Hope Amid thenRuinsnby Chilton Williamson, Jr.nSketches From a Lifenby George F. KennannNew York: Pantheon Books;n365 pp., $22.95nIt may possibly be a virtue to maintainna diary, and probably it is no sin tonpublish one. In the first case, the virtuenis enhanced, in the second the potentialnfor sin mitigated, by the diarist havingnbeen a regular and faithful one; and innthis respect anyway George Frost Kennannis as little comparable to Sir HaroldnNicolson as Sir Harold was to Mr.nKennan as a diplomat. On that ground,nat least one reviewer has seen fit tondismiss Sketches From a Life (which isnmostly diary, with a few other documents,nor parts thereof, tossed in) as anninsubstantial and inconsequentialnbook — a judgment from which, I believe,nit will ultimately be rescued owingnto the substantiality of the author’snunderstanding of history and of thenhuman condition underlying it.nSketches From a Life is redeemednfurther by patches of fine prose thatncould only have been written by annAmerican and that in fact recall, somenof them, the writing of two now-classicnAmerican authors who were, more ornless, contemporaries of Kennan’s.n”The sky was an incredible blue andnwas lined in the distance with the richnwhite clouds of the Russian plain,”nKennan recorded in 1944. “Here andnthere, a poplar stood up among thenfields, leaves trembling in the breeze;nand ofi^on the horizon there was alwaysnthe cold, dark line of the evergreenntrees.” That passage, with its strongnand unmistakable echoes of Hemingway,nis followed on the next page by annequally powerful one, equally reminiscentnof Edmund Wilson: “I went backnto the station, to get information aboutntrains and to find something to drink.nA train going back to town was apparentlynalmost due. There was a litde hutnwhere they were selling mineral waternREVIEWSnand kvass; but you had to have yournown receptacle to take it away, so Ingave up.” Still another passage, however,nis uniquely George F. Kennan, innits description of the city of St. Petersburg,nnow Leningrad, and the hold itnhas always had upon his imagination:nThis walk brought up countlessnassociations of the past: of thenpicture of Pushkin andncompanion leaning on thenembankment over the river; ofnKropotkin exercising with hisnstool in the Fortress of St. Peternand St. Paul; of Alexander Inlooking out of the WinternPalace during the flood of 1823;nof Prince Yusupov throwing thenbody of Rasputin into thenMoika; of the crowd movingnacross the square towards thenWinter Palace on the night thenplace was stormed; of thengenerations of music teachersnand pupils going in and out ofnthe conservatory; of the Italiannopera of one hundred years ago;nof the unhealthy days ofnLeningrad’s spring thaws, withnlittle groups of black-clad peoplenplodding through the slushnbehind the hearses to thenmuddy, dripping cemeteries; ofnthe cellar apartments of thengaunt, dark inner streets, full ofndampness, cabbage smell, andnrats, and of the pale people whonmanage to live through thenwinters in those apartments; ofnthe prostitutes of the NevskinProspekt of the tsarist time; thenpeople cutting up fallen horsesnin dark, snow-blown streetsnduring the time of the siege.nThis to me is one of the mostnpoignant communities of thenworld: a great, sad, city, wherenthe spark of human genius hasnalways had to penetrate thendarkness, the dampness, and thencold in order to make its lightnfelt, and has acquired, for thatnvery reason, a strange warmth, anstrange intensity, a strangenbeauty.nnn”This city,” he concludes, more than anhundred pages (and almost thirty years)nlater, ” — this region — has always hadnfor me an inexhaustible historicalneloquence — beautiful, terrible, andntragic.”nThat passage is worth quoting atnlength because it shows how completelynintegrated George Kennan’s poetic andnhistorical sensibilities are. For neariynfour decades Kennan’s eloquently expressednpessimism has been anathemanto certain of his compatriots; and now,nin his 86th year and what has realnbiological likelihood of being his lastnbook, he reiterates that pessimism: “Inview the United States of these lastnyears of the twentieth century as essentiallyna tragic country …” Yet, in thenhouse of tragedy there is room for othernthan Americans: “… in the case ofnthe Europeans (with whom at this pointnI must associate myself) the tragedy isngreater; for their own past, howevernundervalued and abused, still makesnitself evident here and there, mutelynasserting its own values and vainly protesting,nas in this old building [a mansionnowned by friends in Crottorf, Germany],nthe continued relevance of thesenvalues to the contemporary human predicament.”nGeorge Kennan’s sense of estrangement,nwhich occurred to him as early asnthe venerable age of 25 (after viewingnthe ruined cathedral at Dorpat in 1929,nhe describes it as “a towering reproachnto the weakness of our own generation”),nhas been one of time rather thannspace: he feels himself to be indeed annexpatriate, but “an expatriate from thenWisconsin of the first years of thisncentury, not from the Wisconsin of thisnday.” It is a feeling that the events ofncontemporary history have immeasurablyndeepened, so that after his return tonMoscow in 1987 he is impelled to notenthat, “I was constantly obliged to remindnmyself that I was separated fromnmany of the objects I remembered—nthe places and the persons—by a vastnintervening catastrophe, the SecondnWorld War …” While all of modernnhistory is for Kennan a series of closelydescendingnwatersheds, World War IIncontinues to mark for him — probablynJANUARY 1990/39n