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The 'Casanova of Causes' | The Nation

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The 'Casanova of Causes'

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Except for his self-help encyclopedias on sex, which Cesarani says weren't bad for their nervous times, I have read all of Arthur Koestler's books, beginning with The Invisible Writing when I was 15 years old, and it was as thrilling as Look Homeward, Angel, Catcher in the Rye and Thomas Merton's Seven-Storey Mountain. Do I like him less, now that I know so much from Cesarani about his piggy personal behavior? Of course. But looking back, it seems to me it was never the man I admired, anyway. It was the career, and the way he wrote about that career, in the saddle as it were, like Isaac Babel in Red Cavalry, or as if, like Trotsky and the mill workers in St. Petersburg, we ducked under the bellies of the horses at a friendly Cossack wink. I wanted to be a cowboy, too, in this extreme western.

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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Koestler's great gift, in fact, was to remember the excitement of ideas in action, and to refresh that memory with language, never cheating on the original exaltation no matter how many times he rewrote the events of his life as a yogi, lotus, robot, commissar, call girl or the ghost in his own machine--and Cesarani has counted them all, every revised word, in search of "stupendous act[s] of deception." In these pages, we are reacquainted with exactly what it felt like to read Karl May and Jules Verne, listen to Lehar operettas and wait for the football scores as a child in Budapest; to discover Rilke, Heine, Hölderlin, Strindberg, Ibsen and Hamsun as a precocious adolescent, as well as Darwin and Kepler; to experience both a revolution (Bela Kun) and a counterrevolutionary terror (Admiral Horthy) at age 13; to fall in love, as a student in Vienna, with Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Adler and Jung; to look for a cause in Palestine, a brothel in Paris, a job in Berlin, the future in Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent (with a laid-back Langston Hughes as his companion), and the North Pole from a graf zeppelin; to hobnob with Wilhelm Reich, Karl Radek, André Malraux, Alfred Döblin, Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, Cafe Flor phenomenologists, Left Book Club social democrats, Congress for Cultural Freedom-Fighting Partisan Reviewers and even Timothy Leary, who tripped him out on acid; to fear death in a Franco prison (while reading John Stuart Mill in Spanish) and then again in a French DP camp (where Walter Benjamin slipped him some morphine); and to be unbelieved when he told everybody about the Final Solution and the Gulag.

To be sure, the novels were romans à these, too anal in their schematizing. But they were also true to the mythomaniacs who inhabited them. Whether, for instance, the Old Bolshevik Rubashov in Darkness at Noon was based on Bukharin or not, or even whether Bukharin really confessed at his own Show Trial, the case for revolution has seldom been better made, by a writer who had come to revile that revolution. Peter, in Arrival and Departure, leaves Portugal for almost certain death, in spite of a Jungian psychoanalysis by Sonia that not only persuades the reader of the childhood origins of his unconscious guilt but persuades Peter, too--and even the Nazi who goes on about the mineral veins of Europe as a sort of central nervous system is allowed to be more eloquent than any other Nazi I'm aware of in any other antifascist novel. Like Koestler on his first trip to Palestine, Joseph in Thieves in the Night may have his doubts about a collective run on a woozy amalgam of the principles of Tolstoy and Marx, but we see him as well through the eyes of the Communards, in all his vanity, impatience and disdain for manual labor. The Age of Longing (1951), alas, was worse than ugly, it was smug--"To imitate the past and to abolish the past are equal sins against life," smirked Monsieur Anatole; "therefore all reactionaries suffer from constipation and all revolutionaries from diarrhea"--but at least he got to do to Beauvoir what she had done to him. By the time he dialed up The Call Girls two decades later, he had lost this passionate knack and was reduced to ventriloquism, even if the dummies included W.H. Auden and Konrad Lorenz. Still, it had been a long run for a novelist of rambunctious ideas.

And over all this hectic activity, this compulsive curiosity and headlong rush to covenant, peril and repentance, these big ideas slapped on like adhesive plasters to the wounds of self and the bigger discrepancies for which no poultice ever proved medicinal, he'd spritz promiscuous metaphors and Homeric myth. It was as if, by literary fiat, in chapters of escapade with such headings as "From the Mount of Olives to Montparnasse," "Liberal Götterdämmerung" and "The Return of Ahor," he could aggrandize his only childhood, his "emotional measles" and traumatic tonsillectomy, his father's selling of radioactive soap and his mother's ever-so-convenient migraines, his "bridge-burning," vagabondage and violent divestitures, into a "language of destiny," an "invisible writing" and an "oceanic feeling," a "third order" and a "parallel universe" of "wonder rabbis," helpful shamans and wax-winged effigies of Icarus--into which Blue he shot his Arrow.

This was thrilling, too, like modern art and teen sex.

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