KESSEL, JOSEPH (1898–1979), French author. Kessel was born in Clara, one of the Jewish agricultural settlements in Argentina, where his father was physician. The family returned to Russia and, when Joseph was ten years old, settled in France. By 1915 he was already writing for the Journal des Débats, and he also began training as an actor. The following year, however, he volunteered for war service and became an officer in the air force. Between the two world wars Kessel built up a considerable reputation as a novelist, journalist, and writer of screenplays. When World War II broke out he became a war correspondent. After the fall of France he escaped to England and spent the rest of the war in a Free French air force squadron, flying special missions to occupied France. He received French, British, and American decorations.
Two of Kessel's earliest books were La Steppe rouge (1922), a collection of travel sketches, and L'Equipage (1923), the first novel about French aviation, based on his experiences in World War I. Three other novels of this period were Nuits de princes (1927; Princes of the Night, 1928), a story with a Russian background; Belle de jour (1928), translated into English in 1962 and later filmed; and Vent de sable (1929). During the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s Kessel traveled extensively in the U.S. and in the Near and Far East. His lively reaction to people and events made him a compelling storyteller, and his books were easily adapted to the screen. His World War II story, Le bataillon du ciel (1947), was an aviation epic. Les mains du miracle (1960; The Magic Touch, 1961) is a biography of Felix Kersten, *Himmler's Finnish physiotherapist, who saved many Jews from the Nazis. Kessel's prizewinning book, Les coeurs purs (1927; The Pure in Heart, 1928), contained the story " Makhno et sa juive," while Terre d'amour (1927) examined the Zionist experiment, but he was remote from Jewish life. The birth of the State of Israel, however, fired his imagination and Terre de feu, first published in 1948 and revised and enlarged many years later under the title Terre d'amour et de feu; Israël 1925–1948–1961 (1965), attests to his belief that Israel is one of the noblest enterprises of the 20th century. In his address upon his acceptance into the Académie Française in 1964 he spoke about his pride in being a Jew.
Kessel's works include a collection of essays, L'armée des ombres (1944; Army of Shadows, 1944), and the autobiographical Témoin parmi les hommes (1956). Among his novels are Le Tour du malheur (1950), Le Lion (1958; The Lion, 1959), Avec les alcooliques anonymes (1960; The Enemy in the Mouth, Brit. ed. 1961; The Road Back, U.S. ed. 1962); Le Coup de grâce (1953) and Les cavaliers (1967; The Horsemen, 1968).
Vailland et al., in: Livres de France, 10 (October 1959), 2–12.