“Reports in the United States”: America in a state of intoxication by Joseph Kessel

Writer and journalist Joseph Kessel.

“Reports in the United States. 1933, 1936, 1948, 1959, 1960”, by Joseph Kessel, preface by Etienne de Montety, Arthaud, 432 p., €29, digital €20.

We did not speak of “narrative non-fiction” in the 1930s. However, it suffices to open the Reports in the United Statesby Joseph Kessel (1898-1979) those he wrote for The morning from 1933 to 1960 –, to see that, if this art of writing did not yet bear this name, journalism and literature marry here in the most brilliant way.

Kessel may cover subjects that are well known today, from the Great Depression to “mirage” of Hollywood, his way of instilling the detail that hits the mark gives these pages a particular sap – Roosevelt and his charm “magnetic”Sardi’s, the Broadway restaurant where “only successful people are accepted”THE “bacchanal ballets” of the Savoy in “Harlem Forbids”… For a bit, we would smell the aroma of grapefruit trees on the outskirts of La Quinta.

In these fifty reports, one theme comes up insistently: that of alcohol. In 1933 Kessel was in New York. He describes “the farce of Prohibition” “All you had to do was speak to the first policeman to find out the address of the nearest speakeasy” –, recounts the last day of this same Prohibition, “the burial of the dry regime” and the advent of “wet era”, when beer and wine were allowed again after a thirteen-year ban. We must then see the astonishing spectacle of the millions of “bottles, crates and barrels” rolling across America to “restaurants, grocery stores, trains, boats” !

In the Bowery

Concerning alcohol, the most striking series is the one that Kessel, over a hundred pages, devotes to the Bowery, this district of Manhattan which, in 1960, was that of alcoholics and the homeless. We see, in this “dustbin of discarded lives”a gallery of mouths smashed by booze, “nightmare faces”, “corpse-colored wrecks”and a subtle description of the underlying mechanisms of addiction. “You can’t imagine how many professors, bankers, doctors, journalists, magistrates there are at the Bowery. » Why is Kessel so interested in this scourge, and in the work of Alcoholics Anonymous? The writer and journalist Etienne de Montety gives us a key in his preface: his own wife, Michèle, married in 1949, had sunk into drink.

As for him, Kessel, the man who had “challenged Humphrey Bogart glass in hand”he certainly had an exceptional descent (we remember the portrait that Françoise Giroud made of him at the “after a night of drunkenness that would have given a grenadier jaundice”), but it was partly for the good cause, that of the reports precisely. Nothing like the bottle to melt the barriers. Facts, pen and vodka: in journalism, he believed, “Drunkenness saves three months”.

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