Session 9

[Arthur Koestler (1948)]

Lecture 9
Arthur Koestler:
Dialogue with Death (1937 / 1942)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Arthur Koestler (1905-1983): from Dialogue with Death (1942)
  • Arthur Koestler: from Spanish Testament (1937)
  • Arthur Koestler: from The God That Failed (1950)
  • Arthur Koestler: from The Invisible Writing (1954)
  • George Orwell: from Homage to Catalonia (1938)

[March-April 1937]:

... With the evening soup he brought me a whole basketful of the most fabulous treasures. Cigarettes, matches, toothbrush, toothpaste, sardines in oil, sardines in tomato sauce, lettuce, vinegar, oil and salt in a special container, red paprika sausage, dried figs, cheese, Andalusian cakes, chocolate, tunnyfish in oil and four hard-boiled eggs. My bed was transformed into a delicatessen store. I poured my ration of lentils down the w.c. at one swoop, and devoured these luxuries in any order I fancied – chocolate and sardines, sausage and sweetmeats.

For the first time for six weeks I feel satisfied - satisfied, contented and tired.

If only I could get a word to D.

Sunday, March 28th.

Through Angelito bought socks, writing paper, basket to store my provisions and further delicacies. Day passed chiefly in eating and smoking. Librarian brought three little volumes of humorous sketches by Averchenko.

In the afternoon the blond young German spoke to No. 37 again. Said he had got paper to write to his Consul and prom­ised the invisible Carlos to lend him a peseta.

In the evening the bugler blew a new tune for the last post.

An even more melancholy tune.

Monday, March 29th.

All my pleasure in eating and drinking has gone to the devil. Every bite reminds me of the origin of the money and the letter. These attacks of homesickness recur at short intervals and with a violence I've never before experienced. What a sad sort of creature one is; so long as one's hungry, one has no other desire but to eat and eat, but the moment one is replete the 'nobler feelings' suddenly make themselves felt and spoil all one's pleasure. Three days ago a piece of cheese seemed to me the highest of all earthly gifts. Now, the moment I set eyes on a piece of cheese or a sardine tin, the thought of home inevitably occurs to me, and then there's the devil to pay. The good God has definitely put a few wheels too many in our heads.

Afternoon Angelito paid me a private visit and relieved me very willingly of a part of the cause of my misery by devouring sardines, cheese and chocolate. Afterwards the new jefe de servicio came to inform me that Colonel Fuster had not yet answered his inquiry about my confiscated money and luggage. Doesn't interest me now. Asked him when a decision as to my case was to be expected. Said he didn't know; I was an important case, one didn't capture a Red journalist every day. I was highly flattered, but wonder whether it's good or bad to be an important case.

Tuesday, March 30th.

I fancy the jefe only visited me because he had heard I'd got some money. It is really curious to see how my prestige has risen overnight and how my own self-confidence has grown since I've had some money.

Have sixty pesetas left; must begin to be careful. Dreamed - for second time during imprisonment - that I was free. All rather colourless and disappointing.

Got Mill once more and made extracts whole day.

Wednesday, March 31st.

At midday the warder asked me whether I would like some wine. You bet I would. Got a big beaker full for 45 centimos - about half a pint. Learned that every prisoner has the right to buy wine for the midday and evening meals, but no more than this quantity ... I keep the midday ration for evening, so as to drink both together. Tolerably good white wine, but too little to have any effect. All the same very good to have wine at all.

Thursday, April 1st.

Got Nerval's Aurelia, Bunin's Puyodol and Stevenson's Olala at same time. Now I have pretty good food, wine, cigarettes, clean underclothes and good books, no material worries, no bother with publishers, editors and colleagues. Soberly viewed, things are going quite well with me if it were not for my fear. I fancy that if my state of uncertainty came to an end, and later on I were to receive permission to be with the others in the patio, I should rub along quite well here.

When I read I forget everything for hours on end and am quite contented and really cheerful. Then I remember the letter and all the commiseration expressed in it and I have a feeling that I have a conventional obligation to be unhappy. I picture to myself how my wife must be picturing my situation and my commiseration reflects her commiseration like the echo of an echo. Again and again I catch myself being conscience-stricken at being so cheerful. Custom demands that a man in prison must suffer.

It must be very irksome for the dead to have the living think of them.

Friday, April 2nd.

What pearls one discovers in comparatively unknown books, when, as a result of unwonted circumstances, one forms the unwonted custom of reading attentively!

Gerard de Nerval spent half his life in a madhouse; he wrote the book that I am reading partly between two attacks of madness and partly during an attack; it contains page after page of completely absurd visions and the plot of the story is his own fluctuation between insanity and reason. At one point his condition seems definitely to improve, and his mind grows clear. The result is that he is now kicked out of the asylum and has to wander homeless through the streets of Paris in the cold winter nights, without a penny in his pockets and without an overcoat, instead of pursuing his gay visions in the well-heated madhouse. Half-dead with exhaustion, he muses:

'When you regain what people call reason, its loss seems scarcely worth bemoaning.'

At thirty-five he was found hanged.

I should like to know whether he hanged himself because, at the moment when he knotted the rope, he happened to be mad or because he happened to be sane.

The outside world becomes more and more unreal to me. Sometimes I even think that I was happy before. One weaves illusions not only about one's future, but also about one's past.

Saturday, April 3rd.

Got needle and thread, spent the whole day cobbling the tattered remains of my shirt, my pants and my new socks. At midday got fresh lettuce from Angelito wrapped up in a scrap of old newspaper. Saw from it that King of the Belgians had been in Berlin and that Italy had concluded a pact with Jugoslavia; but nothing about the Spanish war. Was astonished and horrified to find how little this news affected me and how much my interest in what is happening outside is waning. And the second month is not yet up.

What interests me much more is that the siesta promenaders - Byron and the consumptive - have now got a companion. Lanky, unshaven, dirty, and wears glasses. Has on a short leather coat which looks much too small for him. His whole appearance is somehow comic and pathetic in its awkwardness; have no idea what he can be.

Sunday, April 4th.

Very bad day. Only a few hours' relief in sleeping and writing. My heart is giving me so much trouble that at times I feel as though I am suffocating. Whole day in bed in a kind of apathetic coma. The idea of getting up alarms me.

Have never been so wretched since Malaga.

Monday, April 5th.

Had heart attack during night, just like the one in 1932. Am very much afraid another one coming on.

- Arthur Koestler: Dialogue with Death, trans. Trevor & Phyllis Blewitt, 1937, abridged edition, 1942, revised Danube edition, 1966 (London: Papermac, 1983): 144-47.


The Outsider

Albert Camus' L’Étranger was first published by Libraire Gallimard in Paris in 1942. In 1946, it was first translated into English by British author Stuart Gilbert and this translation was read by millions for over four decades. A second English translation was published in 1982 by British publishing house Hamish Hamilton. This translation, by Joseph Laredo, was adopted by Penguin Books in 1983 and reprinted for Penguin Classics in 2000. In 1989, another translation by American Matthew Ward was published.

The tone of the three English translations is quite different, with the Gilbert translation exhibiting a more formal tone. An example of this difference can be found in the first sentence of the first chapter:

French: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier"

Gilbert translation: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday."

Ward translation: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

Laredo translation: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday."

Plot Summary:

At the start of the novel, Meursault attends his mother's funeral, where he does not express any of the usual emotions that such an event often induces. He is asked if he wants to view the body of his mother but declines, instead smoking and drinking coffee in front of the body. Meursault sent his mother there because he felt she would be more happy with other people rather than living alone with Meursault in his apartment. The novel goes on to document the next few days of his life through the first person point-of-view. His best friend Raymond Sintès, one of his neighbors, of whom Meursault aids in dismissing his Arab girlfriend because Raymond suspects her of infidelity. Later, Raymond and Meursault encounter her brothers on a beach, and Raymond is injured in a resulting knife fight. After retreating, Meursault returns to the beach and shoots one of the brothers in a moment of confusion caused in part by the glare of the sun. "The Arab" is killed, and Meursault fires four more times into the dead body.

At the trial, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The argument follows that if Meursault is incapable of remorse, he should be considered a dangerous misanthrope who should be executed by guillotine in order to set an example for others who consider murder. Meursault is charged largely due to the lack of emotions shown at his mother's funeral, rather than for the murder of the Arab man.

As the novel comes to a close, Meursault meets with a chaplain and rejects the chaplain's insistence that he turn to God. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. The final lines echo his new realization: "As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."

According to Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987), p.9:

The dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as … “How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?” Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are limits of the knowable? And so on.

He then goes on to formulate a second thesis (p.10):

The dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins [in A Dialectic of Centuries (1978)] calls “post-cognitive”: “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?” Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance: What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on.

Epistemology foregrounds questions of consciousness.

Ontology foregrounds questions of existence.

[Robert Capa: Falling Soldier (1937)]

Workshop 9
Spanish Testament

““When the storm rages and the state is threatened by shipwreck, we can do nothing more noble than to lower the anchor of our peaceful studies into the ground of eternity.”
– Johannes Kepler (6th November 1629)
quoted in Arthur Koestler. The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe. 1959 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972): 427.

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 9:
Rules & Taboos

For better or worse, institutions all have rules. Draw up a list of five rules from your childhood.

  • Draw on your experience of family, school, the workplace, hospital, church or prison and describe some of the unspoken rules that influenced your life.
  • What happened when you broke the rules?
  • Have you ever told a lie? Were you found out? Write about the incident and its aftermath.
  • Alternatively, you could recall an embarrassing moment from your own life and imagine you are trying to explain it all away to an adult. Write the dialogue.

NB: This exercise was adapted from The Creative Writing Handbook: Techniques for New Writers, edited by John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan, 1996): 96.

Next week:

Exercise 10: Writing from Elsewhere and Seminars on Lydia Ginzburg's Blockade Diary due.

[Doroga zhizni / The Road of Life]

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