Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The Power of Biography

James Watson
Blog 12

Blog: A mode of Internet communication expressing the author’s interests, preoccupations, opinions and biography, to a known and sometimes unknown audience; with potential for interactivity.


Michael Scammell, Koestler:The Indispensable Intellectual (Faber and Faber, 2010).

Prescient in almost all his judgments – on politics, history, literature and science – Arthur Koestler (1905-83) wrote in his diary ‘Every writer is forgotten after his death’. Plenty of people, even dedicated readers, might be forgiven for never having sampled Koestler’s vast and diverse output, and at best having the vaguest notion of who Koestler was or why he should be remembered.

Michael Scammell’s 689-page biography should restore Koestler to the pantheon of literary celebrity, not only because Koestler had much to say that still has relevance and interest but because of the amazing times he lived in. While reading about Koestler’s life one is reminded of the Chinese philosopher, faced with wars, famines and more wars, prayed that he might ‘live in uninteresting times’.

Running for his life
A Hungarian Jew, Koestler had scarcely emerged from his teens before he was in the thick of it. A bold and resourceful journalist he reported from the Spanish Civil War, was arrested by the Fascists, imprisoned and was a hair’s breadth from being executed.
Caught in Germany as Nazism ceased its pretentions to parliamentary rule, Koestler was once more on the run.

Desperate and remembering how in a film he had seen Jean Gabin escape a police hunt by joining the French Foreign Legion, Koestler, needing to disguise his Jewish origins, took the name of the Limoges police chief, Albert Dubert, and briefly became a Legionnaire. The rest of this tale can be followed in Chapter 16, Darkness Invisible.

The UK authorites, in particular M15, were slow in offering Koestler asylum. His record as a Communist activist (even though he had rejected Stalinism) led to his incarceration as a dangerous alien. It was probably only because of his well-placed friends – chiefly the literati – that he was not subjected to prolonged imprisonment during the 2nd World War. He escaped a life behind bars by signing up with the aliens’ Pioneer Corps (whose emblem was a crossed pick and shovel).

Koestler saw service in Ilfracombe and Cheltenham, largely digging tank trap holes before, in March 1942, being written off as ‘permanently unfit’ for service. Later in the war he worked as an air-raid warden and an ambulance driver.

Controversy: second nature
In his Prologue to Koestler, Michael Scammell writes that ‘Provocation and controversy were meat and drink to Koestler, elements of a tumultuous life in which he rarely experienced peace or quiet…Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition, he was never comfortable in his own skin’.

It was evident to those who knew him well that, despite his achievement and his fame, he suffered from self-doubt, ‘an undisguised vulnerability and painful honesty, a self-conscious shyness and morbid sensitivity’. This, ‘combined with his boyish exuberance and devil-may-care daring made him a magnet for innumerable women’.

Details of Koestler’s contribution to and involvement with historical events of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s are for the reader to discover. However, what particularly warrants recognition is Koestler’s energetic campaigning as writer and activist against Capital Punishment in Britain.

Implacable opposition
During his imprisonment during the Spanish Civil War, 17 of his fellow prisoners in Seville jail had been shot to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. Among them was 19-year Nicolas who Koestler had befriended during periods of exercise. He was later to dedicate Dialogue with Death to Nicolas.

It was from these experiences, writes Scammell, that Koestler’s ‘implacable opposition to capital punishment was born’ and led to the publication of his influential Reflections on Hanging. Koestler was also to demonstrate a lifelong sympathy for the imprisoned. He set up and financed annual awards for prisoners who demonstrated creativity in the arts – a scheme that continues to this day to reward endeavour in the visual arts and literature.

Animating the past
Koestler the man warrants the description ‘prodigious’ as indeed does the biography, Koestler. The product of ten years research and preparation it succeeds Scammell’s equally epical, Solzhenitsyn (1051 pages, Hutchinson, 1984). What we get in both cases is an immensely detailed historical tapestry. With the protagonist at its centre, the past is suddenly happening again, the reader being carried along as though actually involved in events.

A graduate in Russian from Nottingham University, translator of several books from Russian and Serbo-Croat, the founding editor of Index on Censorship magazine, now a professor at Columbia University, Michael Scammell conducted upward of two hundred interviews with Koestler’s friends, relatives and professional colleagues.

His Notes alone cover some 80-odd pages and he travelled in 14 countries in three continents in pursuit of one who had first sprung to fame after reporting on the first flight of the Graf Zeppelin from Berlin to the North Pole in 1931.

Dynamic but overstretched?
In one communicative form or another, Koestler, writes his biographer, ‘investigated a multitude of political movements, religions and scientific disciplines, from Zionism to Catholicism and even Buddhism, from anti-fascism to communism and anti-communism, from astronomy and evolution to neurobiology and parapsychology’.

Notoriously, and with little approval, Koestler allowed himself to be lured into the terrain of ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception), professing himself horrified at the prospect of coming out publicly in support of it, ‘fearing and relishing the risk, and feeling that having come so far, it would be cowardice not to follow his instincts’ (See Scammell’s Chapter forty-six, Chance Governs All).

The danger, as Scammell points out, has been an ‘inevitable unevenness’: Koestler could be accused of writing ‘too much in too many genres’ – novels, essays, biographies, scientific speculation.

Yet Koestler’s second novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, has never been out of print and though his other novels may ‘seem rather dated now’ – The Gladiators, Arrival and Departure, Thieves in the Night and The Age of Longing – ‘each has passages of imaginative power and intellectual brilliance’; while his science books such as The Sleepwalkers ‘brought both a storyteller’s eloquence and characteristic activism, for his urge is there, as in all his fiction and nonfiction, not just to describe the world, but also to change it’.

Scammell deals frankly and fairly with Koestler’s reputation as a womaniser. In his many relationships with women Koestler was ‘an egotistical, mercurial, and unpredictable perfectionist…whose demands knew no bounds’. He was ‘too hard on his women (and on himself)’. While they were ‘far from infantile Cinderellas…it was true he had met many of them at vulnerable moments in their lives and had harassed them and bullied them all into submission’.

A ‘stream of righteous abuse of Koestler that continues to the present day’ concerns the confession in 1998 by Jill Craigie, wife of Michael Foot, to another Koestler biographer, David Cesarini, that she had been raped by Koestler.

Scammell is of the view that there ‘are many ambiguities surrounding Cesarini’s (and Craigie’s) account of the incident. First of all, Craigie waited so long (nearly fifty years) to make her accusation public when Koestler was no longer alive to defend himself or ‘give his own version of this meeting’.

Scammell cites Koestler’s diary for that day: ‘Jill Foot –Sunday pub crawl on Heath’, and states, ‘Given that Koestler was gloatingly totting up his conquests in his diary at that very time, it’s surprising that he made no mention of having had sex with Craigie, unless he was so drunk he completely forgot about it’.

Craigie joined Michael Foot and Koestler for lunch at the House of Commons a week later, ‘and some twenty years after that, in 1975, she and Foot were guests at Koestler’s seventieth birthday party’. For further comment, see Chapter Thirty-Six, The Phantom Chase.

Despite Koestler’s domineering conduct towards the women in his life, his second wife, Mamaine, found him, in her own words, ‘as angelic as ever’, while his third wife, Cynthia, obedient servant to Koestler’s every whim, knew no doubts about a life without him. He was 77 and in ailing health. Still only in her 50s, she shared his preparations for suicide and chose death rather than be without him.

More to come?
Closing this massive, complex and elegantly written biography, readers will be left with an appetite for more, in particular from Koestler’s actual texts. His publishers should persuade Michael Scammell to assemble a companion volume to Koestler, an anthology of those bits across the author’s oeuvre that possess ‘imaginative power and intellectual brilliance’.

In his Prologue to Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual, Scammell writes that he was ‘a romantic whose quixotic hopes that some variant of the utopian dream might lead to happiness on earth were constantly being shadowed and undercut by a pessimistic acknowledgment of the realities of human nature’.

His ‘quest for enlightenment was not some arid, abstract sort of research, but a deep instinctual urge, powered by personal unhappiness and psychological frustration, which started early in his life and continued to the very end of his days’. In this sense, Koestler was ‘emblematic of the twentieth century’s own flailings in the search for a workable form of utopia’.

Notable works by Koestler: Arrival and Departure, Darkness at Noon, Thieves in the Night, Scum of the Earth, Promise and Fulfilment, The Age of Longing, Reflections on Hanging, The Sleepwalkers, The Lotus and the Robot, The Act of Creation, The Ghost in the Machine, The Case of the Midwife Toad, The Roots of Coincidence, The Challenge of Chance, The Thirteenth Tribe, Janus, From Bricks to Babel (an anthology).

Further information can be found at the author’s website,; and feedback to is of course welcome.



Blog 1
3 September 2009

(Spire Publishing, ISBN 1-897312-72-5), a human rights novel for Young Adults; a story about the struggles of Natasha, a talented young footballer in Ukraine. Her journalist father is on the run for revelations he has made about government corruption: the consequences for Natasha and her brother Lonya are not only career-threatening, but life-threatening.

To further complicate things, there is Natasha’s friendship with Monika who, on the face of it, is a tour guide, but what secret is she keeping about her and her family; and how has she come to be in possession of the Pushkin Ring that went missing from a Moscow Museum during the Russian Revolution?

The story heads for a dramatic climax on the Steps of Odessa made famous by the massacre scene in Sergei Eistenstein’s film masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin: could something similar happen on those steps that ‘seem to reach to the sky’?

Blog 2
15 September 2009
Introduces the BUXTEHUDER BULLE PRIZE awarded annually for Young Adult novels on human rights themes and judged by young German readers. The author’s Talking in Whispers was a winner and he was invited to Buxtehude near Hamburg to receive the prize.

I was so delighted by this old Hanseatic town with its canal (and its noisy ducks), that I wrote a children’s story, The Noisy Ducks of Buxtehude (later published in a dual-language version by Verlag an der Est, ISBN 3-926616-90-3). This blog gives an account of ‘a quacking tale’ translated into German by Heike Brandt and illustrated by Bjorn Holm.

Blog 3
29 September 2009
THE TROUBLE WITH MONUMENTS. In Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, there is Babi Yar, site of the barbarous executions perpetrated by the Nazis, and collaborators, during World War 2, a sacred site of immense symbolic importance. With the prospect of international football coming to Ukraine, there were those on the city council who wanted to build new hotels close to and overlooking the site. This blog protests about the proposal; which thankfully was rejected by the Kiev city council.
In contrast, in Senegal, one of the world’s poorest countries, a 49 metre bronze statue now dominates the capital, Dakar. It glorifies at prodigious expense the hubris of those in power, a £17m assertion of elitism over equality.

Blog 4
23 October 2009
HISTORY’S NEGLECTED WOMEN. In researching for a play on the struggles for press freedom and democracy in 19th century Britain (Out Damned Spot!) I came to realise what a vital part women played in those struggles, and how they seem to have been written out of the records.

They worked as hawkers of the radical press, printers and writers, and their sufferings were equal to men’s in the pursuit of those struggles – crippling fines, imprisonment and in a few cases deportation.
Eliza Sharples, second wife of the combative editor, Richard Carlile, became a star, addressing packed audiences in London’s Rotunda, while her husband languished in jail. Act 4 of Out Damned Spot! focuses on Eliza, and is titled The Lady of the Rotunda.

Blog 5
10 November 2009
IN PRAISE OF WOMEN’S SOCCER. Research is an author’s archaeology. In preparing Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa I was startled to discover that once upon a time in the UK women’s football was immensely popular; women’s matches drew huge crowds.

Yet on 5 December 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches. This blog looks at how women’s soccer has fought to reaffirm itself in Britain, and how football has become one of the paramount sporting interests of women and girls.

Blog 6
15 December 2009
LAST FLIGHT OF THE HEYFORD K 6875. In July 1938 a six-crew RAF Heyford hit a violent rainstorm in the Derbyshire peak district. Before the days of radar navigation, the plane was off course and dipping towards Edale. The Heyford’s design was such that it blocked the pilot’s view immediately in front and below.

Another 30 metres or so, and the plane would have avoided Broadlee Bank. Instead, the plan struck ground, and the crew were consumed in a fireball.
Among the crew was my Uncle, Jim Barker. A version of this account, a tribute to the dead, was published in Derbyshire Life magazine.

Blog 7
7 January 2010
This was the first of five postings on ASPECTS OF STORYTELLING. Part 1, TRIGGERS AND PROPS, opens with a look at how stories get started, what triggers interest and motivation, and how such triggers carry the story forward, from a major national or world event (like the military overthrow of democracy in Chile, triggering Talking in Whispers) to a fleeting snatch of conversation (such as a reference to a misspelt tattoo triggering The Great Tattoo in Make Your Move, and Other Stories).

Supplementing the main course of Blog 7, in Notes in Passing, another World War 2 disaster is described; a disaster which result from an officer’s arrogance in the face of good advice.

A newly-arrived squad of Canadians encamped above Cuckmere Haven in Sussex. There was a wonderful view of the sea. A local man warned the officer that his men were encamped under the flight path of German planes.

His men were a sitting target. The officer knew better than to take advice from a civilian. As predicted, the Messerschmitts came. They could not believe their luck. It was too late for the Canadian officer to change his mind.

Blog 8
15 February 2010
Following on from Blog 7, a look at the role played by props in narrative, from Cinderella’s glass slipper to the jewelled pendant worn by Madeleine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the Pushkin Ring that serves to animate a sub-plot in Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa to the Michael Jackson T-shirt that proves Eloise, in The Ghosts of Izieu, does not belong in 1942.

The author’s childhood hobby, hand puppets and string marionettes finds a literary outcome in Talking in Whispers in which the twins, Isa and Beto, use their puppet, General Zuchero, to protest at tyranny.

Notes in passing… Gives the thumbs down to Avatar.

Blog 9
15 March 2010
Part 3: Frames, Codes and Character.
A look at the structures of stories, how they fit in to forms or genres. The narrative forms of soaps and sitcoms are compared, the templates that govern them and how symbols illuminate and guide them.

The five narrative codes posed by French philosopher Roland Barthes, expounded in his book S/Z, are examined – the Action Code, for example, being traditionally associated with male characters, the Enigma code with women; codes, of course, inviting the writer to reverse or overturn them.
Also introduced is the categorisation of characters by the Russian Vladimir Propp in his study of folk tales.

Blog 10
14 March 2010
Part 4: Fiction and News
This posting explores the interlink between fiction and news, both of them narratives with common objectives though differing formats. What’s happening in the real world, in the news, has always influenced the content and approach of fiction.

Just as there is newsworthiness so there is fictionworthiness; and what is newsworthy triggers fictionworthiness. On the other hand, sometimes what happens in the news is so strange or exotic that in fiction it would be regarded as failing to suspend the reader’s disbelief.

Feedback…from novelist Anna Perera, author of Guantanamo Boy (Penguin).

Blog 11
15 May 2010
Part 5: Tale Power
Humans are essentially storytelling animals. We live stories, they are part of us, individually and collectively. This posting investigates the power that stories have to influence us – our attitudes, opinions, our outlooks, our values and sometimes our behaviour.

Though some downsize the power of stories, classifying them as little more than entertainment, a scrutiny of censorship, present and past, will at least indicate that those in authority, those in power, are fearful of stories ‘getting a hold’ on people, particularly if stories threaten to influence large numbers.

A simple 17-syllable haiku in Burma can get you a five year prison sentence, never mind the endless stories of the persecution of authors down the ages, from Sophocles to Solzhenitsyn.
The posting concludes with questions on how the Internet, in the Age of Twitter, is affecting, and will affect tale power.