Friday, January 15, 2010
Scammel on Koestler and Zubok
With some embarrassment, I admit that I was watching C-Span two nights ago. The upside was that Michael Scammel, one of Solzhenitsyn’s greatest biographers, was being interviewed about his new book on Koestler. The interview taught me something about Scammel as well as Koestler, who I didn’t previously think worthy of a full-scale biography by such a serious author.
Scammel, an Englishman, published a journal dedicated to combating censorship for eight years, wrote the massive biography of Solzhenitsyn, and taught Russian literature at Cornell before moving on to a position at Columbia University. As Scammel’s ten plus years of research on Koestler reveal, he’s probably one of the last of the great literary biographers. Although I’ve never read Scammel’s books, or seen Richard Ellman being interviewed about his lengthy and brilliant biographies of Wilde, Yeats, or Joyce, I imagine that Scammel’s dense research and artistic sensibility might make him Ellman’s rival in the craft.
At any rate, Scammel traced Koestler’s activities in Hungary—his birthplace—and Spain, Israel, Russia, France, and America. Scammel, who knows five of Koestler’s language (but not Hebrew) seems particularly well suited to follow the career of a polyglot like Koestler. Scammel is especially interested in showing that Koestler was a representative European intellectual of the 1930s, a “utopian” who thought that the job of a writer necessarily involved him in great political events like the Spanish Civil War. According to Scammel, Koestler was not alone in his attempt to couple intellectual activity with active political participation: Malraux, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck all had similar inclinations.
The whole generation was, in fact, fascinated by action, movement, and revolution, which was after all the embodiment of political ferment. Koestler, who married three times and produced nonfiction that could easily rival most of his five novels (Darkness at Noon was clearly the best of these), threw himself into a variety of different ideological encounters, each time neglecting to maintain any pretence of objectivity. First, Koestler became a serious Zionist, then a serious socialist, and finally a serious opponent of socialism.
On the subject of Michael Scammel, his New York Review of Books article about Vladislav Zubok’s new book, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, also deserves comment. Rightfully, Scammell critiques Zubok for neglecting to document the importance of dissident writers and thinkers like Solzhenitsyn, Mandelstam, Sinyavsky, Ginzburg, and Brodsky, in maintaining the pre-revolutionary artistic tradition in Russia.
There’s anger here toward the gradualists (does the term liberal or moderate or appeaser fit here?) who attempted to reconcile some of the humanist traditions of old Russia with the imperatives of the Soviet state. The anger stems, quite rightly, from Scammel, who knows many of the persecuted men he has written about, Solzhenitsyn most importantly. These people produced better and more honest literature than any of the official writers that get so much attention from Zubok. However, any attempt to explain how Soviet mainstream thought and wrote, seems worthwhile. The dissident artists made sense then, and they make sense today. It’s the men like Ehrenberg or Yevtushenko who no longer do. Everything about their value system as well as their aesthetics seems anachronistic; they need some explaining.