Laird Easton, Chair of the Chico State University History Department, has completed the monumental task of editing and translating a long-lost portion of one of the greatest diaries ever written. (Samuel Pepys, step aside.) "Journey To The Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918" ($45 from Knopf; also in digital formats for Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, and from Google eBooks) is the compelling story, in his own words, of a cosmopolitan German free spirit who became a secret agent.
Easton will be giving a book talk on Kessler at 1078 Gallery (820 Broadway in Chico) tonight at 6:00 p.m. during a reception in his honor (5:00 - 8:00 p.m.).
Kessler's journal, which he added to over fifty-six years, opens up a "life led at the center of European art, literature, and politics during the greatest cultural and political transformations in modern history." But, as Easton notes, the section of his diary Kessler began in 1880, when he was twelve, through the First World War, was lost until 1983 when it was found in a safe on the island of Mallorca. Easton's work is the first English translation which, at 900 printed pages, is only a quarter of what Kessler produced during those years.
He was ambivalent, says Easton, about his homosexuality; even in his journal "he tiptoes around the subject of his own sexual feelings. ..." His father was a banker but Kessler was drawn to the avant-garde, influenced by Nietzsche (whose death mask he made), working with Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Auguste Rodin, and lunching with George Bernard Shaw.
In San Francisco, 1892: "On the way through Golden Gate Park; wide boulevards shaded by pines, colorful flowers, tropical plants. I would have enjoyed their beauty more without the signs with endless Latin names stuck between them." Berlin, 1897: "Unfortunately I am once again drawn more and more into social life. Result, work = zero." Bern, Oct. 5, 1918: "The blackest day of the world war. ... The war is lost by our own confession."
Kessler survived (he died in 1937). Easton's work will survive, too; it is scholarly yet grandly accessible, inviting one to lose oneself in the "Belle Époque," that grand time before the abyss.