From extracts to sex tracts

November 20, 1998

Arthur Koestler raped Michael Foot's wife and David Cesarani wrote about it. Now he feels that The Telegraph's serialisation violated his book. To avoid the same fate, Brian Brivati (box) asks if he should omit the more lurid details from his life of Lord Goodman

Mid-August, 1998. Two days before leaving for a sabbatical in Israel, I go to Canary Wharf in London with the rights director of Heinemann who has been trying to interest the broadsheets in serialising extracts from my recently completed book about Arthur Koestler, author of the novel Darkness at Noon. We make a pitch to a senior editor of The Daily Telegraph.

Flashback: 1994. When I embarked on my study of Arthur Koestler five years ago I was interested in him as a prime example of the deracinated Central European Jewish intellectuals who did so much to furnish the world of ideas in which we live today. I knew that his private life was colourful, but I regarded that aspect with distaste. I had no idea of what awaited me.

Flashforward to early August 1998. When the book is nearly finished I interview Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party, who knew Koestler in the 1940s. I had contacted him long ago but circumstances prevented a meeting. Foot is very keen that I speak also to his wife, Jill Craigie, and so I hear the shattering story of how Koestler raped her. What on earth am I to do with this information?

My historian's training and temperament tell me I must include Craigie's experience, like other similar horrors, in the book. I pride myself on treating the episode with gravity and, moreover, it accords with the bigger picture I have drawn of Koestler. Craigie seems satisfied that I will present her story in the proper context.

Back to mid-August, 1998. Canary Wharf, making the pitch. Given that Koestler is hardly well known these days, I stress the importance of Darkness at Noon in helping to roll back communism and its author's neglected contribution to winning the cold war. I also explain that my study is based on unrestricted access to the Koestler papers and describe the dramatic material I have unearthed, including documents from the KGB "Special Archive".

I know the paper will be interested in his "turbulent" private life, but present this in the context of Koestler's personality as a whole and his politics. I argue that his public life as a champion of liberty and preacher of morals to statesmen was deeply compromised by the bullying and rape that I expose.

I have few illusions. I value the awful stories about Koestler as insights into his character, but I also hope they will attract the Telegraph and work as a peg on which it can hang extracts that show the many other sides of the man and his thought. Indeed the senior editor appears very keen on Koestler's politics. After all, the Torygraph loves a good ol' cold warrior - especially a former commie who recants and ends up worshipping Mrs Thatcher.

As the senior Telegraph editor nods appreciatively I silently congratulate Heinemann on going for a responsible broadsheet. Yes, I am told, Koestler's politics will appeal to Telegraph readers and, yes, the paper will treat the other matters sensitively. I step out on to windswept Canary Wharf not knowing what will come of the meeting and concerned to finish packing for Israel.

Later the same day, the phone rings. The Telegraph has made a handsome offer, agreed to extracts over three days and promised to give the book a real push. I am euphoric, although the draconian agreement gives the paper the right to select what it sees fit and limits my role to checking for errors of fact or gross distortions due to abridgement.

Mid-September, Jerusalem. The proofs of the first extract arrive by fax on the sabbath eve. I am horrified to find the paper has taken only the bits about rape, seduction, abortion, Koestler's womenfriends, and his joint suicide with his wife in 1983. His important political friendship with George Orwell is reduced to a vignette of Orwell's Christmas visit to the Koestlers in 1946.

The serialisation is flagged by a massive advertisement that reads like a billboard for a Harold Robbins's novel. Individual sections are headlined in similar fashion. What have I done?

With a pounding heart I order a copy of The Telegraph from a newsagent in Rehavia and pick up the first instalment a few days later en route to my son's kindergarten. There is a front page story on Koestler the "serial rapist" which ends: "see pages 14 and 15 for 'Love, lust and Arthur Koestler'." While I stand poleaxed outside the dry cleaners, my wife tries to explain to my son why daddy's "story" is splashed across two pages of the broadsheet.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Somehow, the paper has dejudaised Koestler and there is barely a whiff of his ideas, his politics or his wider significance. What do my colleagues think of this bodice-ripper I appear to have written? And why am I sitting in Jerusalem, 2,000 miles away from the action?

The simple answer to the last question is that earlier in the year, when I opted for the sabbatical at the Yad Vashem research institute in Jerusalem, I thought I had written a book about a dead white Jewish male thinker, which, with luck, would be a modest success; so what if I was out of town when it appeared? Boy, did I make a mistake.

Was I totally innocent or did I suppress a suspicion that this would happen? Should I complain anyway? Most authors would die for such coverage. But I now realise that it will be a test of the book whether, through reviews, the wider argument about Koestler's personality and ideas emerge strongly enough to attract readers interested in more than just his affairs.

Late September. I am relieved that early reviews note how the book is indeed about the Jews and modernity and the fate of one Jewish intellectual in a century of war, revolution and Holocaust.

Epilogue. Looking back I am annoyed that The Daily Telegraph presented such an unbalanced version of the book and I am embarrassed by the impression that I have revelled in salacious detail for its own sake. I fear the Kenneth Starr effect: I do not want to become the Newt Gingrich of publishing because a newspaper exploited a serious study of a major intellectual figure of our time in order to sell copies by scandalising its readers.

Call me naive, but if I am lucky enough to have this kind of break in the future I will try to insist upon a greater say in the selection of extracts. With all my reservations about Koestler, he deserved better.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history and culture at Southampton University and director of the Wiener Library, London. Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, is published by Heinemann, price Pounds 25.00.

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