Book review: 1913: The Year Before the Storm

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 4:39pm

1913: The Year Before the Storm
by Florian Illies (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
4 stars

Philip Oltermann

Can you write a history of the year 1913 and ignore the disaster waiting around the corner? With the centenary of the first world war approaching that may sound perverse, yet it is precisely what journalist Florian Illies tries to do in his new book, which was a bestseller in Germany when it was published there last year.

Illies tells the story of that year through a series of snapshots from the lives of artists, scientists, inventors and politicians, relayed with a novelist's eye for detail and a live blogger's sense of urgency. He also tries to write the teleology out of early 20th-century history. There's more on Kaiser Wilhelm's passion for stag hunting than on the consequences of the Reichstag bill to increase military spending. Nothing about Italy's imperial extension into Libya; a few sentences only on the second Balkan war. Illies writes that "Austro-Hungary doesn't have a chance against the attack from the French". But he's writing about tennis: Frenchman Max Decugis beats Austrian Ludwig Salm in three sets in the final of a Madrid tournament that April.

Far from teetering on the edge of the abyss, the generation of 1913 looks surprisingly carefree. A few broodier minds are already thinking about war, but Illies is keen to expose their vanity. Thomas Mann spends most of the year chewing over a devastating review of his first play and obsessing about whether he got ripped off for the new rug in his study.

Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, pops up repeatedly only to be exposed as a fatalist who confuses his own hang-ups about women with a wider crisis in European civilisation.

Illies gives plenty of space to the chance encounters of Europe's cultural elite: Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke bumping into each other in Munich's Englischer Garten, James Joyce giving English lessons to Italo Svevo in Trieste.

The book works best when it zooms in on the lives of artists hovering somewhere between hypochondria and hyperactivity. The affair between Gustav Mahler's widow Alma and the ragingly possessive painter Oskar Kokoschka is as gripping as Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer's is desperately sad.

Kafka christened the 1910s "the nervous era", and if there is one thing that unites the different characters in this book, it's a state of heightened anxiety. Illies notes that neurasthenia, or "nervous exhaustion", may have been little more than love sickness, and cheerily adds that 1913 was also the year in which the drug ecstasy was invented - another bridge between the pre-war generation and his own.

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