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Monday, 26 August 2013 00:00

1913: The Year Before The Storm

by Florian Illies (The Clerkenwell Press, £14.99)
by James Walsh

Thomas Mann doesn't shave until midday, so his bristles remain undetectable until evening.

The Mona Lisa is missing. Russian Futurists mock the degenerate aesthetes. Franz Ferdinand is sulking in his castle. And Kafka, dear Kafka, is in love and sending letters tinged with fever and madness. The year is 1913.

Already a bestseller in Europe, the beauty of Florian Illies's intricately woven portrait of the year through letters, imaginings and dry factual asides lies in its juxtaposition of the vital and the banal.

He gently mocks the distance between public reputation and private correspondence and, perhaps, also justifies it - the idea of Kafka on Twitter doesn't bear thinking about.

The style of the understated German good humour is nicely maintained by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle's sleek translation. 

Vienna is at the heart of the book. Its array of greats mean it is, fleetingly, the centre of the world. There are pointed mentions of the rise of the US, reminding us that Europe's slide is imminent. 

The upcoming war isn't as much as a focus as you might think - a bestselling academic claims "globalisation means world wars are now impossible" and troubling updates from the Balkans are ignored by most.

But future disasters are foreshadowed. The first zeppelin crashes into the sea, caught in a whirlwind. Franz Ferdinand goes on a shooting party with King George V in Windsor. Over three days, thousands of pheasants and wild ducks are slaughtered. "A bloodbath," as Illies dryly notes.

And Hitler and Stalin are both in Vienna in 1913, the former painted as a compellingly pathetic creature.

But the focus is on the parade of current notables, not future monsters. Freud falls out with Jung, Rilke talks "with great seriousness about the symbolic difference between a phallus and an obelisk." And Kafka's marriage proposal: "You would gain a sick, weak, unsociable, taciturn, sad, stiff, pretty much hopeless human being" is pretty irresistible.

What emerges overall is a compelling tour through a portentous year.

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