Ian Bloom

Koestler was a misogynist but he is still worth remembering

Largely forgotten, the novelist’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ ranks alongside ‘Animal Farm’ as a towering 20th-century political novel

February 09, 2023 12:44

George Orwell’s celebrated 1944 essay Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali was actually an extended book review of Dali’s recently published autobiography. Early in his piece, Orwell gave examples of Dali’s cruelty, violence, necrophilia and cowardice. He also acknowledged the painter’s artistic imagination and ability. Then he wrote this: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.”

Orwell — who, after all, had a certain talent for prophecy — could have been writing about his friend and near-contemporary Arthur Koestler, who was born in Budapest on 5 September 1905 and died in London 40 years ago, on 1 March 1983, aged 77.

Koestler’s reputation has suffered since his death. He is now remembered more for his alleged mistreatment and rape of several women, including Jill Craigie, who became Mrs Michael Foot, and his suicide pact with Cynthia, his third wife, when he was terminally ill with Parkinson’s disease and she was a healthy 56-year-old, than as the author of Darkness at Noon, a serious contender — along with Animal Farm and 1984 — for the accolade of the greatest political novel of the 20th century.

It would, though, be a pity if revulsion at Koestler’s predatory and chauvinistic attitude towards women meant that his extraordinary life and work are now neglected or forgotten.
Koestler was a true polymath. He wrote his first published novel, The Gladiators (1939), in Hungarian, his second, Darkness at Noon (1940), in German and his third, Arrival and Departure (1943), in English. Together, they amount to a political trilogy informed by personal experience, on glorious ends and ignoble means, political and revolutionary ethics and the conflict between morality and expediency.

He was also fluent in French and could speak or understand some Russian and Hebrew.
After studying science and psychology in post-WWI Vienna, he worked as a journalist, lived for three years in Palestine and spent the first half of the 1930s either travelling through the Soviet Union or, like Orwell a few years earlier, virtually down and out in Paris.

Along with thousands on the left, Koestler, who had joined the Communist Party in 1931, just had to be in Spain five years later to defend the Republic when the Civil War began. He arrived there in October 1936 and was arrested and condemned to death as a spy five months later. He spent 90 days in solitary confinement, in daily expectation of execution, before he was exchanged for a Franco hostage held by the Republicans.

Imprisoned again in Vichy France, he escaped to England and, to Orwell’s disgust, was drafted into the Pioneer Corps, “shovelling bricks” instead of contributing to the Searchlight Books series that Orwell and Tosco Fyvel, his successor as literary editor of Tribune, had established as a forum for the discussion of Britain’s war aims.

When the War ended, Koestler returned to France. He met Jean-Paul Sartre, although their relationship never developed, in part, no doubt, because of Koestler’s short-lived affair with Simone de Beauvoir, and also perhaps because Darkness at Noon, published in France in 1946 as Le Zero et L’Infini, sold over 400,000 copies and was regarded as instrumental in defeating the Communists in the referendum on the French Constitution.

Koestler left the Communist Party in 1938. His piece The Initiates was the first and most compelling of a collection of essays by six intellectuals (Koestler, André Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender and Louis Fischer) who had renounced communism, published in book form in 1950 as The God That Failed. The book was reprinted in English alone 20 times in 15 years. “We ex-communists,” Koestler remarked, “are the only people on your side who know what it’s about.”

Although he lived at various times in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Palestine, the Soviet Union, Spain, France, America and Wales, and although he travelled widely, Koestler spent the second half of his life in England as an awkward continental intellectual.

He was actively involved in non-party political causes in the 1950s, notably for CND and the campaign against capital punishment. But he renounced politics for science and then mysticism in the 1960s and 1970s.

His writing, whether scientific, philosophical or fictional, had a remarkable intellectual coherence. He opposed determinism and a mechanistic interpretation of nature, whether neo-Darwinist, Behaviourist or Reductionist. He insisted on Man’s uniqueness and autonomy. Later, he wrote another trilogy — this one of the mind — The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine (Koestler was always good with titles; Sting used this one for an early album).

Koestler had an ambiguous relationship with Judaism. Famously, he said: “Jews are like other people, only more so.” One of his later books pursued the idea that European Jews were not the descendents of the biblical Israelites but came from a tribe of Caucasian Khazars who converted in the 8th century.

Hutchinson became his English publishers in 1962. When I joined them ten years later, the strapline we used most frequently in advertisements for his books was: “He is an asset to our culture: he does our thinking for us.”

As a young publicist, I met him in his Montpelier Square home near Harrods to discuss the publicity for The Call Girls, his mordantly funny novel about academics forever travelling on the international “cultural congress” circuit. In advance, I called Tosco Fyvel, then the literary editor of the JC, for whom I was reviewing books myself at the time. “Any advice?” I asked. “He carries a notebook,” Tosco replied. “If people say anything interesting, he writes it down.”

I took with me my treasured copy of Darkness at Noon. If he wrote down anything I said, I promised myself I would ask him to sign it. Cynthia opened the front door, then disappeared somewhere upstairs in the large gloomy house. Koestler offered me a whisky. It was at least a treble. He had the same.

Whatever I suggested by way of television or radio interview he rejected. Most authors would have sold their typewriters for the sort of publicity that Koestler could have had. Only Frederick Forsyth, with the The Day of the Jackal, was hotter on our list in 1972.

Despite, or maybe because of, the whisky, by the end of our meeting I thought I had worked out why he wouldn’t speak publicly. He wrote in English, his third language, as well as anyone alive. But he spoke it with an unmistakably thick mittel-European accent. And he knew it. And I felt that by then he was both self-conscious about it and concerned that his image should not be undermined by sounding so much like a bloody foreigner.

Even though, as I later discovered, he had appeared on various television programmes both in Britain and abroad, and even though he had spoken at various public meetings, all he would agree to was an interview with a trusted print journalist who would write about the novel and not the accent. And although the notebook was by his side, it remained unopened.

So I never did ask for that precious autograph. I hadn’t earned it.

As a postscript, a couple of years after he died, and after I had left publishing for the law, but before I concentrated on corporate and media work, a new client phoned one day and asked me to act on the purchase of a property in Montpelier Square. The number rang a bell. I told her that lawyers (then and now) rarely saw the properties they bought and sold, but I had my reasons for wanting to view this one.

She wasn’t curious but agreed and accompanied me. The house had been transformed by developers into a lavish, light, airy and very expensive family home. After my tour, I said to my client, “Arthur Koestler used to live here”. She frowned. “Who?” “He was a famous author.” She shrugged. I persisted. “He wrote Darkness at Noon.”

She smiled and shook her head. “I’ve never heard of him.”

Well, for all those who have, his misogyny still remains inexcusable, but the best of his work will endure. And if the ever-generous Michael Foot could write, “he is the greatest foreign novelist since Joseph Conrad who has paid us the compliment of writing in the English tongue,” then I, for one, pour a large dram annually into a tumbler in his honour and drink it on his birthday.

February 09, 2023 12:44

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive