Arrival and Departure, by Arthur Koestler

One seldom reads of Koestler today, especially as part of Europe’s literary history. And yet he proves himself a worthy novelist here in this early 1943 work. As well as a probing explorer of human psychology. Perhaps it is his subject and theme that seems less pertinent today. His subject is the flight of his hero Peter Slavek from a central European dictatorship in the 1940s. And he says his theme is “the conflict between morality and expediency,” which “I have tried to transpose…into terms of individual psychology.”

From the moment Slavek drops into the sea, from the bowels of a ship in which he has been hiding, and swims ashore to freedom, Koestler has captured the reader’s interest. And it continues as his hero adjusts to a strange city and a set of new, curious faces. He tries to join the military forces of an unknown country, but since its official is Mr. Wilson, one assumes it is the England to which the author himself did flee. But Slavak is told that since the unnamed country he fled is now occupied by the enemy, such permission is not easy to obtain. The official suggests he try the American consulate as a back-up. America is neutral in the war, and may more readily accept him.

The identity of most countries has to be inferred, however. Which leaves one easily confused, as I was, about people’s loyalties. Thus, the country Slovak has fled to is Portugal, but is called Neutralia—a label which should have been too obvious in Koestler’s wartime era, much less today.

Meanwhile, Slavek is taken in by a Dr. Sonia Bolgar, an imposing women, a psychologist, who has turned her home into a meeting place for refugees. One of these refuges is Odette, with whom Slavek soon has an affair. But Odette is independent-minded, one who says, for example, “after all, love-making is rape by mutual consent.” And one day Odette vanishes because her American visa has come through, leaving Slavek distraught.

To complicate his thinking, he knows he also faces many decisions about his own future. Should he continue fighting the forces occupying his own country? Should he flee to England to do so, since it has now said it would give him a visa? Or should he escape to neutral America and Odette? He cannot make a decision, and soon develops a weakness in one leg that incapacitates him.

We are one-third into the novel, and are about to follow the author into probing the psychology of his hero. Dr. Bolgar uses logic to help Slavek face the critical question of the novel, which is how much the torture he endured under his country’s dictatorial regime he brought on himself—as the result of a guilt he feels about a small incident from his childhood.

It is a harrowing session she puts Slavek through in order to reveal this, but it makes sense. Slavek first recalls dreaming how the enemy back home put its dissidents on mysterious death trains. And then tells of the terrible mental and physical torture he himself endured. The explanation, she says, is that he wished to be punished for a childhood sin. And that he still holds within him that sense of guilt. And yet…one senses that this complex realization by Slavek has been programmed somewhat by the author. Do its explanations of his past and its impact on his future fall too neatly into place? This is not to fault its dramatic effectiveness, but rather to raise doubts in retrospect. Do these developments stand the test of being an outcome of the novel’s theme, morality vs. expediency, rather than chosen to illustrate it?

And so Slavek stops being the idealist, like Don Quixote, and becomes the more realistic Sancho. He decides to be practical, and pursue Odette in neutral America. But does he? He endures a lecture on political theory by a representative of his occupied homeland. Or is it the author? And then the decision he reaches is prompted by a dream, just as other dreams have influenced earlier decisions. But his time he wills not focus on reasons for one’s actions, for “reasons do not matter so much. They are the shell around the core; and the core remains untouchable, beyond the reach of cause and effect.” What matters, it seems, are feelings, not reasons. If this “does not provide a logical answer to its central problem,” Koestler has written, “I felt that it provided me with a sort of answer nevertheless, [although] in a novel it could only be hinted at in an indirect way.” Which is the one reservation I have about this novel: its sound reality caters to its message.

The Departure of the title consists of a final chapter in which Slavek acts out, and justifies, his final decision. We do not know his future, but we know that he will be comfortable with it, with the feelings it gives him. And that, even as the ending grows more abstract, the author is comfortable with having explored and illustrated the inner psychology of his hero.

Saul Bellow in The New York Times summed up my reaction to this novel. “Mr. Koestler has given Arrival and Departure the full benefit of his marvelous ability to create a contemporary atmosphere and to make his characters represent the whole of the civilization to which they belong.” That is, he has met the terms of novel writing. He has created characters, scenes, and human psychology that makes a somewhat abstract concept come alive.

But while Bolgar was right to emphasize logic, Bellow says that “faith has its own requirements, despite logic. And quotes Koestler that ‘in these spheres the right thing [has] always to be done for the wrong reasons.’” He adds: “There is no science of moral convictions; that, in effect, is what Koestler is saying. [That] by themselves, our ideals of reason mean very little; they have brought us few benefits and done us great damage.” Bellow then cites Koestler contrasting the abandoned problem of ethical belief in the past with today’s problem of experimental science. And leaves the reader with the hope that “all mankind may join in answering the questions of moral choice which individual men today attack with inadequate means.”

To sum up, Koestler has written a highly effective novel in literary terms, but he has grafted onto it an exploration of a human psychology in which scientific thinking has replaced ethical thinking. Which makes more sense for a European intellectual who has fled his era’s dictators than it does for an author who assumes here the mantle of a novelist. (July, 2018)

Echo House, by Ward Just

I have long been a fan of Ward Just. Not least because he often writes about Washington, about the government, politics, and the people who serve in that interesting world. In this novel, it is the Behls, a truly insider family, who lead the reader through a complex behind-the-scenes view of how Washington works.

We meet first Senator Adolph Behl, who anticipates being nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and feels betrayed when he is not. Then we encounter his son, Alex, a military hero in World War II after he parachutes into occupied France to help the underground and is later co-opted by Patton’s army and severely injured. He recovers to become a power broker in Washington, but patriotism ignites a moral fervor that becomes corrupted by arrogance. With both these stories bringing one to the edge of history, one anticipates a powerful novel.

Then onto the scene arrives grandson Alec Behl, a lawyer who also works behind the scenes and who becomes the main character in the book. The game of politics also subverts him, as codes of duty and loyalty are sacrificed as the cost of doing business. Like his grandfather and father, Alec lives in the family home, Echo House, a mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park just outside downtown Washington. The novel’s many scenes in that house, including the first with Adolph and the last, a birthday party with Alex and Alec, serve also to support the work’s unity.

The main problem with this novel is that as it moves into Alec’s longer story, it tries to portray too much, presenting two dozen characters in the foreground. Initially, Alex’ generation acts to achieve either good or power, but then son Alec’s generation, in addition to their own political plotting, resorts to commenting on the activities of their predecessors. While in the background looms the context of most of 20th century history, such as the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, JFK, the Vietnam War, and then Nixon and Reagan. An accompanying problem is that as many of the two dozen characters age in the second half of the novel, and as they lose power, they become observers more than power brokers. As a result, they both comment on the action, rather than influence it, and are subjects, as I said, of comment by the younger generation—all of which inhibits the novel’s momentum, even as it enriches the Washington scene.

Just captures this lost power very well, and through these men and women offers interesting commentary about the ambitions and the foibles of the past. But the novel, as I said, loses the drive it once had. For the real action occurs offstage, and the reader is no longer a witness. Moreover, the personal lives of two of the Behls, their loves and their failed marriages, offer no substitute. Perhaps this is because of the women they meet, Sylvia and Leila, the wives of Alex and Alec. They seem as interesting to us on being introduced, as they do to father and son, but they do not become part of their husbands’ involvement in the Washington scene, or even, as their marriages collapse, let us see the emotional side of these Behls, father and son.

The novel’s other failure is its ending. It features a highly dramatic birthday celebration, with an unnamed President attending. But the event becomes merely a dramatic scene that substitutes for an ending. Instead, the novel needed to bring closure to a story line, for example an issue that Alec is facing. But Alex’ friends are out of power, and there is no major issue that his son Alec has inherited or is facing.

What the novel has going for it is that extended portrait of Washington life. We meet lawyers and bankers, senators and staff, journalists and adventuresses, diplomats and spies. They are young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest. And they all bring reality to this portrait. They all discuss what is happening behind the scenes in the political world the general public never sees. They comment on how power is used, how reputations are destroyed, how people are manipulated, how image is paramount. But, as David McCullough says in his New York Times review, their comments reflect a disconnect: “The new generation sees their predecessors—the Venerables, Mr. Just calls them—only as a tedious reproach, while the Venerables see the new people as self-absorbed money grubbers. The generations face each other, immobilized, across a great gulf.”

What does re-enforce the truth of these Washington conversations is the actual historic environment that these fictional characters are dealing with. There is no encounter between Just’s fictional characters and actual historic characters—except for the brief presence of Adlai Stevenson early on. But Just’s characters do convey the atmospherics of the FDR, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon eras.

There are, fortunately, no fictional characters here who seem to stand in for actual historic figures. These characters have their own lives. If only, by the third generation, they had become more interesting. If only we had known more about not only their marriages but also their failures or accomplishments as power brokers. If only there had been less insider conversation and more action. We were there in the room when Adolph anticipated his nomination, and on the ground in France when Alex encountered the results of a massacre. But the manipulations and power moves in Washington are commented on rather than dramatized.

Just as the President joins in honoring Alex Behl at his birthday party, but does not know what Behl has actually achieved on the Washington scene, so the reader feels he must honor this portrait of Washington even though he does not really experience it from within. He hears the talk, and it is convincing, but he does not see the action. This reads like a work by an author who has heard all the conversations, all the gossip, of his fellow observers, but has not been in the rooms when actual power was exercised. Which describes the limits that even an esteemed journalist must work under.

Yes, I shall read more Just. But I enjoy his novels more when he takes me inside his characters, inside journalists, for example, rather than uses his characters to explore and comment on a world in which he is more an observer than a participant. (March, 2018)