1913: The Year Before the Storm, Florian Illies
A month-by-month cultural portrait of 1913 reveals a world that was about to change forever
1913: The Year Before the Storm
The Clerkenwell Press
It was the year before the Great War, so named because it was vast in its upheaval; it marked the death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and redrew the map of Europe. Nationalism became a rallying cry as disturbing and as violent as religion. Meanwhile, modernism was challenging the traditional notions of art, music and literature. Discord had become the new norm; there was energy and there was madness, in apparently equal measure. Sigmund Freud had set up shop interpreting dreams; Hitler was painting his pedestrian postcards, seething with fury over his rejection by Vienna’s art academy. Franz Kafka was in love and suffering, writing bewildering love letters to his beloved Felice Bauer. He wept proposing marriage, and feared being accepted. Thomas Mann was fretting about his closet homosexuality as well as the expensive house he was about to build. There were no clues as to who had stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre two years earlier, although Picasso had been questioned. No doubt about it, 1913 was quite a year.
A former cultural pages editor for major German newspapers, Florian Illies is blessed with a lightness of touch and a lively mind with a feel for the colourful and the human, often at its silliest. His conversational, cross-referenced and anecdotal narrative shifts between Berlin, Paris, Munich and Vienna. The various love affairs are described with gusto, most notably the crazed alliance between serial siren Alma Mahler and her obsessive swain, artist Oskar Kokoschka.
Although busy with The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Paris in May, Stravinsky somehow managed to begin an affair with Coco Chanel. Elsewhere the young Brecht pondered his various ailments, recording them in a diary. “Life is too short and Proust too long,” pronounced Anatole France of the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. James Joyce was penniless but his fortunes were about to improve.
This highly entertaining month-by- month account of 1913 as lived by artists and writers, emerging tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin and Tito, and lovers, always lovers, is rich in detail, humour and vivid pen portraits. The tone remains confident, somewhat amused as the entries vary from the short, snappy and factual to more leisurely essay-like length. Marcel Duchamp makes it through the months by avoiding art and playing a great deal of chess. He is a good player, and will eventually become a member of the French national team, participating in four Olympic Games.
Illies appears to smile fondly as he records that a school teacher named Friedrich Braun and his wife, Franziska, proudly pushed their six-month-old daughter, Eva, through Munich’s Hofgarten on the same May Sunday on which the 24-year-old Adolf Hitler arrived in that city. Coincidence perhaps, yet Illies balances research and whimsy with such aplomb that it invariably convinces.