A new biography struggles to recover a cold warrior's eclipsed brilliance, writes Scott McLemee. Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual Michael Scammell Faber and Faber Dh142 Who reads Arthur Koestler now? Usually when such a question is posed about an author, it is a roundabout way of dismissing him. It implies that the problem of judging the relationship between reputation and merit has been settled now that the whole body of work has sunk into oblivion. That is not quite the case here. Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940) - with its imagining of the Moscow Trials from the perspective of an old revolutionary who confesses to preposterous charges as a last service to the movement - remains on any list of the major political fiction of the 20th century. It overshadows, for instance, Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1948), a much finer novel reflecting a richer sense of the ordinary experience of state terror and the psychology of totalitarian abjection.
But Comrade Tulayev played no important role in the ideological combat of the Cold War, while Darkness at Noon did - as did numerous other books Koestler wrote. Quite as much as George Orwell, he loomed as one of the preeminent authors defining his era. Here, though, the enigmatic status of his work comes more clearly into view. For the qualities of Orwell's sensibility remain vivid to readers in ways that Koestler's do not.
It is not a question of contrasting political outlooks; their differences were fine shades of nuance. Both put themselves in harm's way during the Spanish Civil War, and came away convinced that meaningful anti-fascism also had to be anti-Stalin. Nor, I think, is it strictly a matter of literary quality. Koestler's lesser novels are at least no worse than Orwell's A Clergyman's Daugher, and some of the essays in The Yogi and the Commisar, from the early 1940s, are as good as Orwell's political journalism at its best. But well after the Soviet implosion, the term "Orwellian" is still in use, while "Koestlerian" had ceased to signify very much even before the author's death in 1983.
Michael Scammell's task in his authorised biography to give that word some new resonance. He claims for Koestler the title of quintessential Central European writer of the 20th century. The liberal philosopher Raymond Aron named him the "greatest of the engaged intellectuals" of his day. (The implicit comparison to Jean-Paul Sartre, their mutual friend-and-enemy, is both deliberate and invidious.) He was a polymath of sorts. It cannot have helped his reputation that Koestler's final years were consumed in scientific speculation that shaded off into mysticism. But Scammell's reconstruction of the development of his thought makes even Koestler's more dubious enthusiasms - including parapsychology and anti-Darwinian forms of evolutionary theory - at least intelligible, if not palatable.
He was all over the map, when not a bit off it. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Hungary, Koestler had a transnational career; he lived in Germany, Palestine, the Soviet Union, Spain, France, Britain, and the United States, and at one point evidently possessed no national citizenship. His restlessness was also ideological. His engagement with Communism (first as a movement cadre, then as one of its most forceful opponents) is only one leg of Koestler's long journey among the worldviews. The cosmological speculation in his final books is the natural outgrowth of Koestler's will to find a weltanschauung to call his own.
Narrating a life that is footloose on so many levels would be difficult enough without all the outcroppings of personality disorder. A dozen years ago, David Cesarani's Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind accused its subject of rape. Scammell does what he can to insist on the changing standards of acceptable vigour in male seductive strategy. But this is hardly persuasive. There is testimony that Koestler could be charming. But charm is often a form of sublimated aggression, and Koestler had plenty of it left in raw form to render him a menace.
He had a streak of violent misogyny, and the alcoholism did not help. Scammell's impulse to put things in the best possible light gets the better of him when he claims that Koestler was merely a heavy drinker. This might be more plausible had the biographer not described a breakdown involving delirium tremens a few pages earlier. The element of protectiveness towards Koestler is perhaps a reaction against the sensational tone of Cesarani's book. Scammell also avoids anything like the earlier biographer's compulsion to find a single key to explain the author's life and work. For Cesarani, this was Koestler's inner torment over his Jewish origins. His sundry ideological conversions, his interest in the natural sciences, his proto-New Age speculations, his sexually predatory behaviour with women - all were symptoms of pathological ambivalence over his racial identity. It was a complex that made him so complex.
Scammell's biography looks all the more definitive by contrast. It is exhaustive and uncommonly well-written; the occasional bouts of special pleading are as unobtrusive as they prove implausible. He integrates the various phases of Koestler's thinking into an intelligible whole without creating the beautiful symmetries of Cesarani's monomania. Koestler interpreted the rise of militant ideologies in the 20th century as an effort to make the universe meaningful again to human beings who, after Copernicus, had lost their central place in it. Whatever its value as an interpretation of political history, this offers some insight into Koestler's own inner promptings. He was a secular pilgrim, in search of some vision of the absolute that would preserve a place for human freedom of the will.
Koestler's work showed, Scammell says, "an infatuation with ideas and the ethics of political choice that are as thrilling and compelling today as when they were written". Very few readers now find this to be true. Why that is so, the biography does not really explain. Our place in a large, dark, empty, but (it seems) structured universe remains a conundrum. One might even call this problem Koestlerian. But his writings only identify the problem, rather than solving it. Perhaps there is something more nourishing in Orwell, who reminds us that it takes courage at times to face the evident truths right there in front of you.
Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.