Monday, June 8, 2020

Joseph Kessel's days of adventure - Abyssinia, Berlin, Barcelona, Kenya

Joseph Kessel was a real discovery for me when I was in France.  A journalist and novelist, he was a major French writer who barely exists, in terms of reputation or actual books, in English.  He is likely best known in English, if this counts as “known,” as the author of the novels on which the movies Belle de Jour and Army of Shadows are based.  But in France any well-stocked bookstore has numerous titles, scattered in different sections of the store, and any bookstore at all has one title, Le Lion (The Lion, 1958).  It is taught in junior high, although how often I do not know.  It was always there, and was one of the first novels I read in French.

The second-most common book in 2017 was En Syrie (In Syria, 1927), a book that had suddenly become relevant.  Kessel was as much a travel writer as a journalist, an old-fashioned “foreign correspondent” whose greatest pleasure was to drop into the middle of some new, dangerous place and have an adventure, telegraphing dispatches home, then, later, writing a novel about wherever he had been.

The book of his I finished in May is titled Les Jours de l’aventure: Reportages, 1930-1936The Days of Adventue, one of a series of seven volumes of Kessel’s journalism.  Kessel travels to Abyssinia and Djibouti in 1930 to report on – to track down – the African slave trade, to Berlin to witness the violent elections of 1932, to New York City in 1933 to see the Great Depression firsthand, and to Barcelona in 1934 to witness not the beginning of the Spanish Civil War but a preview, although he says that one was an accident, that he was on vacation when the shooting started.

Kessel’s idea of reporting on the Abyssinian slave trade was to see the trade for himself.  Nothing abstract for him.  He finds and follows the slave hunters; he follows a slaving caravan across the desert and then across the Red Sea.  Somebody else can write up statistics and international law.  Kessel is going out into the desert, even if it kills him.

His dispatches from this adventure were simultaneously published in Paris, London, and in the New York Times.  I wonder how common that was.  A little book was published, too; this stuff is in English.  In a horrible irony, fascist Italy used Kessel’s reporting as one of its justifications for the invasion of Abyssinia – to suppress the slave trade.

In between the sad, doomed German elections, Kessel spends a week hanging out with one of Berlin’s organized criminal gangs, operating somewhere between a mafia gang and a fraternal organization.  Highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1928).  Very highly recommended to anyone who read Döblin but wondered if he was exaggerating.  Apparently, no.

That one Kessel novel I have read, The Lion, is about an eleven-year-old girl, the daughter of an English park ranger in Kenya, who has an uncanny rapport with animals, and whose best friend is an adult male lion.  Which is a bad idea, obviously.  Something terrible will happen.  This is one of several French books with child protagonists I have read that end with crushing disappointment and disillusion.

Anyway, I thought that two scenes were genuinely sublime, first, when the Kessel-like narrator watches the girl wander among the African animals at a watering hole, and second, when the girl introduces “Kessel” to the lion.  By genuinely sublime, I mean they were beautiful and also terrifying.

The Lion is available in English, in an old translation, and there was a Hollywood movie, but I do not remember ever coming across either, or any reference to them.

Representative Kessel trivia: he acquired the first visa to enter the State of Israel.

He was a combat pilot in World War I, and again in World War II, in the Free French Air Force, alongside Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Romain Gary.  Three great pilot-writers – that seems like a lot.


  1. Who's read Le Lion in school ? Me!
    I've also read En Syrie and Belle de Jour. (both on the blog)
    I'm curious about Les jours de l'aventure, I'd like to read that.

    Lots of things in common with Gary, who admired him.

  2. Yes, it is too bad that so much Kessel is untranslated, but you, Mr. Mudpuddle, should see if you can find Army of Shadows, Kessel's novel about the French Resistance written more or less on the spot.

    The similarities, the connections, between Kessel and Gary are interesting. Similar writers from different generations.

    I will try more of the reportage, but I will have to get back to France to find the books, I think.