Koestler, Arthur (Vol. 3)
Koestler, Arthur 1905–
A Hungarian-born British novelist and essayist, Koestler employs the concepts of philosophy, psychology, politics, and natural science to work toward an idealistic world-view. His novels, especially Darkness at Noon, concern the corruption of socialistic ideologies by power. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Koestler frightened us not just because he brought in the freezing wind of totalitarian experience in Europe; he used his third language with as much confidence as Conrad; he virtually invented the 'political novel'; his intellectuality was ferocious, earnest, not just a donnish game. He humbled the British, who had taken neither ideas nor politics seriously; his gift to English literature was a horse's-mouth authenticity that no one would dream of looking into. And yet that phase of his career which these three books [Thieves in the Night, The Gladiators, and The Yogi and the Commissar] celebrate has a strong smell of failure about it. He has, I think, recognized that a novel like The Gladiators and an essay like The Yogi and the Commissar are too much rooted in a stage of personal development to strike with that perennially fresh surprise we expect from a true work of art or a piece of genuinely creative thinking. We who were never European Communists have missed the prisons and the concentration camps (we apologize to Mr. Koestler for that), but we have also been unshaken by the failure of a Utopian revolution. Mr. Koestler quotes Pascal almost with surprise: 'Man is neither angel nor brute, and his misery is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.' If one had never had a Utopian faith one could never be disappointed, nor, in The Gladiators, could one see what all the fuss was about.
Thieves in the Night is about the Jewish settlement of Ezra's Tower. Its theme, Koestler reminds us, is 'the ethics of survival. If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways'. The book is not a mere morality illustrating this; it is a genuine novel smelling of a sharply observed Palestine, the characters totally credible, and 'the peaceful growth of Ezra's Tower', rising above the terrorism and savagery and injustice, the sort of symbol a novelist thanks God for. But The Gladiators, which is about Spartacus and his slaves' revolt, fails for several reasons. Koestler is not sure whether he wants to bring ancient history to life or, by using a technique of alienation, merely allegorize the dilemma of the modern revolutionary leader. The slaves' City of the Sun is, if we want a lesson on ends and means, not so compelling as Animal Farm (though we must remember that Orwell had the advantage of having read Koestler): it is not so simple, not sufficiently a blackboard drawing. At the same time it is not sufficiently a work of the historical imagination. And Spartacus, if we are to take him as a modern revolutionary, is incredibly unaware of the dilemma of power. Can we, then, take him as an ancient liberator of the oppressed, fired by an Essene vision? If we can, the allegory collapses.
Very occasionally in his novels (Darkness at Noon is the obvious, and magnificent, example), Koestler achieves a balance of the literary and the didactic, which, like Plato's horses, want to pull different ways. In his essays one is sometimes fascinated by a self-defeating desire to use images to clarify an intellectual thesis: as in a metaphysical poem, the image takes over; the conceit has to be worked out to the limit in a compulsive literary lust: the lesson is choked in the foliage. Nothing is more admirable, in The Yogi and the Commissar, than the presentation of the Commissar (who believes in Change from Without) at the infra-red end of the spectrum, and the Yogi (who 'believes that the End is unpredictable and that the Means alone count') at the ultra-violet. But the image is deployed with such powerful consistency that our shock at reading about 'pendular changes in the mass-psychological spectrum' is very different from our cringing at other people's mixed metaphors.
One of the chilling things about Koestler's war-time writings, untempered by twenty-odd years of lagging, is his apparent acquiescence in 'the tragic barrier which separates the progressive intellectual from the educated working class'. To a man in the 'Thoughtful Corporal belt' (unpromotable) he says: 'Read for pleasure, man, and don't [bother] about Péguy and Finnegans Wake!' The naivety accords ill with the polymathy, and if we find Orwell, also a highbrow, more sympathetic, it has nothing to do with the Danube being a long way from the Thames. Still, Koestler has done us a lot of good.
Anthony Burgess, "Koestler's Danube," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 147-49.
Arthur Koestler is a brilliant dealer in ideas and a masterful dialectician. Even his titles suggest … intellectual preoccupation: The Yogi and the Commissar, The Age of Reason and The Age of Longing, Promise and Fulfillment. Koestler's ideas probably range over a wider terrain than those of any other writer of our time. Few contemporaries have treated ideologies more analytically and in more original fashion. Few have lived their ideas—and their opposites—as fully and few have become so frequently their victim. Koestler's work is largely circumscribed by our time and to many seems lacking in universal components. Silone and Malraux, to whom he has been likened most often, have also lived twentieth century ideas. However, more conscious artists, they did not stop there, but delved deeply into the recesses of human personality. The divorce in Koestler of idea and personality is especially sharp and the settlement so strongly in favor of idea that even in his autobiography concepts clearly overshadow personality. Both in his general Weltanschauung and his Jewish pronouncements, it is difficult to determine whether Koestler's is a cold heart and a hot head, or perhaps a warm heart and a cold head. In any case, head and heart seldom seem tuned in on the same wavelength….
[Political] events and associations were major directing forces in his mature life, crowding personal considerations into subliminal spheres and relegating human relationships to a secondary rank. [Such] factors explicate the emotional barrenness of his novels, his inability to create characters that are more than political or Freudian symbols. They account for the failure to generate real warmth even when one suspects it is warmth he is trying to produce. Perhaps Koestler's rationalism and coldness are deceptive. For underneath both there lurks a potent romantic heart, usually kept in bounds, but frantically striving to break out. Both his Zionist and Communist involvements hint at the intensity of this sub-surface struggle.
Lothar Kahn, "Arthur Koestler: Dejudaized Zionism," in his Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, A. S. Barnes, 1968, pp. 146-59.
Arthur Koestler's brief parable [in The Call-Girls] provides as one would expect, a primary-coloured guide to the models of "mind" we operate with. They comprise the mechanical, the animal, the daemonic, and the various hybrids produced by crossing these three, none of which is even remotely human. Mr. Koestler's tone is more weary than malicious; his distinguished speakers are allowed to parody themselves (a sure-sign of authorial scorn and pity)….
Mr. Koestler's return to fiction is rather condescending—as though he thinks a lingua franca can be more easily mocked-up in that medium. There is too much blandness in the way he uses fictional licence, without giving much in return; his authorial stance is a matter of mechanical distancing, not real invention. As a result the surrounding apparatus (especially the prologue by crucified Jesus) is trite and off-putting, and has nothing much to do with the book's real business.
"Mental Models," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), October 27, 1972, p. 1274.
Arthur Koestler's new novel [The Call-Girls] has a deceptive title for such an interesting and informative book. 'Call-Girl' is his derisive name for one of those people, irrespective of sex, who perform for the international academic circus. They are often seduced by telephone into reading a paper on their branch of science to a learned audience anywhere in the world. Koestler's novel does not convey a crude message, but is the vehicle for the restatement in human terms of a contemporary problem—as was Darkness at Noon all those years ago….
By way of Prologue and Epilogue we are given two thoughtful short stories which also point out that the moral nature of man is faced with a dilemma, and suggest two very different ways of meeting it. The Call-Girls is as stimulating as a book by Arthur Koestler always is.
F. J. Brown, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1972, p. 96.
Arthur Koestler's first work of fiction in 22 years [The Call Girls] is playful and clever—and sometimes merely "clever," in the sense that it has fun too easily with its subject, an international scientific symposium on human survival held in the Swiss alpine village of Sneedorf. The "call girls" of the title are the various distinguished scientists and theoreticians of different nationalities who spend much of their professional lives flying here and there to attend symposia like this one, where they get drunk, behave badly to one another, and pay attention to the papers being presented primarily to attack them. The cast of characters at Sneedorf embodies a fairly thorough rundown of current theories on how man should be understood—as consumed by aggression, as a set of mechanical responses, as a reservoir of untapped psychic powers, etc….
The Call Girls is sharp and funny and slightly cold. It is very much an "in" joke, and in the hands of anyone less serious and intelligent than Koestler it could easily be awful. It is a testament to his continuing importance and interest that he does bring it off.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, in Saturday Review of Education (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May, 1973, pp. 88, 90.