Feature

Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic by Michael Scammell

Scammell’s “superb” new biography reminds us of why Koestler, whose reputation has become deeply tarnished by his personal behavior, was once so important.

(Random House, 689 pages, $35)

Hardly anybody reads Arthur Koestler anymore, said Anne Applebaum in The New York Review of Books. A communist true believer who turned loudmouthed apostate, Koestler once stood alongside George Orwell in denouncing 20th-century totalitarianism. But Koestler’s reputation was deeply tarnished by his late-career fascination with parapsychology—not to mention disturbing revelations about his unsavory private life. Perhaps someday his work will become fashionable again, but until then Michael Scammell’s “superb” new biography at least reminds us why, in his time, he mattered greatly.

Born into a Jewish family in 1905 Budapest, Koestler came to embody his century’s penchant for serial fanaticisms, said Johann Hari in Slate.com. At 20, he was among the early Zionist settlers in Palestine. Tiring of that chore, he became a committed communist propagandist in Hitler’s Berlin, and later was imprisoned by Franco’s forces in Spain. From that experience came Darkness at Noon, the reputation-making prison novel that denounced Soviet communism as another form of totalitarianism. Moving on to Paris, he once gave Albert Camus a black eye and made a habit of “hurling restaurant tables across the room.”

None of Scammell’s kind words about Koestler’s writing can cover up the fact that the guy was a “creep,” said Christopher Caldwell in The New York Times. After documenting how Koestler exhibited a lifelong “pattern of predation and violence” against women, Scammell attempts—but fails—to clear him of an accusation of rape. Koestler’s worst offense may have come when, at 77, he chose to escape the ravages of Parkinson’s disease through suicide. He apparently persuaded his healthy, 55-year-old wife to take her own life at the same time. How ironic that this selfish, “apparently conscienceless man” deserves much credit for awakening “the conscience of the West.”

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