Magazine article The Spectator

Charming, Cold-Eyed Cosmopolitan

Magazine article The Spectator

Charming, Cold-Eyed Cosmopolitan

Article excerpt

Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 edited and translated by Laird M. Easton Knopf, £30, pp. 976, ISBN 9780307265821

At last a diary as penetrating on Berlin as the Goncourt brothers' on Paris has been translated into English. The author, Count Harry Kessler, resembled a character from Sybille Bedford's masterpiece, A Legacy. Born in Paris in 1868, he was educated in England, France and Germany. His father was a Hamburg banker; his mother was an Irish-Scottish beauty called Alice Blosse Lynch, admired by the Emperor Wilhelm I. At once German and European, Kessler rotated, as freely as some do today, between London, Paris and Berlin.

After a year in the army, and a voyage round the world, Kessler devoted himself to the arts. Exhibitions and parties, and long descriptions of landscape, fill his diary.

He did not find social life hollow. Needing patrons for his projects, he admired the skill with which, at parties, 'enormous forces of material and intellectual capital play against each other'. He enjoyed dissecting his acquaintance. A patron of the arts in Paris, much admired by Marcel Proust, was Comtesse Greffuhle. Kessler wrote that her 'taste and understanding are subordinated to her will to dominate and to shine, no matter the cost'.

Friends described in his diary include, among many others, Bakst, Rodin, Maillol, Rilke, Max Reinhardt and George Grosz.

Kessler went to parties with Cocteau and Diaghilev and collaborated with von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss on Der Rosenkavalier and The Legend of Joseph.

His portrait by Munch, in a white hat, leaning on a cane, is an epitome of elegance.

Photographs, however, show the coldness in his eyes.

Kessler is an incomparable observer of Germany, when it seemed destined to be the lighthouse of the world. The nepotism and bureaucracy of the universities were, in his opinion, almost as burdensome as the state's.

Berlin still looked 'beggarly' compared to Vienna. But on 12 December 1906, he wrote:

'It is a curious moment in Germany, so much fermentation and such promise of something great'. On 10 October 1911:

How rich our German life is compared to France or England, what an abundance of social types and customs with completely different origins . . . Germany is a world, whereas England and France with their stereotypically divided three social classes are but enlarged villages . . . what a stage for a Balzac.

Kessler was presented at court, but wrote of Wilhelm II: 'You could still forgive that he is no gentleman and a coward, if he were not so miserably bad in his metier.' Many Germans - as well as foreigners - believed him mad. Kessler describes the 'brutality' and 'bestiality' of his chin and mouth, his 'abnormally wide hips' and 'almost femininely developed rear end'. In foreign policy 'almost everything happens from moment to moment according to the caprices of the Emperor'.

In 1907, a year before the eruption of a scandal involving the Kaiser's friend Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, Kessler wrote:

'People only talk of pederasty and Zeppelins, but pederasty prevails, especially among ladies.' They said: 'If you want to amuse yourself among boys, you should at least refrain from doing it with your orderlies.' He himself concentrated on Belgian sea cadets and a French cyclist called Colin, and hoped for a sexual revolution.

Kessler confirms that Germany was bent on war. In 1899 the liberal chancellor Caprivi had said 'we must conquer colonies for ourselves in Europe'. Berliners by 1908 were saying, 'more and more frequently', 'to get out of this inner swamp a war today would not be so terrible'. …

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