Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual
By Michael Scammell
Faber £25, 720 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20

Set against some of the home-grown men of letters with whom he rubbed shoulders in war-time London, Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) looks like a hoopoe on a lawn full of starlings. Orwell might have been shot through the throat while defending the Aragon Front against Franco, but Koestler had spent six weeks holed up in Seville gaol listening to the priest’s nightly tap on the doors of the condemned men’s cells.

In an age of bomb-throwers, he was the man of action to end all men of action, a writer whose pronouncements on the great topics of the day – notably the rise of the totalitarian state – were all the more welcome for their tethering in the soil of personal experience.

As well as being a man of action, Koestler was also the ultimate displaced literary figure. A Hungarian Jew whose parents relocated to Vienna, he spent his formative years racketing round Europe and occasionally beyond it: foreign-corresponding in Paris and Berlin; kibbutzing in Palestine on behalf of early Zionism. Inevitably, given the time and the personality, there was a protracted stake-out in Soviet Russia.

The wanderlust and the good, brave causes shaded into one another, and André Malraux’s description of him as “permanently in search of a country” masks a much more elemental quest in pursuit of something to believe in.

Despite his idiosyncrasies, or because of them, all this made Koestler a rather typical mid-century intellectual: the kind of writer whose pursuit of certainty will always be compromised by an awareness of the restraints that it places on his personal autonomy. Naturally enough, communism failed him; Darkness at Noon, the book of his most likely to survive, is a version of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s.

A long-time observer – and Michael Scammell has clearly spent a couple of decades disinterring the Koestler myth – might wonder whether the writer’s entire career wasn’t simply a series of throwings-over and calculated retreats.

The Zionism went the same way as Marx and by 1949 he was complaining about Jewish “otherness” and describing himself as a naturalised Briton “of uncertain and mixed racial origin”.

Constantly bubbling up above the landscape of political shifts and alliances is the question of Koestler’s personal life. Vanity, jealousy, drink, sentimentality, rudeness and vulgarity featured on a long list of six self-diagnosed “miseries”.

To these, Scammell insists, can be added top-of-the-range satyromania (Michael Foot’s wife Jill Craigie claimed he raped her) and a fondness for the dramatic gesture. “Tell the world how my life ended,” he instructed a parting girlfriend in Occupied France, prior to the incarceration that produced his 1941 memoir Scum of the Earth.

Diligently researched, efficiently contextualised and shrewdly unpicking the diaries of his second wife, Mamaine, Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual is, inevitably, a shade less intriguing when it gets beyond the dynamic sweep of the early years into the postwar engagements with science and parapsychology, but this is hardly Scammell’s fault. Even men of action, alas, have to settle down and live in flats in Kensington.

As well as being a study in career-management, self-projection and (occasionally) downright staginess, this is also an account of the triumph of the will. Julian Barnes, who came across him in the Parkinson’s disease-shadowed early 1980s, noted the aggressiveness of his chess-playing. The double death, by meticulously planned suicide, of the 78-year-old writer and his perfectly healthy third wife Cynthia, was thought to be coercive.

The book is marred by a few chronological slips – Orwell and his adopted son are met in an Islington flat at least two years before the son was born or the flat rented, for example. Scammell’s account of this long and at times not terribly edifying career is nevertheless an exhaustive last word.

DJ Taylor is the author of ‘Orwell: The Life’ (Vintage)

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