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1913: The Year Before the Storm - Florian Illies

Such an endearingly irreverent yet empathic account, and what a year! I just love this book and hope you do too. The following random excerpts should give you the gist.

(February) And so the capital of the modern age anno 1913 is Vienna. Its star players are Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, Karl Kraus, Otto Wagner, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Georg Trakl, Arnold Schonberg, and Oskar Kokoschka, to name but a few. Here the battles raged: about the unconscious, about dreams, the new music, the new way of seeing, the new architecture, the new logic, the new morality.

(March) As he (Klimt)stands in silence at his canvas, half a dozen naked women or girls are walking about, stretching, lazing around, waiting until he summons them with a little wave of his hand. He wears nothing under his apron, so that he can take it off quickly when desire overwhelms him and the pose of one of his models becomes too seductive for the man inside the painter. But he's home with Mum on the dot for dinnertime.

(May) Adolf Hitler, the painter who failed to get into the art academy, has no contact with the artistic avant-garde of the city. We don't know whether he saw the exhibitions of degenerate art by Picasso or Egon Schiele or Franz Marc, which caused such a furore in Munich in 1913. The artists of his generation who had made a career for themselves were alien to the art-school reject throughout his life, and he eyed them with suspicion, envy and hatred.

(June) The Worst Marriage Proposal In the World: On June 8, in Prague, Franz Kafka has finally begun to ask for Felice's hand in marriage . . . . "Now bear in mind, Felice, that in the face of this uncertainty it is hard to say the words, and it must sound peculiar. It's simply too soon to say it. But afterwards it will be too late, and then there won't be any time for discussing such things as you mentioned in your last letter. But there isn't any time to hesitate for too long, at least that's how I feel about it, and so that's why I'm asking: in view of the above premise, which is sadly ineradicable, do you want to consider whether you want to become my wife?"

(August) On 3 August an artist suffocates inside a pile of sand at Berlin Jungfernheide. His art form consisted of being buried alive for up to five minutes. Today, however, the director of the artists' group was immersed in conversation and forgot to start the excavation until ten minutes had passed.

(September) On Odd Fellows' Day Louis Armstrong, who has just turned thirteen, makes his first public appearance as a jazz musician, with the band from the institution whose name, Municipal Boys' Home, Colored Dept. Brass Band, is emblazoned on its big drum. Armstrong stands proudly beside the drum in the band photograph from that year, next to his first teacher, Peter Davis, who handed him the instrument in January.

(November) Rilke sits in Paris, thinking distractedly about summer and autumn in Germany. As he traveled uneasily back and forth between all his wives and uber-mothers, between Clara, still his wife, his ex-lovers Sidonie and Lou, his summer love Ellen Delp, his mother, his helpless admirers Cassirer, von Nostitz and von Thurn and Taxis. Keep everything open, don't go down any one path, wherever it may lead: this is what Rainier Maria Rilke is thinking on 1 November. As an attitude to life it's disastrous. As poetry it's a revelation.

(December) Meanwhile, Josef Stalin is freezing in his Siberian exile.