1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts-The Year before the Storm by Florian Illies, translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Searle

I was in two minds about reading this book, aware it was not a novel with a plot to entertain and distract, but a book divided into 12 sections for each month of 1913 containing information and commentary on the activities of a wide range of personalities during that year. However I was straight away drawn into the book with the first account of how Louis Armstrong came to play the trumpet and thanks to the careful selection, skilled writing  and sense of audience of the writer, the art historian Florian Illies, I found the book both entertaining and informative from start to finish.

Illies ranges over the lives of personalities working in a number of different areas in 1913 and in many cases focuses on artists and thinkers who were rejecting what had gone before and who symbolise ‘die Moderne’- the modern age. So the German expressionists, both Blaue Reiter and Blaue Brücke groups are depicted, along with Picasso and cubism. Schönberg and the Rite of Spring represent new movements in music. Walter Gropius is introducing a a new approach to architecture, reflecting the industrial age. Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and his disagreement with Jung is discussed and indeed his ideas of the Oedipal triangle and the need to kill the father- in other words authority – are introduced. We then see these acted out in Freud’s own life  as well in the lives of several other thinkers of the day who definitively reject their fathers and the old order they represent. One of the best examples is Franz Kafka, whose ‘Letter to my father’ is iconic in this area.

But it is not just the work and the successes and failures of artistic endeavour during 1913 which is discussed. We read much about the relationships and love affairs of the artistic milieu. Sexual passion seems to be de rigeur and the steamy relationship of Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka features prominently in most months of the year, related not without wry humour and wit by the author. Similarly we learn of the crippling inability of Kafka to commit to Felice Bauer. Infidelity is rife and passion at times drives these personalities to the edge, almost as if experienced as an uncontrollable force bursting out of the same primitive place as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

We learn much about the work and activity of a wide range of writers: Thomas Mann has written Death in Venice and it is suggested that Katia Mann now learns more about  her husband’s sexuality. Are her frequent escapes for a ‘Kur’ a response to  this? They do at least provide Thomas Mann with the material for ‘Zauberberg’.  Writers  less established at the time like Gottfried Benn and Robert Musil, also suffering from ‘Neurasthenie’ are dealt with. Stefan Georg, the writer of wonderful poetry, develops a cult of brotherhood with young men, which seems from our perspective somewhat dubious. Illies’ range also includes popular fiction and we learn about the sci fi novel ‘der Tunnel’ , in which a tunnel is built underneath the sea between Europe and the US and the appeal of this idea for the popular imagination.

And what of historical and political events in this year so near to the outbreak of the cataclysmic First World War? The stifling hierarchy of the Austro- Hungarian empire is exemplified by the fact that the wife of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne, is not considered of a sufficiently good class background to sit in the royal box in the opera. Mention is made of conflict in the Balkans rumbling away but this is not something which seems to be troubling artistic circles overmuch. Antisemitic comments and attitudes are noted even amongst the educated elite and, most sinister, legislation is passed in Germany in August, the ‘ius sanguinis’ which defines race as the basis of citizenship: the forerunner then of the 1935 Nuremberg laws which excluded Jewish people from German society prior to the genocide .

Florian Illies, as well as being immensely knowledgeable about his subject matter,  knows just how much to include in any one month about any one personality. He manages to get under the skin of the personality and makes them come alive in a matter of a few  paragraphs. I was most struck by this in his account of Picasso leaving Paris for Ceret and learning that his father was seriously ill. Despite not getting on with him, Picasso is deeply distressed, made worse by the death of his dog. I have seen countless paintings by Picasso in Europe and America  throughout my life, read much about him in the Barcelona musuem  and elsewhere, yet never felt I saw the man as vividly as in this short extract.

The large cast of characters could be off putting:  I found I had to read with attention to guard against getting my Ottos mixed up with my Oswalds but Illies does make this easier by helpfully including a line or two to remind us who they are when reintroducing a character. The one criticism I do have of the book is that there is a  dearth of women artists/thinkers.  Käthe Kollwitz appears briefly but I was disappointed that the entry was one dimensional, relating to her relationship with her husband rather  than her work. And weren’t there any other significant women in 1913?

Still , this a cleverly constructed, informative and witty gem of a book which I hugely enjoyed.

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