Books: A rake's progress though art, religion and women

Click to follow
Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind

by David Cesarani Heinemann pounds 25

Lucky David Cesarani. In Arthur Koestler he has found a subject of almost supernatural proportions, a man with a massive ego and huge achievements - and a great archive to match. His life was a series of adventures and catastrophes, of alliances forged and then repudiated. He sped from country to country, ideology to ideology, from woman to woman, house to house, fired by a mix of self-doubt and undoubting conviction. He was a pathological seducer and liar, a depressive and obsessive, an alcoholic, bigot and rapist - and at his best, a journalist, political campaigner and novelist of brilliance.

Cesarani's approach is somewhat relentless, like that of a great 10-lane motorway. He begins at the beginning, with Koestler's birth, and ends with the present day. He writes as if there were a law of biography which dictates that the biographer must expend the same quantity of ink on every year of a subject's life and every book, no matter how bad, that he wrote. Still, he has produced a monument of research, deftly laid-out. The result is fascinating.

Cesarani is a professor of Modern Jewish history, and makes much of Koestler's troubled relation to his Jewishness. He shows that Koestler's Budapest family were less assimilated than he liked to pretend, and argues that his life in many ways exemplified that of the modern European Jew: "Koestler was the classic homeless mind: the emigre in search of roots, the secular sceptic yearning for a faith and Messiah." He became a right-wing Zionist while a student, which led him to Palestine, before returning to Europe, and a successful journalistic career. Like many young Jews, he joined the Communists in the early 1930s, before, like many older Jews, turning to a hawkish anti-Communism. During the War, in what was perhaps his finest hour, he did as much as anyone to alert the world to the plight of Europe's Jews and refugees generally, and after it, contemplated settling in Israel. Yet as he got older and turned from anti-Communism to science, and from science to mysticism, he "deliberately blurred his ethnicity", developing some very cranky views about the history, character and genetic inheritance of Jews.

Cesarani's suggestion that his Jewishness in fact provides the key to unlocking Koestler seems to me not quite persuasive - there is no one key. But it does allow him to bring out the restlessness, confusion and tormented doubts about identity that always threatened his sense of self.

Cesarani treats other aspects of Koestler's life with a lighter touch. He is brilliant on Koestler's extraordinarily fraught relationship with cars - his life was punctuated by breakdowns, crashes, brushes with the police - his drinking, his ferocious promiscuity and his obsession with buying and then selling homes. Koestler's life sprawled over the century - by the time he was 40 he had lived in five countries, toured the Soviet Union, faced a death sentence in Spain and been imprisoned in France. His range of friends and contacts was unparalleled: it took in Malraux and Raymond Aron, Cyril Connolly and Michael Foot, Chaim Weizmann and Teddy Kolleck, Arthur Schlesinger and Norman Mailer, Willy Brandt and Karl Popper. Yet Cesarani is able to keep track of Koestler's movements and alliances, and to place most of his friends. His account of Koestler's volatile relations to the French Existentialists - Camus slept with his girlfriend, he slept with de Beauvoir and they all got drunk and quarrelled together - is wonderfully vivid and unfussy. He also seems to have captured Koestler's women, especially his second wife, the keen, delicate, unhappy Mamaine Paget, and his third, the devoted, almost hollow Cynthia Jeffries. The book does much to bear out Francis Partridge's observation that Koestler was "an aggressively male man who liked to have subjugated, pretty women and fawning dogs about him".

If this book has a weakness, it is that Cesarani is almost too harsh a moralist. He pays lip-service to Koestler's charm, kindness, and generosity, but it is the horror stories - the beatings, brothels, drunkenness and all-round selfishness that stick in the mind. Cesarani is damning on the joint suicide with which Koestler and Cynthia ended their lives, more or less blaming him for his young wife's end, but he also comes close to implying that Koestler's disregard for Mamaine's fragile health contributed to her early death.

Cesarani might also have lingered over Koestler's great achievements. Much of Koestler's later writings on science sounds deeply embarrassing - "science fiction gone into orbit" as one reviewer put it. But the works of the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Spanish Testimony, Darkness At Noon, Scum of the Earth and others, represent extraordinarily imaginative indictments of persecution and totalitarianism - as Cesarani very fairly shows, they made a lasting impression on those who read them, from Simone de Beauvoir to Margaret Thatcher. It would have been good to hear a bit more about their character and arguments.

Not in the end that such shortcomings matter very much. The odd thing about this book is that despite the drubbing Koestler's character gets, he emerges from it with his stature as a writer and activist somehow enhanced. Clever David Cesarani.