Authors: Arthur Koestler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Hungarian-born English novelist, essayist, critic, and memoirist

Identity: Jewish


Arthur Koestler (KAWST-lur) writes in his autobiographical Arrow in the Blue that his story is a “typical case-history of a central-European member of the educated middle classes, born in the first years of this century.” Koestler’s life is indeed representative of the life of a European who experienced the twentieth century crises brought about by the political presence of Communism. As a young man he was an active Communist intellectual. He was imprisoned in Spain by the Fascists and sentenced to be executed; he was imprisoned by the French and English. When he broke with the Communist Party he wrote one of the most effective novels of protest against it: Darkness at Noon. He tells the whole story of his shifts between an ethics of conscience and an ethics of action in his autobiographical works, his novels, and his essays–particularly The Yogi and the Commissar, and Other Essays.{$I[AN]9810000166}{$I[A]Koestler, Arthur}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Koestler, Arthur}{$I[geo]HUNGARY;Koestler, Arthur}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Koestler, Arthur}{$I[tim]1905;Koestler, Arthur}

Arthur Koestler

(National Archives)

Arthur Koestler’s grandfather escaped from Russia during the Crimean War, when to hide his identity he adopted the name Kostler. Koestler’s father, Henrik Kostler, was an energetic, would-be inventor, a maker of radioactive products that included soap, brass polish, and cleaning powder; his mother came from an old Jewish family of Prague. After the outbreak of World War I ruined the father’s business, the family moved to Vienna; after that they never had a permanent home again.

Koestler’s interest in Zionism led him in 1926 to destroy the record of his studies at the University of Vienna. He went to Palestine to work for the Zionist movement, but after a probationary period, during which he worked in the fields, he was rejected. He suffered from poverty, failed as an architect, and worked as a lemonade vendor in Haifa, for a tourist agency, as a land surveyor’s assistant, and as an editor (for three issues) of a German-language paper in Cairo. He finally secured a job as correspondent for the Ullstein chain of newspapers and was sent to Jerusalem in September, 1927. During the next four years he worked for Ullstein in the Middle East, Paris, and Berlin. One of his assignments was as correspondent on the Graf Zeppelin when it made an expeditionary flight to the North Pole region.

Koestler was a member of the Communist Party from 1931 to the spring of 1938. He traveled in the Soviet Union and in 1936 went to Spain ostensibly as correspondent for the London News Chronicle. In February, 1937, he was captured by the Fascists and for more than three months expected execution. He was released in response to protests from England. After being imprisoned as an alien by the French in the infamous camp Le Vernet, Koestler spent several months in 1940 trying to get to England. He spent six weeks in Pentonville Prison in England and then joined the British army. During the rest of the war he worked for the Ministry of Information in London. In 1983 he and his third wife, Cynthia Jefferies, committed suicide in London.

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and the two parts of Arrow in the Blue rank among the most revealing and influential anti-Communist documents of the twentieth century. Later books, dealing with a variety of social topics, were well received, but many critics have judged them to be less significant than his early work.

BibliographyCesarani, David. Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind. New York: Free Press, 1999. A good examination of the writer and his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Day, Frank. Arthur Koestler: A Guide to Research. New York: Garland, 1987. In addition to a listing of Koestler’s publications, there are 518 entries for writings about him, many of them from newspapers and journals. Includes some foreign-language items, and the latest materials are from 1985.Goodman, Celia, ed. Living with Koestler: Mamaine Koestler’s Letters, 1945-1951. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. A vivid personal view of Koestler, documented by Koestler’s second wife, Mamaine Paget.Hamilton, Iain. Koestler: A Biography. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1985. This lengthy biography, favorable to Koestler, is arranged year by year in the fashion of a chronicle and breaks off around 1970. Many events have been retold partly on the basis of interviews, Koestler’s papers, and firsthand accounts.Harris, Harold, ed. Astride the Two Cultures: Arthur Koestler at Seventy. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1975. This collection of essays by authors sympathetic to Koestler provides approximately equal coverage of the writer’s involvement in literary and in scientific concerns.Koestler, Cynthia. Stranger on the Square. New York: Random House, 1984. A joint memoir by the Koestlers, left unfinished at their deaths. Levene, Mark. Arthur Koestler. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Koestler’s own life is discussed in the first chapter, and his major literary works are considered in detail, but relatively little attention is given to his scientific writings. The chronology and bibliography are useful.Merrill, Reed, and Thomas Frazier, comps. Arthur Koestler: An International Bibliography. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1979. An indispensable work. Pearson, Sidney A., Jr. Arthur Koestler. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Although a bit sketchy on matters of biography, this work deals with basic issues in Koestler’s writings and has some trenchant and interesting discussion of political themes. Also helpful are the chronology and a selected annotated bibliography.Perez, Jane, and Wendell Aycock, eds. The Spanish Civil War in Literature. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1990. Contains Peter I. Barta’s essay “The Writing of History: Authors Meet on the Soviet-Spanish Border,” which provides an excellent grounding in the political history from which Koestler’s fiction evolved.Sperber, Murray A., ed. Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Both positive and negative reactions appear in this fine sampling of critical work about Koestler’s literary and scientific writings. Among those commentators represented by excerpts here are George Orwell, Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, Stephen Spender, and A. J. Ayer. A chronology and bibliography have also been included.Sterne, Richard Clark. Dark Mirror: The Sense of Injustice in Modern European and American Literature. New York: Fordham University Press, 1994. Contains a substantial discussion of Darkness at Noon.
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