A Genius -- Warts and All

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 4, 2010 | Go to article overview
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A Genius -- Warts and All


Byline: VICTOR SEBESTYEN

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.

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