Arthur Koestler 1905 - 1983

Arthur Koestler, who founded the Koestler Awards in 1962, was one of the key writers and thinkers of the mid 20th century. His experiences as a political prisoner gave him exceptional insight into the relationship between imprisonment and creativity, and he is famous for the classic prison novel Darkness at Noon.

Born in Budapest on 5 September 1905, Koestler was the only child of middle class Jewish parents. He gave up his undergraduate studies in Vienna to become a Zionist pioneer in Palestine. At 22, he secured a prestigious job in journalism in Berlin, but 4 years later resigned to join the Communist Party.

He moved to Paris to write for left-wing journals, co-authored some ground-breaking sex manuals and made a year-long visit to the USSR. In 1936, while reporting on the Spanish Civil War, he was arrested by Franco's fascists, condemned to death for espionage and spent 3 months in prison in Malaga and Seville. The British Foreign Office secured his release through an exchange of prisoners. In Spanish Testament (1937), Koestler described how he kept sane in his cell by teaching himself mental exercises and how he went on hunger strike to get pen and paper.

The experience turned Koestler against 'closed systems of thought'. He left the Communist Party and fictionalised his reasons in Darkness at Noon (1940), whose narrator is incarcerated by the political party he has served. Encapsulating one of the pivotal shifts of the century ­– from the optimistic ideologies of the 1930s to the bleak reality of the Cold War – the novel won international fame.

Despite this, Koestler was arrested in Paris at the outbreak of World War Two, as the French authorities suspected him of subversion. After 3 months in the brutal Le Vernet Detention Camp, he was released through British intervention, but was unable to leave France and in 1940 had to flee from the German invasion. He escaped to England only to be sent to HMP Pentonville for 6 weeks as an illegal immigrant. He then joined the British Army, though his main contribution to the war effort was through writing and lecturing.

After the War, Koestler lived in Wales, France and New Jersey before settling in London to pursue a huge range of literary, political and social activities. The Koestler Awards grew out of his work to abolish hanging. His books of essays included The Ghost in the Machine (1967), which analysed the anxieties of the nuclear age and later lent its title to an album by The Police.

In his final years, Koestler argued for voluntary euthanasia. Aged 77, with Leukaemia and Parkinson's Disease, he took his own life by overdose. His third wife Cynthia, aged 55 and in good health, committed suicide with him. They left their wealth to research into the paranormal, funding a parapsychology unit at Edinburgh University. This was set up as the Koestler Parapsychology Unit.

In 1998, a biography by David Cesarani detailed Koestler's sexual affairs and drinking. It included a disclosure by Jill Craigie, wife of Labour MP Michael Foot, that she had been raped by Koestler in 1952.

At the Koestler Trust, we acknowledge that our founder was a controversial figure. We maintain his name because his idea of cash prizes for prisoners' artworks was far ahead of its time and a brilliant way of valuing offenders' creativity. We are a charity which celebrates the best achievements of people who have made grave mistakes in life, and Arthur Koestler continues to be an appropriate figurehead for this work.

The Koestler Archives are held by the Edinburgh University Library
A new biography of Koestler is now out Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell.

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“There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realisation. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatising challenges.”

Arthur Koestler
The Ghost in the Machine (1967)