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Two excellent reads

September 29, 2013

5182266I had the good luck to read the newly-translated “Journey to the Abyss: the Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918” at the same time (by happy accident) as “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914” by Philipp Blom. Never before have I read two books that linked so superbly to each other.

Kessler was an Anglo-German aristocrat, a cultivated gay man with nuanced aesthetic taste. He met and interacted with virtually every significant artist, musician, writer, and dancer of his time, along with members of the German royal family, high-ranking military officers, political figures and prominent journalists. He helped make the death mask of Nietzsche; he dined with Diaghilev and Nijinsky frequently; he often dropped in to see Rodin at his studio; he championed Impressionism as well as Post-Impressionism and commissioned works by Vuillard, Maillol and Munch. He attended the memorial service for Isadora Duncan’s children after their tragic drowning; and he knew countless men of letters including Shaw, Rimbaud, D’Annunzio and others too numerous to name, Basically, if you can think of a leading name in the arts or letters of the early decades of the 20th century, Kessler probably met that person and wrote up their encounter in his diaries.

“The Vertigo Years” proves itself an excellently researched portrait of the opening years of the 20th century by identifying so many of the same themes that recur in Kessler’s diaries: the mad arms race between Germany and England; the quest for speed in the form of race-cars and airplanes; astonishing new technology in the form of airships (Kessler personally met both Hindenberg and von Zeppelin); the first uncertain steps in recognizing the inherent value of gay relationships; the first movement toward what we now call New Age spirituality; women’s suffrage; the onset of modern neuroses; and widespread sexual ambivalence—essentially, modernism in all of its disruptive, cataclysmic force.  “The Vertigo Years” provides the necessary structure to fully understand the many currents that were moving in the early 1900s.

Edvard Munch's portrait of Kessler. Courtesy WikiPaintings.

Edvard Munch’s portrait of Kessler. Courtesy WikiPaintings.

Both books complement other so well that they ought to be read as companion pieces. My own favorite extract from the Kessler book is the sequence of two adjoining entries from February of 1912 in which Kessler goes out on the town with Gordon Craig (the son of actress Ellen Terry, the lover of Isadora Duncan, and the originator of abstract stage sets that eschewed elaborate decorations).  Kessler and Craig went to the famous nightclub Pigalle’s in Montmartre, where they ran into Alistair Crowley and a friend. “Crowley, a fat, disgustingly dressed, bohemian Englishman with a collar, seemed in a bad mood and was silent except for proposing to us late in the evening an orgy with a new kind of intoxicating drink that causes colorful visions. Lola Lopez, the little Spaniard, danced on the table.” After shaking off Crowley, Craig and Kessler moved on at 2:00 in the morning to a dance hall across the street. At the table next to them were French naval cadets from Brest who had a “little, very dark, brown-eyed girl in a black dress and a black hood covered with red berries.” The girl was drunk and was dancing like a madwoman. She caught sight of Craig and ran to his table and told him she could tell by looking at him that he was a great man, and she wanted to kiss him. The naval cadets intervened, apologizing for her behavior and explaining that being from a provincial town like Brest, she thought she could approach anyone and strike up a conversation. They tried to remove her back to their own table, but the girl clung to Kessler and Craig’s table. “No, no, I want to kiss Monsieur. He is a great man for sure…I want to kiss the hands of Monsieur.” Kessler writes, “Craig, who has very ugly hands, the hands of a sex murderer, tried to hide them under the table. But the little girl knelt down, crawled under the table, seized the hands, and kissed, indeed bit them passionately. Now the other cadets came over, hoisted the girl up, and carried her forcefully away, but while still in their arms, she turned around and cried, ‘Tell Monsier that one sees clearly that he’s a great man, that he should be very loved by women and be very mean to them.’ Craig, who had been embarrassed at first by the ovation of the little girl, was in the end very moved and very smitten with her. He made inquiries everywhere in the establishment for her name and her address, but no one knew her. He would not have minded going home with her.” And in Kessler’s very next entry in the diary he records going to see Marinetti provoking a riot by proclaiming the Futurist Manifesto at a gallery.  When a heckler jumped up on stage and called Marinetti an imbecile, Marinetti “started to kick his opponent furiously and pushed him off the podium. Whereupon the public stormed Marinetti and began to beat him with canes and umbrellas. Marinetti’s friends then attacked the public, all shouting at each other. Women were brought outside, the table with the glass of water fell from the podium into the knot of men swaying back and forth, and finally, in order to restore calm, the electric light was turned out and the police called in. Marinetti achieved some beautiful publicity as a charlatan.” A footnote observes that Marinetti’s reading of the Futurist Manifesto was one of the very first art “happenings.”

For one who had his pulse on the changes in the art and music world, it’s not surprising that Kessler attended the opening performances of both of the Ballets Russe’s great ballets, “Afternoon of a Faun” with music by Debussy, and “The Rites of Spring” by Stravinsky.  At the final rehearsal of the latter, he recorded “the common opinion was that tomorrow evening the premiere would be a scandal.” Kessler does not record a riot, as he did with the Marinetti event, even though historians generally accept that there was a furor, Kessler records shouting, laughing, whistling, joke-making, hecklers and people screaming at each other. “And above this crazy din there continued the storm of salvos of laughter and scornful clapping while the music raged and on the stage the dancers, without flinching, danced fervently in a prehistoric fashion.” He records Stravinsky and Nijinsky taking repeated bows afterward, which might indicate that accounts of an actual riot were blown out of proportion. Afterwards Kessler went out with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Bakst and Cocteau for a victory celebration that ended up with them riding through the night atop the roof of a taxi, waving a handkerchief like a flag. It’s great to read about these wild times of early Modernism.

This image of officer Kessler is courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This image of officer Kessler is courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1914 Kessler was called up for military service in the war and his entries from that point on describe the horrors of war from the German perspective. It’s disappointing that the book ends in 1918, but my e-book version has 1100 pages and an editor needs to end a book somewhere. After the war Kessler abandoned militarism. He ended up losing most of his money in the Crash and died impoverished in 1937. Based on his fascinating diaries, his life would make a magnificent graphic novel.

Two thumbs-up: “Into the Abyss” and “The Vertigo Years.”

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One Comment
  1. Oh, these look like good reads! I’ll have to see if my library has them available.

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