Books: A Rake's Progress Though Art, Religion and Women

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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. …