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Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Koestler’

When I was reading Volker Weidermann’sSummer Before the Dark‘, I saw Arthur Koestler making a brief appearance in the book. I remembered that I had a book by Arthur Koestler somewhere in my bookshelves. I thought I should read it next. This is that book.

Stranger on the Square‘ is the last book by Arthur Koestler. It is jointly authored by his wife Cynthia Koestler. It is supposedly the third volume of his autobiography. It wasn’t published during Arthur’s lifetime. In March 1983, one day, Arthur and Cynthia Koestler were found dead in their home. They both had a glass of drink in their hand. It looked like they had committed suicide together by having sleeping pills. It shocked their friends and readers at that time. There were papers found on Arthur’s desk which looked like part of an unfinished book. His editor took those papers and organized them into publishable form. They became this book.

This book covers the period 1940-56. It has two parts. The first part has alternating chapters written by Arthur and Cynthia. The second part is wholly written by Cynthia. Arthur’s chapters give a summary of his life till 1940 and then take the story forward, describing his new experiences, the new friends he made, the books he wrote and the controversies they led to, the new projects he got involved in, his love life. Cynthia’s chapters talk about how she came to work as Arthur’s secretary, the exciting happenings and meetings in Arthur’s place, her thoughts on Arthur’s wives and girlfriends, how she moved in and out of Arthur’s life and how she finally came back. Arthur’s and Cynthia’s voices are very different and it is very interesting to read alternating chapters in two different voices. The story suddenly ends in 1956 and we feel disappointed and yearn for more.

So, what do I think about the book? When I started reading the book and reached around 30 pages, I wanted to drop it many times. I knew that it was an unfinished book. But I don’t think that was the reason I felt that way. I think the fact that Arthur Koestler pursues multiple women at the same time and many times cheats on his current girlfriend and he himself mentions this and Cynthia also writes about it – that put me off, I think. Once upon a time this kind of behaviour by writers and artists was accepted and readers and fans let it slide, but it is hard to continue to do that. At one point, Arthur Koestler has a problem with Bertrand Russell’s wife because she disagrees with him on something and refuses to stand down and concede the point. When later Bertrand Russell defends his wife in a letter he writes to him, Arthur has a problem with Russell too. (I loved the fact that Russell stood up for his wife and defended her, especially on an intellectual issue. It was so cool.) This made me more annoyed with Arthur and I wondered why I am continuing to read the book. But I decided to continue reading, because I was still in the first chapter, and I wanted to hear Cynthia’s voice in the second chapter. I am glad that I persisted. At one point, Arthur says this about himself – “…I must confess that in early middle age I was still to some extent what is now called a male chauvinist, unable to take women who set themselves up as political philosophers altogether seriously. It was not a conscious attitude, and if accused of harbouring such reactionary sentiments I would have hotly denied it. Yet it may have played a part in the row with Peter, Bertrand Russell’s wife, and on some other occasions.” I smiled when I read that, because I can’t remember any writer calling himself a male chauvinist. Later in the book, Arthur discusses a play he wrote and is pretty ruthless in the way he criticizes it. I felt that he was being hard on himself, because after reading the plot of the play, I felt that it was pretty good. He didn’t criticize just the people he had differences with, but he frequently turned the critical gaze on himself and he was not afraid to do that. It was refreshing to see that. The book started flowing more smoothly after that and I was excited to continue reading it.

Arthur Koestler’s chapters zing when he is offering social and political commentary of his times. It is interesting to read about how his books came into being and the stories behind them. His sense of humour is intelligent and wonderful. I remember reading excepts from his most famous novel ‘Darkness at Noon’ and loving his prose and insights. We experience the same pleasure when his prose zings here. Cynthia Koestler’s style, on the other hand, is very different. It is more simple, down-to-earth and she is at home when she discusses everyday happenings.

I loved the first part of the book more than the second. In the second part of the book, Cynthia alternates between relating her own experiences and describing Arthur’s life when she is not around. The parts where she describes Arthur’s life – they are based on Arthur’s diaries, their correspondence etc. – and though they flesh out the story, they don’t feel satisfying – at some point we feel that we are reading one diary entry after another in a third person’s voice. I wish those portions of the book were fleshed out properly, but given the extraordinary circumstances under which this manuscript was discovered, we can’t really complain.

I am glad I persisted with this book inspite of the initial hiccups. It gave insights into an interesting era and we meet many interesting literary personalities within its pages and we get to see how their real selves are behind their public faces. I loved the first part of the book more, because it was more fully fleshed out. I want to explore some of Arthur Koestler’s books now, especially his masterpiece ‘Darkness at Noon‘. There are stories that George Orwell borrowed significant parts of ‘1984‘ from this book, and I want to find out whether it is true.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Oh, if she could only go back to the infinite comfort of father confessors and mother superiors, of a well-ordered hierarchy which promised punishment and reward, and furnished the world with justice and meaning. If only one could go back! But she was under the curse of reason, which rejected whatever might quench her thirst, without abolishing the urge; which rejected the answer without abolishing the question. For the place of God had become vacant, and there was a draught blowing through the world as in an empty flat before the new tenants have arrived.”

“Neutralism was indeed the most refined form of intellectual betrayal and perhaps the most contemptible. It showed a forgiving attitude towards totalitarian terror but denounced with unforgiving venom any failing or injustice in the West. It equated the Hollywood purges of suspected Reds in the film industry with the purges which had decimated the Soviet population.”

“We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, but yours isn’t a complex – it’s a cathedral.”

“In this man,” writes Kepler, “there are two opposite tendencies : always to regret any wasted time, and always to waste it willingly.”

“Dostoevsky had once written that, even in solitary confinement and ignorant of the calendar, he would still sense when it was Sunday.”

“But changing languages is an immensely complex process of metamorphosis, especially for a writer. It involves several successive phases which are difficult to describe, because most of the changes occur gradually below the level of consciousness. In the earliest phase you translate the message to be conveyed from the original into the adopted language; at a later stage you catch yourself thinking in it – occasionally at first, and at last permanently. The final stage of the transformation has been completed when you not only think, but dream, in the language you are now wedded to.”

Have you read ‘Stranger on the Square‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other books by Arthur Koestler?

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This is November. And it is time for German literature month 🙂 Hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. You can find the homepage of this challenge with introductory posts, information on readalongs and giveaways, the list of participants and potential books that will be read, here.

 

I wrote a post on the books that I wanted to read for German Literature Month. As it always happens, after one makes plans, I changed the plan when November arrived. I had two short story collections which had German stories and I decided to read them first. One was a collection of German stories and it had creations by many of the masters there. The second one was a collection of short stories from across the world and it had a German section. I started reading the stories on Tuesday and finished the last story today.

 

The Stories

 

These are the stories I read (by alphabetical order of the author’s last name).

 

Flagman Thiel by Gerhart Hauptmann – Flagman Thiel works in a bunk in a remote forest and his job is to open the gate and show the flag when the train passes. He has a son by his first wife whom his current wife treats badly. But Thiel likes being left alone and allowing the house to be run by his wife. How long can he ignore the unfair situation at home and bear the pressure in his heart? Unfortunately, something tragic happens and suddenly the taut string in his heart breaks and all hell breaks loose. An interesting story on what happens when a nice guy is pushed to the edge.

 

Gods in Exile by Heinrich Heine – It tries to picture what Greek gods who were expelled from people’s hearts and minds after the advent of Christianity might be doing today. The last scene where Zeus cries after discovering the status of his beloved temple is very poignant.

 

Harry’s Loves by Hermann Hesse – It describes Harry’s loves at different times in his life. I suspect that this is an excerpt, probably from Hesse’s novel ‘Steppenwolf’. I suspect that because the name ‘Steppenwolf’ appears many times in the story.

 

A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka – It is about a country doctor who has to go to a patient’s home urgently, but there is no coach available. Very Kafkaesque, with a lot of fantastic elements open to different kinds of interpretation, and very difficult to understand (atleast for me).

 

The Married Couple by Franz Kafka – Another typical Kafka story. Though I could connect with the story better. It is about how a couple who are married for many years are connected to each other in a very deep way from different perspectives.

 

The Naughty Saint Vitalis by Gottfried Keller – Vitalis is an unconventional monk. Every night he goes to disreputable houses, and prays for the beautiful girl who practises her profession there, for the whole night. Most of the time, the concerned girl gets frustrated by Vitalis’ strange behaviour but by morning her heart has changed and she reforms her ways and joins a convent. But then Vitalis meets a girl, whom he is not able to change despite his repeated visits. And more interestingly, Vitalis has a young admirer who lives in the neighbourhood, who wants to change him. What happens next is the rest of the story.

 

The Earthquake in Chile by Heinrich von Kleist – It is about two lovers whose love is not accepted by their elders and society and how an earthquake, which brings misery to everyone, brings them back together and brings happiness and joy to them. And how all this taken away again at the blink of an eye.

 

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler – I didn’t know this when I read it, but I discovered that ‘Darkness at Noon’ is a novel. What I read appears to be an excerpt from the last part of the novel. It is about the execution of a prisoner in a country which is very similar to the former Soviet Union of the 1930s-40s and his thoughts on the hours preceding his execution. It was very poignant with beautiful passages. Also, isn’t that such a wonderful title – beautiful, dark, terrifying – making us want to find out what happens in the story.

 

Three Minute Novel by Heinrich Mann – The narrator describes his love life in a kaleidoscope of quickly transitioning images.

 

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – A writer decides to get out of his comfort zone and long work days and tries to do something adventurous – that is he goes on a holiday. He goes to Venice. He notices a Polish family staying at the same hotel as him and one of his chief pleasures is to observe what they are doing everyday. He is particularly attracted to the young son and at one point falls in love with that beautiful boy. This unexpected sway of his heart makes him question his past and his life.

 

Disorder and Early Sorrow by Thomas Mann – Describes a party in a professor’s house and how a young girl experiences the first stirrings and pangs of love in her heart.

 

How Old Timofei Died Singing by Rainer Maria Rilke – Old Timofei sings in his village and is the best singer among all the neighbouring villages. In Timofei’s profession there is a tradition that all the songs that the father knows are taught to the son who will carry on the legacy. But Timofei’s son has had a quarrel with him, married a beautiful girl and left home to live in another city. Timofei is getting old and there is no one to whom he wants to pass on his songs and his legacy. Will Timofei’s son return back? Or will Timofei take away all his beautiful songs with him?

 

The Tale of the Hands of God by Rainer Maria Rilke – What were the Hands of God doing when man was created? This story tries to answer that.

 

The Sport of Destiny by Johann von Schiller – It is about a young man who becomes the prince’s favourite and how that impacts his life and career and the ups and downs he has. The story painted a picture of how capricious destiny is.

 

The Dead are Silent by Arthur Schnitzler – A man and married woman are having an affair. During one of their clandestine meetings, the coach they are travelling is overturned, overthrowing the man and the woman. The woman is not hurt but the man falls unconscious. What does the woman do? Does she summon help and wait for it to arrive and risk her honour? Or does she abandon the man she loves and escape? The story shows how a woman tackles this difficult and very real question. Also, isn’t that such an awesome title? One of my two most favourite titles out of the stories I read.

 

Immensee by Theodor Storm – An achingly beautiful and heartbreaking love story of two childhood sweethearts, one of whom ends up marrying a different person, and what happens when they meet again later in life.

 

The Burning of Egliswyl by Frank Wedekind – It is about a young prisoner who narrates his tale on how the burning love in his heart made him commit arson which took him to prison.

 

Kong at the Seaside by Arnold Zweig – Very short story about how one has to make difficult decisions when one is poor. Simple story with a powerful theme, involving a boy and a dog called Kong.

 

Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig – It describes the adventures of a gentleman in a port city in the disreputable alleys near the harbour. It is a story about how people try to own those they love and how they inflict pain on those they are trying to own and how when they lose the person they love, they pine for what they have lost and try to get it back.

 

What I think

 

So, what do I think about these stories? Which ones are my favourites? I will try to answer the second question first.

 

I think the prize for my most favourite story would go to either ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm or ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler. ‘Immensee’ is an achingly beautiful heartbreaking love story. It reminded me of Ivan Turgenev’s stories – like ‘First Love’ and ‘Spring Torrents’ – which always make me cry. ‘Immensee’ evokes beautiful images of childhood love and how it evolves across the years and takes many strange turns. Storm is a wonderful new discovery for me. His picture in Wikipedia looks forbidden, but going by his story, he seems to have had a passionate heart. I want to read more of his works. Caroline recommended his novella ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ and I want to read that next. ‘Darkness at Noon’ is a novel and what I read is an excerpt and so I don’t know whether it counts. Also Arthur Koestler seems to be Hungarian or British depending on the way we look at things, but he wrote in German during his initial days. I loved the fact that it was difficult to pigeon-hole him in one country – it just showed that nationality is not the rigid thing that it seems to be these days. So, I was not sure whether his story would count as a German story, but for practical purposes I am counting it so. Though I read only an excerpt of the last part of the book, it had some beautiful passages. Like this one :

 

Since the bell of silence had sunk over him, he was puzzling over certain questions to which he would have liked to find an answer before it was too late. They were rather naïve questions; they concerned the meaning of suffering, or, more exactly, the difference between suffering which made sense and senseless suffering. Obviously only such suffering made sense as was inevitable; that is, as was rooted in biological fatality. On the other hand, all suffering with a social origin was accidental, hence pointless and senseless. The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first. So the question now ran : Was such an operation justified? Obviously it was, if one spoke in the abstract of “mankind”; but, applied to “man” in the singular, to the cipher 2-4, the real human being of bone and flesh and blood and skin, the principle led to absurdity.

 

And this one :

 

Sometimes he would respond unexpectedly to a tune, or even the memory of a tune, or of the folded hands of the Pietà, or of certain scenes of his childhood. As if a tuning-fork had been struck, there would be answering vibrations, and once this had started a state would be produced which the mystics called “ecstasy” and saints “contemplation”; the greatest and soberest of modern psychologists had recognized this state as a fact and called it the “oceanic sense.” And, indeed, one’s personality dissolved as a grain of salt in the sea; but at the same time the infinite sea seemed to be contained in the grain of salt. The grain could no longer be localized in time and space. It was a state in which thought lost its direction and started to circle, like the compass needle at the magnetic pole; until finally it cut loose from its axis and traveled freely in space, like a bunch of light in the night; and until it seemed that all thoughts and all sensations, even pain and joy itself, were only the spectrum lines of the same ray of light, disintegrating in the prism of consciousness.

 

I would make these two stories my joint “most favourite”.

 

Which are my other favourites? I liked ‘How Old Timofei Died Singing’ by Rainer Maria Rilke, especially for its first page. My favourite passage on the first page, which I found absolutely magical, went like this :

 

      “Where did you get the story you told me last time?” he finally asked. “Out of a book?”

      “Yes,” I answered sadly, “the historians have kept it buried there, since it died; that is not so very long ago. Only a hundred years since, it lived – carelessly, for sure – on many lips. But the words that people use now, those heavy words one cannot sing, were its enemies and took from it one mouth after another, so that in the end it lived, most secluded and in poverty, on one pair of dry lips, as on a miserable widow’s portion. And there it died, leaving no heirs, and was, as I have already said, buried with all honors in a book where others of its family already lay.”

 

I also liked ‘Gods in Exile’ by Heinrich Heine, for showing a different perspective on what Greek gods might be doing today and ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ by Heinrich von Kleist, for its depiction on how big events which bring misery to everyone can bring happiness to a family. I liked ‘The Dead are Silent’ by Arthur Schnitzler – isn’t that such an amazing title –  because it was very poignant and it asked some difficult questions on life and ‘Kong on the Seaside’ by Arnold Zweig for asking a different set of difficult questions in a few pages. ‘Moonbeam Alley’ by Stefan Zweig was wonderful because of its depiction of the cruelties in everyday life. All of these will be a close second favourite for me.

 

I somehow never got along with Thomas Mann. His ‘Death in Venice’ was quite difficult to read as I found it quite ponderous most of the time and I had to plod along for a long while with a lot of determination to finish the story. At around eighty-odd pages, it was the longest of all the stories I read, and it was also quite difficult to read. Interestingly for a story which I found tough to read, there were a lot of beautiful passages strewn throughout the story like beautiful pearls. Like this :

 

The horizon was unbroken. The sea, empty, like an enormous disk, lay stretched under the curve of the sky. But in empty inarticulate space our senses lose also the dimensions of time, and we slip into the incommensurate.

 

And this :

 

The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink deep into the silence, become full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness ripens the eccentric, the daringly and estrangingly beautiful, the poetic. But loneliness also ripens the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the illicit.

 

The story probably caused some controversy when it was published because of its homoerotic content. When I started reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’, I started thinking ‘Oh no, not again’, because in the story of around 24 pages, nothing much had happened till around 20 pages – in some ways it was similar to ‘Death in Venice’. But then things changed in the last four pages where Mann depicted the first stirrings of love and the first pangs of love-pain in the heart of a young girl, beautifully and skillfully. Those four pages warmed my heart towards him. I don’t think I love Mann yet, but I wouldn’t mind exploring some of his shorter work.

 

On Kafka – I think he is not for me. I read a graphic novel version of ‘The Metamorphosis’ a few years back and I liked it. I found it dark and strange and powerful. But the two short stories I read here were too strange – especially ‘A Country Doctor’ which I couldn’t understand or interpret and it was too fantastic without any clear demarcation between the events which were happening in the story and the leading character’s imaginary fantasies. ‘The Married Couple’ was a little bit better, because it was more realistic and was a short story in the classic sense. Maybe certain kinds of Kafka stories will appeal to me, but I don’t think he will become one of my favourite writers.

 

I want to explore more works of Theodor Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Heinrich von Kleist, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler and Arthur Koestler.

 

Have you read any of the above stories or books by any of the above writers? What do you think about them?

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