Koestler, Arthur (Vol. 15)
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
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 English unwillingness to face the appalling facts of medieval atrocity on the Continent.
Yet this may not be the explanation of our uneasiness. The source may be literary: Koestler has a voice, an urgent voice, vital, voluble, and lively, above all never boring—a voice, but an arid and mechanical style. On the face of it this is an unkind criticism to make of a displaced writer who is not writing in his own tongue, who has to make shift to write our own and has mastered it. But we suspect that no language is an inconvenience to him; language is a machine; not even in his own language, we feel, has he any love of words or any sense of their precision and grace. (p. 56)
The deficiency is more damaging to Koestler's reporting than to his earliest novels…. We are captured at once in [The Gladiators] by the sardonic vivacity of the author, the raciness of his reporting, his light mastery of the novelist's and historian's material, even by his boyish humor. We also feel a quality which is rare in the melodramas that come after: the sense of the human tragedy and a pity that is truly pitched and moving. That feeling for tragedy is never recovered, and in my opinion The Gladiators is his most impressive book. No personal hatred, no extraneous obsession with persecution or guilt, clutters the running of the narrative, or impedes the growth of the argument…. Success destroys: the revolutions that fail preserve their myth, and to Koestler faith and myth are everything. Another reason for Koestler's excellence in this book is that it has a settled subject, set in the remote past, and history has agreed on it. By gift a reporter, he is a hundred times better in...
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Ever since his birth [Arthur Koestler] has lived as it were in the maelstrom of contemporary history, turning in a continual vortex even as he wrote, and with an unerring instinct homing toward the place of trouble which will affect us all very soon. His environment is the whirlpool, and his creativity explodes out of violence.
His virtue, however, is not just restlessness and love of the vortex of contemporary history. It lies in his capacity for entering into what I can only call the conscience of contemporary events. That this is a shifting conscience, which tells him at one time to be on one side or at one place and another at a quite different one, is disconcerting and bitter to his political allies, but it is what really makes for his significance as a man and a writer. Mr. Koestler is a restless instrument who attaches himself to a conflict and gives us a kind of reading of the moral issues involved. He reminds us that the reading may be different at different times. Communism was a better cause in 1933 than it is in 1952.
He also has his own personal problem, which is to discover some center within himself which is not shifting, to which he can attach his values and his faith. His danger is to make a heroic virtue out of the changeability which has made him a public success. The weakness of [Arrow in the Blue, the first volume of Koestler's autobiography] is that he still seems to regard ruthless, analytic honesty as the supreme virtue. When applied to his own personality his rather mechanical self-analysis tends to wither up what is good, and to overemphasize what is erroneous. He analyzes the bad, but he tends to analyze away the good by explaining it in terms of more or less pathological motives.
What is best in him is genuine moral indignation (which he treats here as a kind of illness), a passionate self-identification with the underdog and an infectious love of adventure. (pp. 101-02)
The basic defect of the book is that it is theory-ridden. Not only is it stuffed with ideas which have featured in Mr. Koestler's other books … but also there is a theory as to why Mr. Koestler's mind is laid as wide open to ideologies as his father's was to inventions. The explanation is implicit in his title, Arrow in the Blue…. [He describes how] it occurred to him that:
You could shoot a super-arrow into the blue with...
(The entire section is 1006 words.)
Since it is in the grip of a fixed idea, Darkness at Noon has little of the intellectual fluidity, the richness of absorbed life, the complex interplay between emotion and ideology, that distinguishes the political novel at its best. Though the subject of Koestler's book can be seen as the increasingly problematic nature of all modern politics, it seldom yields itself to the problematic as a mode of feeling or observation. Can one say that a certain kind of commitment to the problematic may itself become a form of ideological fanaticism? If so, that is how to describe Darkness at Noon. For Koestler is the sort of writer who manipulates his characters with a ruthless insistence that they conform to his...
(The entire section is 759 words.)