It may possibly be a virtue to maintain a diary, and probably it is no sin to publish one. In the first case, the virtue is enhanced, in the second the potential for sin mitigated, by the diarist having been a regular and faithful one; and in this respect anyway George Frost Kennan is as little comparable to Sir Harold Nicolson as Sir Harold was to Mr. Kennan as a diplomat. On that ground, at least one reviewer has seen fit to dismiss Sketches From a Life (which is mostly diary, with a few other documents, or parts thereof, tossed in) as an insubstantial and inconsequential book—a judgment from which, I believe, it will ultimately be rescued owing to the substantiality of the author’s understanding of history and of the human condition underlying it. Sketches From a Life is redeemed further by patches of fine prose that could only have been written by an American and that in fact recall, some of them, the writing of two now-classic American authors who were, more or less, contemporaries of Kennan’s.
“The sky was an incredible blue and was lined in the distance with the rich white clouds of the Russian plain,” Kennan recorded in 1944. “Here and there, a poplar stood up among the fields, leaves trembling in the breeze; and off on the horizon there was always the cold, dark line of the evergreen trees.” That passage, with its strong and unmistakable echoes of Hemingway, is followed on the next page by an equally powerful one, equally reminiscent of Edmund Wilson: “I went back to the station, to get information about trains and to find something to drink. A train going back to town was apparently almost due. There was a little hut where they were selling mineral water and kvass; but you had to have your own receptacle to take it away, so I gave up.” Still another passage, however, is uniquely George F. Kennan, in its description of the city of St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, and the hold it has always had upon his imagination:
This walk brought up countless associations of the past: of the picture of Pushkin and companion leaning on the embankment over the river; of Kropotkin exercising with his stool in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul; of Alexander I looking out of the Winter Palace during the flood of 1823; of Prince Yusupov throwing the body of Rasputin into the Moika; of the crowd moving across the square towards the Winter Palace on the night the place was stormed; of the generations of music teachers and pupils going in and out of the conservatory; of the Italian opera of one hundred years ago; of the unhealthy days of Leningrad’s spring thaws, with little groups of black-clad people plodding through the slush behind the hearses to the muddy, dripping cemeteries; of the cellar apartments of the gaunt, dark inner streets, full of dampness, cabbage smell, and rats, and of the pale people who manage to live through the winters in those apartments; of the prostitutes of the Nevski Prospekt of the tsarist time; the people cutting up fallen horses in dark, snow-blown streets during the time of the siege. This to me is one of the most poignant communities of the world: a great, sad, city, where the spark of human genius has always had to penetrate the darkness, the dampness, and the cold in order to make its light felt, and has acquired, for that very reason, a strange warmth, a strange intensity, a strange beauty.
“This city,” he concludes, more than a hundred pages (and almost thirty years) later, “—this region—has always had for me an inexhaustible historical eloquence—beautiful, terrible, and tragic.”
That passage is worth quoting at length because it shows how completely integrated George Kennan’s poetic and historical sensibilities are. For nearly four decades Kennan’s eloquently expressed pessimism has been anathema to certain of his compatriots; and now, in his 86th year and what has real biological likelihood of being his last book, he reiterates that pessimism: “I view the United States of these last years of the twentieth century as essentially a tragic country . . . ” Yet, in the house of tragedy there is room for other than Americans: ” . . . in the case of the Europeans (with whom at this point I must associate myself) the tragedy is greater; for their own past, however undervalued and abused, still makes itself evident here and there, mutely asserting its own values and vainly protesting, as in this old building [a mansion owned by friends in Crottorf, Germany], the continued relevance of these values to the contemporary human predicament.”
George Kennan’s sense of estrangement, which occurred to him as early as the venerable age of 25 (after viewing the ruined cathedral at Dorpat in 1929, he describes it as “a towering reproach to the weakness of our own generation”), has been one of time rather than space: he feels himself to be indeed an expatriate, but “an expatriate from the Wisconsin of the first years of this century, not from the Wisconsin of this day.” It is a feeling that the events of contemporary history have immeasurably deepened, so that after his return to Moscow in 1987 he is impelled to note that, “I was constantly obliged to remind myself that I was separated from many of the objects I remembered—the places and the persons—by a vast intervening catastrophe, the Second World War . . . ” While all of modern history is for Kennan a series of closely descending watersheds, World War II continues to mark for him—probably for reasons as much personal as historical—the Great Divide between the old world and the new. So great was that cataclysm that, in the aftermath, he can feel neither anger nor resentment, but something else: among the ruins of Berlin in 1949, he reflects how “every one of those dim architectural forms spelled a broken dream, spelled one more bit of frustration for people who had once felt the call of hope and initiative. However you looked at it, it seemed a pity.” Moralist that he is, Kennan is aware of some force deeper than personal responsibility at work in human history—a history in which nature is inevitably caught up, and which it is fated to share. “[T]hen the tall bare poplars, the same patient poplars which had waited and watched through the final years of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era and the war and the bombings and the arrival of the Russian Army, stood alone again through another night, until the battered cars of the first early subway train came clattering past through the open cut a few yards away and the sky lightened to the dawn of a gray, soggy March Sunday over airlift Berlin.”
In a 1928 entry, after attending a charity ball in Berlin, Kennan describes the plight of the White Russian emigres in terms that are to develop in time self-descriptive overtones. “Alive they are, these [noble] celebrities, but their world is dead.” For the past halfcentury, George Kennan’s world too has been dead, and the one that has succeeded it is not pleasing to this unapologetically unregenerate old-fashioned gentleman. On a trip to Chicago in 1951 to deliver a series of lectures at the university there, Kennan receives his first intimation of late-20th-century America: having observed the slovenliness of the Chicagoans, among them a thirteen-year-old pickup who chews gum while spewing profanity at her admirers, he retreats to his hotel room to read an article on communism at Harvard and to reflect, “You have despaired of yourself; Now despair, of your country!” Later that year he travels to Pasadena, where he writes:
Here it is easy to see that when man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods and in exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from want, the effect is to render him childlike in many respects. . . . In this sense Southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity—with the promise only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, as I think it must, it will be—as everywhere among children—the crudest and most ruthless natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others; and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way, values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and laboriously in the more rugged experiences of Western political development elsewhere.
Wherever George Kennan has traveled in the world since the close of the Second World War, he had been appalled by the consolidation everywhere of mass culture and mass society, environmental degradation, and what he describes as “the intellectual and spiritual vacuum which the European welfare state produces.” Yet even the gloom that the contemporary world causes him to feel is lightened by his fundamentally poetic conception of history, in which civilizations rise and fall according to a cyclical pattern that, in the end, mercifully makes a clean sweep of the decadence into which those civilizations have fallen. In one of the book’s most powerful passages, Kennan states implicitly his central theme, which is that World War II was not just the turning point of the modern world, but the symbol of human history itself a symbol that, by connecting past with present and present with future, succeeds in transmuting a record of unmitigable disasters into an epic poem of great beauty. After making, in 1960, a nighttime visit with a friend to the Zueghaus ruins in East Berlin, he records, upon his return to his West German hotel: “And what ruins! In their original state, they had seemed slightly imitative and pretentious. Now they suddenly had a grandeur I had not seen even in Rome. . . . Neither of us could forget the great awesome ruins, standing so majestically and patiently and sorrowfully, under the night sky, four miles away.”
[Sketches From a Life, by George F. Kennan (New York: Pantheon Books) 365 pp., $22.95]