Everywhere Man

Count Harry Kessler dined with Diaghilev, fought for Germany, and penned one of the greatest diaries ever published.

He was cosmopolitan, and a member of a new aristocracy. He grew up in Paris, in England, in Germany, and on Staten Island. Though his mother was Anglo-Irish, Count Harry Kessler was, or became, intensely German, as if by a sort of tragic choice; and he also became, through his experiences and through the anguished searching of his spirit, something close to a representative man.

The diary he wrote, starting in 1880 when he was 12 and continuing until his death in 1937, is said by the editor and translator of the volume, Laird M. Easton, to be one of the greatest ever written, “comparable in its stature to those of Samuel Pepys, André Gide, Henri Frédéric Amiel, Beatrice Webb, or Virginia Woolf.” Kessler moves between countries and is intimate with high society in England, France, and Germany. He seeks out great artists and gives us memorable portraits of Verlaine in old age, of Degas and Renoir, of Rodin and Maillol, of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, of Cosima Wagner, of Richard Strauss, of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, and of other great dancers and theatrical figures of the age. He tells us of the intrigues of the German Imperial Court. We see him helping Hofmannsthal to work out the plot of Der Rosenkavalier. We accompany his party to the premiere of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and to the dinner afterward with Nijinsky, Cocteau, Misia Sert (as she later became), Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Bakst, Ravel, Hofmannsthal, and—a late arrival, covered in gems from the Persian Ball—the Aga Khan, who, “sitting next to Nijinsky with his jaw and vulgar face, was like a fat sack of real money next to a fantastic dream of wealth.” The cast list alone makes this an amazing diary.

The German culture was everything to Kessler, and he watched as Germany seemed to triumph, after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in an awesome expansion that would have given it an empire stretching from the Belgian coast to the steppes of Russia. He closed his eyes and looked again, and that triumph had turned into an all-encompassing defeat.

Deceived though he was on this occasion, he had a gift for identifying the great historical developments of the day. He saw the conquest of the air, heard the crowds wondering in dismay at the latest long-range artillery to be deployed against Paris, saw the dawn of submarine warfare, and knew at first hand the dreadful cost of the trenches. He was drawn to events. In 1911, in London, he learned that a couple of anarchists were besieged in a house in Whitechapel by 1,500 policemen, Scots Guards, and artillery—the famous Siege of Sidney Street. So he set off to see for himself, and he must have cut a distinguished figure in the poverty-stricken East End, the dandified German count. He knew these parts well, visiting them on other occasions to watch young men boxing, and perhaps (like Wilfred Owen) in search of an erotic adventure. On this occasion he came looking for a piece of living theater:

Several hundred thousand spectators were crowded in the streets and squares nearby while all the rooftops, windows, and even the trees around the squares were black with people. The entire crowd was completely peaceful as if they were in a theater as the two people in the house were fired upon and finally burned out. The crowd remained calm even when someone was shot accidentally. Mass psychology.

Kessler does not mention that the home secretary, Winston Churchill, was the one responsible for calling in the Scots Guards and the artillery against the two men, or that Churchill watched events from close quarters, somewhat to the disgust of his peers, and refused to let the fire brigade enter the blazing house where the two burned bodies were eventually found. Kessler’s interest, rather, is in the psychology of the crowd, the siege as spectacle.

He was always attracted to the theater. In 1900, when the Comédie-Française burned down, he rushed to the scene and, incredibly, into the building itself:

At first I remained outside; then, as rescuers ran into the theater and began to bring out ridiculous things, old sofas and the like, I also went over through the dark vestibule and up the grand staircase. Above was the fire. The flames were already beginning to enter the corridor through the loges from the auditorium. Suddenly a loge door flew open crackling, then a second, then a third. The huge auditorium stood open. The entire chamber is a whirlwind of glowing dust, one single, red sea of light in which vibrating atoms of fire waft upward, undifferentiated elements, not flames. These become thicker only on the periphery where the fire breaks hissing through the silk curtains of the loges and licks the roof of the corridor with long tongues. In the gallery of busts the oeil-de-boeuf windows fall clattering one after the other and a fleeting light from a flame falls on Houdon’s Voltaire, who views the wreckage ironically.

In the same year, Friedrich Nietzsche, the crucial intellectual figure for Kessler’s generation, died. Kessler, who was close to Nietzsche’s notorious sister, Elizabeth, went to Weimar for the funeral and found himself obliged to assist in the making of the death mask. Nietzsche’s health had declined, and his mind had gone, so Kessler never could record his conversation. What we get is a memorable description of him, in 1897, asleep on the sofa:

The mighty head rested, as if too heavy for his neck, sunk on his chest, hanging halfway to the right. The forehead is quite colossal, the mane of his hair still dark brown, and also the shaggy, swollen moustache. There are wide, black-brown shadows sunk deep under his eyes into his cheeks. In his flat, loose face deep furrows from thought and desire are engraved but gradually fading and becoming smooth again … He was exhausted by the muggy, thunderstorm atmosphere and would not awaken, despite his sister stroking him several times and calling to him, “Darling, darling” caressingly. Thus he resembles not someone sick or crazy but rather a dead man.

Staying with the Nietzsches, Kessler was woken up by long, raw groaning sounds. It was Nietzsche crying out with all his strength in the night.

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James Fenton is a visting fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center.

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