Florian Illies, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (German 2012, English: The Year before the Storm, 2013)
This is a funny book about a time that was all too serious. It borrowed it on a whim from the library, and I must say that I went in and out of it rather than reading it from the first page to the last. The premises of the book are easy: to recap month by month, day by day, what happened to people (famous ones, or people who would have some reasons to be famous later) on that innocent year of 1913, a bit more than a century ago. Of course, this is a literary ploy, as the book was ready to be read in 2013 exactly. But even if I missed the mark by… 8 years (!), it’s still very interesting.
We see Marcel Proust writing La Recherche du temps perdu, but we also see some guy learning to play the trumpet, a boy named Louis Armstrong. We see Kafka being miserable after a failed marriage proposal. We see a guy named Hitler painting rather badly. It’s a lot of anecdotes, some silly, or mundane, some marked by melancholy and a sense of foreboding. The tone is ironic and the anecdotes pivot from one to the next on a pun or a mere coincidence. And coincidences run aplenty. Famous people cross each other’s path, they go to famous painting exhibitions, react to scandalous new art performances (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), admire each other or insult each other.
It is a geological section of the world on any given year… and what a year! To enjoy this book, you need some knowledge about German writers and painters from that particular period, otherwise I’d say that it would seem rather mundane and even pointless… or you’d need to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia (well, that might be a choice for the weekend, but consider yourself warned). At that period, everyone was keeping a detailed journal, or so it seems, and so some famous writer’s toothache is reported alongside an intellectual dispute over the meaning of life, since they happened the same week of 1913. It really sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. In 1913, there was only 1,6 billion people on earth, now we humans are probably 7,8 billions, what kind of a book could be written about 2020, or rather 2019, if we take the same approach? What anecdotes would make it to a book written in 50 years’ time with perfect hindsight? I wonder…
The weakness of the book is that it’s awfully Germano-centric. The whole world of 1913 happens between Berlin, Vienna, Prag, and Paris. America is seldom mentioned, and Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific are not mentioned at all. But still, it was a lot of fun.
If you want an audio companion to this book, try Radiolab’s episode: Dispatches of 1918, which looks at a special year across the globe (in Germany, but not only there), to see the aftermath of the war and of the flu epidemic. To think that this episode happened only 5 years later than the book sent me to a whole other rabbit hole… 🐰