Arthur Koestler

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Koestler, Arthur 1905–

A Hungarian-born British novelist, essayist, journalist, and historian, Koestler reflects in his works a concern with politics, ethics, philosophy, history, and psychology. His Art of Creation explores the creative/destructive dichotomy of human nature, a continuing theme throughout his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Koestler's gift is bold and fresh, but it is theatrical. He is the declaiming and compelling actor. No one has known better than he when to drop what he is doing and rush to document the latest convulsion. In this fashion, he has run through the political infections of our generation…. How much in his writing is personal experience and how much is an intense imaginative identification with the people he describes is not important; or rather, only the identification is important. It is passionate because it is moral; it is complex because it is at once theatrical and aware of itself….

Koestler is more than a simple reporter. He is intellectually volatile; it is second nature for him to generalize about events; he is politically trained, and likes to be politically bespattered. It is the business of the journalist to interview everything and Koestler is able to interview philosophy, science, economics, history, and to come back with a notebook full of general ideas which are put to dramatic use. (p. 54)

He can easily dazzle us because we have no café conversation and no café writers. We have no skill in playing poker with ideas. We are not trained to pretend that things which are entirely different may (for the pleasure of effect) be assumed to be opposites. We have no eternal students. We have no intelligentsia. These singularities have led Koestler himself to as complete and conventional misreading of English life as any that have been done by Continental writers…. We must assume that our judgment of him will suffer from similar difficulties of contact.

We come nearest to him in Scum of the Earth. This is partly because the book is a personal record of the events at the fall of France where, at last, English experience came close to the experience of the Continent. A second reason is that here Koestler has cleaned his slate and is putting down just what he saw and heard and, with emotion, is pulling down the curtain on a period. This report is alive; it is packed with human beings; it is resilient and almost buoyant. He is in his natural element, or rather in one of his natural elements: anarchy and disillusion. His eyes are skinned for every incident as, somber and sardonic—but not with detachment—he notes down the fates of his friends. This book (and The Gladiators) contains his least opaque writing. (p. 55)

[Spanish Testament is a melodrama: there is,] as in the theater, generalizations, simplifications. The characters wear the makeup of revolution. This writer does not appear to know Spanish history, but he knows current Marxism…. He is in control, and can switch on and off when effects are needed. Sardonic anger, raw humor, and the punctures of anthropological inquiry let the wind out of his hysterical passages at the right moment. All this is good journalism, but … it is slapdash. Koestler was a smatterer, and the only thing of value that emerged was personal: Dialogue with Death. There have been finer, more sensitive, more humane, and more objective accounts of life in Spanish prisons than Koestler's, for Koestler had to be the leading actor, and he writes with one wall of the prison down; but the attempt at a personal revelation is intellectually impressive, and precisely in the study of hysteria which elsewhere in his writing is his least attractive quality. In the end, when the curtain goes down in Spanish Testament we are not entirely convinced or convicted. Perhaps because we have been overconvinced. The impression remains after other books by Koestler. Against ourselves must be put his strongest card: he has had to combat...

(The entire section is 4,014 words.)