‘The world is extraordinary–look how beautiful it is!’
50 years ago this summer, 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong take mankind’s giant step on to the moon. The quotation above could have come from any of the astronauts looking out towards our amazing blue planet in the years that followed. But in fact they were the last words of a Frenchman who died ten years after the moon landing, in July 1979. At a time when many of us have been pondering on what constitutes the stuff of heroes, I’d like to pay homage to one of my personal, all-time, men-in-capes-with-human-flaws, Joseph Kessel, 40 years after his death.
I first wrote about him in October 2016. Actor, journalist, scenarist, WW1 aviator, WW2 war correspondent, Resistance fighter, aviator with the Free French squadron of the RAF, co-composer of the stirring anthem of the French Resistance, Le Chant des Partisans, and author of more than 40 fiction and non-fiction works, Kessel has never attained in the English-speaking world the legendary stature he enjoys in France. Only a handful of his books have made it into English, the most famous being The Lion, Belle de Jour and The Horsemen. Sadly, the highly acclaimed 450-page biography by Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la Piste du Lion , published in 1985, is available in French only (but worth learning the language to read it).
Joseph Kessel was born in February 1898 in Villa Clara, Argentina, the son of Jewish emigré doctors. His extraordinary 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. Kessel was a dreamer, a humanist, a man of integrity, a man of excess, 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. 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.
As with many heroic figures, his life was marked by tragedy–the suicide of his brother, Lazare, in 1920 and the death of his first wife, Sandi, in 1928. But, as Courrière writes, the myth of the ‘homo kesselianus’, the archetypal hero-adventurer, brave, noble-browed, athletic, resourceful, who finds himself caught up in incredible adventures, had taken root before these events, through Kessel’s experiences in Vladivostok in 1919. At the end of WW1, the Allied leaders met in Versailles. One of the problems they 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 airborne squadron, for which he received the Croix de Guerre. But he had another, vitally important talent: he was a fluent Russian speaker, having spent part of his childhood with his grandparents in Orenburg. Thus it was that 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, who held 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 was unable to believe his eyes. Thousands of homeless people were huddled on the steps outside the building, 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.
This was to be the pattern of his life from then on. 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.’
Joseph Kessel died on July 23rd, 1979 in the village of Avernes, his home for many years in the company of his third wife, Michèle O’Brien, another relationship haunted by the tragedy of Michèle’s descent into alcoholism. In spite of this, and his own deteriorating health, he was still as interested in life as ever. It was while watching a TV programme with friends, a reportage about a young speleologist shot in sumptuous colours in a deep grotto, that he spoke his final words:
‘Le monde est extraordinaire! Regarde comme c’est beau.’
© 2019 Laurette Long