Biographical quartet on Arthur Koestler

Arrow in the Blue: The First Volume of an Autobiography: 1905-31, by Arthur Koestler, with a new preface by the author. Danube Edition. New York: Stein & Day. 415 pp. $12.95 in paperback, $19.95 in hardcover. The Invisible Writing: The Second Volume of an Autobiography: 1932-40, by Arthur Koestler. Danube Edition. New York: Stein & Day. 526 pp. $12.95 in paperback, $19.95 in hardcover. Stranger on the Square, by Arthur and Cynthia Koestler. New York: Random House. 242 pp. Illustrated. $16.95. Arthur Koestler: The Story of a Friendship, by George Mikes. North Pomfret, Vt.: Andr'e Deutsch, distributed by David & Charles. 80 pp. $12.95.

Like Professor Pavlov's laboratory dogs when exposed to two simultaneous and contradictory stimuli, I stumbled along my zig-zag path, pulled in opposite directions by political fanaticism and contemplative detachment, by simultaneous urges to become an apprentice-Yogi and a pocket Commissar. . . .

More specifically, the laboratory in question was Central Europe in the second quarter of this century; and the stimuli to which I reacted were first the financial, then the physical destruction of the cultural stratum from which I came.

Son of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother, Koestler was born in Budapest and grew up speaking German and Hungarian. Although his parents were nonpracticing Jews, he became interested in Zionism while a student in Vienna. Just as he was on the verge of qualifying for the profession of engineer, Koestler -- in one of the sudden, all-but-inexplicable moments of arbitrary decision which he believes have characterized his life -- threw over his studies.

Without planning it, he became involved in journalism, first as a penniless pioneer in Palestine during the 1920s, where he learned to write for his supper, later as both a science and foreign-affairs editor for the German newspaper chain of Ullstein. Appalled by the postwar chaos of Weimar Germany, he joined the Communist Party in 1931.

The first volume of his autobiography attempts, among other things, to explain the psychology of conversion. Koestler sees a parallel between the thirst for certainty that drew him to communism and his determination as an adolescent to discover Absolute Truth through the study of the physical sciences. But, as he would later come to believe, closed systems like communism are able to ``explain'' everything only because they deny the importance -- or indeed the very existence -- of anything they cannot explain.

By the end of the second volume of his autobiography, Koestler has broken with the party and abandoned his search for absolute certainty, the quest of the ``arrow in the blue.'' He has learned to think of truth as a kind of ``invisible writing'' of which we are lucky to catch an occasional glimpse.

Following his break with the party, Koestler wrote ``Darkness at Noon'' (1940), which was to become one of the most widely read and influential political novels of our time. The account he gives in his autobiography of the genesis of this novel shows how he used his own history as a key to understanding broader historical events. Reading his autobiography, which was first published in the early 1950s, one is struck -- as Koestler himself was -- by the many ways in which his deeply personal story has a kind of universal resonance, assuredly worthy, as the publishers of this new edition claim, of being brought to the attention of a new generation of readers.

What with Zionism, communism, anticommunism, internment in Spanish, French, and British prisons, travels in Russia and Soviet Central Asia, Koestler's life is fascinating in itself. But what also makes his autobiography so absorbing is his skill as a writer. His ability to find the universal in his own experience is echoed by his talent for translating complicated ideas and abstractions into vivid and easily grasped concrete images like ``arrow in the blue,'' ``invisible writing,'' and ``Pavlov's laboratory dogs.''

This gift for crystallizing the chaos of experience is evident from the first, in his personal myth of ``Ahor'' -- the archaic horror he felt as a child subjected to a tonsillectomy sans anesthesia, and which he would later sense again and again in the events of the second quarter of this century.

Koestler eventually settled in England, though he spent some years in America. Some of the story of his later years is told in ``Stranger on the Square,'' which features alternating chapters by Koestler and his third wife, Cynthia, who worked as his secretary before their marriage. In 1983 when Koestler, suffering from several debilitating diseases, took his own life, Cynthia chose to follow suit. Reading their joint effort as an autobiography, one begins to see why. From her own description, Cynthia, as a young woman, had little sense of her own identity. Her grandest dream was to be secretary to a famous writer.

This -- and more -- she accomplished. Her style of writing, as exhibited in this book, is clear and forceful -- very much like Koestler's, though her account of their ``courtship'' seems selective, not to say disingenuous. He was undoubtedly the center and focus of her life, although it is also true -- as Koestler's friend and fellow Hungarian 'emigr'e Georges Mikes convincingly argues -- that Koestler came increasingly to depend upon Cynthia to organize his life.

Mikes only met Koestler after the latter was already a famous writer. His recollections, thus, are almost trivial in tone and substance, but nonetheless interesting. For the reader, moving from Koestler to Arthur and Cynthia to Mikes is a curious experience, like coming up from the depths of a mind and personality to the surface, then stepping back and viewing the person as a figure in a crowd.

Mikes also attempts to excuse Koestler's womanizing as an activity perfectly honorable among Central Europeans. As other observers like William Phillips of the Partisan Review have noted, Koestler seems to have had an almost hypnotic effect on all sorts of women, even independent-minded, sophisticated intellectual ones.

Whatever the eccentricities of Koestler's private life, his commitment to such causes as the abolition of hanging, his opposition to tyrannies of both the right and the left, and the degree of insight and self-criticism he displays regarding the darker side of his own character clearly outweigh the egregious faults he knew he had.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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