary human beings. Look at the portraits of commonplace persons of every nationality in his books. They are covered with spittle. Not even Swift is more consistently lacking in geniality. Consider again his life, and can you be surprised? To burble about gardening to such a man is an absurdity if not an insult. But the writer is never the whole man — he is the man playing a part, giving a performance. And for all I know, the author of these terrifying books may find his principal pleasure in weeding a lawn and growing primulas.

None of the criticisms I have allowed myself can affect the fact that Mr. Koestler ‘s writings are immensely impressive. On the contrary. His not being English makes him to an English or American reader all the more stimulating. His thoughts and feelings have all the fascination of unfamiliarity, exciting perpetual surprise. And he writes with an intensity of passion rare among Anglo-Saxons. His not being in essence a novelist makes his novels incomparably more thoughtful and profound than the vast majority of novels, whether they describe trivial persons doing trivial things or half-witted criminals murdering for the sake of money. (The first criterion for any novel is the question “Do you mind what happens to the characters?”; and this is a test very few novels can pass.) Again, his books, just because they are unlikable, excite one’s gusto for controversy and are —except for Arrival and Departure — impossible to put down. In any case unlikable books are necessary. There are in the United States and in England writers far superior to Mr. Koestler in poetic imagination, in sensibility, in wisdom, in style, and in the art of inventing personages. But I can think of none who writes about the diseases of our civilization with anything approaching his acuteness and fervor.


His latest novel, Thieves in the Night, is a passionately controversial account of the Zionist situation in Palestine between 1937 and 1939. Mr. Koestler has written nothing more gripping, and the subject allows him for the first time to make full use of his gift for sardonic comedy. Admittedly it is a novel only in form; and any criticism of it is bound to be concerned chiefly with estimating the accuracy and completeness of the picture it presents. Only an impartial expert upon Palestine could deal with it adequately; and even if such a phoenix could be found, his impartiality would be admitted by none of the contending parties. I approach, therefore, my impossible task with a certain despondency.

The chief character in the book is called Joseph: the action is seen mostly through his eyes, and recorded in his journal. He is a young Englishman, half Jewish, who has gone to Palestine, where he joins a group of other Zionists, mostly from Central Europe, who after five years’ training found an agricultural community called Ezra’s Tower. They have been allotted a barren hill, purchased by the National Fund. After a preliminary skirmish with the Arabs, in which one of the Zionists is killed, the community grows and, by dint of rigorous industry and self-sacrifice, becomes solvent. It is a self-governing unit, practicing unmitigated communism, like some of the utopian communities established in nineteenth-century America.

Our Communes are the only place in the world where individual property is completely vested in the community, where all men are really equal, and where you can live and die without ever having touched money. In these hundred odd settlements of ours we have now been practising pure rural communism for over thirty years, have survived all trials without Sacrificing a single basic principle, and have transformed a seemingly utopian idea into a small-scale but significant working concern.

The first half of the book is chiefly occupied with the development of this community, and is masterly. The second half is wider in its range, and less completely successful. We see the Zionists divided into two parties: those who believe in obeying the law, even when they think it unjust, and who consider that Zionism can succeed only by winning the good will of the Palestinian natives; and those who believe that the Jews have suffered in patience too long and too atrociously, and who therefore employ terrorism against both the Arabs and the British. Joseph begins as an adherent of the former party, and ends by joining the latter. For, in 1939, the British issued the White Paper setting a limit to Jewish immigration, although the Jews of Central Europe were threatened with extermination unless they could escape.

The personal relations of the characters are, as we have come to expect, subsidiary to the contest of ideas. Joseph is torn in his feelings between two women in the community: one of them his mistress, and eventually his wife; the other a much more congenial and intellectual girl whose hideous experience during the persecution in Europe has made her allergic to even the most trivial physical contact. She goes out alone one night into the wild surrounding country, where she is raped and murdered by Arabs. This atrocity helps to precipitate Joseph into the Terrorist movement. The grounds on which he comes to this decision are not put forward as rational.

“But I don’t want to be reasonable,” I shouted. “I have had enough of being reasonable for two thousand years while the others were not. I was the reasonable fly running in zigzags over the window-pane because there was light on the other side and I had my legs torn out and my wings burnt off with matches. I am through with your reasonableness.”

This feeling that, since turning the other cheek has been of so little avail, hitting back may somehow prove more effective seems to be fortified by a comprehensible delight in seeing the Jews, often so unjustly accused of cowardice, display in their terrorism the fiercest audacity.

Joseph himself is not altogether credible as a character. the is supposed to have been brought up by his Gentile mother and grandparents as an ordinary member of the English upper middle class. Then in his first year at Oxford he is insulted in peculiarly humiliating (and improbable) circumstances by a female Fascist, and this “incident” makes him for the first time conscious that he is a Jew. It is difficult to believe in this background, because Mr. Koestler uses him so often and so freely as a mouthpiece for his own opinions and emotions.

The other characters are silhouetted to represent the various national or political points of view. This is done most skillfully and effectively, as is also the landscape-painting. The impression we receive of Palestine, its peoples and its problems, is extremely vivid. We follow the fortunes of the community with excitement and sympathy, we are staggered by the self-sacrificing vigor of the settlers, and we are persuaded to share the author’s contempt for the feckless Arabs and the stupid British administrators with their suburbanminded wives.

Mr. Koestler has a particular gift for parable. He compares the Zionists, for instance, to our remote ancestors the fish who, leaving their follows, first crept ashore and became amphibians.

Instead of drifting with streamlined grace through the water, they had to waddle and wobble painfully on their bellies through swamp and muck, and gasp piteously for air with a new and imperfect contraption specially evolved for this purpose. . . .

The Arabs are the fish. They are happy, they have tradition and beauty and self-sufficiency and lead a timeless, care-free, lackadaisical life. Compared to them we are the graceless amphibians. That’s one reason why the English love them and dislike us.

It is not political. It is their nostalgia for the lost paradise — a kind of eternal week-end — and their detestation of the 8.35 to the City. For behold, we are the force that drives the fishes ashore, the nervous whip of evolution.

There is much wisdom in this. The great English Arabophiles from Doughty and Scawen Blunt to T. E. Lawrence and Freya Stark have all hated the bustle, promiscuity, and general hideousness of the modern industrialized world. They have loved the desert life and those who live it, because of a conviction that progress has taken a disastrously wrong turning, and the recent history of Dachau and Hiroshima may be thought to provide some support for this contention.

And here is another of Mr. Koestler ‘s parables, illustrating the Arab attitude to the immigrants:—

Of course they don’t like us. They are slum-children in possession of a vast playground where they wallow happily in the dust. In comes another bunch of children who have nowhere to play and start cleaning up the place and building tents and lavatories with a horrible burst of efficiency. “Get out from here,” they cry, “we don’t want you,” ‘ But there is plenty of room,” says the clever lot, “and we’ve got permission to share it, and after we’ve improved it, the place will be much nicer for you too.”“Get out, get out,” they cry, having already pinched some of the newcomers’ tools and toys; “get out, we don 't want you. This is our place and we like it as it is.”

Passionate emotion, which in most people blunts the intelligence, serves to make Mr. Koestler ‘s mind more vivacious. His direct experience of the sufferings of the Jews in Europe excites in him a burning enthusiasm for a Palestinian State as the one answer to their difficulties. His Communist idealism, so cruelly disappointed by the U.S.S.R., finds in the Zionist communities a realization of his dreams. And also, perhaps, this stormy petrel finds just the material suited to his talents in the country which, now that the war is over, is most conspicuously racked with violence and terror. Thieves in the Night does not contain a dull page. It is a masterpiece of propaganda.


LIKE all the most skillful advocates, Mr. Koestler is at pains to seem objective in the eyes of the juryman — in this case the reader. It he writes about the Arabs and the British with amused contempt, he goes out of his way to be offensive about the Jews. Here, for instance, are some extracts from Joseph’s journal: —

Before my father died there was a time when he took me every Sunday to the slums. There I learned that the poor were not the nice superior people which they appear in fairy stories, but wretched, illiterate and drunk. ... I became a socialist not because I loved, but because I hated, the poor. They were what conditions had made them, and therefore conditions had to be changed.

After the Incident I began to frequent those whom I had decided to regard henceforth as my people. They were as disappointing as the poor had been.

I was attracted by their keenness, their intensity and their brains, but their achievements were spoiled for me by their ostentation. I hated their acid analytical faculty, their inability to relax. I hated their lack of form and ceremony and breeding, their short-cuts from courtesy to familiarity, their mixture of arrogance and cringing. They were the slum race of the world: their slums were ghettos, whether the walls were made of stone or prejudice. . . .

But Jewry is a sick race; its disease is homelessness, and can only be cured by abolishing its homelessness.

I became a socialist because I hated the poor; and I became a Hebrew because I hated the Yid.

Yet when the desired transformation has been effected, the Jewish character changed, the results are described with a similar lack of indulgence.

We do not want romantics and permanent upheavals. We want a stable pattern of life for our people. And if the new generation accepts the pattern we have evolved, there should be nothing but rejoicing.

And yet something inside myself, perhaps my innate scepticism, tells me that all this is too good to be true. The snag is not in the institution, but in the human quality of the new generation. I have watched them ever since they arrived — these stumpy, dumpy girls with their rather coarse features, big buttocks and heavy breasts, physically precocious, mentally retarded, over-ripe and immature at the same time; and these raw, arse-slapping youngsters, callow, dumb and heavy, with their aggressive laughter and unmodulated voices, without traditions, manners, form,


Their parents were the most cosmopolitan race of the earth — they are provincial and chauvinistic. Their parents were sensitive bundles of nerves with awkward bodies — their nerves are whip-cords and their bodies those of a horde of Tarzans roaming in the hills of Galilee. Their parents were intense, intent, over-strung, over-spiced — they are tasteless, spiceless, unleavened and tough. . . .

Impressed by such outbursts, the reader who has not been to Palestine may not notice that the book hardly adumbrates the case against Zionism in its present developments. This case is in no way based upon anti-Semitism. Indeed many of the most convinced anti-Zionists are Jews and proud of the fact, Jews who see in a Zionist State a deadly danger for the majority of Jews.

Occasionally Mr. Koestler‘s zeal allows him to put into the mouth of a character some statement that is simply untrue — such as that the Jews pay all the taxes. (On the other hand it is perfectly true that the taxation they do pay is quite disproportionate to either their numbers or their wealih. But far more misleading are the assumptions on which, without any discussion of them, the book is based; and something must be said about these.

first Mr. Koestler takes for granted that the promise of “a National Home" enlailed a Palestinian State with a majority of the inhabitants Jews. He says even that Feisal at one moment welcomed the future Jewish State. There is contrversy about what he did welcome: it certainly was not a State.) Nothing is said here about the stipulation that the rights of the Arabs should be respected. The terrorist in the book proclaims truly: “Once we have the majority, the rest is easy.” What “the rest” may be it is not hard to imagine. Mr. Koestler takes it for granted that we have the moral right to impose on the Palestinian Arabs immigrants on a scale we should not consider admitting ourselves. The Jews now number roughly one third of the population of Palestine. It is as if England had admitted fourteen million, and the United States forty-five million, during the last twenty-five years.

Similarly Mr. Koestler seems to take it for granted that all the Jews who have come to Palestine wish to remain there. There is no mention of the sharp division between those to whom Zion is the country of their dreams and those who, having escaped to it, long only to establish themselves in a more civilized country. A considerable proportion of the Jews in Palestine belong to this latter category.


IF Mr. Koestler has passed in silence over the matters discussed in the preceding two paragraphs, it is perhaps because he supposes them to be common knowledge. But his bias seems to me undeniable when he goes on to assume that the British have been consistently pro-Arab and anti-Jew. It is true also that the British think a limit should be set to immigration. But without their support there would have been no immigration at all. As it is, they have gained the enmity of the Arabs as well as of the Jews, which at least suggests that they have not entirely failed in impartiality and justice.

The book may be thought to devote most disproportionate attention to the communities. These include only some 6 per cent of the Jews in Palestine, more than three quarters of whom live in cities. It may well be that Mr. Koestler intends to treat of these in a sequel to the present book, which does not so much end as suddenly stop. Meanwhile, some readers may imagine that the communities, which are the most interesting feature of Zionist life, are also numerically important.

“ To see both sides is a luxury we can no longer afford. This saying of a terrorist in Thieves in the Night comes near to being adopted by Mr. Koestler. If it were possible to be just to the one without being unjust to the other, the question would long since have been solved.

I have felt obliged to point out certain gaps in the picture presented by Mr. Koestler; and if he had filled these gaps himself, I believe that informed readers would be more impressed by the case he presents. But the propagandist is usually the first to be deluded by his own partiality; having written so disobligingly about the Jews, Mr. Koestler probably is convinced that his whole book is objective.

No one can doubt that Thieves in the Night is inspired by a passionate idealism. But is it not deplorable that Mr. Koestler, in a world still bleeding from year after year of violence, and himself having been the victim of violence, should seem, through his hero, to accept violence as the right policy for the Zionists? In Darkness at Noon and again in Scum of the Darth he made most eloquent and convincing attacks on the principle that the end justifies the means. Now he apparently accepts the terrorists’ argument: “We have to use violence and deception, to save others from violence and deception.”

But can he really think that it is right (or even politic) for Jews to murder the British soldiers and administrators who have the misfortune to be sent, to Palestine? No people has treated its Jewish citizens better than the British. Even the social discrimination against them that elsewhere sometimes shows itself—for instance, in clubs — has no place in England. And for a year the British were alone in fighting the people who included in their war aims the total extermination of Jewry. They do not ask for gratitude: they were fighting, like all their allies, first and foremost in self-defense. But they might have expected not to be assassinated by those who but for them would have been consigned to the gas chambers of Buchenwald.

Though Mr. Koestler thinks that he has no illusions about the Zionists, his Zionism, like his Communism, may end in disillusionment. In him the critic is always at the heels of the zealot; and his loyalty — and this is proof of the intellectual integrity against which he sometimes offends — his loyalty is to no abiding place on earth. At the end of Thieves in the Night he describes the Jews in terms that apply eminently to himself: —

We shall always be betrayed because something in us asks to be betrayed. There is this urge in us for the return to earth and normality; and there is that other urge to continue the hunt for a lost Paradise which is not in space. This is our predicament. But it is not a question of race. It is the human predicament carried to its extreme.