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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Journey to the Abyss’

- - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

JOURNEY TO THE ABYSS: THE DIARIES OF COUNT HARRY KESSLER, 1880-1918
Edited and translated by Laird M. Easton
Knopf, $45, 924 pages, illus.

Harry Kessler began his diary, now a classic of German literature, in June 1880. He had just turned 12 and for the next nearly 60 years, until his death in 1937, he kept at it, turning it into a work of several volumes. The diaries have been best-sellers in Germany for many years, unusual for a book of epic proportions. A shortened version, covering the period between 1918 and 1937, appeared in English nearly a half-century ago. Now the diaries from 1880 to the end of World War I, long feared lost, have come out in a truncated version ably edited and translated by Laird M. Easton, who published a well-received biography of Kessler in 2002.

Kessler's father, Adolph, was an enormously successful businessman who was made a count for his service to the German state. His mother, Alice, came from Anglo-Irish gentry and was one of the great beauties of her time. As an adult, Kessler recalled crowds on the streets of Paris struggling to get a glimpse of her when the family carriage passed by.

Kessler grew up fluent in German, French and English, becoming one of the most cosmopolitan of the influential men of his time. His wealth permitted him to become one of Europe's great art collectors. He bought van Goghs before the Dutch artist was acclaimed a genius and his paintings became costly.

Kessler owned Gauguins, Seurats, Rodins and works by other major modernists, many of which he sold in late life to survive when his opposition to Adolf Hitler forced him to leave Germany. But it was Kessler's gift for friendship, his lucid, direct style and his modesty - he lets others speak, without taking center stage himself - that turn the diaries into the great works they are.

What makes the diaries unusual, and perhaps unique, is that Kessler knew two separate worlds - the world of artists of all kinds and the world of statesmen and politicians - and knew both of these worlds and their denizens intimately.

The writers who appear in these pages read like a who's who of literature: Nobel-prize winning French novelist Andre Gide, the German playwright Gerhardt Hauptmann, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmansthal, an Austrian poet, and many others.

Kessler was a close friend of the German composer Richard Strauss and Strauss' difficult wife, Pauline. Among the great painters and sculptors of his time, Kessler knew and spent much time with Monet, Rodin, Munch (who painted his portrait) and a host of others.

The most intimate - and best - of the artist portraits he gives is of Aristide Maillol, the French sculptor who emerges as a warm, intense, highly intelligent man totally devoted to art and close to his peasant origins which Kessler believed helped make Maillol's art great.

Yet it is Kessler's closeness to major German statesmen and politicians that come as the diaries' biggest surprise. Kessler knew and knew well (in part because he was himself a count) such men as Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, Germany's leading World War I generals.

He was on a first-name basis with such politicians as Gustav Streseman and Walter Rathenau (Kessler wrote a biography of Rathenau after the Jewish visionary's 1922 assassination) and with most of the leading German diplomats if the time. Before the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Kessler's diaries (for the most part) are filled with the optimism and happiness of the Belle Epoque.

"The sun kisses the summit again after the romantic night," he effuses on July 10, 1903. "Joyousness will be the fundamental feeling of the new era."

But then as 1914 approaches, he hears more and more talk, in England, in France and in Germany, about the inevitability - at times even the desirability to help strengthen a Europe grown weak with peace - of war.

Almost everyone believed it would be a short war, and so did Kessler, and when war did break out, this most cosmopolitan of men, quickly became an ardent German patriot, convinced that a Germany victory was necessary if civilization were to be preserved.

Kessler, now in his mid-30s, served as an officer on both fronts, first in Belgium and then in the East, in Hungary and Ukraine. The diaries, packed with vivid descriptions of the horrors of war, became as black during the war as they had been hopeful and luminous before 1914.

By the war's end, Kessler saw clearly that the old order had come to an end and a new Europe was coming into being. Mr. Easton, the translator and editor of the diaries, provides an afterward describing Kessler's life in the 1920s and '30s.

Kessler became a close friend of Albert Einstein. He lectured in America, urging a less draconian peace than the one imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. He founded the Cranach Press, which produced some of the 20th century's most beautiful books. He also despaired as he saw many of his former friends embrace Nazism. Kessler fled Germany in the mid-1930s and died in exile.

But as Mr. Easton points out, Kessler left us "the rich tapestry that had been his life" in his incomparable diaries, a very fine gift indeed.

Stephen Goode wrote on art and culture for Insight Magazine.