The extraordinary Arthur Koestler

This article is more than 11 years old
A new biography shows how this strangely marginal and rootless writer had a knack for being ahead of his time
Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler's life took in many of the 20th century's major currents. Photograph: Pat English/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Arthur Koestler is back in the news – or at least back on the books pages. The reason for this is the publication of Michael Scammell's excellent, long-awaited biography, which I've been reading in preparation for this event tomorrow, where I'll be interviewing Scammell.

A lot of discussion, inevitably, has focused on Koestler's bullying, sexually predatory side, which became news more than 10 years ago when it was first uncovered in all its grimness by David Cesarani in an earlier biography.

This is a bit of a pity, not because the way someone behaves towards women doesn't matter – of course it does. But because it deflects attention from everything else worth thinking about. And in Koestler's case, there really is a lot to think about.

His life, for a start, was extraordinary, both in its eventfulness and in the way it took in so many of the 20th century's major currents. He was at various points both a Zionist and a communist and, after becoming disillusioned with communism, a leading critic of the Soviet Union (in which he travelled around in the 1930s). He was imprisoned by Franco in 1937 and only narrowly escaped the Nazis during the second world war. He was there when Israel was created; he hung out with the existentialists in Paris; he played a leading role in launching the west's postwar propaganda offensive against the Soviet Union and, later, in the campaign to end the death penalty in Britain. In the 60s, he even took LSD with Timothy Leary.

As Scamell rightly stresses, he had a knack for being ahead of his time: he saw the dangers of communism earlier and much more clearly than many on the left; he was an early advocate of nuclear disarmament, of European integration, and of the need to assist persecuted writers. And of course there are the writings for which he was justly celebrated, including, in Darkness at Noon, one of the most influential political novels of the 20th century.

Yet today Koestler is a strangely marginal figure. Why is this? Partly, or perhaps precisely because he was so much a creature of the 20th century. The battles he fought are no longer quite our battles, and he seems sealed off from us by all that has happened since his death in 1983 – most notably, of course, the collapse of communism.

But another factor, of which Scammell's biography makes one very aware, is nationality. Koestler never really belonged anywhere, including Britain, where he spent the majority of his time after the war. This was often a source of strength during his lifetime – it meant he could rove from country to country and immerse himself in whatever was happening. But in the longer term, writers need the backing of a home nation to flourish. Writers like Orwell and Camus, both of whom Koestler was friendly with, are of course today very much national figures. Koestler, by contrast, remains oddly rootless. At one point, Scammell tellingly quotes the critic Raymond Mortimer on why Koestler's writings, though fascinating, were also oddly "dislikable". It's because, Mortimer wrote, they neglected "the necessity or even the existence of gardening".