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COSMIC REPORTER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ARTHUR KOESTLER

Michael Scammell

[This excerpt describes Koestler’s first visit to France after the publication and huge success of his novel, Darkness at Noon, in French translation. It is taken from a chapter called “Adventures Among the Existentialists."] Cosmic Reporter is to be published by Random House in 2007.

 

Arthur Koestler was reasonably sure that his literary and political allies in France, except for the special case of Malraux, would be found among that small group of writers who had been tagged by the popular press as “existentialists.” He had admired Sartre since 1938, holding the latter’s short story, “The Wall,” to be “the profoundest thing ever written” on the Spanish Civil War, and respected his coinage of the term “existentialism” to describe a philosophy of cosmic loneliness and freedom that nevertheless obligated the individual, in a cold and unfeeling world, to shoulder his ethical responsibility and commit to political activism. One of the many books that had influenced Sartre when he was formulating his philosophy was in fact Koestler’s Dialogue with Death; and André Gide had noted of Scum of the Earth that it was “the best possible illustration of Sartrism - if not of existentialism proper.” Sartre was the acknowledged prophet, and his recently published novel, The Age of Reason, one of existentialism’s bibles. Another prophet of existentialism was Albert Camus, whose “absurdist” works, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, were obligatory reading for French intellectuals of the period. The third, but decidedly junior, musketeer of existentialism was Sartre’s lifelong partner, Simone de Beauvoir (nicknamed Castor, or the Beaver), whose novel The Blood of Others, along with her essays, had helped to popularize the new philosophy among the young.

After waiting in vain for their joint publisher, Charlot, to introduce them, Koestler met Camus by the simple expedient of walking into the latter’s office at Gallimard and introducing himself. “Humphrey Bogart young” was how one Left Bank journalist had described Camus, and Koestler compared him to “a young Apollo.” Camus was “slim and sinewy, with a shock of light brown hair, an easy smile, and a dark complexion derived from his North African heritage,” and “still looked like the athletic young soccer player of his youth.” Friendship between the two men was instant. Both were in the Bogart mold: short, compact and muscular, affecting a cool manner to disguise a smoldering temper, with an eternal cigarette dangling from the lower lip. “With Camus,” Koestler later wrote, “an easy camaraderie developed from our very first meeting. We tutored each other, and shared much the same tastes in wining, dining and running after women.” It wasn’t long before the two men were drinking together at the Café de Flore and ogling the young flirts patrolling St Germain des Près.

Both were cultural outsiders - Koestler from Hungary via Austria and Germany, Camus from Algeria via the south of France; both had had to fight their way from obscurity to success; both were consumed by the role of ethics in the life of the individual and society; both had been active anti-Fascists and card-carrying members of the Communist Party before they left it (Camus had been forced out for defending the Muslim nationalists in Algeria); and both were novelists of ideas who had captured the imagination of the French reading public. Koestler respected Camus not only for his books, but also for his public activities, among them his resignation from the French Writer’s Association when it was taken over by the communists, and Camus respected Koestler for Darkness at Noon, which had deeply influenced his own thinking about communism. They were to spend a great deal of time together during the rest of the month - and during Koestler’s future visits to France. Of all the Left Bank writers, Camus was the closest to him in temperament and outlook, yet each retained an inner reserve in the presence of the other. Their relationship, Koestler concluded later, was “more intimate than deep; we were, in fact, copains - chums rather than friends.”

Camus told Koestler that Sartre and Beauvoir had recently transferred their literary headquarters from the Café de Flore to the basement of the Hotel Pont-Royal, next to where Koestler was staying. Koestler went round there the next day and said to Sartre with boyish simplicity: “Hello, I’m Koestler.” Sartre was even shorter than Koestler, and with his stumpy limbs, long torso, and famously disconcerting squint, put Koestler in mind of “a malevolent goblin.” But the rapport between the two men (and between Koestler and Beauvoir) was instant. Koestler approved of the way the Beaver’s close-fitting French dress hugged her figure, and admired her high, prominent cheekbones, and the long chestnut hair coiled in a bun on her head. The famous couple had long since recognized in the author of Darkness at Noon as a thinker far from alien to existentialism. Beauvoir had stayed up all night reading Koestler’s novel and had found it “enthralling.” Koestler told them Mamaine had just arrived from England, and they agreed the four of them should meet the following Sunday.

Mamaine found Koestler’s hotel suite in “indescribable chaos” on the morning of her arrival, with “secretaries, publishers, producers” trooping in and out and people telephoning all the time, so that it was “impossible either to sleep or get dressed,” but the chaos abated by the weekend. Sunday began with drinks at the Café de Flore with an improbable assortment of friends: Sartre and Beauvoir, Sylvester and Pauline Gates from the British embassy, the American journalist Harold Kaplan, Teddy Kollek and his wife (in Paris to see Ben Gurion), and Koestler’s old comrade from the Le Vernet concentration camp, Leo Valiani. Drinks were followed by lunch (which lasted until 4.30 pm) with two British correspondents, Darsie Gillie and a former boyfriend of Mamaine’s called Sylvain Mangeot, to whom Koestler was “particularly rude and unpleasant.” Dinner was at 6 in the Sperbers’ apartment, with “filthy food,” no drinks, and a polyglot conversation in French, German and English that gave Mamaine indigestion.

At 10:30 that night they met Sartre and Beauvoir at Sartre’s mother’s apartment in the rue Bonaparte. Sartre still lived with his mother, despite his longstanding relationship with the Beaver. This time both the drink and the conversation flowed easily. Sartre, according to Mamaine, was “charming,” and expounded at great length on his theory of existentialism, which she found difficult to understand. Early on in the conversation Koestler, “in a peremptory tone softened by an almost feminine smile” (Beauvoir), told Sartre: “You are a better novelist than I am, but not such a good philosopher,” and launched into a summary of the ideas he was developing in Insight and Outlook. Basing himself on physiology, he wanted to “assure man a margin of freedom without departing from psychological materialism,” and explained to Sartre and Beauvoir that “systems governed by the cerebellum, the thalamus and the lower brain overlapped but did not rigidly control each other; between the lower and the upper parts there must be room for a ‘bubble’ of liberty.”

Beauvoir felt that Koestler was “certainly a better novelist than he was a philosopher,” and was highly amused by his pronunciation of the word “thalamoose.” She later claimed to be embarrassed by Koestler’s “doctrinaire self-assurance” and “self-taught pedantry,” feeling that success had made him vain and gone to his head. But she had registered the appraising look in his deep blue eyes and showed no resistance at the time. On the contrary, she warmed to his passion and voracious curiosity, and found him a fascinating talker. Koestler, for his part, came away feeling satisfied that he had made a dent in Sartre’s arguments. Sartre “agrees that the moral question is the decisive one,” he wrote in his diary, and is “prepared to drop néant [nothingness] aside” (a reference to Sartre’s celebrated treatise on Being and Nothingness). “Seems to be moving away from USSR.”

After that first meeting, Koestler and Mamaine spent many hours with their French friends arguing about literature and politics. On October 23 Koestler quarreled with Camus over some point of doctrine and Camus sent Koestler a note the next day to apologize. That night, they were all supposed to go to Sartre’s play, No Exit, but Willi Münzenberg’s former secretary, Hans Schulz, turned up at Koestler’s hotel, got blind drunk, and passed out on the floor. Koestler “angelically coped” with his old comrade in arms until about ten o’clock, when they went next door to the Pont-Royal to scavenge something to eat. Mamaine returned to the hotel alone, leaving Koestler in the bar with Beauvoir, Sartre, and the playwright Jean Genet. Koestler, according to Mamaine, “got drunk” and didn’t return “from Sartre’s” until eight the next morning.

Soon after this Mamaine took to her bed in exhaustion, and Koestler brought Sartre and Beauvoir to her bedside for a dinner of lobster and ham salad and cheese, then embarked with them on a marathon pub crawl in Montparnasse. This was capped on October 31, the day before Koestler was due to leave Paris, by a spectacular bacchanalia involving himself and Mamaine, Sartre and Beauvoir, and Camus and Francine. They started the evening at an Algerian bistro recommended by Camus, then moved to a small dance hall in the Rue des Gravilliers, lit with pink and blue neon lights, where men who insisted on keeping their hats on danced bemusedly with girls in short skirts. “Here for the first time in my life,” wrote Mamaine to “Dearest Twinnie” in London, “I danced with K, and also saw the engaging spectacle of him lugging the Castor (who has I think hardly ever danced in her life) round the floor while Sartre (who ditto) lugged Mme Camus.”

Koestler then issued an “imperious” (the word is Beauvoir’s) invitation to the others to go with him to Schéhérezade, which after much protesting they agreed to do. The club was plunged into almost total darkness, with violinists wandering about “playing soulful Russian music” into the guests’ ears. But the writers talked politics and literature as usual. “If only it were possible to tell the truth,” exclaimed Camus at one point. According to Beauvoir, Koestler grew gloomy as he listened to the sentimental Russian folksong, “Dark Eyes,” and accused Sartre and even Camus of wanting to compromise with the Soviet Union. “It’s impossible to be friends if we differ about politics,” he said, but Camus contradicted him. “What we have in common, you and I, is that for us individuals come first… we place friendship above politics.” Beauvoir agreed. “We are the proof of it at this very moment,” she said, “since, despite all our dissensions, we are so happy to be together.” Sartre, according to Mamaine, “got very drunk almost at once, Beauvoir also got drunk and wept a great deal, and K got drunk too (we drank vodka and champagne, both in large quantities). Francine Camus (who is extremely beautiful and nice) also got tight. Camus and I did not get drunk, though we nearly did.” Mamaine omitted to mention that she and Camus had also danced cheek to cheek, and exchanged some furtive kisses.

After prying Koestler from Schéhérezade at about four a.m., they repaired to Chez Victor in Les Halles for onion soup, oysters and white wine. Sartre, according to Mamaine, was now roaring drunk and “kept pouring pepper and salt into paper napkins, folding them up small and stuffing them into his pocket.” Koestler, resentful at having been made to leave the night club, threw a crust of bread across the table, hit Mamaine in the eye, and was filled with remorse as it turned bright blue and purple. Sartre kept giggling that he was due to give a UNESCO lecture at the Sorbonne that day on “The Responsibility of the Writer” and hadn’t prepared a line. Camus said: ”Alors, tu parleras sans moi” [Well, you’ll have to speak without me]. Sartre responded: ”Je voudrais bien pouvoir parler sans moi” [I wish I could speak without me as well], and subsided into giggles.

They broke up at dawn. Alone with Sartre, Beauvoir sobbed “over the tragedy of the human condition,” then leaned on the parapet of a bridge over the Seine and said: “I don’t see why we don’t throw ourselves in the river.” “All right,” agreed Sartre, “let’s throw ourselves in,” and began to cry himself. In another part of the city, Koestler and Mamaine also walked by the Seine and Koestler too burst into tears as he stared into the river. He then disappeared into a pissoir and shouted to Mamaine as she waited outside for him: “Don’t leave me, I love you, I’ll always love you.” They got home at about eight the next morning and slept all day, except for poor Sartre, who stuffed himself with pep pills and dragged himself off to the Sorbonne to give his lecture. It was not possible even for an existentialist to address the students ”sans moi.

Beauvoir found Koestler “vain and full of self-importance,” but also “full of warmth, life and curiosity; the passion with which he argued was unflagging; he was always ready, at any hour of the day or night, to talk about any subject under the sun. He was generous with his time, with himself, and also with his money; he had no taste for ostentation, but when one went out with him he always wanted to pay for everything and never counted the cost. He had a naive pride in the fact that his wife, Mamaine, belonged to an aristocratic English family.” On the other hand, Koestler was also “touchy, tormented, greedy for human warmth, but cut off from others by his personal obsessions.” Beauvoir quotes him as saying, “I have my furies,” which made relations with him complicated and unpredictable. Later, after Beauvoir had fallen out with Koestler, she heartily disapproved of him, as she made clear in the later pages of her autobiography, Force of Circumstance (the above citation comes early in volume one) and especially in disparaging remarks to her American biographer, Deirdre Bair, some forty years later. But she captures him best in her underrated roman à clef, The Mandarins, about the intellectual ferment in Paris just after the war, where she paints a portrait of Koestler that is undoubtedly colored by her later dislike, but is also complex and nuanced.

Koestler appears in the novel as the Russian novelist, Victor Scriassine (not a pleasant-sounding name to the French ear), who has a “triangular face,” “prominent cheekbones,” “hard fiery eyes,” and a “thin, almost feminine mouth” belying his heavily masculine manner. His voice is “harsh and disagreeable,” his manner brusque. He is bombastic and pedantic, argumentative and overbearing, morbidly self-absorbed and gloomily pessimistic about the way he thinks the world is going. “There wasn’t a place on earth where he felt really at home.” Yet his passion is so all-devouring, his intelligence so blazing, that he is capable of sweeping others off their feet with the sheer intensity of his personality.

Beauvoir was certainly swept off hers, at least on the night when Mamaine left Koestler in the Pont-Royal bar with Beauvoir, Sartre and Genet. Mamaine thought that Koestler had returned the next morning “from Sartre’s,” but he hadn’t. He had spent the night with Beauvoir. To her biographer, Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir insisted that Koestler had kept “pushing and pushing” her until she said yes to shut him up. “It wasn’t any good. It didn’t mean anything. He was too drunk, so was I. It never happened again. Only that night was real, the rest is how I loathed him. I really detested him, that arrogant fool.”

In The Mandarins Beauvoir tells a different story, capturing both sides of Koestler-Scriassine: the sophisticated, world-weary seducer with a streak of cruelty in his make-up, and the agonized adolescent dreamer morphing into the mischievous naughty boy. When he smiles “all traces of pedantry” vanish. He exhibits a “Slavic charm.” His “tragic voice,” the depth of his concern for the big questions in life, “how shall we live,” “what shall we do,” awaken an echo in her that disturbs her. She is charmed when he gaily bets her a bottle of champagne that his political predictions for France will come true. On the big night he kisses her hand and peppers her with questions. “He was a very good listener; he made you feel as if he were carefully weighing each of your words. But you had to speak for him, not for yourself.” He tells her to stop talking about politics. “I hate talking politics with a woman,” but later concedes: “You’re not so dumb. Generally I dislike intelligent women, maybe because they’re not intelligent enough.” Soon enough he propositions her, but without a hint of flattery. “I hate a lot of beating around the bush. Paying court to a woman is degrading for both oneself and for the woman. I don’t suppose you go for all that sentimental nonsense either.” She does and she doesn’t, but she accepts his suggestion and they head back to her apartment.



Contributor

Michael Scammell is the author of Solzhenitsyn, a Biography (Norton, 1984) and the translator of works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn. He teaches nonfiction writing and translation in Columbia’s MFA program.