Hungarian writers are widely respected within their own country, but the truth is that very few break out beyond these borders into world-wide fame (Ferenc Molnar comes to mind as an excption). One author who managed to achieve international recognition – and indeed – become part of the Western canon of literature, is Arthur Koestler (born Kösztler Artur in Budapest in the year 1905). It would be nice to tout Koestler’s Hungarian upbringing as a huge influence on his body of work, but the writer, in his formative years, was educated mostly in Austria, and Germany. He spent much of his later life in Israel and Western Europe, and finally Great Britian, where he died in 1983.
Like most famous Hungarians, Koestler was adventurous and traveled widely, leaving his homeland behind early on. Just months before graduating from technical university, Koestler burned his school records, grades, test scores and all, making graduation impossible. Not long after this reckless act of youth, he hit the road, eventually landing in the former Palestine, where he was able to make an occasional living as a journalist. Along the way, Koestler became attracted to the Communist cause, and upon return to Europe in 1931, joined the Communist Party of Germany. With a life-long taste for danger and fairness, Koestler traveled to Paris then Spain to fight against Franco’s fascist regime. While working as a correspondent, he was captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death, making him one of the few literary greats to have experienced death row. Freed under a prisoner swap, Koestler would later write about his experiences awaiting execution in his book Dialogue with Death.
In keeping with his non-traditional route to literary fame, Koestler penned a highly successful ‘sex dictionary’ called The Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge. But the sexual hi-jinks were just a cover for Koestler’s real work: it would not be long until he set to work on Darkness at Noon, his scathing look at the atrocities committed by Stalin in the name of Socialism. So inflammatory was the material that the manuscript had to be smuggled out of France, and into England, where it found its first publication. The book was incredibly influential in shaping Western attitudes towards the Soviet Union, and has since been recognized as a classic.
Koestler wrote numerous other books, and continued to be politically active throughout his entire life. Authors like Salmon Rushdie cite him as an influence in their work. Koestler was a life-long believer in Zionism and progressive causes like the banning of the death penalty, and even animal rights. Decisive, fearless, pragmatic: he took his own life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Koestler died in England in a double suicide with his wife in 1983. His influence is still felt today, and a statue of him was recently erected on Andrássy Avenue, paying tribute to a native son who found fame abroad.
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Matt Ellis is a writer and gives manuscript critiques in Budapest.