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
This is ironic and poignant considering what is about to happen. One point of criticism, though, is Illies’s consistent use of the term “kaiser” when he is referring to Emperor Franz Josef, particularly as there are also many references to Kaiser Wilhelm. It may be the word choice of the translator. Either way, it is odd. Equally, an index would have added to the fun. That said, Illies exudes ease as he follows the stressed, unhappy and restless artistic community from Berlin to Paris to Vienna to Munich and back again. He keeps the reader updated: “Still no news of the Mona Lisa.” It becomes a witty textual refrain.
Few narratives will move as pleasurably for any reader with an interest in cultural history during what was a fascinating and hectic period. 1913 – The Year Before the Storm is the best possible holiday read – or gift – as it is so enjoyable, yet the breadth of information and astute insight will prevent one feeling guilty of indulgence.
In November 1913, James Joyce prepared a lecture series on Hamlet and was giving English lessons to a private student who would become the writer Italo Svevo. Within a month, Ezra Pound would write to Joyce asking him to contribute to the Egoist magazine, on the recommendation of Yeats.
Perhaps the highlight of that December, though, was the bizarre recovery of the Mona Lisa, kept for two years under a bed in an untidy flat. The enigmatic portrait had been removed from the Louvre by an Italian glazier who had been working in the gallery and felt that the painting rightfully belonged to his country so he walked out with it under his coat. The work’s return to France took the form of a victory procession as it visited many Italian cities en route, before being placed on an express train in Milan bound for Paris.
It is a great story in a wonderfully idiosyncratic book, alive with funny, strange, unexpected yarns concerning sexual and artistic angst, ego, rivalries, uncertainty and change in what truly was a frenetic lull before the cataclysm that began in Sarajevo with the assassination of the unpopular heir to the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent