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Florian Illies' 1913: The Year Before the Storm

An intimate cultural account portrait of the pre-WWI world piques the interest of Houman

Houman Barekat is the editor of critical journal Review 31. Under this Blog, he will be covering radical ideas from recent non-fiction books

In July 1913, the painter Egon Schiele moved into the holiday home of his patron and sponsor Arthur Roessler. Roessler installed his protégé in the guestroom of his summerhouse in Altmnster, the Austrian lakeside town, in the hope that he might paint him a little masterpiece for the living room. To his host’s disappointment, the artist was singularly unproductive:

One morning Roessler goes into Schiele’s room and sees Schiele sitting on the floor watching a little clockwork train set go around in a circle. Schiele switches tracks, couples and decouples while loudly imitating the noises. He can do perfect imitations of train whistles, coupling, shunting, squealing. He asks Roessler to join in. Someone has to do the announcements at the little station.

Florian Illies1913: The Year Before the Storm is full of wonderful vignettes like this. You’ll find it under History, but there are no theses, no footnotes, no quotations from academic authorities; just a rather lovely work of fleeting historical tourism. In a year in which we’ve seen novelists such as Sheila Heti and Laurent Binet deliberately blurring the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, here we have the reverse: a historian turning storyteller, breezing through a biographical panorama in a languid historic present tense. 

Though we check in from time to time with the German Kaiser, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the main actors in Illies’ 1913 are not statesmen but painters, writers and poets - the figures who would become the household names of the incipient Modernist era. The travails - personal and professional - of Klimt, Kirchner, Picasso and Freud form the core of Illies’ narrative. Among the chief protagonists is a lovesick Franz Kafka, waxing self-loathing like some kind of proto-Morrissey. 

Affectionately laconic and laced with glib humour - we are periodically reminded that ‘there is still no sign of the Mona Lisa’ following its theft early in the year - 1913 is an unusual beast. It is written in the vein of a social history, but its subjects are a gaggle of truly exceptional people. The principal focus is on Berlin and Vienna, the twin headquarters of the Modernist government-in-waiting. The United States, the country that will define the century once Europe is through destroying itself, appears only in flickers (Charlie Chaplin signs his first film deal with; Burt Lancaster is born; etc.) - a deft rendering of its emergent status at that time. 

Vienna continued to leave its imprint on the 20th Century long after its heyday, in the form of a rich cosmopolitan diaspora of important intellectuals - the likes of EH Gombrich and Eric Hosbbawm, to give just two very famous examples - but its appeal today rests largely on the nostalgic memory of that earlier time. And contemporary Berlin, for all its tremendous purchase, is unlikely to leave its mark on history in quite the same way. In the intervening century, the centre of gravity first shifted - to America - and then gradually flattened out. In 2013, there is no metropolitan hub that can lay claim to a stature equivalent to Berlin and Vienna a century ago.  Perhaps the closest thing we have to an era-defining cultural metropolis exists, not in geographical space, but in the boundless digital expanse of the World Wide Web.

1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies is available for £14.99 at Profile Books