Once again, I went searching for one book and ended up with another. For about a year I’d been wanting to read Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War. Feeling ambitious, last week, I searched my local public library in hopes of scoring a copy. The bad news is I was unsuccessful. The good news is I found something very similar. From what I could tell, 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies looked like a worth substitute to hold me over until I could secure of a copy of Emmerson’s similarly titled book. So I grabbed it and began reading it almost at once. After devouring Illies’s book in less than a weekend I knew I’d chosen wisely.
Even though I’ve read a number of books that focused on one particular year (books like 1688, 1959, 1968 and 1973 all come to mind) this one is especially focused. Even with World War One looming on the horizon, Illies’s book ignores geopolitics and largely politics in general. His is a book that prefers to look at what was going on culturally and intellectually that year, with the spotlight almost exclusively on continental Europe. (People and events in America show up from time to time, but not very often.) Even though Europe’s generals and emperors might be planning to unleash what will in the end be one history’s bloodiest conflicts, Illies breezes along with the adventures, accomplishments, trials and failures of creative individuals like Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Igor Stravinsky. Even wannabe artists like Adolf Hitler pass the time in Vienna’s grand park, quite possibly rubbing shoulders with exile Joseph Stalin or even sitting in the same cafe alongside Croatian playboy and test car driver Josip Broz Tito. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung feud over the future of modern psychiatry while Virginia Woolf and James Joyce slowly yet painfully embark on their respective literary careers. After earning three doctorate degrees Albert Schweitzer sets up shop in Africa. In America, after being sent to reform school a young Luis Armstrong falls in love with playing the trumpet. And the Mona Lisa is still missing after its mysterious theft from the Louvre.
Was I put-off by Illies’s perhaps unconventional approach to telling history? Of course not. Things moved along nicely and only a few times towards the end of the book did I feel my interest wane a bit. Illies is a fine storyteller with a pleasantly quirky attention to detail. I also found the book’s translation top-notch. 1913: The Year Before the Storm is a fun book and the perfect thing to tide me over until I can read Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War.