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4.5 out of 5 stars
2
Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918
Format: Hardcover|Change
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on 27 September 2012
Having never read a diary before but having an interest in the period I had some nervous hopes as to whether both the content and the translation would live up to them.

Kessler it seems was a fairly unique figure. Educated in both England and Germany. He missed Churchill at school by one term. And coming from a german (father) and anglo-irish (mother)he spiritually straddled the artistic and intellectual milieu of high european culture, while remaining german both by inclination and emotional attachment.

The structure is as you would expect with a diary (edited considerably even at nearly 900 pages) episodic. But both the period he describes and his relationships are highly rewarding. His friendships often longlasting with the sculptors Maillol and Rodin; with the impressionists Monet and Degas; his sojourns in London with Shaw, Gill, William Morris and Gordon Craig as well as his trips to Whitechapel to watch lithe young men box in the east end give a flavour of his interests and tastes. His depth of involvement with the arts, both physical, musical and literary are as astonishing as they are wide-ranging. The names listed in the index are a virtual who's who of the period, but there was nothing superficial about his knowledge, opinions or his relations with artists, writers, actors, actresses, dancers, architects.

His brief but poignant relationship with Nietzsche, he with two others made his death mask, and his difficult relationship with Nietzsche's sister over the literary estate and memorial, are further evidence of the depth of his cultural and personal attachments. He was also the last person to interview Verlaine in a rundown garret in Paris for the magazine Pan, a journal he helped establish.

Kessler wanted to serve his country as a diplomat, but it seems his artistic relationships were a constant block to this within german court and politial circles and he did not achieve his ambition until halfway through the war. Even though he was a reserve officer in the military, and well connected politically, his tastes were too much for the introverted and narrow-minded german establishment.

Widely travelled and voluminously well read, the meat of the diaries are the closeness and intimacy to the subjects he writes about both artistic and personal. Someone has written that he could sum up a german princess after a single glance. Well he could, but there is nothing condescending about his writing. It may be judgemental and opinionated but he rarely lowers himself to abuse or disdain.

Kessler served on both the western and eastern fronts before achieving his diplomatic ambitions. His secret, authorised negotiations with representatives of France in Switzerland and his subsequent dealings with Marshall Pilsudski in Poland add further to a man whose experiences, including friendships with both Walter Rathenau and Gustav Streseman, were simply extraordinary.

He was described by a friend as the last gentleman. An opinion summed up perhaps by the bizarre occurence of 'arresting' the Duchess of Sutherland in Belgium where she was nursing during the early weeks of the war, when several weeks earlier he had been sitting around her dinner table in England. She is said to have remarked that 'it was strange to see him again under such circumstances'.

It is impossible not to both be admiring of and awed by Kessler's life and experiences. Rarely does a life have such constant interactions at such a level. The diaries bring to life a collection of people and their interwoven experiences and relationships that were then and are now central to an understanding of the artistic and political feelings and movements of the period.

My only quibble about this book is the rather poor quality of the plates, which are interspersed throughout the text, rather than being quality photographic reproductions. A shame for such a book, but not enough to lose any stars in my opinion.

Oh yes the translation makes the narrative flow and sometimes sparkle. A marvellous achievement.
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