Q&A Interview with Michael Scammell
BRIAN LAMB, HOST, BOOKNOTES, C-SPAN: Michael Scammell, author of ”Koestler,” why did you decide to open your prologue the way you did?
MICHAEL SCAMMELL, AUTHOR, ”KOESTLER: THE LITERARY AND POLITICAL ODYSSEY OF A TWENTIETH CENTURY SKEPTIC”: I did it partly for dramatic effect and partly to achieve my favorite form in literature, which is a circle. And partly because I did see it as symbolic of much of Koestler’s life, that is to say he had tried, in vain, but he tried his whole life to exercise control over what he was doing.
He constantly thought about where he was going, what he was thinking, what he was writing. And then again there had been at least three, possibly four attempts at suicide earlier. So it seemed to me to have great symbolic effect.
LAMB: Let me read just the first sentence, ”On Tuesday, March 1, 1983, Arthur Koestler and his wife, Cynthia entered their sitting room at 8 Montpelier Square, London, sat down facing each other. He in his favorite leather armchair, she on the couch and poured themselves their usual drink before dinner.” Then what?
SCAMMELL: Then what? Well, that drink was laced with something else. And it was obviously it was a drink designed to kill them. And they took their drinks with a great deal of morphine. I think that was the drug of choice.
Koestler, who by the way was a prominent member of the Euthanasia Society in Britain and had written a preface to their pamphlet on self delivery as it was politely called, knew all about the various ways that bring about a death.
And the curious thing is that this is a man who in his life had led a vigorous and ultimately successful campaign to abolish capital punishment in Britain. He did not believe in the death penalty, which he thought was barbaric, but he did believe in suicide. And so as I say this act was symbolic on so many levels.
LAMB: What was wrong with him at the time?
SCAMMELL: Well of course, that sort of dilutes, if you like, the romantic issue of suicide because he was suffering from leukemia at the time and also Parkinson’s disease. And he had been deteriorating for a couple of years by that point. And he made it clear, he told his friends, he told his wife, he told everyone that he would end his own life.
LAMB: How old was he?
SCAMMELL: He was, let’s see, 75 no, I’m sorry, 78.
LAMB: And how old was she and why did she commit suicide with him?
SCAMMELL: Well she was 58, she was 20 years younger. She, according to the note she left, felt she was extraordinarily dependent on him, which I show in the book especially in the later section of the book. She lived entirely for him, lived through him if you like. She decided that she couldn’t face living on her own.
And since the means were there, so obviously and since she at this point was the fitter of the two and therefore responsible for administering them decided that she too would take her own life and go with him.
LAMB: I’m going to go to where I think the American connection is for this on page 199 and just read it and then get you to expand on it. Whittaker Chambers, then an obscure journalist at ”Time Magazine” but one who had reason to understand the book, called it quote, ”The most exciting novel of the season” written by someone who quote, ”knows Russia and the deep places of the human mind.”
And other critics echoed his high opinion. Quote, ”From then onwards” said Koestler later, ”My financial troubles never became pressing,” end quote. Whittaker Chambers and the book, what was it, and why was it important to this country?
SCAMMELL: Well, ”Darkness at Noon” we are talking about of course. Well, ”Darkness at Noon” was important on a number of levels. On the perhaps most superficial level it offered an explanation for something that had been baffling Westerners in particular for many years and that was Stalin’s show trials and the success that he seemed to have.
The very early trials that were held in the Soviet Union were held in secret, in camera, because the authorities didn’t trust their apparatus, if you like, and their methods. But by 1937 they were holding these trials in open court, foreign correspondents were present.
And leading Soviet ministers and officials, Nikolai Bukharin was the most prominent one, actually confessed in court to a series of crimes which struck people as fantastic. But there were these confessions, what could they say?
And many prominent people in the West I seem to believe that, Brennan Short was among them but there were others, took these trials at face value. And even those who were inclined to keep skepticism found that the trials were orchestrated so beautifully that is was very hard to find, you know, where the seams were.
Well Koestler, who was still a communist at the time these trials began but was shaken by the thought of people he knew, he had met Bukharin in Moscow, he had met other Soviet ministers in Moscow, couldn’t believe that they had done this.
And so he set out to investigate not only the methods but the psychology of the trials, and he adopted a rather interesting approach. First of all he was steeped in Dostoyevsky, so I think that both ”Crime and Punishment” with its kind of detective story atmosphere was one of the influence was on him.
I think another influence was the ”Brothers Karamazov” also by Dostoyevsky, but he set up the of course a show trial has a detective story element anyway. But he set it up as a kind of psychological duel between the defendant, based in part on Bukharin and his interrogators.
And he based his the behavior of the interrogators on his own knowledge of the Soviet Union when he’d been there for a year and a half in the early 1930s. So he offered first of all he offered a key to the way these things were conducted.
But more important, he offered a key to the thinking of the defendants, the people who confessed. And he did it by actually projecting some of his own feelings. He had been feeling guilt in what he had felt guilt from his early years. It was one of his sort of dominant emotions, if you like, one of his dominant driving forces.
But he had begun to move well away from the party by this time. He had one foot out of it, if you’d like, and he tried to and he had actually been attacked at a party caucus in Paris for one of the books that he’d written.
So he tried to he actually drew on his own psychology to project it into Bukharin. Why would he feel sufficiently guilty to confess? And so he, in the novel he discussed the arguments that were put forward by the interrogators, pointing out that when he was a Loyalist, Rubashov as he’s called in the novel had actually been responsible for the deaths of many people.
And so he used Rubashov’s own conscience against him so that Rubashov in the end confessed that yes he was guilty.
LAMB: I’ve got the paperback version of ”Darkness at Noon” published in 1941, still in the bookstores. I found it, easily found it.
LAMB: Why though did Whittaker Chambers have such an impact with his critique in ”Time Magazine” about the
SCAMMELL: Yes. Yes.
because you say in the book that he’d only sold 2,500 copies up until that point.
SCAMMELL: That’s right. That’s true. Well I don’t I hadn’t thought of it I had mentioned Whittaker Chambers for obvious reasons because of his as it were inside knowledge of the workings of the party. But I don’t think it was Chambers alone. I mean actually I think the real answer to the monetary situation is more mundane.
It was chosen as a Book of the Month Club. And in those days, Book of the Month Club books were you, know, as you may remember, were extraordinarily popular and sold in the hundreds of thousands if not more. So I think that combination of things.
I think the other thing, which is absolutely obvious of course, when he wrote it in 1939, it was just before the outbreak of World War II. It was extremely well received but disappeared of course in the, you know, in the maelstrom of the war, which accounts among other things for its miserable sales.
After the war actually for a while it was banned in Germany by the Americans and the British because of the cooperation with the Soviet Army in occupied Germany. But very soon after that, it was seen as an extremely handy weapon in the Cold War.
And I think that guaranteed his success and I know from my American friends that it actually was taught in schools, well right up until really until the fall of the Wall and perhaps beyond it as a set book.
LAMB: You know on Sunday, December 27th, you led, this is I assume I dream of anybody writing a book, you led the ”New York Times” Book Review section.
LAMB: What did you sense, and it was written by Christopher Caldwell, who we had here on the program a couple of months ago.
LAMB: You led the Book Review section. What’s your sense of why they thought this book that you’re doing is that important?
SCAMMELL: Well I think they I’d like to think I think they bought my argument that Koestler we should talk about Koestler and Koestler in a minute. I think I like to think they bought my argument that he is an extremely important figure still, that his life was significant and that the books that he wrote remain important and interesting.
So I’m hoping that that but one should remember if one wants to be if not cynical, realistic about it, Sam Tanenhaus, the Editor of the ”New York Times” Book Review, wrote the standard biography of Whittaker Chambers so one could presume that Sam himself had a deep interest in the subject.
On the other hand, I don’t want to suggest that he’s venal in any way. Certainly I had no inkling that this was going to happen until about a week before it happened.
LAMB: What impact has it had on you so far?
SCAMMELL: Well it’s brought in a lot of e-mails. But I would say that the review in the ”New Yorker” by Louis Menand, which was a much longer and my, my much more serious review and much more in tune with my own thinking about Koestler, had just as big an impact.
LAMB: So how do you pronounce his last name?
SCAMMELL: Well you it depends on where you are. In Europe and among the cognoscenti if you like, it’s Koestler because it’s a German name. And but in America the standard pronunciation is Koestler and I’m not sure if this is a result of American difficulty with foreign languages, that is the exoticism. Although of course this country’s absolutely crammed with people from every corner of the world.
Or whether it just grew up at a time before he had actually appeared here and told people how his name was pronounced. So it’s generally Koestler here in Britain and on the continent of Europe, its Koestler.
LAMB: You’re saying not in once in 1980.
LAMB: What were the circumstances and when did you first get interested in how many years have you spent in his life?
SCAMMELL: Well I say nearly 20 it is nearly 20 but you know, you have to remember that when I say 20 years, that was 20 years spent full time teaching, so we’re talking 20 years of vacations and dispersed with a few sabbaticals.
LAMB: Teaching where by the way?
SCAMMELL: Oh, I was teaching Russian literature at Cornell until 1994 and after that I moved to Columbia to teach nonfiction writing and translation, which is my other hat that I wear.
LAMB: So you’re meeting with
SCAMMELL: Yes, so well, back in 1972 I founded a magazine called ”Index on Censorship,” which as its name implies, was about censorship, censorship in the arts but censorship of political books as well. And this I edited for eight years until 1980, when I resigned to write my first biography, which was about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
But one of our one of the backers of the magazine was David Astor, who also published a lot of Koestler’s journalism, including Koestler’s articles against capital punishment in the anti-hanging campaign.
And I was at dinner at David’s one evening, and he invited Koestler over to meet me to talk about the magazine. And Koestler was interested in passing on this information to people he knew who were writing in what was then still Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe and particularly in Hungary.
LAMB: And you say that he spent time in 14 different countries.
SCAMMELL: Is it 14? I had forgotten the full number, yes.
LAMB: Give us the kind of broad view where he was, what years was he a communist and what got him out of that.
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes, yes. Well he grew up in Hungary, was his family was thrown out by the counterrevolution in 1919 of Bay Lacune, who had reacted against a short lived communist government in Hungary.
But so Koestler got a taste of communism very early in his school days actually. He went to school and university in Vienna, Vienna, which was saturated in anti-Semitism at the time. He became a Zionist and then virtually on an impulse moved to Palestine.
I say virtually on an impulse, he was failing in his university studies, and in his autobiography he sort of covered up the real reason but the fact is he left to get away and to get away from his parents. But of course one could leave without going all the way to Palestine.
So he clearly had a very adventurous spirit and as a Zionist, he wanted to see the Promised Land for himself. It was there that he became a journalist, writing at first for obscure Hebrew journals, although he wrote his articles in German.
LAMB: Who’s the other fellow in the picture right here with him?
SCAMMELL: Do you know I don’t know who that is. This is an unknown fellow journalist I imagine and it was taken in Jerusalem in 1928 I think, at the time just when he had begun working for the Olstein Press in Germany as a foreign correspondent.
LAMB: By the way, some of the photos we’re showing they’re all from your book.
LAMB: Are they is this the first time people have seen them in your book?
SCAMMELL: In some cases yes, in other cases, no. In the Koestler Archive at Edinburgh, which has this huge collection of papers that he saved, there are dozens and dozens of photographs. It was very difficult to make a selection actually. I would have liked to print twice as many but didn’t get the chance.
LAMB: University of Edinburgh?
SCAMMELL: University of Edinburgh in Scotland, yes.
LAMB: Go back to Palestine, you were talking about the countries he
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes, well I think one of the interesting things about he was a very young tyrant journalist in Palestine. But he the Middle East that he described about oil discoveries and the Russian, the competition between Russia and Britain and France and America for influence there and also his articles on Arabic politics.
He wrote about the Wahhabis, for instance, in Saudi Arabia, whom he called the Bolsheviks of the Arab world, have a strikingly modern ring to them, I was astounded going back.
Anyway, he so he trained himself as a journalist in Middle East but by this time he was tired of Zionism, tired of Palestine, which was still under the British was a British the mandate was what is was called after the end of World War I.
And moved to Paris briefly and then to Berlin, where he became a journalist with the main Olstein group of newspapers and particularly a paper called the Foster Schitzitol. And through because of his interest in science and some articles that he’d published on science, he very quickly got promoted to science editor.
And people forget this and forgot this when he turned to writing about science later in his life that he did have this intense experience for two or three years in Germany.
LAMB: By the way, he wrote how many books in his life?
SCAMMELL: Thirty-four all told.
LAMB: How many of those were novels, how many of them were nonfiction?
SCAMMELL: Well there are five novels and five novels, a couple of plays and the rest are nonfiction.
LAMB: And of the nonfiction, which ones were the most successful?
SCAMMELL: The most successful all of his nonfiction was pretty successful actually. And I make the case in my book that one of the reasons why Koestler has been more forgotten than he should have been is that people tended to think of him as a novelist because of ”Darkness at Noon,” whereas none of the other novels came up to that novel in quality.
But in fact he was a much better writer of nonfiction and particularly his autobiographical nonfiction, ”Dialogue with Death” about his imprisonment and sentenced to death in Spain was his first.
LAMB: Did he go from Berlin to Spain?
SCAMMELL: No. He went from Berlin he joined the Communist Party. This was at the time of the rise of Hitler you may remember. He joined, like many Jews at the time, he joined the Communist Party and got himself to the Soviet Union on the pretext of writing a political travel book to be called ”Red Days.”
Traveled around the Soviet Union at one time with Langston Hughes, whom he bumped into in Central Asia and I had great fun writing about their trip and their views of one another.
LAMB: How did you and there’s a picture of him with Langston Hughes, how did you find all that background information on that meeting? And what city were they in, in Russia?
SCAMMELL: Well they were they met in Samarkand, which of course has a nice romantic ring to it. And they traveled to Tashkent, but they also moved around in some rather small villages and settlements as well.
And actually I found some of the material is in their in their published autobiographies. Langston Hughes published an autobiography, Koestler too in ”Arrow in the Blue,” his first volume of autobiography.
But then I also found the Langston Hughes papers at Yale in the Beinecke Library and read them, including his personal diaries and a couple of letters. And in Koestler’s case too at Edinburgh University library. That was another place where I found his journals as well.
LAMB: How long did he stay in Russia?
SCAMMELL: Just over 18 months.
LAMB: Communist the whole time he’s there?
SCAMMELL: Absolutely, yes. Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Did he really believe in that kind of system or is this
SCAMMELL: Yes, absolutely. I think I mean part of Koestler’s charm, if you like what makes Koestler impressive was the degree of immersion that he achieved in every ideology, if you like that he pursued. When he was a Zionist, he was an impeccable Zionist and he insisted on digging down to the intellectual roots of Zionism, mastering it, understanding it and absorbing it.
When he became a communist, he did exactly the same thing. He became an absolute expert in dialectical materialism. Read every he had an amazing way of assimilating ideas in particular books and ideas.
And I’ve been rather amused to read in one or two of the reviews let’s say some of the more skeptical or hostile reviews while Koestler was in Kharkov in the Ukraine in the early 1930’s when there was a famine, but ignored it or pretended it wasn’t there.
But it was Koestler himself who pointed his out later in life. He admitted these he understood that he had been blinded in his enthusiasm. Now, you can regard this as a defect or a virtue, whichever way that he but once he entered into something, he was blind to in many ways to its defects.
LAMB: We’re in the middle 30’s and he marries for the first time and I want to go through the three marriages he had.
LAMB: And show the pictures of the three women and ask you to tell us
what the marriage was like, and the first was one was 1935, Dorothy?
SCAMMELL: Yes, that’s it. Koestler by this time was back in France, working for the Comintern as a journalist and propagandist if you like. Although he was very down on his luck when he met Dorothy, they were both working for a man called Willy Mόnzenberg, who was a leading propagandist for the Popular Front and for the communists in France.
Dorothy was a social worker who had grown up also Jewish in a quite well to do family in Germany, which had lost all its money during the Depression, as did Koestler’s parents by the way. She was extremely left she herself was a communist, and they met while he was working with something called the Free German Library in Paris.
LAMB: How did you get the back story on this marriage?
SCAMMELL: There’s very, very little in his autobiography because of the difficult circumstances of their divorce and the bitterness that ensued, he promised Dorothy that he would not describe their marriage at any length.
But and they parted about, well let’s see, he was while they were still together he went off to Spain and was imprisoned, so he’s away for months and months and months. And they parted soon after he was released from Spain. Although
LAMB: Roughly what year?
she helped to secure his release, 1937, no let’s see, you know dates are my nemesis even though I
LAMB: Thirty seven?
I think it was 1937 1938 certainly was when he was back in Britain and parted from Dorothy.
LAMB: Did she write about their life together?
SCAMMELL: Never, no, no. And I was extremely lucky in that I managed to track her down at the very beginning of my researches and shortly before she died.
LAMB: What year?
SCAMMELL: What year was this?
LAMB: Did you track her down?
SCAMMELL: Did I track her down, it must have been 1990.
LAMB: So it’s been a long time ago.
SCAMMELL: Oh, a long, long time.
LAMB: And you
SCAMMELL: Yes, that’s why my memory is a little
but you talked with her.
SCAMMELL: I did. I did, very reluctantly at first. I found her in the London telephone book. And I but I had the address was there, I wrote her a letter and then I telephoned her and she very grudgingly said I could come and visit her, no notes.
LAMB: You weren’t allowed to take notes?
SCAMMELL: I wasn’t allowed to take notes. Immediately after that conversation, I rushed out, rushed down the street to the first cafι I could find, sat down and wrote down everything that she had said and I had said.
I’m not sure I can equal Truman Capote in this regard but it’s something that biographers and writers have to do sometimes. It’s not uncommon for one to be told you mustn’t you can’t take notes. But any writer worth his salt, well, and I think it’s understood even by the person who says don’t take notes that you’re going to make use of that conversation.
LAMB: How long did you spend with her?
SCAMMELL: I spent about an hour and a half the first time and I went back for a second visit and probably spent a little longer than that, 2-1/2 hours.
LAMB: What’d she tell you about their marriage and about the man?
SCAMMELL: She was very tightlipped. She told me a bit about herself and her background. She told me about how they met and how they went to Switzerland. But she spent quite a bit of the time stonewalling my questions. It was very difficult to get information out of her and quite frequently she would say I don’t want to talk about that.
She certainly gave me no intimate information on their relationship. She was much happier, which is sort of characteristic of people who were communists in those times. She was no longer a communist but she still loved to talk about politics.
LAMB: The next marriage was in 1950. Who was that to?
SCAMMELL: Excuse me, I should add one thing to that. What we did spend a lot of time talking about actually was her life after she and Koestler parted because she was stranded in occupied France. He got out just in time.
LAMB: During the war?
SCAMMELL: Yes, the beginning of the war, yes. And so but he helped her a lot, which she acknowledged. He sent her money. He tried to get her visas to Mexico and the United States, all of which failed because the Germans by then were in full occupation of France.
LAMB: Second marriage, 1950.
SCAMMELL: Mamaine Paget, the strikingly beautiful identical twin, who had been a debutante in England. They met through Cyril Connolly. She had been a friend of Connolly, she had worked briefly for ”Horizon,” Connolly this famous literary magazine in England at the time.
And Connolly and his friends, I’m trying to think of their names now, Connolly and a couple of friends of his were actually living in an apartment owned by Mamaine Paget, so
LAMB: It’s just like it sounds, like Ma-maine, like the state of Maine.
SCAMMELL: Yes, Mamaine. Yes, yes, an unusual name, I don’t think I’ve come across it anywhere else.
LAMB: And you talked to her sister.
SCAMMELL: I talked to her sister at great length and over many years, yes.
LAMB: How was that introduction made, and what value was that to you?
SCAMMELL: Well her sister Celia was a very remained very close on very close terms with Koestler until the very end of his life. She was shocked by the suicide and in fact she had discussed with Koestler and Cynthia the possibility of Cynthia coming to live with her after Koestler’s death because it was obviously that he was dying and towards the end.
Celia was, despite the fact despite the turbulence of his marriage to Mamaine and the very bad way in which he frequently behaved with her, she was devoted to Koestler, Celia was, as was Mamaine by the way.
And so when she heard that I was writing the book, I instantly contacted her and she was extremely friendly. And not only did she speak at great length and freely about the relationship between Koestler and Mamaine but she had at an earlier stage published a collection of Mamaine’s correspondence with Koestler.
Partly to counter an earlier biography of Koestler, which emphasized how bad the relationship was, partly to counter that, but what Celia gave me were the unpublished portions of that correspondence and Mamaine’s diaries for that period as well.
And so I was able to draw on them to add a great deal, both a great deal that was negative, showed Koestler in a bad light but also a fair bit that showed him in a much better light than previously had been known.
LAMB: Where did Koestler and Dorothy live and where did he live with Mamaine and what was the turbulence all about?
SCAMMELL: Well Koestler and Dorothy I mean were total paupers in Paris. I mean, they could barely scrape two pennies together. She actually was better off than he because she did have a regular job with an agency doing social work.
So they lived in one room for quite a long time. They then went off to Switzerland because her brother had moved to the Soviet Union, another communist, a physician who had moved to do good there and ended up being jailed and executed in the purges.
But they were offered this apartment in Zurich where they moved and they were oddly, it was interesting, there were a lot of although Switzerland was still was strictly neutral, as it always has been, there were a lot of communists who were supposedly not supposed to sort of practice their ideology and so on.
I recently read a biography of Ignazio Silone. I knew that Koestler had met Silone, the Italian novelist there, and there was a whole communist circle operating there. True, they weren’t interfering in Swiss politics but they were very much a group with their own ideology and their own context.
LAMB: Mamaine and Koestler were married for how long and where did they live?
SCAMMELL: Well Mamaine and Koestler got together fairly soon after World War II. They lived in Wales to begin with, in an obscure part of southern Wales and in a place whose name I can still not pronounce properly. I think I won’t attempt it.
And but the thing about Koestler as with Dorothy, he was constantly on the move. While he was with Dorothy, he had gone to Hungary for a while. He was in Spain. While he was with Mamaine, he rushed off to Palestine, first to write a novel, ”Thieves in the Night,” about the struggle between the Jews and the Arabs that was already beginning.
And they both together went again during the war, which became the war for Israeli independence in 1948. So they lived in Wales. They lived for a brief while in London. They also lived in Paris, after 1948, they lived in Paris for about three years. They lived together for a year in the United States, too.
LAMB: How long did he in total live in the United States?
SCAMMELL: Not long. He had intended to settle in the United States. He decided that Europe was finished and that he would move here. And he came in 1951, they Mamaine came afterwards. They lived together for just over a year, and I think he was here for just over two years in the end.
LAMB: Was there a public renouncement on his part in this timeframe about communism or was that the ”Darkness at Noon” book?
SCAMMELL: There was a renunciation which was not public, which in 1938 already he wrote a long letter to the communist caucus on Paris announcing his decision to resign from the party. I found this letter in the Comintern archives in Moscow.
And I published it actually in the ”New Republic” soon afterward, many years ago, the letter more or less in full. He decided that he couldn’t stay with the party anymore. He resigned. He gave all the reasons why including the show trials, the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union and the complete lack of freedom within the party itself.
But as a gesture to the Soviet Union and to old loyalties, he agreed to keep the letter secret. And it remained secret until I found it in Moscow in 1990.
LAMB: How did you find it?
SCAMMELL: I found it by a rather roundabout route. I was in Israel actually doing some research on Koestler’s time there. And at the in one of the archives there and I actually forget which one was now, I met an archivist who said, ”You know there are some of Koestler’s papers in Moscow.” And I said, ”How do you know that?”
Well he didn’t tell me at the time. I actually I believe he already had some of them in his own archive at that point. What happened was this, Koestler was tracked by the French police as a communist, as a former communist, as an enemy alien.
He was jailed by the French for several months in a concentration camp, Le Vernet in the south of France. The French confiscated his papers. In fact they confiscated ”Darkness at Noon.” The novel’s original manuscript has never been found. It only exists in translation.
The English translation that Koestler made with his English girlfriend at the time, Daphne Hardy, is actually the E’er text. And when it had to be published in German he had to help translate it back into German.
So the French had this stash of this large collection of papers on Arthur Koestler. And when the Germans occupied France, the Gestapo took the French police archives and took them back to Berlin. And there they stayed throughout the war. When the Red Army occupied Berlin, the Red Army took the Gestapo archives, which included the French police archives and took them all back to Moscow.
LAMB: Do you ever when you finally get that document, do you ever just shake your head and say, I cannot believe I found this?
SCAMMELL: It’s true. It’s true. When I this was before the fall of the Wall but this was during the time of the Gorbachev perestroika. So they were beginning to make these things available but very grudgingly and it was very, very hard work to get there.
And I myself, I mean as someone who had worked on Solzhenitsyn and with the dissidents, I had been banned from the Soviet Union for years and years and was persona non grata there. So I wasn’t even sure I would get a visa. I got the visa and I found this archive with great difficulty and it was freezing cold there and there were no facilities whatsoever and there were nine folders I remember of material, but
LAMB: Do you speak Russian?
SCAMMELL: I do, yes, yes, yes.
LAMB: Where do let me interrupt, where did that start?
SCAMMELL: Well, that started in the British army. I’m old enough to have done national service, which was compulsory when I was young, two years from 18 to 20. And while I was in the British army, I had done rather well in languages at school.
I personally didn’t really want to learn Russian but, you know, one doesn’t have a lot of choice. So I was sent to this training course, which ended up and ended up in Cambridge University for a year studying Russian. It’s rather like the courses that I taught in Monterey or where I taught in Monterey here.
But the absurd thing is that I spent the entire, almost the entire time of my national service studying Russian, never, never ever used it in any practical way but it changed my life. I then went to University and got my first degree in Russian.
SCAMMELL: At Nottingham University.
LAMB: You were born over
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes, I was born in Britain, yes, yes. I then, well, after working in the former Yugoslavia for a while teaching English, I then came to graduate school at Columbia on the Fulbright Program and studied Russian at Columbia.
And although I did I went back to the U.K. after four years here, I guess I planted a seed. While I was publishing ”Index on Censorship,” I used to come here regularly, partly to try to get circulation here and partly to raise money from foundations to help pay for it.
And after writing the Solzhenitsyn book, it was such a huge success here that I began to get job offers and so I moved I was at the in fact, none of those original job offers materialized.
But eventually after I spent six months at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation here in Washington, Woodrow Wilson Institute as it’s called, six months at Harvard and then I was offered the job at Cornell University teaching Russian literature. And that pretty much sealed my fate except that I very much wanted to stay here by then.
LAMB: Let’s go back to the third marriage, which was to Cynthia Jefferies.
LAMB: 1965, what were the circumstances?
SCAMMELL: Yes. Well, Cynthia had been his secretary. Cynthia became his secretary while he was living with Mamaine in Paris. And he she was a stenographer, if you like, but she was also a rather beautiful young woman. She was also rather vulnerable and she had a record according to her sister, whom I found in England and interviewed.
As a young woman, she had been her father had committed suicide when Cynthia was just a child. And she had been rather attracted to sort of strong, masterful, when I read it and say bullying men. Koestler was certainly all of those things. And they very soon started an affair.
LAMB: She’s in the picture over there, the second from the right.
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes, yes.
LAMB: Yes. In the back?
SCAMMELL: No, no, yes, she is, yes. You know, I can only just see the details from here. Second
LAMB: Isn’t she in the dark in the back?
SCAMMELL: Yes, that’s her, yes, yes, yes, sorry, I couldn’t see it in the I’m
LAMB: And they were married for 18 years until the suicide?
SCAMMELL: That’s right, yes. Well, she was his secretary for a while. They separated and then he called her back to work for him after he and Mamaine divorced. And she again worked for him for many years as his assistant and secretary, finally made herself so indispensable.
And he was planning a trip to the United States to Stanford, actually, and wanted to bring her with him. And ran into the situation where it would not be acceptable to come with someone who was not his wife and live with her openly. This is in 1965. And so they married, they actually married in New York City at City Hall.
LAMB: So the women in his life, it seems like a couple stories and obviously he’s writing in the different places he’s lived
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes.
but the women, there’s a quote you used somewhere in his diary that said he had slept with between 100 and 200 women. What does that represent in your opinion from what you learned about him?
SCAMMELL: Well, he suffered from what I guess psychoanalysts would call satyriasis. He himself diagnosed this in one of his autobiographies, in the ”Arrow in the Blue,” that is he was constantly running after women all his life.
He seemed to have this insatiable need and he would often sleeping with them would often be a prelude to very long friendships. I interviewed many, many women who had had affairs with him. Some of them were quite sort of amused and detached and humorous about it and said that he just had this mania, and it sort of reassured him. I mean he had an enormous inferiority complex.
LAMB: How big was he?
SCAMMELL: Five foot six.
LAMB: How else would you describe him personally?
SCAMMELL: Personally, well he had quite a magnetic personality. One of his attractions, he had a he never grew up, which is a plus and a minus. But everyone I spoke to, men and women who have known him very well in his middle years and some in his early years said he had this school boyish air.
He loved to play games. He loved to play pranks but he took them all extremely seriously. He took ideas extremely seriously. He didn’t take convention seriously. He didn’t take manners seriously. He was an enfant terrible in many ways.
LAMB: What did he sound like?
SCAMMELL: What did he sound like? Well he had this very strong German accent he spent 3/4 of his life actually in English speaking worlds speaking mainly English. He had this very strong German accent that he was very ashamed of and hated but could never master phonetics.
He spoke about five languages pretty fluently at one time. But I forget who it was it I forget whether it was Malraux or Camus who said ”Koestler doesn’t speak French, he massacres it.” And the same was true of English. And so people, like yourselves, were constantly trying to get him into first into the radio studio and then into TV studios and he constantly resisted. He hated people hearing the way he spoke.
LAMB: His relationship with George Orwell, Albert Camus, Whittaker Chambers, you
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes.
SCAMMELL: Yes, I think so. I’d like to get away a little bit from the personal and talk about why those relationships were important, and why I think Koestler was so important. Of course, I write at great length about his personality, too, but the real reason to write about him is what he is for what he wrote.
And the thing about Koestler like I mean I didn’t put Whittaker Chambers I have to say in the same league and anywhere near as a writer but Koestler was in that mold of Malraux, Ignazio Silone, Camus, Sartre, if you like.
In the English speaking tradition, people like Dos Passos, shall we say, and Steinbeck and Hemingway, certainly, who believed that a writer should be not just a writer but a man of action as well, that they should
LAMB: What does that mean?
SCAMMELL: Well that they should participate particularly in the politics of the day, that they should go to hot spots, if you like, visit countries. They were particularly attracted to revolutions, Andre Malraux, revolutions in China. Koestler revolutions in the Soviet Union
LAMB: What do you personally think of that idea as it relates to you believe that for yourself?
SCAMMELL: Oh, no, I think well yes and no. Now it seems to be much more the business of foreign correspondents. Our correspondents fly to Iraq or to China or to Sudan, to central Africa. But it was very much for the 20th Century, it was a very strong phenomenon and a distinct vein of literature grew out of this approach.
And it was an attraction particularly to left wing ideas, to socialism, which powered this. And in Koestler’s case, I link it particularly to the idea, this kind of this search for utopia. For Koestler, Zionism was the first utopia. It was to allow Jews to live happily, to escape anti-Semitism and to become, as he thought, normal.
He didn’t at the time he didn’t think Palestine would do it, certainly it didn’t do it for him. He later became a communist because he witnessed the consequences of the Great Depression, the poverty, the extreme poverty, the deprivation of the working classes, and he felt that the socialism had the answer.
And it was this that drew him to communism and to the Soviet Union as it drew Malraux, it drew Camus, it drew Silone, it drew Sartre. And let’s say Dos Passos and Steinbeck if we look at American examples, we’re not quite that far from to the left but they weren’t very far. I mean they certainly were very close to that way of thinking.
And all these men traveled and of course the great catalyst was the Spanish Civil War. And you could say that what saved this at least what saved this what kept this utopianism and particularly the socialist version alive for so long was the rise of fascism.
LAMB: Why did Franco of Spain throw him in jail?
SCAMMELL: Oh, because he was known to be a communist. I don’t think it was I don’t think Franco or Franco’s men were aware of the full depth of Koestler’s involvement in communism but they’d found him at the front. They’d found him they were aware that he had been visiting the Republican forces in the battle for Malaga and the Republicans’ allies and biggest supporters were the communists at this time.
So they and they accused him. Ironically, Koestler was a real interferer, a sort of do-gooder. And at the Republican headquarters, he’d actually started to try to advise the general, the Spanish general about the things he was doing wrong and why is his troops weren’t up to the job and so on.
I mean it was said of Koestler that when he met Einstein he explained the theory of relativity to him. He was that I mean that was part of that boyish ebullience if you like that earnestness, which was which was always with him. And he was always totally into whatever he was doing.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the your work on this book, when did you get down to writing? What year?
SCAMMELL: It was written over such a long period, it’s hard I’d have to look at my own diaries to tell you. I think it must have been in about 1996, something like that
LAMB: And when did you finish writing?
SCAMMELL: Not many months ago, actually. I finished the main body of the book just over a year ago.
LAMB: You said you did 200 interviews.
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Did you capture all that on tape except for Dorothy’s interview or?
SCAMMELL: A lot of them were on tape but I wrote a lot of them down. An experienced interviewer would tell you that people sometimes are shy of tape recorders and don’t like sometimes they explicitly don’t like them. Sometimes you notice that they don’t.
LAMB: You say you’re adventuring into a new idea with your Web site and eNotes.
SCAMMELL: Yes, yes, yes. Well one of the things I had to do this book is big enough, goodness knows, but not as big as the Solzhenitsyn book. And I actually had more material than I had for the Solzhenitsyn book.
So a lot of my time towards the end was spent cutting. I cut I’d say probably close to somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words from my original manuscript. I cut an enormous amount. Now some of this obviously is drafts or long-windedness.
But I collected a lot I had a long correspondence with Koestler enthusiasts or people interested in various aspects of European politics in the 20th Century, the politics of communism and so on and about the scientific works too.
So and I know that there are people interested in this material but there are a small minority of readers of such a book. So I plan to put quite a lot of that on my Web site and say here’s other material. I want to save other people from going, digging for the same stuff and in some of the cases I’ll expand on what’s in the book.
LAMB: How big was his diary and where is it?
SCAMMELL: His diary was kept only intermittently. And there are various kinds. There are journals, which start and stop. There are detailed diaries, which start and stop as well, and then a kind of appointments diary, which he kept throughout his life. They’re all in Edinburgh University.
LAMB: As you think back on this project, what were the most important ingredients that got you the bulk of what you have in this book?
SCAMMELL: Well, diligence is obviously one of them and I do, like Koestler himself, speak a number of languages, which makes it rather easy or I can research in French, German, Spanish and Russian without too much difficulty. I draw the line at Hebrew. So that was one element.
I think the other thing is I’ve always been a long distance runner. When I was in school I was hopeless at the sprint but I was very good at cross country and long distance. Somehow, people say to me, didn’t you get bored or aren’t you fed up?
I enjoyed every minute of this. I was fascinated by him, fascinated by the book. The book, I wrote in many ways I wrote it novelistically. Like most I suspect biographers, I once wanted to be a novelist. This is my novel, if you like, on one level. But it’s a novel filled with research and it’s also an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
SCAMMELL: I wrote it partly in Ithaca at Cornell in the house I have there. I wrote it partly in New York and partly, a great deal of it, in a summer house that we have in New Hampshire close to my wife’s actually my wife’s birthplace.
LAMB: What do you what will make this a success for you?
SCAMMELL: I would like this book is I think put together in a rather sophisticated fashion. I would like some appreciation for the art that went into it, the construction of it, the pacing. The secondly, the ideas in it. It’s a kind of primer on 20th Century politics, particularly the politics of the left.
And then I mentioned the idea of Koestler in particular but the other novelists as utopians, if you like. I also recently came across a very interesting comment, which opened my eyes to one aspect. Koestler, and I think most of these fellow novelists that I’d mentioned, and many other people in the 20th Century, was at base a religious man.
But he lived in a century that was not religious and he sought particularly moral and ethical imperatives in politics. And in Koestler’s case he later sought those things in science, and neither science nor politics could deliver what he was really searching for.
LAMB: It’s either Koestler or Koestler, and our guest has been Michael Scammell, a Columbia University professor and you can get additional information at michaelscammell.com.
SCAMMELL: Thank you, yes.
LAMB: Thanks for joining us.
SCAMMELL: You’re welcome.