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
1913: The Year Before the Storm
Author: Florian Illies
ISBN-13: 978-1846689512
Publisher: The Clerkenwell Press
Guideline Price: Sterling14.99

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.

"In the first days of January, we don't know exactly when, a slightly scruffy 34-year-old Russian arrives at Vienna's Northern Station from Krakow . . . He is limping. His hair hasn't been washed this year, and his bushy moustache, which spread like rampant undergrowth beneath his nose, can't conceal the pock-marks on his face." He had already failed to master riding a bike but he had defeated Lenin at chess. His name was Djugashvili, soon to be changed to Josef Stalin.

Explosion of poverty and wealth
Proust and Joyce were hard at work, as was Robert Musil on The Man Without Qualities. Illies is involved with the art world so it is not surprising that visual artists tend to dominate the entries. "Georg Grosz is in Berlin, sketching the incomprehensible. The explosion of poverty and wealth. The noise. The traffic. The building sites. The cold of the streets and heat of the brothels . . . The obese men in hats, the fat women whose flesh is bursting from their clothes . . . His sketches scrape, as if he's carving tattoos into skin."

Picasso and Matisse go horse-riding together but other horses attract far more attention. They are ones painted by Franz Marc. The Blaue Reiter and other art movements feature throughout, shifting between defiance and defeat, according to the circumstances of their members. By August, Marc has taken to the saddle and is presented with a tame deer. While Kafka moans about love, the poet Rilke complains about just about everything. Egon Schiele is young and eager to work; it is sad to know, with hindsight, that he will be dead at 28, a mere five years later. Gustav Klimt holds court, content to have sex with all of his models.

Otto Dix spent 1913 painting various self-portraits, including Self-Portrait as Smoker. "How sad and unpleasant always having to spend time with oneself. Sometimes one would be glad to be free of oneself," confided Max Beckmann, the great self-portraitist to his diary in March 1913. Feeling misunderstood in Vienna, composer Arnold Schonberg had moved to Berlin and become famous. Back in Vienna for a concert of his chamber music, he encountered a riot, whereupon he stopped the orchestra and warned trouble-makers he would summon the police. The conductor was even challenged to a duel; it was that kind of audience.

Illies is content with his conversational voice, informed, never overbearing and well supported by a six-page selected bibliography. Yet there are also moments of beauty, usually when he is evoking one of his cities, each as much a central character as are any of the humans: “It was icy cold that February, but the sun was shining, which was and is rare for the Viennese winter, but it made the new Ringstrasse gleam all the more in its snow-white splendour. Vienna was bubbling over with vitality: it had become a world city, and this could be seen and felt all over the world – everywhere except in Vienna itself, where, through sheer joy in self-destruction, people hadn’t realised that they had unexpectedly moved to the apex of the movement which called itself Modernism.”

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.

Astute insight
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

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times