The Koestler drawing room is predominantly green with deep green walls. It has an Empire flavor, and there are interesting pieces of Egyptian sculpture in it. On the coffee table are Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics.
Koestler is wearing the costume of the old Left—rough materials tending to light rather than dark, in his case to greenish, with nothing matching anything else: checked shirt, wool cardigan, tartan tie, tweed jacket, et cetera.
Sitting very uneasily in a pool of lamplight, Arthur Koestler seemed low. His wife, Cynthia, had opened the front door of their house in London’s Montpelier Square. A gentle, soft, sad woman wearing no makeup, she had explained that Mr. Koestler was not at his best; he was recovering from a “viral infection,” which is how the Koestlers describe a cold. She is much younger than he and began to work for Koestler in 1949. Cynthia had watched him divorce two previous wives—Dorothy in 1950, Mamaine in 1953—before taking her place officially at his side in 1965. She has the slightly numb Buddhist detachment of one who has spent a lifetime in surrender of her will to another.
From the pool of lamplight Koestler mumbles about not being too well. He casts about in the air a bit, rather abstractedly, then suddenly says, “I used to be a journalist—what is the peg for this interview?”
It is evident that he dislikes being interviewed and, indeed, consistently refuses. “And I’m recovering from a viral infection,” he moans as the tape recorder is set up. He dislikes tape recorders because, he says, he rambles when he talks. He dislikes appearing on television and radio, “because my accent is too thick and it embarrasses me.” When asked about allowing a photographer to come and take a picture, he cocks his head on one side, frowns, and says, “I’d prefer to avoid it.” One feels the list of his dislikes is an extended one.
What do you dislike most of all?
Stupidity more than anything. Including my own.
You were born in Budapest in 1905. Into what kind of family?
Typical Central European Jewish middle-middle. My father was Hungarian, my mother Viennese. I reviewed a book once, Last Waltz in Vienna. It was about a family such as mine, before the extermination. It’s about the humdrum, day-by-day life before the ceiling fell in.
1939, 1942 mostly, Auschwitz.
What did your father do for a living?
He was an industrialist. He had too much imagination. He financed disastrous inventions like the envelope-opening machine. He said too much time is wasted opening envelopes and big businesses need these machines. So one day a huge machine came into the house. It would have covered half that wall. The inventor came with it. He looked like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs the way he hopped around his machine. It was plugged into the electricity, turned on, there was an enormous clattering and shuddering, then flames started to lick here and there about it and we all got terribly scorched. Another invention he financed was radioactive soap. You must remember the time, 1918-ish, when curative properties were indiscriminately ascribed to radioactivity. The soap was supposed to make you glow with health and vitality, but it didn’t catch on.