A Genius -- Warts and All

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 4, 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Genius -- Warts and All


ARTHUR KOESTLER: THE INDISPENSABLE INTELLECTUAL by Michael Scammell (Faber, [pounds sterling]25)

AN MI5 officer interrogated Arthur Koestler in 1941 when the writer sought refuge in Britain after a dramatic escape from a French concentration camp. The spook made an instant judgment: "He is a third genius, a third blackguard and a third lunatic," he reported to his superiors.

In this magisterial and subtle biography, Michael Scammell alters the percentages -- from this account Koestler emerges 60 per cent a genius, while the other two qualities are again divided equally.

Scammell makes no effort to hide his subject's flaws or to shy away from controversies -- Koestler's frantic womanising and, possibly, a rape; his manic depression, alcoholism and pill-popping; the way he bullied the women in his life; the sinister suicide pact in 1983 with his (third) wife, a healthy woman nearly a quarter of a century younger than him; his eccentric beliefs, towards the end of his life, in a range of weird paranormal phenomena.

This is a skilfully structured work.

Scammell enthusiastically recounts the titillating material and it is vastly entertaining.

But at the end, one wonders, as the author intends us to do: does it matter that Koestler chased almost anything in a skirt? Here is the man who wrote one of the most influential and important novels of the 20th century, Darkness at Noon, and created a fresh style of searingly honest autobiography with books such as Arrow in the Blue, in which he never portrayed himself as a saint.

Koestler could behave boorishly as he drank a river of booze and downed vast quantities of "uppers" such as Benzedrine. But not while he worked. From the Thirties to the Seventies he wrote the most powerful, coherently argued indictments against totalitarianism of both the Right and Left. His work inspired generations living under tyranny to struggle for freedom. It is interesting, but is it important that he could be an utter bastard, an Everest of selfishness? Scammell recounts Koestler's early life, from his birth in Budapest in 1905, as an adventure story. He was at the vanguard of almost every intellectual movement of the last century. Convinced that the "Jewish Question" would be a key future issue -- how right he was -- he went to Palestine in his twenties.

He abandoned Zionism, however, and the Communist Party became his life from the early Thirties. Doubts arose when he covered the war in Spain as a journalist.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Genius -- Warts and All


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?