Dec. 13, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 3

The Many Worlds of Harry Kessler: An Interview with Laird M. Easton

photo of Laird EastonIn a recent review published in The Wall Street Journal, Modris Eksteins writes, “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.” The literary editor of The Atlantic recently named Journey to the Abyss as one of the top 10 books of 2011.

Kathleen McPartland, editor of Inside Chico State, sat down recently to interview Professor Easton.

In 2002 you published a well-received biography of Harry Kessler, The Red Count (University of California Press). Now you’ve translated a portion of his diary. What is so fascinating about the man?

In truth, after working so hard and so long on the biography, I was very ready to move on to a different subject. But I had trouble finding a topic that I thought could attract the same review attention as I had received with the biography. Yes! I was addicted to reviews! It was on the long flight back from Berlin in December 2004, where I had participated as a “talking head” in a documentary on Kessler made for German TV, that I realized what a fantastic project an edition of the diaries from 1880 to 1918 would be. It was then that the project was born.

What is so special about the journals from those years?

Because it was only by luck that they ever came to light. Ever since the end of World War II, people had been searching in vain for the first two thirds of Kessler’s journals, the ones he started in 1880, as a boy, through the end of the First World War in 1918. They were only discovered by accident in 1983, when a bank employee on the island of Mallorca opened a vault after the 50-year lease was up, and discovered them, bound in Moroccan red leather, filled with a dense handwriting, and stuffed with newspaper clippings and photographs. They could so easily have been lost forever or destroyed! So they represent almost literally buried treasure.

Once you had the idea, how difficult was it to find a publisher?

Quite difficult initially. It was only through some extraordinary luck that the project landed at the famous publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. When I first pitched the idea to university presses such as Harvard, Yale, and Oxford, there was no interest, largely because they thought they would have to pay the originating German publisher, Klett-Cotta, a royalty in addition to paying the translator. They didn’t think the project would pay for itself. It was only when I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2005, promoting the German translation of my biography, that I discovered that the rights to the diaries would become free after 2007, the 70th anniversary of Kessler’s death in 1937. Suddenly the project became financially feasible.

What were the greatest challenges in editing and translating the journals from these years?

The final German edition of the complete diaries is nine thick volumes, of which six cover the years 1880 to 1918. I had to condense these six into one volume, which meant cutting close to three quarters of the text. Some of this was easy, but I was surprised how hard it was to get the final manuscript down to a reasonable size. For example, I thought as a principle of editing that I would only include the best stories about some of the minor characters. But then you find that Kessler’s earlier encounters with them gives the main story its background, the depth necessary for the humor or the pathos. My editor and I had to make many hard decisions to cut richly comic or tragic passages out of the final version.

In terms of translating, the trick was to avoid thinking like a German, creating a very German-sounding translation. I did indeed make a few errors in this regard I’ve discovered to my chagrin. But they are scattered in a 400,000-word manuscript, and most of them are exceedingly minor. The great bulk of the translation—vetted innumerable times by my copyeditor and my editor as well as by myself—captures Kessler’s voice very well. That’s why it was so gratifying to read the praise of Modris Eksteins—a genuine historian who knows the period well—in the WSJ.

What will the reader encounter in the pages of this rather large book?

Harry Kessler was a born diary writer, with an extraordinarily sharp gift for depicting personalities, landscapes, and tableaus. He also was extremely well connected in political, artistic, literary, and social worlds within Europe. Browsing through the book, the reader will find whatever she or he likes: rollicking accounts of a trip around the world; encounters with artists and writers such as Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Munch, Shaw, Nijinsky, Rilke, Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse, Degas, Hofmannsthal, and Duncan; accounts of murders; adultery in high places; and political intrigue. There are first-hand accounts of many of the famous literary and political scandals of the day, including the famous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913. One of the pleasures of prewar diaries is the way they bring back to vivid life some of the delightfully eccentric characters who populated European artistic life and high society. The tone shifts dramatically in the last third of the diary when the First World War breaks out. Kessler witnessed the fighting, both on the western and eastern fronts, before he was sent to Switzerland as a cultural attaché and secret agent. The journals from these years are filled with vivid depictions of the carnage that nearly destroyed Europe as well as with tales of espionage and debates over military strategy. One of the interesting aspects of the war years is the slow and tentative way in which Kessler begins to explore and finally—but only at the very end—adopt the pacifist position which made him famous and notorious in Germany after the war.

Really, the journal has everything for everyone. You can read it from beginning to end and obtain a through education in the history of Europe and the world from roughly 1890 to 1918. Or you could simply browse in it, looking for people and topics that interest you. You could even play a game and open the book at random, as if it were the I Ching, and see what you find.

Finally, is this the last—the absolute last—book on Kessler you will publish?

Yes. I mean . . . I think so. I hope finally to escape the man’s ambit and am deeply interested in a number of other, unrelated projects. Here’s one pledge I can make: although I will continue to give papers and presentations on Kessler in places like London and Los Angeles, I promise right here and now that my book talk and signing, which will take place on Sunday, Dec. 11 at the 1078 Gallery (details below) will be the absolutely last time I give a formal talk on Kessler in Chico. 

This promise, it should be noted, does not cover dinner parties.

“The Many Worlds of Count Harry Kessler: A Book Talk” will be Dec. 11, 5 to 8 p.m. (talk at 6) at 1078 Gallery (820 Broadway). There will be copies of Journey to the Abyss available for sale and signing by Professor Easton. Refreshments available. Free and open to the public.