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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Expatriate In Time Rather Than In Place, August 22, 2008
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This review is from: Sketches from a Life (Paperback)
The late George Kennan was known as a diplomat and as a scholar. In Sketches From A Life, published when he was eighty-five years old, he also reveals himself as a writer and as a moralist. The pieces that form this volume are entries into his private diary that were written during a period spanning more than sixty years. They were not intended for publication (the author nonetheless confesses that "every diarist has moments, I am sure, of a vague hope that what he has just written, particularly if he himself is pleased with it, will some day fall under at least a few eyes other than his own." Internet has turned this hope into an instant obsession.)

Although they reveal glimpses into his inner self and contain pages from his personal history, these diary excerpts were expunged from the most intimate entries and are the opposite of a narcissistic account. What they have in common is that they were written, for the most part, only when traveling. They are a collection of sketches, by an author who also was fond of drawing and took graphic sketches of the cities and places he visited. Whether George Kennan could draw well or not is left to the imagination of the reader; but there were few domains in which he didn't excel, and writing was obviously his forte. After all, the man won two Pulitzer and published more than eighteen books.

From Hamburg and Prague to Moscow and St. Petersburg, from Riga to Mexico and Kristiansand to Pennsylvania, Kennan puts to paper beautifully rendered and exquisite prose. His ability to capture the spirit of a city in a few lines puts him among the best of travel writers ; but this lover of nature also had a talent for sketching landscapes and natural sceneries. The streets and buildings that he evokes come to life, sometimes quite literally, as in this prosopopoeia in which the old palace that shelters the American legation in Prague laments "the incorrigible vanity and tragedy and futility of all human endeavors."

Although he first came to Europe in the 1920s and never experienced pre-soviet Russia, Kennan feels much closer to the Russia that was than to the Russia that is. Certain sections of Moscow and Leningrad inspire him such a sense of familiarity "as to evoke the mystery of a former life". He is, as he acknowledges, an "expatriate in time rather than in place", and longs for a Europe that embodied the best of civilization before its plunge into chaos. By contrast, California inspires him his most scathing remarks : the place reminds him "of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many--not all--of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating each other over the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now--the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant--nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again."

His penchant as a moralist emerged early in his career. One is surprised to find under the pen of a twenty-three years old sentences like the following: "we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity". It is also ironic that the man who lived to hundred years old remarked, halfway through his life in 1959, "we older people are the guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls--in a way part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it." Or as he concludes, "each generation staggers through life: occupying briefly the little patch of apparent light between the darkness of the past we have so largely forgotten and the darkness of the future that we cannot see."
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kennan's "Sketches from a Life", August 15, 2006
This review is from: Sketches from a Life (Paperback)
"Sketches from a Life" is a series of meditative reflections written by George Kennan during his long career in the foreign service and academia. To an extent the sketches tread ground made familiar to readers of his two volumes of memoirs, but I was impressed by the immediacy and eloquence of these diary-like texts. In many cases, Kennan's writing would be perfectly suited to the novel format.

Kennan's years in Europe and his proximity to the destruction of World War II deepened and confirmed what I suspect was an already ingrained melancholic and pessimistic character. The tone of many of these sketches is therefore quite bleak. There are several haunting scenes set amidst the ruined cities of post-war Europe; in one, Kennan sees a few young Berliners wandering in the wreckage of a bombed-out cathedral as a symbol of "man's lost and purposeless state, his loneliness, his helplessness, his wistfulness, and his inability to understand."

I was also impressed to see Kennan's thoughts on Los Angeles; specifically, his concerns regarding America's growing reliance on the automobile and dependence on oil, which were written with great prescience in 1951.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He had an interesting life, and the book shows it, February 23, 2007
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Marcos (Sao Paulo, Brazil) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sketches from a Life (Hardcover)
I guess if you want to write a book on sketches of your life, you've got to have lived an interesting one. And Mr Kennan did.

He lived most of his adult life abroad, mostly in Europe, with a focus in the Eastern part. This allows him to give a nice perspective of life in the Old World versus America. Also, because he lived to be 100, he can give a very good perspective timewise (he wrote the book when he was in his 80s). He comes across as a nostalgic, but it is hard not to be one when one is old, I guess.

One reviewer said that Kennan is the kind of man who owes everything to his position in an organization. It seems to be true. In the book, he is extremely passive and seems to go with the flow. He also seems not to like much interaction with people and shows more emotion about a work of art or a beautiful building than real people. He doesn't even talk much about his wife.

Nevertheless, this does not diminish the pleasure of reading the book, if you prepare yourself to a pleasant tale of distant places, both in space and time. He has been there, he has done that, that's what matters.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great way to travel and learn without leaving home, July 12, 2012
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Francisco Suarez (Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sketches from a Life (Paperback)
George F Kennan was not only a distinguished diplomat, but also a great writer. His narrative of the diferent cities of the world included on his book is enriched by his knowledge of history, culture and politics as well as his mastery of the english lenguage.
The references and analysis of social, enviromental and political issues, make the opus, a very enjoyable and educational experience. Another great contribution of a man that was gifted with a unique strategic and wise mind.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skeches from a Life, July 11, 2009
This review is from: Sketches from a Life (Paperback)
A very sensitive depiction of interesting experiences and one that encouraged me to begin writing a journal in 1990. Thanks George for your inspiration and fine, sensitive writing.
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Sketches from a Life
Sketches from a Life by George F. Kennan (Paperback - October 17, 2000)
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