Books: Putting the rat in rational

Monster of misogyny or master of the mind? Bernard Crick seeks a balanced view of Koestler
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The Independent Culture
Arthur Koestler:

the homeless mind

by David Cesarani

Heinemann, pounds 20, 646pp

If, in May 1941, Private Koestler of the Pioneer Corps (where most of the intellectual refugees were dumped) had been put on a charge by his bewildered CO - say for habitual drunkenness, incurable lechery, spasmodic violence to women, possible date rape, being AWOL at literary parties, talking too much and generally being too damned clever by half and Jewish - then David Cesarani's detailed biography could have been useful to prosecution and defence alike. Stocks in Koestler have been steadily falling. Only his early political novels, above all Darkness at Noon and Arrival and Departure, are in print. His autobiographical accounts are still widely read: of his inter- war journeys in and out of right-wing Zionism and then Communism, his escape from a Fascist prison in Spain, and from French internment camps to make an illegal entry into war-time Britain via Lisbon. All are eye- opening pieces of reportage.

But who now reads the books written after his repudiation of rationalism in 1954 - those eccentric, passionate and speculative mixtures of philosophy, para-psychology, metaphysics and popular or pseudo- science, The Trail of the Dinosaur, The Sleepwalkers, The Lotus and the Robot, The Ghost in the Machine, The Case of Midwife Toad? If the general intellectual for whom he wrote now looks at them at all, it would be in the anthology of extracts he prepared in Bricks to Babel: an omnibus volume from 1982, the year before his joint suicide with his third wife, Cynthia.

One reason for the decline in the reputation of this once towering figure is that there are few intellectuals in his sense left. Professionalism has taken its toll. No longer do we have the hungry zest for trying to think through all big questions for oneself. Koestler saw that quest as typical of Central European intellectuals of his time, of which he seemed, in Britain and the US, the greatest exemplar.

Isaiah Berlin joked that he himself was "a general intellectual, by analogy to `general domestic' - will tackle anything'." But Berlin was a don with a job. Koestler had to live on his wits and his pen. If there are self- conscious intellectuals now in Britain, the adjective "literary" is implicit. Koestler exemplified with genius a continental breed that Orwell identified as "political writers", stressing each word equally: Andre Malraux, Franz Borkenau, Ignazio Silone and Koestler himself.

David Cesarani is Professor of Modern Jewish History at Southampton, director of the Wiener Library, an authority on the Holocaust and author of Justice Delayed, a study of how Britain gave refuge to Nazi war criminals. He turns his professional skills to the business of biography, rightly claiming that his "comprehensive evaluation of Koestler's life and work... [is] the only one written without his influence over its contents or interventions by those with a stake in his reputation". Another, authorised by the trustees of the estate 15 years ago, is due by Michael Scammell from Faber the year after next - which could account for signs of haste in the production and writing of this book.

But both head and heart warm to Cesarani when he states that Koestler's version of his own life "needs to be treated with great caution". Indeed, he shows in patient detail how later accounts of the same events serve Koestler's interests and reflect his changing thinking. Koestler's first version of waiting for death in a Fascist prison in Malaga did not, for instance, have that mystic "oceanic feeling" prominent in later accounts.

From my own experience in writing about Orwell, I warmed still more to Cesarani when he says that he also treated with caution interviews with those who had known him well, so often either beguiled or alienated by him. He has also tried to keep "speculation and psychologising to a minimum". This was especially difficult when Koestler's narcissistic accounts of his own behaviour often drew on his dalliance with psychoanalysis, especially when seeking to excuse his constant betrayals of sexual and personal trust. The betrayals extended even to the woman who organised the campaign to get his release from Malaga, and to another who helped to put Darkness at Noon into English.

Cesarani does pay tribute to Koestler as "a journalist of genius and an outstanding chronicler of his times". "Journalist" here is not a backhander. The intellectual journalist was once a far more important figure than nowadays, and such writing would include 4,000 or 5,000-word pieces both in the old heavies and in magazines.

Few would want to question Cesarani's view that the big-books of Koestler's last 30 years were monumental follies, or at best cosmic curates' eggs. But the biographer of a writer should be concerned to try to understand why and how the books came to be written, and less concerned with a remorseless reductive narrative of - in this case - the appalling events of the subject's everyday life.

Perhaps, as a good journalist, Koestler sniffed a zeitgeist in the process of change from rationalist ideologies towards the hopeful questings or blind faith of today's "alternative" life. For the narrative of his personal life - his drunkenness, his infidelities, his bullying and his violence - forms, whatever the explanation, a grim pattern of which the reader only needs so much.

Does Cesarani have the historian's obsession (if evidence is there, it must all be set down) or is he, like Kenneth Starr, setting it all down in order to damn his subject by implication and multiplication? Certainly, he argues with his subject too much and somehow misses the wood for the trees. While far from the titillating expose suggested by the newspaper extracts, the sheer weight of the narrative of delinquency tips the book away from explaining how such a bastard could be an admired writer of such genius that so many friends of distinction put up with him. Ezra Pound was a Fascist and an anti-semite, but also a considerable poet. Such is possible. The one does not detract from the other, or condone the other.

I am left with the unhappy feeling that, whereas Cesarani can praise Koestler's great role in exposing the myth of Communist benevolence, he cannot forgive his desertion of Zionism and his ultimate indifference to Judaism. If Michael Scammell's biography achieves a better balance of judgement on what really matters, the long wait can be forgiven. Cesarani signed an undertaking in the Edinburgh University library (where Koestler's papers are) to the effect that he was not working on a biography, but on a study of how Koestler's Jewish identity affected his life and work. Here we have both, although the very evidence he produces suggests to me that Koestler's early Jewish identity did not have the overwhelming influence that Cesarani thinks it should have done.