Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell

Tibor Fischer tackles one of Hungary's most famous exports
Tobir Fischer
Fri 16 Apr 2010 19.08 EDT

A few years ago, the following announcement was heard on Hungarian radio: "There are only two of us in the studio tonight. But don't worry, there's plenty to discuss because one of us knows everything and the other knows everything even better." This insistence on knowing everything better (jobban tudni) is a particularly Hungarian vice, and is the backdrop to the impact that Arthur Koestler had on British cultural life (and, furthermore, many of the Hungarian Jews who were his contemporaries, scientists such as Teller, Von Neumann and Wigner, did indeed know better).

Polymath, polyglot, journalist, legionnaire: Koestler arrived in Britain during the second world war as a refugee and belligerently seized a large amount of savant turf. Rabidly political and polemical in a way that was alien to the British tradition (two Hungarians on a desert island = three political parties), he had an obsession with and knowledge of science that was unusual among novelists, and he made a literary career in what was, after Hungarian and German, his third language.

Michael Scammell's Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual is one of those vast biographies that slightly puzzles me. I adore rigour, but even with someone who fascinates me, I just don't want to know about the grandparents and great-grandparents. Scammell has spent two decades working on this and it shows. In his epilogue, he points out that the "centenary of Koestler's birth in 2005 was virtually ignored in Britain and the United States". There were only two small conferences to celebrate Koestler in Hungary (and as I attended one of them I can tell you the conference was more to do with Hungary's internal politics than Koestler). Indispensable? As Sir Alex Ferguson has demonstrated again and again, no one is indispensable.

Scammell obviously admires and even, while not omitting Koestler's many disagreeable features, likes Koestler (I don't suppose you could sire a work of this magnitude without such affection). My explanation for the lack of interest in Koestler is that, fascinating though his life was, he doesn't matter much anymore. The two causes that ate up most of his life, Zionism and Marxism, are now consigned to history faculties.

He wrote one excellent novel, Darkness at Noon, a timely and cogent insight into the Moscow show trials that was undoubtedly powered by his own experience of being on death row in Franco's Spain; so in a way, it was more journalism than fiction. Koestler was, underneath all the accumulated plumage, a journalist. I defy anyone to read The Call Girls and then say with a straight face that Koestler is a major novelist. Out of all the "political" writers of the 20th century, Sartre, Malraux, Orwell and so on, only one, I'd argue, produced a truly great novel, and that was Camus; and L'Etranger is great precisely because it's not political.

Koestler's greatest achievement was total assimilation into the English language. If you read Joseph Conrad, you're not surprised to learn he was born a Pole; there's an underlying oddness to his prose, however correct, whereas Koestler's tone is pure tweed from Savile Row.

Koestler's life (the fling with communism, the visit to the Soviet Union, the flight from the Nazis, the partying with Sartre and Camus) is preposterously eventful and well worth reading about, but then Koestler himself helpfully provided us with two volumes of autobiography (even if he is, of course, a bit of an unreliable narrator).

Scammell battles manfully with the Hungarianness and gets most of the accents right, but gets small things wrong. The idea that there is no Hungarian equivalent for "Arthur" is nonsense. One of the most controversial figures in Hungarian history was Artúr Görgey. Nyuszi does not mean "uncle", and Imre Nagy was not elected in 1956 (or at any other time).

Scammell tackles the rape accusation (by Jill Craigie, Michael Foot's wife) by suggesting it was just part of the rough trade of the time, a not entirely convincing defence since, despite, Scammell's mitigation, it's clear that Koestler was a manic mounter and misogynist – the fact that he allowed his perfectly healthy, much younger wife to join him in a suicide pact being the most damning evidence. I doubt if the gender studies departments will be inviting Mr Scammell to lecture.

As an intellect Koestler wasn't such a phenomenon. He was a product of a merciless school system that believed in rounded education (Teller and Von Neumann could recite poetry extensively from memory). Today, most graduate Hungarians speak two foreign languages well (if you come from a small country with a non-Indo-European language you don't have much choice). In any café in Budapest you can find a hand-waving self-promoting smart-arse like Koestler.

His scientific ideas were borrowed or didn't amount to much (one of my favourite essays by Koestler, containing much mathematical bluster, is on the impossibility of getting a computer to play chess well – this about 15 years before every PC had a free program that could whip a grandmaster). His funding of a chair of parapsychology at Edinburgh University in his will, earned him, as his compatriot Stephen Vizinczey put it, the reputation of a "loony".

I applaud Scamell's opus, but you can sum up Koestler more succinctly: good journalist, superb egotist.

Tibor Fischer's Good to Be God will be published by Alma Books next month.

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