Turf battles and scholarly monopoly

October 29, 1999

David Cesarani, accused of 'academic fraud' and of cynically sabotaging Arthur Koestler's 'exclusive' biography, responds to his critics

In May I was rung up from New York by Matthew Price, an editorial researcher who told me he was writing an article about the row surrounding my book about Arthur Koestler, whose most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, is a scathing attack on Stalin's totalitarianism. My heart sank.

A month previously, Michael Scammell, Arthur Koestler's official biographer, had published a letter in The Times Literary Supplement claiming that I had misled him about my book - an account of Koestler as a Jew whose life exemplified the dilemmas of Jewishness in the modern world. Scammell alleged that I had deliberately set out to write a (full-scale) biography of Koestler and had thereby obtained access to the Koestler archive at Edinburgh University under false pretences. I thought that my reply to Scammell's missive, published in The TLS a few days later, had laid these allegations to rest, but I was soon to learn that the spat was far from over.

Price's piece appeared last month in the US academic magazine Lingua Franca and charged me with "committing serious violations". In it, Scammell accused me of "academic fraud". Even allowing for the hyperbole of US academia and journalism, this was going a bit far.

The indictment in the article was as follows. I had:

* Misrepresented my project on Koestler to gain access to the Edinburgh University archive

* Thereby violated an agreement between Scammell and the archive that he was to have exclusive run of the collection for the purpose of completing the authorised biography

* Given a distorted picture of Koestler's relations with women.

In 1984, Scammell was invited by Harold Harris, Koestler's literary executor, to write a biography of Koestler. He began the job after obtaining Harris's agreement that no one else should be allowed access to Koestler's papers for a similar project, although Price notes that Scammell "never signed a written agreement to that effect".

By 1992, when I began my study of Koestler's Jewishness, Scammell's biography had still not materialised, and the exclusion zone around the archive was still in force. At the outset of my research I went to see Harris. I spent an afternoon with him, outlining my intention to write an account of Koestler that reinstated his Jewish identity and showed him to be a classic 20th-century, deracinated Jewish intellectual. Harris subsequently authorised access to the archive.

In a letter to Harris that provided the basis for his assent, I proposed to "re-evaluate Arthur Koestler's life and thought in terms of his Jewishness". I have been accused of cynically exploiting a metaphysical loophole that allowed access to the archives. I wish I had been so clever. Instead, I honestly set out my stall and did what I said I would do. Several reviewers of the book have complained that it is too preoccupied with Koestler's Jewishness.

Nor did I mislead Scammell, whom I met in 1992 and to whom I described my work. Price extracts a phrase from a letter that I sent to Scammell in which I eschew attention to the minutiae of Koestler's life. But he omits my declaration in the same letter that "I propose to examine Koestler's Jewishness as the hidden thematic of his life and work". I also told Scammell that my book would be "as much an argument with Koestler as an account of the threads running through his life". I would have thought it fairly easy to grasp that a study of a "life" might have a biographical dimension. Yet no one objected.

Scammell's sensitivity on this matter is understandable. As Price reports:

"Scammell felt that he had been pre-empted. Sales of his own book would suffer thanks to Cesarani." In other words, Scammell wanted to preserve his commercial advantage by excluding from the archive anyone with the merest hint of biographical intent. Scammell has railed against my alleged unethical behaviour, but a neutral observer may wonder what was so ethical about his position. How long was Scammell to be allowed exclusive rights to Koestler's archive? What precedent would this set? Is scholarship to become an extraction industry, with academics establishing a monopoly over the raw material they quarry so that they can drive up and maintain the price of the finished product? Is the scholar to become to the sources what De Beer's is to diamonds?

In any case, is this not a fuss about nothing? Scammell asserts that I "vacuumed the archive". I would rather say that I scratched the surface. There were major areas of Koestler's life that I left unexplored because they were not germane to my theme. Paradoxically, this applies not least to the subject of Koestler's women, the topic for which my finished book Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind became notorious after I published details of Koestler's rape of Michael Foot's wife, Jill Craigie. Scammell complains that I did not track down more of Koestler's female friends, lovers and mistresses, arguing that they would have revealed him in a more benevolent light. But for my purposes it was not necessary to retrace Koestler's every step as a Casanova. I am content to leave that to Scammell. For the record, though, I do state in the book that, "Despite his appalling treatment of many (but not all) women, he remained on good terms with several ex-lovers, most former wives, and a number of past mistresses: they liked him and valued his company despite his faults." I wait with curiosity to see how Scammell explains the other side of Koestler's relations with women.

Scammell asserts that I have only the word of Craigie that Koestler was a rapist. Yet, after my book was published, Catherine Peters, the daughter of A. D. Peters, who was Koestler's literary agent, recounted a similar experience. She recalled how she had met Koestler in Paris and lunched with him. "Near the end of the meal he suggested we go to a hotel. I declined. He seemed to refuse to accept this. I foolishly accepted a lift to my lodgings. Once in the car the attack became physical and violent," she told The Daily Express recently. Peters managed to escape, otherwise, she said:

"I should have been abducted and raped."

From Scammell's point of view, perhaps, it is just as well that I did not dig deeper into this seam. I wonder if he will treat Peters's evidence in the same way he handled Craigie's. "I don't think she was making it up," he told Price, "I just think the details may have been a little less lurid than described." Ah, that makes all the difference. It was rape, but just not so "lurid".

Critics have asked why any of Koestler's private life should be recorded in a study of Koestler the Jew. I must point out that the furore concerns ten pages of a book that is 580 pages long. Furthermore, as early as page five in the introduction, I give the reader a good steer as to why it is there. After describing how anti-Semitic contempt and persecution damaged Koestler's self-esteem while he was growing up as a Jew in Hungary, I comment: "Ethnicity cannot be divorced from personalityI (Koestler's) lack of self-worth dogged his relations with men and women. In a self-defeating pattern he sought out sexual encounters and relationships in order to prove his virility and attractiveness."

Not everyone will agree with this, but I hope that the open-minded reader will at least see my book as an honest attempt to meet the objectives I set for it. My interpretation will not be the last, although complain as he might about it, Scammell is not doing much to foster the emergence of alternative views. If anything should have "scandalised the scholarly community", perhaps it is this.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University. His Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind will be published in paperback by Vintage in November.

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