Dec 20, 2009
With the precision of a bullet
Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
(New York: Random House, 2009)
It takes talent to write about someone else’s interesting life in a book that is interesting itself. The biographer would have to be, say, an author, scholar and translator. Such a person could write a biography about an intellectual polyglot, polymath, “journalist, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, and writer of scientific speculations” — and Casanova.
Michael Scammell is such a biographer. His new book on Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) took two decades to complete. He has flushed out details that Koestler himself left out — in some half dozen autobiographies. He shares Koestler’s long, convoluted life in a thoroughly enjoyable read. The British-born Mr. Scammell comes with top credentials. Currently, he teaches creative writing and translation at Columbia University. Previously, he chaired the Russian literature department at Cornell. His Solzhenitsyn biography won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and English PEN Nonfiction Prize. Translations from Russian include Nabokov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy.
Readers of this book should expect quality from him — and will find he delivers. Those who already know Koestler should plunge eagerly into Koestler without hesitation. The uninitiated have the chance to experience the thrill of learning about this extraordinary person — and afterward go diving into Koestler’s own books. Darkness at Noon, perhaps his best-known work is just one of nearly 40 books in as many years. Mr. Scammell discusses all the books in Koestler’s oeuvre and how they fit into Koestler’s life. Who knew that elements in Darkness at Noon came from real-life stories of friends like ceramicist Eva (Stricker) Zeisel? Or how often Koestler wrestled with whether to continue various books in a series — or to keep writing at all?
Throughout the book, Mr. Scammell remains focused on his subject and is either humble or sensible enough to remain out of sight. Neither text nor notes refer even obliquely to himself. He rarely oversteps, superimposes or dramatizes his tale. His approach contrasts sharply with Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1999) by David Cesarani.
Mr. Scammell tackles head-on a charge alleged by British director Jill Craigie (wife of politician Michael Foot) that Koestler raped her — the charge coming a decade after Koestler’s death in 1983. He chides Mr. Cesarani for embellishing the facts. After all, Foot and Craigie remained friends with Koestler. They were even guests of honor at his 70th birthday party. Mr. Scammell concludes “the likeliest explanation is that behavior that wasn’t at the time seen as rape has since come to be regarded as such.” He also says, “Craigie’s story and Cesarani’s embellishment of it have left a stain on Koestler’s reputation far larger than he deserves.” His findings support an earlier wrist-slapping by Tony Judt — that Mr. Cesarani allowed his own “present-minded primness” to undermine his scholarship.
Mr. Scammell’s approach also contrasts sharply with a biography by Canadian literature professor Mark Levene. His book, Arthur Koestler, written in 1984, opens and closes with brief biographical essays. The remaining essays examine Koestler through his writings, all packaged in a concise 151 pages. Mr. Levene is insightful but too brief to do Koestler justice.
While overall, Mr. Scammell’s book does justice to Koestler, there are a few occasions in which Mr. Scammell is less than precise. For instance, he attributes part of Koestler’s inspiration for writing Darkness at Noon to “the puzzling success of Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s.”
Perhaps the Moscow show trials appear merely “puzzling” to Mr. Scammell, but they shook many believers at that time to the core. No book has ever explained the inner agony of devoted party members and admirers as Darkness at Noon did. Reviewing the book for TIME magazine in 1941, Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather), wrote,
It moves with the speed, directness, precision and some of the impact of a bullet. More plausibly than any other book yet written, fiction or nonfiction, it gives the answer to one of history’s great riddles: Why do Russians confess?
For the most part, however, Mr. Scammell moves through the subject’s life with accurate, full detail in digestible, even delicious bites. Despite the book’s more than 700 pages, few errata occur and only moments of confusion. (For example, late in the book, the names of some lifelong friends revert inexplicably to earlier forms). Perhaps a shorter, more dramatic prologue would have helped prime readers for Koestler’s life story. Moreover, the book might have benefited from the author addressing the following questions at greater length: Why does Koestler remain important more than 25 years after his death? How is he relevant to the circumstances of the 21st century? What has happened to the issues Koestler championed?
Mr. Scammell hardly comments on Koestler’s famous support for euthanasia. He does not address Koestler’s bold call for “Partition” in the Middle East (in light of today’s ongoing negotiations for a “Two-State Solution”). Though he describes instances of Koestler’s eurocentric worldview (typical of those times), he does not discuss the implications of such lingering views in today’s “Global Village.” These are not flaws: one simply wants more from Mr. Scammell himself.
Perhaps better than any other book of the 20th century, Darkness at Noon shows the inner workings of communism. More than a novel of surpassing resonance or negative utopia, it takes its place (alongside Czeslaw Milosz‘s The Captive Mind) as one of the most influential anti-communist autobiographies.
Koestler remained committed to his own quest for political utopia. Because of this quest, Mr. Scammell considers him an embodiment of the 20th-century man. Certainly, he offers here a compelling personal story of one of the last century’s most influential writers. Announced for publication many times over the past decade, Michael Scammell’s Koestler has proven itself well worth the wait.
• David Chambers, a grandchild of Whittaker Chambers, is a management consultant.
[This article first appeared in The Washington Times]
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