Scum of the Earth
Scum of the Earth
At the beginning of the Second World War, Koestler was living in the south of France working on Darkness at Noon. After retreating to Paris he was imprisoned by the French as an undesirable alien even though he had been a respected crusader against fascism. Only luck and his passionate energy allowed him to escape the fate of many of the innocent refugees, who were handed over to the Nazis for torture and often execution.
Scum of the Earth is more than the story of Koestler’s survival. His shrewd observation of the collapse of French determination to resist during the summer of 1940 is an illustration of what happens when a nation loses its honour and its pride.
‘... a memorable story, vivid, powerful and deeply searching.’ - Times Literary Supplement
‘This is a book in a thousand, by far the best book to come out of the collapse of France.’ - Guardian
Scum of the Earth
Format: 256pp demi pb
Arthur Koestler is now an essential part of the English literary landscape both as political activist, controversialist and the author of ‘Darkness at Noon'. He stands beside George Orwell as one of the key writers of the twentieth century who would embrace communism but would later turn against the ‘party' and denounce the tragic distortions and abuses that had betrayed the great vision. Koestler was never forgiven by other writers of the ‘Left' for what they saw as his anti-communist treachery. It left a great deal of bad blood between him and the literary establishment even after the Cold War had ended, most precisely because he had been proved right. Koestler was in any case always a lone wolf, better at annoying and offending people than in making and keeping friends. He was also at heart a disturbed man, seemingly at his most brutal in his predatory relationships with women and neither anti-depressants nor psychoanalysis greatly helped him. But there was no more evil in him than in most other human beings. He was capable of love.
It is important to remember that Koestler like so many of the seminal writers of modern English first came to these island shores as a mature immigrant – like Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound and T S Eliott, In Koestler's case as a hunted refugee who had just escaped the Nazi occupation of the French Republic. The story of which is so graphically told in Scum of the Earth and which begins when he was arrested as an undesirable and dangerous alien in Paris on October 4, 1939. He was then thirty-four years of age and had already made a name for himself as talented and versatile journalist with a politically engaged background.
Koestler was born at Budapest into a Hungarian Jewish family. As a young man he would study pure science at Vienna, an environment that led him to become a keen Zionist. He was a follower of Vladimir Jobotinsky, the very talented right wing Zionist leader, though once he landed in Palestine he joined a left-wing kibbutz. His stay in a kibbutz lasted only a few weeks; he was too much of an individualist to fit in and not a good agricultural worker. He was asked to leave and spent the next year as a loafer in Haifa and Tel Aviv drawn to all sorts of unlikely pursuits, such as getting in advertisements for a new Hebrew-language newspaper, as a surveyor, and the author of fairy tales. He was an unlikely citizen of this new nation for he never mastered Hebrew and had only a very limited interest in Jewish tradition, history and culture. He often starved and slept on the floor of offices belonging to friends. Then there came a sudden breakthrough – an offer to write for leading German and Austrian newspapers. Within a couple of years he became what he wanted to be – a start journalist and in 1929 he left Palestine for Paris. Koestler's transition from Zionism to Communism in this period did not perhaps come as a total surprise. He travelled a great deal all over Europe ranging from a flight in a Zeppelin over the North Pole to a long stay in the Soviet Union. He became a formal member of the Communist party in 1931 and remained a committed activist. His experience of the Spanish Civil War (1936-7) was as a columnist for the London News Chronicle though it seems clear that he also had political duties through his position within the Communist International. The confusing ethics of this period, and his experience of imprisonment by the Fascists under a sentence of death in Seville, would be revealed in Spanish Testament (1938) which would later be reshaped into the slimmer volume, Dialogue with Death (1942). He formally broke allegiance with the Communist party in 1938, after the Moscow purges and show trials had reached their bizarre course to leave the Russian army critically weakened just at the start of the Second World War.
In Paris after war was declared in 1939 another sort of purge was to be unleashed. Koestler along with all the other liberal, free-thinkers, communists and socialist exiles then based in Paris - the ironical “Scum of the Earth' of the books title - were targeted by right-wing elements within the French regime even before the Nazi victory and the swift emergence of French ‘Vichy' fascism. Hundreds of writers and political figures were arrested at the time, some managed to escape but many were caught in the trap, committed suicide or were deported to Germany where they were murdered. There was of course no logical reason why Koestler should have been arrested, as a Jew and a man of the left his anti-Nazi credentials were above suspicion while as a Hungarian (Hungary was a neutral country at the time) he should also have been outside the police drag net. It is ironic that Darkness at Noon would be written in this period, between Koestler's first arrest in Paris and his second in the spring of 1940. His hair-raising escape across the breadth of German occupied France to the safety of England provides the narrative background for Scum of the Earth but which also excavates his mature reflections on the unwritten civil war within European society that was waged throughout the 20's and 30's. In Britain he joined the Pioneer Corps and later worked for the BBC. In 1940 his acknowledged masterpiece, Darkness at Noon, was published and soon emerged as one of the defining political novels of the 20th century. In the 1950's he emerged as one of the guiding lights of an intelligent, reflective humanism, refreshingly open to spiritual speculation but a determined opponent of all authoritarian regimes. It was a productive period though his work on parapsychology did not prove to be the Darwin-like revolution in thought that he imagined it to be. His work on the Khazar origins of the Askenazi element of modern Judaism in The Thirteenth Tribe, was intentionally mischievous. Though perhaps like Freud he liked to gently mock his own peoples dangerous delusions about the purity of race. Of his many books from this period, only The God that Failed (1950) based on his personal experiences as a young communist equalled the measure of his early works. Auden admired him greatly but advised to drop writing novels and write only autiobiography. It was good advice, for of his works it is the autobiographical works about imprisonment, arbitrary arrest and state power: Scum of the Earth, Spanish Testament and Darkness at Noon that will survive. He and his devoted second wife committed suicide together in their home in Montpelier Square to escape the last stages of his terminal illness.
Extract from Book
There was only an old couple in the restaurant apart from us, sitting at a neighbouring table. They were both in black, and the woman, with protruding, red-veined eyes, nodded to us in mournful reproach. She had eaten and drunken an enormous amount without losing her mournful look – the type of Frenchwoman who already as a bride has the future widow written on her face. She went on nodding to us in silence,and it seemed to me that with her appraising eyes she tried to divine what G. would look like with a black veil. One felt that a great time began for her now, a sort of Indian summer blooming, nourished by the black saps of despair.
While still at Liberty I could watch Paris turn grey. Not the people – the town. It was if some morbid disease had attacked its very roots in the alluvial clay of the Seine valley. The pavement in the streets had lost its magic. ‘In Mecca, Abu Suleiman once said, ‘ the pious man should not walk on his soles but on his head.’ In Paris everybody walked on his soles, and usually the heels, even of the women, were worn-down and askew, but one flet the vivifying current mount up to one’s head. Now the current was gone. This town has always been thought of by lovers as a person alive – not metaphorically, but as a psychological reality. Now they felt the beloved grow cold and stony in their arms; they watched life fade out of her, inverted Pygmalions; and they walked in despair through her suddenly hostile avenues, as on tombstones.
The next day was Sunday, September 3rd; we had lunch in Pouilly, in a sunny garden overlooking the river and surrounded by vineyards. It was our last halt before Paris; in a few hours we would reach our journey’s end. We had smoked ham and a bottle of Pouilly Fumé, the wine that makes you happy and wise like no other wine in the world. We looked at the river, and emptied the bottle to the last drop; and then, shortly before Melun we crossed two cars with people shouting excitedly to us; and when we stopped a mile farther on to fill up, the woman at the petrol tank told us that Britain had declared war on Germany.
On the last fifty miles to Paris the road was practically blocked by people running away from the capital in their cars and in taxis. Everybody believed that the Germans would bomb Paris immediately after the declaration of war, or even before; and everybody expected they would use some horrible new invention, and was obsessed by the idea of poison gas. There were only a few cars which fought their way with us against the stream; the disorder of this first exodus from Paris gave a tragic foretaste of that second one which was to take place ten months later and seal the fate of France.
We arrived at my flat in Paris at four o’clock in the afternoon. When I shook hands with our old concierge, she gave me a strange look. At first I thought it was only the general excitement, but when I handed her the bottle of Pouilly we had brought her, she took me to a corner of her loge, so that G. should not hear.
“I am not allowed to tell you’, she said, ‘but you had better leave at once. The police were here at 2 a.m. this morning; they have taken away Dr. Freeman handcuffed, and they wanted top arrest you too.”
Dr. Freeman occupied the flat next door to mine to the left. He was a doctor of medecine, and suffering from tuberculosis in an advanced stage. He had been staying for the last three months in a sanatorium in Switzerland, had rushed back to Paris to enrol as a volunteer in the French Army, and had been arrested on the very night of his arrival. He was a political refugge and his loyalty to France beyond doubt; but he was of German origin and so, after all, there might have been some explanation for his arrest.
As to myself, there was none. I am of Hungarian nationality, and Hungary was a neutral state; my parting with Communism one and a half years ago had given rise to certain comments in Left circles; and if the French secret police knew that I had been a Communits previous to 1938, they must equally well know that I was one no longer, and that I had been repeatedly attacked by Communist papers as a ‘supporter of Imperialism.”
I was convinced that the whole matter was a mistake and that the best thing to do was to go straight to the police and ask them what they wanted from me. So we got back into the car and drove to the police station of my district. Before I went in, I told G. that if they really had a warrant against me they might possibly keep me for a while, or even send me to prison for a few days, until the matter was cleared up. G. was slightly bewildered and we took somewhat sentimental leave of each other; then I walked into the lion’s den…When G. saw me coming out of the station, hardly five minutes after I had gone in, she was rather disappointed; she said she had been looking forward so much to seeing me being marched off by an armed escort. (Later, when her wish was fulfilled, she did not enjoy it.
The drole de guerre had begun; the days went on and nothing happened to me. Perhaps our good concierge had been dreaming? But she was not the kind of person to dream. And Dr. Freeman had disappeared without a trace. It was only a fortnight later that we learned that he was in the Santé Prison, kept in solitary confinement and prevented from consulting a solicitor or communicating with the outside world. This sounded bad enough. And there were other things of a similar kind: inexplicable arrests of apparently harmless people, who were dragged at night from their beds, handcuffed, beaten up, and clapped into a prison cell, without being interrogated and without being allowed legal support. They were not Germans – all Germans, refugees or not, had already been interned during the first days of the war..
There was nothing to do but to wait.