undefinedArthur Koestler, ca. 1996. Photograph by Eric Koch

 

The Koestler drawing room is predominantly green with deep green walls. It has an Empire flavor, and there are interesting pieces of Egyptian sculpture in it. On the coffee table are Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. 

Koestler is wearing the costume of the old Left—rough materials tending to light rather than dark, in his case to greenish, with nothing matching anything else: checked shirt, wool cardigan, tartan tie, tweed jacket, et cetera.

Sitting very uneasily in a pool of lamplight, Arthur Koestler seemed low. His wife, Cynthia, had opened the front door of their house in London’s Montpelier Square. A gentle, soft, sad woman wearing no makeup, she had explained that Mr. Koestler was not at his best; he was recovering from a “viral infection,” which is how the Koestlers describe a cold. She is much younger than he and began to work for Koestler in 1949. Cynthia had watched him divorce two previous wives—Dorothy in 1950, Mamaine in 1953—before taking her place officially at his side in 1965. She has the slightly numb Buddhist detachment of one who has spent a lifetime in surrender of her will to another.

From the pool of lamplight Koestler mumbles about not being too well. He casts about in the air a bit, rather abstractedly, then suddenly says, “I used to be a journalist—what is the peg for this interview?”

It is evident that he dislikes being interviewed and, indeed, consistently refuses. “And I’m recovering from a viral infection,” he moans as the tape recorder is set up. He dislikes tape recorders because, he says, he rambles when he talks. He dislikes appearing on television and radio, “because my accent is too thick and it embarrasses me.” When asked about allowing a photographer to come and take a picture, he cocks his head on one side, frowns, and says, “I’d prefer to avoid it.” One feels the list of his dislikes is an extended one.


INTERVIEWER

What do you dislike most of all?

KOESTLER

Stupidity more than anything. Including my own.

INTERVIEWER

You were born in Budapest in 1905. Into what kind of family?

KOESTLER

Typical Central European Jewish middle-middle. My father was Hungarian, my mother Viennese. I reviewed a book once, Last Waltz in Vienna. It was about a family such as mine, before the extermination. It’s about the humdrum, day-by-day life before the ceiling fell in.

INTERVIEWER

The ceiling?

KOESTLER

1939, 1942 mostly, Auschwitz.

INTERVIEWER

What did your father do for a living?

KOESTLER

He was an industrialist. He had too much imagination. He financed disastrous inventions like the envelope-opening machine. He said too much time is wasted opening envelopes and big businesses need these machines. So one day a huge machine came into the house. It would have covered half that wall. The inventor came with it. He looked like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs the way he hopped around his machine. It was plugged into the electricity, turned on, there was an enormous clattering and shuddering, then flames started to lick here and there about it and we all got terribly scorched. Another invention he financed was radioactive soap. You must remember the time, 1918-ish, when curative properties were indiscriminately ascribed to radioactivity. The soap was supposed to make you glow with health and vitality, but it didn’t catch on.

INTERVIEWER

You were at the university in Vienna in the twenties—did you know Freud?

KOESTLER

I interviewed him in 1938 in London. He died in Hampstead soon after.

INTERVIEWER

Was he important to you?

KOESTLER

When you grew up in Vienna you sucked in the ideas of psychoanalysis like mother’s milk. My personal discovery of Jung was much later.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like an exile?

KOESTLER

When I go to France or Austria, then I feel that I’m abroad, that I’m British to the core. But when I get back here, then I feel a bit of an exile.

INTERVIEWER

An exile from where?

KOESTLER

Central Europe. No, let’s say Europe in general because I spent thirteen years of my life in France.

INTERVIEWER

You were in a concentration camp there for four months—was that a useful experience?

KOESTLER

I was in a Spanish prison before that, in a death cell where I didn’t know when my turn to be shot was coming. Afterwards the French camp was easy to bear. It taught me among other things the relativity of freedom. Solitary confinement is rock bottom, it’s absolute unfreedom. I was in solitary most of the time.