The first major biography in a quarter-century of Arthur Koestler (1905–83), today best known for the anti-Soviet novel Darkness at Noon (1940).
Scammell (Writing/Columbia Univ.; Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, 1984), translator of Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, among others, has a handful of a subject in Koestler, who roamed continents and disciplines and gave new dimensions to the term “intellectual outlaw.” He was “Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition…[and] never comfortable in his own skin, doomed to oscillate between arrogance and humility.” Zelig-like, Koestler was everywhere at once, it seemed, throughout the most important episodes of the 20th century. He interviewed Sigmund Freud, carried documents that implicated the Nazis in the collapse of Republican Spain, hung out with Timothy Leary and Wernher von Braun, palled around with terrorists and Hollywood screenwriters and was known to Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini. Amid all that, he found time to write a half-dozen novels, countless articles and other books, growing improbably more prolific as he grew older. Scammell is more admiring of Koestler than other biographers (such as Iain Hamilton), who have ranked him as a middling novelist and willfully ignorant pop scientist. Yet Scammell somewhat wearily writes, after recounting Koestler’s championing of the Israeli magician/charlatan Uri Geller, “he pursued the grail of proving extrasensory perception to the end of his life, regardless of what the majority of his contemporaries (and his public) thought.” In this elegant biography, Scammell shows a troubled and sometimes troubling soul with an almost stereotypically meddlesome mother—“Don’t you have even a single nice memory of your childhood and youth?” she once demanded of him—and plenty of demons, susceptible to quack theories and big ideas. But he also generated big ideas for their own sake, led the life of the independent intellectual to the hilt and essentially lived as he wished.
A fine biography that leaves few leaves unturned, and that should revive interest in Koestler’s work.