This month I’m celebrating birthdays.
First, my own (better another one than the alternative, as the saying goes), plus that of my one-and-a-bit-year-old bionic hip. Twelve months ago I was in rehab, lying on my back with one leg in the air attached to a pulley.
There was a lot of moaning, whining and feeling generally ill-done by, particularly as I didn’t get the morphine pump I’d been expecting and had to make do with paracetamol. Now, October 2016, I’m scrambling up the garden like…um…a mountain goat (?), hanging onto gorse bushes with one hand and yanking out bindweed with the other, or jumping up and down in the aquagym class with-if not grace-a solid two-legged enthusiasm.
What would Hippocrates have made of the marvellous technique whereby the removal of an old body part and insertion of a new one, a bit like taking the car to the garage, has changed the destiny of those who would otherwise be limping around with the help of sticks or confined to wheelchairs? Hip hip hooray!
What a wonderful world.
This month also sees the birth of my third book. After more moans and wails the novella has finally made it into cyber-print, thanks to another astonishing invention, the e-book. This allows aspiring authors to bypass the traditional publishing route and, with the click of a button, see their magnum opus available to all who possess a computer, tablet, smartphone, Kindle and (in my case) £0.91p.
What an amazing world.
On February 10th, 1898 in Villa Clara, Argentina, Joseph-Elie Ressel was born, the son of Russian Jewish emigré doctors. Except that he wasn’t. He had been born 11 days earlier, but his absent minded-father forgot to register the birth. And his name wasn’t Ressel. The clerk made a mistake. So began the extraordinary life of one of my mega-heroes, Joseph Kessel, actor, journalist, WW1 aviator, WW2 war correspondent, aviator with the Free French squadron of the RAF, co-composer of the ‘Chant des Partisans’, the stirring anthem of the French Resistance, writer of screenplays, and internationally famous author. He was a dreamer, a humanist, a man of integrity, a loyal friend, a patriot, a gambler, a drinker, an opium-smoker, a timid lover of women, an inveterate traveller, an adventurer, a nighthawk, a lion. His life, which spanned most of the 20th century, took him all over the world and brought him into contact with a staggering range of people–politicians, prostitutes, criminals, Hollywood stars, Bedouin chiefs, gypsy musicians, slave-drivers. You would need a thesaurus to do him justice, a man who was simply larger than life, making Hemingway in comparison look like a neophyte boy scout.
When, in 1962, Kessel’s candidature was put forward to that nec plus ultra of the French linguistic and literary establishment, l’Académie Française, some of the august members had to reach for the smelling salts. One of them, Pierre Gacotte, is reported to have said:
‘Why Kessel? We’ve already got one Russian (Henri) Troyat. And a Jew (André) Maurois. And up until this year we’ve had two drunks, Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Benoit.’
(‘Pourquoi Kessel? Un Russe nous en avons un : Troyat. Un juif aussi : Maurois. Et des ivrognes jusqu’à cette année nous en avions deux: Marcel Pagnol et Pierre Benoit!’)*
In his acceptance speech, Kessel told the Academy: ‘You have shown, by the striking contrast implicit in this nomination, that it is not by a man’s origins that we should judge him.’ **
His astonishing life story is recorded in an equally astonishing 950-page biography, ‘Joseph Kessel ou Sur la Piste du lion’ (On the track of the lion) by Yves Courrière, journalist, author and close friend of Kessel. In one memorable passage he recounts the birth of ‘homo kesselianus’, the archetypal hero-adventurer, brave, noble-browed, athletic, resourceful, who finds himself caught up in incredible adventures. It was an archetype based on Kessel’s own experiences in 1919, in Vladivostok. When, at the end of WW1, the Allied leaders met in Versailles, one of the problems discussed was the anarchy in Russia where Reds and Whites were engaged in bitter conflict. The 20-year-old Kessel had already proved his courage and daring as a member of the 39th squadron (airborne) for which he received the Croix de Guerre. But he had another talent. He was a fluent Russian speaker. And so he found himself en route to the land of his ancestors, travelling first to the US, then across country to San Francisco and finally, after a 35-day voyage, sailing into the port of Vladivostok.
Washed up in this last outpost of the west, facing the Pacific Ocean, thousands of people were gathered, unable to go any further. The streets echoed with scores of languages; amid the babel roamed bands of soldiers, merchants, beggars, mercenaries, prisoners of war, ragged refugees, coolies staggering under immense loads, Cossacks brandishing terrible whips. It was like a ‘vast, filthy inn’. The orders of one army were immediately countermanded by those of another and the only thing preventing total breakdown was the presence of the Czech forces, holding the station, and the Japanese who held the port.
Kessel disembarked from the SS Sherman in February 1919. He was hungover and penniless, having just celebrated his 21st birthday on board and lost all his money in a poker game. Thanks to his fluency in Russian he soon found himself tasked with a strategically important ‘confidential mission’ for the French, involving the railway station. On his first reconnoitre he couldn’t believe his eyes. Thousands of homeless people were huddled outside the building, on the steps, dying of hunger, disease and cold. Inside, in overpowering heat, a scene from hell, a Breughel painting where ragged mothers nursed starving babies amid the vagabonds, drunken soldiers, deserters and madmen who occupied the vast hall, creating mayhem.
And the confidential mission? ‘Find a train. Find drivers and engineers to get it running. Fill it with food and munitions and send it off to Omsk, 4800 km away across Siberia, where the French forces under General Janin await.’
In this dark, freezing nightmare city where no train was to be had and all was chaos, Homo Kesselianus took shape. Armed with a revolver and a bag stuffed with roubles, 21-year-old Kessel completed the very first Mission Impossible, Russian style.
Joseph Kessel died on July 23rd, 1979 in the village of Avernes, his home for many years. In spite of ill-health he was still as interested in life as ever. He was watching television with two close friends, Georges and Liliane Walter, a reportage about a young speleologist shot in sumptuous colours in a deep grotto.
‘Le monde est extraordinaire,’ Kessel remarked to Liliane ‘Regarde comme c’est beau.’ These were his final words.
‘The world is extraordinary. Look how beautiful it is.’
A wonderful world. Sunset
*‘Joseph Kessel Sur la Piste du lion’ Yves Courriere, Ed. Plon, 1985
** ‘Vous avez marqué, par le contraste singulier de cette succession, que les origines d’un être humain n’ont rien à faire avec le jugement que l’on doit porter sur lui.’ Joseph Kessel, acceptance speech, Académie Française