Guest Post: Exploring the Koestler Suicides

Here’s a guest post from Bernard Otterman where he discusses his experiences writing historical fiction set in the dim, dear past of the 1980s.

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Self-Deliverance CoverFor a long time I wanted to write a novel at whose center would be a love story. I wasn’t thinking about a Harlequin romance or a tear jerker like Eric Segal’s novel, but a mature story, which would among other virtues, shed light on my own love story which includes a marriage which has lasted forty six years.

While seeking a frame for such novel, I read a biography of Arthur Koestler, who committed suicide together with his much younger wife in March 1983. At the time of his death, Arthur Koestler was as well known in London as Jean-Paul Sartre was in Paris. Darkness at Noon is judged by many to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century. He had also penned The God That Failed, a memoir of Communist faith and disillusionment. Critics claimed that Spanish Testament, his autobiography about his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and his imprisonment there, ranked with the war reportage of George Orwell. Later in his life, shortly before becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher requested that Koestler pay her a visit.

It is not known if this meeting ever occurred, but what is known is that the morning of the third of March, 1983, the bodies of Arthur and his wife, Cynthia were discovered by the police at their house located in the Kensington section of London. Arthur slouched in his living room chair dead, his wife – twenty five years younger — lying on the adjacent sofa also dead. The initial police report suggested a double suicide. My and many other people’s reaction was one of horror.

Arthur’s decision at the age of 78, terminally ill, is understandable. But why would a healthy and good looking woman of fifty-three also decide to kill herself? Did she act on her own volition or was she forced or tricked to end her life? For me, a child Holocaust survivor, life is precious. Even in death camps such as Auschwitz, very few inmates “took to the fence” — committed suicide by impaling themselves on the electric fence. Classical literature such as Romeo and Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as well as occasional real life reports, suggests that love, when taken to the extreme, can make a partner or a spouse choose death over living the “practical life” without the beloved.

The Koestler’s suicides present an opportunity to examine love by forming a fictional group tasked to investigate the mystery of their deaths. Moreover, by subjecting the members of this group to their individual love troubles, I was able to study love in a wide variety of situations, such as cheating in marriage, love between individuals from different cultures, and expectations of what love can or should create in a good marriage, namely, a good life.

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Author PhotoBernard Otterman is the author of Self-Deliverance: The Death and Life of Arthur Koestler. You can find out more about Bernard and his book at bernardotterman.com. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Exploring the Koestler Suicides

  1. Thank you for a moving post about the suicide deaths of the Koestlers. I’m sure Mr. Otterman has been deeply affected by the story he has told us, and I, for one, will be getting the book.

    Even in the 21st century, most people believe they will never be touched by suicide, yet every suicide impacts the lives of family members, friends, first responders, emergency room workers, and therapists. I know because I was one of those therapists. These people are suicide survivors.

    Writers looking for reliable information about suicide and survivors of suicide will find the American Association of Suicidology is a good place to start.