France Rediscovers Joseph Kessel, the Jewish Writer of 'Belle De Jour'

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Joseph Kessel.
Joseph Kessel. "Never left the hearts of his readers."Credit: MARC GARANGER / Aurimages via AFP
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

They say that Joseph Kessel created a world of his own because the real world was too small for him. The French author-journalist, who wrote 88 books and countless resonant news reports and features, managed to convey in his writing not only historical events but also a wild vitality. Last month, as part of its prestigious La Pléiade series, Gallimard published the entire body of Kessel’s literary and journalistic works.

“Kessel never left the hearts of his readers,” says Serge Linkès, the editor of the new editions and a lecturer at the University of La Rochelle. “He went down in history as an uber-journalist and an adventure writer, but wrote books that were ahead of their time, like ‘Belle de Jour.’”

The cover of 'Avec les Alcooliques Anonymes' by Joseph Kessel.Credit: Gallimard

Kessel was born in Argentina in 1898, to a Russian Jewish family. His father, a physician, had gotten a job there for three years, and when it ended the family returned to Russia. Until the age of 10 he lived in Orenburg, on the steppe between European Russia and its Asian part.

“Before I was aware of cars, I saw caravans of camels bringing goods from Samarkand. In that area I met Cossack and nomadic horsemen, the true heroes of Russian literature,” he told a radio interviewer in the late 1960s.

In 1908, fleeing the pogroms, his parents settled in Nice, southern France, and later in Paris, where he finished high school. At 16 he studied literature and theater at a conservatory and even appeared at the Odéon Theater (one of France’s six national theaters). He began working as a reporter at a small newspaper, which he left at the beginning of World War I. During his military service as a pilot, he met pilots whom he described in his successful 1923 book “L’Équipage” (“The Crew”). Those airborne adventures led him to the Siberian steppes, the United States and the Suez Canal, and he became friendly with, among others, another pilot and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Joseph Kessel. A macho guy who some considered misogynist.Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO

After the war he returned to journalism and reported from the field on several important historical events: the Irish nationalist uprising; the Red Sea slave trade; the Spanish Civil War; the rise of the Nazis; and World War II. He knew about German detention camps as early as 1937, when he visited Berlin and met with some of the few Jews left in the city. Upon his return to France, he penned the novel “La Passante du Sans-Souci” (“The Passerby of Sans-Souci,” which was made into a film in 1982, starring Romy Schneider), a story about fearful Jews who had fled the regime and the camps.

The cover of 'Belle de Jour', by Kessel. Credit: Folio

In 1940, he documented the French defeat at Dunkirk and the flight of residents from Belgium and northern France. After that, he gave up his job as a reporter and joined the French Resistance, spending some time in England. After the war he returned to France and reported for the France-Soir newspaper on the Nuremberg trials, the trial of Marshal Philippe Pétain and, later, the Eichmann trial.


“Kessel didn’t seek to distinguish between his talents as a journalist and his literary talents,” Linkès tells Haaretz. “His experiences as a journalist were reflected in the most literary way possible; to him, this was necessary to describe the human experience. He represents popular literature in the most noble sense of the term. His stories that touch on the inner adventures of the soul are told faithfully – hence their special value.”

Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuel's 1967 film "Belle de Jour," based on the novel by Joseph Kessel.

Writer-journalist Olivier Weber, who recently published “Dictionnaire amoureux de Joseph Kessel” (“Joseph Kessel’s Love Dictionary”), believes Kessel was more of a Russian writer than a French one.

“Kessel argued that Dostoyevsky, whom he admired, would never have written his masterpiece if he hadn’t himself experienced a death sentence, exile and epilepsy,” he says. Weber, who also wrote a 2006 biography called “Kessel, le nomade éternel” (“The Eternal Nomad”), admits he was his role model when he chose a career as a journalist and author. Weber is also president of the Joseph Kessel Prize, which is awarded annually for a French book “of high literary value.”

The cover of 'Le coup de grâce' by Kessel. Credit: Folio

For the dictionary that bears his name, Weber chose various entries related to his life. “The first entry is ‘001,’ the number of the first visa issued by the State of Israel, which he received when his plane landed in Haifa on the day the state was declared,” Weber says. “The As also include ‘Afghanistan,’ a country he loved and about which he wrote in his last book, ‘Les Cavaliers’ (‘The Horsemen’). I also included ‘AA,’ the branch of Alcoholics Anonymous he established in France to help his wife Michelle, who was an alcoholic. I also wrote an entry about the sword he was given, as per tradition, when he was admitted to the French Academy in 1962.” Kessel, Weber notes, had asked that a Star of David be engraved on it, next to the “Cross of Lorraine” symbol of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army.

According to Weber, Kessel was an enthusiastic Zionist and wrote several books about Israel: In 1927 he wrote “Terre d’Amour” (“Land of Love”), in 1948 “Terre de Feu” (“Land of Fire”) and, after 1967’s Six-Day War, “Les fils de l’impossible” (“The Sons of the Impossible”). He also reported on the Altalena affair from Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv, after the newly formed Israel Defense Forces sank a cargo ship full of weaponry and activists from underground militia group the Irgun.

Kessel’s love of Zionism began in 1925, when he visited what was then British Mandatory Palestine for the first time. In a radio interview in the ’60s, Kessel said that though he wasn’t mystically inclined, when he got off the ship in Jaffa and stepped on the earth for the first time, he felt as if he had always known it. When future president Chaim Weizmann told him about establishing a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, Kessel argued that it was utopia. Despite his love for Israel, only a few of his books have been translated into Hebrew.

The book cover of Dominique Missika's "Un amour de Kessel."Credit: Le Seuil

“He was good at spotting trends before they spread,” Weber says. “His 1928 book ‘Belle de Jour,’ which was later made into a film by Luis Buñuel, was greeted with outrage by critics and allegations of pornography. But it dealt with violence against women when it emerged that the main character [played in the film by Catherine Deneuve] was raped as a child.”

A significant part of Kessel’s multifaceted personality was his love of nightlife, particularly the Russian cabarets in Paris’ Right Bank, where he acquired a reputation as a drinker and glass-eater.

“He smashed the drinking glasses, as is the Russian custom, and would put glass into his mouth. He would be seen biting into the stems of the glasses as if they were bones, and knew how to spit out what remained when no one was looking,” Weber says.

Kessel had affairs with many women, including one-night stands and long-term relationships, and would party till dawn with members of the underworld. After a night of heavy drinking, he would go out to cover historic events all over the world.

Historian Dominique Missika recently published the book “Un amour de Kessel” (“A Love of Kessel”), about his three wives, his lovers and his resistance activities. The book tells of his affair with cabaret singer Germaine Sablon, who was a star in the ’20s and ’30s, and who during the war proved to be extraordinarily brave. She recruited him into the underground, where he joined a group operating in southern France, based in her villa on the Riviera. They smuggled intelligence agents and weapons into France from England and helped French volunteers sail to England and enlist in Charles de Gaulle’s army. In 1943, when he was exposed as an underground fighter and a Jew, he decided to join the Free French forces in London and served there as an aviator alongside his friend and fellow writer, Romain Gary.

According to Missika, Kessel usually kept in touch with his wives and lovers – but not with Sablon. “She exhibited ‘excessive independence’ when she joined the Free French forces in North Africa and served as an ambulance driver,” Missika says. “She got the Legion of Honor in 1952 for her bravery, but Kessel never forgave her for leaving.”

Olivier Weber's dictionary of Joseph Kessel.Credit: Plon

During his service in London, Kessel wrote the book “L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows,” turned into a film by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1969), about the underground cell in which he fought. He masked the identities of the characters because the cell was still active when the book was published in 1944. With his nephew Maurice Druon (also a writer and member of the French Academy), he also wrote the lyrics to “Le Chant des Partisans” (“Underground Song”), which became an anthem of the resistance movement, set to a tune inspired by a Russian song. Sablon sang the original version, but it became well-known thanks to the chilling version by Yves Montand.

Journalist Françoise Giroud wasn’t such a fan of Kessel and called him a misogynist, Missika says. Weber confirms this and says Kessel was a macho man who sanctified male friendship and the concept of “male honor.”

‘My hero’

Almost no one who actually knew Kessel is still alive. One of the few is Hubert Bouccara, owner of the La Rose de Java bookstore in Paris’ Montparnasse quarter. The bookstore was named after a book Kessel published in 1937. “I got the manuscript of the book from Jeff [as his friends called him] as a gift for my 22nd birthday,” recalls Bouccara, who is approaching his 70th birthday. “He told me that I would for sure own a bookstore someday and asked that this be its name – and that’s what I did. I can talk about Jeff for hours, you’ll have to stop me.”

How did you get to know him?

Joseph Kessel with Germaine Sablon.Credit: © adoc-photos

“By the age of 12 I was devouring his adventure books and those of Jack London. When I was 17, I’d read 65 of his 88 books. I wanted to express my love for his books, so I bought three school notebooks and wrote about the way he is reflected in each of his books. After all, Kessel can be found in all his works – even in a book that talks about a woman like ‘Belle de Jour,’ not to mention ‘Le lion’ [‘The Lion’], in which the narrator is a journalist. I wrapped the three notebooks in an envelope and went to bring them to him myself, to the offices of the French Academy. This was in 1968, during the big strike and student revolution.

“The guard promised to pass them on, and after a few days the phone rang in my parents’ home and someone asked for me. The male voice said, ‘This is Jeff Kessel.’ I thought it was a prank – after all, he was my hero – but he promised that it was really him and made an appointment to meet me for ‘Wednesday at 11, near the academy at the wharf on the Seine.’ We walked along the docks until evening; he showed me books at book stalls. From time to time he would pick up a book and say, ‘You must read this.’

“In the end, I also had a stall near the Seine and then I opened the bookstore, where I keep all his books. On the wall is the framed front page of the manuscript of ‘La Rose de Java.’ He never got to see the store. We were in close contact until his death in 1979. He would call me ‘son’ or ‘boy,’ and had a fatherly attitude toward me. After all, he chose not to have children.

“Today we are neighbors, because he’s buried in Montparnasse Cemetery,” Bouccara says. “I often pop over to visit him. This morning, I went to visit and I said, ‘Jeff, you won’t believe this, they called me from Haaretz in Israel – they want to interview me.’ He got very excited and asked ‘Who? I know a lot of Israeli journalists.’ But he hadn’t heard of you.”

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