Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Arthur Koestler | Biography


Early Life

Arthur Koestler was an only child born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, on September 5, 1905. When the Hungarian government was overthrown by an anti-Semitic faction in 1919, the family fled to Austria. As a young man, Koestler initially planned to pursue studies in science and engineering, before his interests turned to writing and politics.

Young Journalist

By 1925 Koestler had become a Jewish nationalist, and he moved to Palestine where he lived in a kibbutz, or agricultural commune. In 1927 he was hired as a Middle Eastern correspondent for Ullstein, a chain of German newspapers. He continued to work as a journalist in Palestine and then Paris, before becoming an editor for a newspaper in Berlin in 1930.

Berlin in the 1930s saw the rise of the Nazi Party, and Koestler joined the German Communist Party to work against the fascists. His communist affiliation cost him his job at Ullstein, and he went to work full-time for the Party, taking assignments in the Soviet Union as well as Western Europe.

Spanish Imprisonment

During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) a British newspaper, the News Chronicle, sent Koestler to cover the conflict. This was a formative point in Koestler's life.

In 1937, while reporting on the civil war in Málaga, Spain, Koestler was arrested by the Nationalists (the right-wing fascist party). Koestler was accused of being a spy and thrown into prison in Málaga. He was then transferred to a prison in Seville and put into solitary confinement. He lived with the constant fear that he would be executed. At night he could hear other inmates being taken from their cells, weeping and calling for their mothers as they were led to their deaths. In desperation Koestler started a hunger strike. As news of his imprisonment spread, an international effort was organized by his first wife, Dorothee, to get Koestler out of jail. Finally, after three months in prison, Koestler was transported to Gibraltar and released. Koestler wrote about his ordeal in Spanish Testament (1937).

Best-Selling Author and Occasional Prisoner

Koestler grew disillusioned with the Communist party over the horrors of the Moscow show trials (1936–38)—a series of public trials where former Party elites were found guilty of treason and executed. His first novel, The Gladiators (1939), was a reflection of this shift.

Koestler's experience of the brutality and arbitrary nature of his imprisonment was the fodder for his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, first published in 1940. In this novel the individual struggles with the barbaric evil of totalitarianism. To construct this conflict, Koestler drew upon his prison experience, his understanding of communist ideology and logic, and his knowledge of the Soviet dictatorship under Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), especially the Moscow show trials. British author George Orwell (1903–50) called the novel "a piece of brilliant literature ... by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods." The novel, written in German, as were several of Koestler's earlier books, became an international best-seller. It was translated into 30 languages; however, it was not translated into Russian and published in the Soviet Union until 1989.

Despite his denunciation of communism and Stalin, Koestler's reputation made him suspect to anti-Communist security services in France, Germany, and especially the Soviet Union, where his work identified him as an enemy of the revolution and the Party. Koestler was imprisoned in three countries during his life: in Spain, in France at the outbreak of World War II (1939–45), and in England, where he was considered an undesirable alien, at the time Darkness at Noon was published.

Later Life and Writings

After leaving prison, Koestler worked for the British Ministry of Information and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), and in 1948 he became a British citizen. All the while, Koestler wrote novels, books of essays, and nonfiction. Turning away from politics, he explored topics in science, philosophy, psychology, and mysticism. He married his second wife, Mamaine, in 1950, but they had separated by 1952. Koestler was an inveterate ladies' man and had liaisons with many women. He also had a reputation for physically and sexually abusing women.

In his later years, Koestler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and leukemia. He and his third wife, Cynthia, were found dead in London on March 3, 1983, after apparently committing suicide together—a last act of individual free will and independence, at least for Koestler. Cynthia was reportedly in good health; some speculate she may have been pressured into the suicide. Koestler is remembered for his anti-authoritarian words dealing with the individual's struggle against dictatorship and the intersection of politics and morality, mysticism, and psychology.

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