The Blessed Existence of Harry Kessler

Kessler nytimesPhoto: nytimes

I’ve been reading the diaries of this German Count, Harry Kessler. He lived during the some of the best decades of European culture, and because he had money and contacts he lived a blessed existence.

You open the book up at a random page. Here he is in Paris. It’s June 1907. At dinner with Degas and others. A week later he’s having tea with Vuillard and Bonnard. Afterwards, he goes to Ambroise Vollard’s for dinner and Renoir joins the party. A few weeks later he’s picking up Rodin  in his car, taking him to lunch with a sculptor from whom Kessler has commissioned two works. Another random page: He visits Matisse in Issy, meets Rilke at an exhibition of paintings, has breakfast with D’Annunzio on the Champs Élysées. And so on it goes.

My edition of the diaries covers 1880 to 1918. They’ve been edited, translated, and given an introduction by Laird M. Easton, who is chair of the Department of History at California State University. Easton has given us a gift, and I hope he’s working on the 1918-1937 diaries now, which don’t seem to be available in English.

They’re peppered with observations, portraits, and reported speech. Kessler described D’Annunzio as being dressed in the outfit of a “fading coffeehouse Don Juan from an Italian small town”. The Italian poet chatted to Kessler about a foreword he himself wrote to someone else’s play, saying of his own foreword: “There are some very remarkable passages in it. They have already made a big impression. They will have a great influence on French prose.”

Kessler gives us Degas, angry at the modern state because it provides too much education: “It’s the Jews and the Protestants who do that, who ruin races through education. Compulsory education is an infamy, voilà” (Kessler thought he was deranged).

There are hundreds of these miniatures and these moments. Kessler never stays put anywhere for more than a week – Berlin, Weimar, London, Naples, the Aeolian Islands…As Easton says of the diaries in his introduction: “there is no lesson here. We are just astonished.”

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