These fascinating, never-before-published early diaries of Count Harry Kessler—patron, museum director, publisher, cultural critic, soldier, secret agent, and diplomat—present a sweeping panorama of the arts and politics of Belle Époque Europe, a glittering world poised to be changed irrevocably by the Great War. Kessler’s immersion in the new art and literature of Paris, London, and Berlin unfolds in the first part of the diaries. This refined world gives way to vivid descriptions of the horrific fighting on the Eastern and Western fronts of World War I, the intriguing private discussions among the German political and military elite about the progress of the war, as well as Kessler’s account of his role as a diplomat with a secret mission in Switzerland.
Profoundly modern and often prescient, Kessler was an erudite cultural impresario and catalyst who as a cofounder of the avant-garde journal Pan met and contributed articles about many of the leading artists and writers of the day. In 1903 he became director of the Grand Ducal Museum of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, determined to make it a center of aesthetic modernism together with his friend the architect Henry van de Velde, whose school of design would eventually become the Bauhaus. When a public scandal forced his resignation in 1906, Kessler turned to other projects, including collaborating with the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the German composer Richard Strauss on the opera Der Rosenkavalier and the ballet The Legend of Joseph, which was performed in 1914 by the Ballets Russes in London and Paris. In 1913 he founded the Cranach-Presse in Weimar, one of the most important private presses of the twentieth century.
The diaries present brilliant, sharply etched, and often richly comical descriptions of his encounters, conversations, and creative collaborations with some of the most celebrated people of his time: Otto von Bismarck, Paul von Hindenburg, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Sarah Bernhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Marie Rilke, Paul Verlaine, Gordon Craig, George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville-Barker, Max Klinger, Arnold Böcklin, Max Beckmann, Aristide Maillol, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Éduard Vuillard, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Ida Rubinstein, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pierre Bonnard, and Walther Rathenau, among others.
Remarkably insightful, poignant, and cinematic in their scope, Kessler’s diaries are an invaluable record of one of the most volatile and seminal moments in modern Western history.
Laird M. Easton is chair of the Department of History at California State University, Chico. His book The Red Count: The Life and Times of Harry Kessler was named one of the best biographies of 2002 by The Economist.
“A document of novelistic breadth and depth, showing the spiritual development of a lavishly cultured man who grapples with the violent energies of the twentieth century…also a staggering feat of reportage. The war fever infected Kessler…[he] does not hide the grimness of the scene. For the reader, it is a shock to be deposited in such hellish landscapes several pages after watching the antics of Diaghilev and company; few books capture so acutely the world-historical whiplash of the summer of 1914…The supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.”
—Alex Ross, The New Yorker
“Kessler’s diaries are a trove of insightful…information about an absolutely amazing number of artists and writers.”
—John Rockwell, The Threepenny Review
“What makes [Kessler] such an appealing figure is his struggle with the received ideas of his age…His diaries fascinate on various levels, first of all as an observant, witty, frequently catty chronicle of European culture and high society between the fin-de-siecle, and following that [though not this volume] between 1918 and the Nazi regime.”
—Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books
“An unusual guided tour of belle époque and early-20th-century artistic and high life in Berlin, Paris and London…with great sensitivity and occasional flashes of humor.”
—Louis Begley, The New York Times
“The well-connected diplomat’s gimlet-eyed view of a teetering Belle Epoque Europe.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“A Henry James figure come to real life: a fusion of high society and high intellect, his diaries dramatize with the most stellar possible international cast the twilight settling on a peak.”
—Frederic Morton, author of A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889
“Harry Kessler was an extraordinary exemplar of the crisis that overwhelmed Europe in the 20th century. He captured, in his person and in his thoroughly engrossing diaries, all the dichotomies of his era: the ideals and the devastation, the passion and the despondency, the frisson and the horror . . . Absolutely riveting. In its literary brilliance and evocative power, the diary is the equal of those of Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicolson and André Gide. Mr. Easton ranks it one of the greatest diaries ever. Many will agree.”
—Modris Eksteins, The Wall Street Journal
"At last a diary as penetrating on Berlin as the Goncourt brothers' on Paris has been translated into English...Laird Easton is to be congratulated on leading English-speaking readers, via Kessler's masterpiece, into the heart of Germany before its catastrophe."
“Count Harry Kessler became, through his experiences and through the anguished searching of his spirit, something close to a representative man. 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. The cast list alone makes this an amazing diary. This is such an important book. It is a great act of historical witness, and a great source of scandalous insight and gossip.”
—James Fenton, The Atlantic
“Kessler was a sophisticated aristocrat who knew everyone and understood everything. He rode with Nijinsky in a Paris cab the night that The Rite of Spring changed artistic history. He could size up a German princess with level-eyed candor. He was passionate about the arts and politics—and is one of the best observers of his epoch.”
—Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Story and Genet: A Biography
“Take a grand tour through the Belle Époque without leaving your chair . . . This is a classic book for the ages to keep and reread.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“I have been a huge fan of Harry Kessler since my early youth because of my mother. Even the way I dress is in a way inspired by him. The eight volumes of his diaries are always near my bedside in my houses. Kessler represents for me Germany at its best, a Germany now gone forever.”
“Harry Graf Kessler was a central figure in German cultural life in the early twentieth century and during the Weimar Republic. A man of many parts, highly educated, a democrat when this was not at all fashionable—he knew everyone, and everyone knew him. His massive diaries are of absorbing interest, essential reading for all those interested in European cultural history of the period.”
—Walter Laqueur, author of Weimar: A Cultural History
“What a life! To read Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 is to revisit, at least in revery, a lost world of European civilization, to experience for a while all the cultivated douceur de vivre that disappeared forever in the blood-soaked trenches of World War I.”
—Michael Dirda, The Barnes & Noble Review
“An enlightening view of European high society, notable for its erudition and density of anecdote, for readers strongly interested in European history and culture.”