Heart of Darkness

by Michael Kimmage
Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
By Michael Scammell
(Random House, 720 pages, $35)
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Arthur Koestler in New York CityWhen Arthur Koestler arrived in New York City in March 1948 to launch an American speaking tour, his visit was front-page news. An audience of 3000 filled Carnegie Hall, eager to hear Koestler’s thoughts on “the radical’s dilemma” and on America’s pressing need to confront Soviet communism. Koestler had gained worldwide fame for his novel Darkness at Noon, published in 1940.

The hero of the novel is Nicholas Rubashov, a devout communist caught in Stalin’s net in the 1930s for straying from the party line. Before his inevitable execution, he is interrogated and forced to confess to ludicrous crimes. At the heart of his ordeal is an “absolute faith in History”: Stalin may be fallible, but the Soviet cause is infallible and can be made to justify countless deaths, including Rubashov’s own.

The novel’s taut, philosophical style made it a staple of international literary culture, damaged the Communist Party’s global reputation, and made its author an icon of the engagé intellectual. For much of the Cold War, Koestler was a celebrity anti-communist.

Yet when Koestler, the author of some 30 books, died in 1983, his chosen legacy was detached from political parties, movements, and causes. In his will, he left most of his estate to endow an academic chair in parapsychology.

This unorthodox evolution can now be traced in Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, a new biography by Michael Scammell ’85GSAS, professor of creative writing at Columbia. In Scammell’s telling, Koestler knew his century’s ideological tempests firsthand, flirted with its chilling certainties, and continued to return, over the course of his life, to the oasis of skepticism. Scammell presents Koestler as “a gambler and provocateur, taking physical and intellectual risks that led him to exciting and dangerous places, and sometimes to important insights ahead of his time. He was a Zionist in Palestine when it was extremely unfashionable to be a Zionist, and an anti-Zionist when Zionism was in its prime. He was a communist before communism became à la mode for western progressives, and an anti-communist at the floodtide of communist popularity during World War II.”

Koestler was born in Budapest to a Hungarian-Jewish family in 1905. Like many Europeans of his generation, he possessed a lasting “thirst for utopia.” Koestler first saw utopian possibility in Zionism, and then, by the 1930s, in the Soviet Union. (In a guesthouse in Turkmenistan, a new Soviet republic in the 1930s, Koestler heard a recording of Sophie Tucker singing “My Yiddishe Mamme” in the neighboring room; when he knocked on the door, it was opened by Langston Hughes.) In the interwar years, Koestler worked as a journalist and was famous in many European countries. He was also a Communist Party member from 1933 to 1938, serving as a conspicuous cog in the Soviet propaganda wheel; his efforts were directed at the intelligentsia of Western Europe.

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