Boyd Tonkin: Before the First World War barrage hits, look at what we still share with 1913
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 23 August 2013
In June 1913 the president of Stanford University, emboldened by the widely-shared optimism of English peacenik Norman Angell, declared that "the Great War in Europe, that eternal threat, would never come." Globalisation had advanced so far, economies and peoples had so intermingled, that the feared apocalypse was mere fantasy.
Across Europe, almost all cool heads agreed. Go-ahead times called for bold new ventures. In the same year, the first branch of Lidl opened in Essen, and the first Prada outlet in Milan. I owe that a pair of piquant details to Florian Illies's droll, clever and touching chronicle 1913: the year before the storm (Profile).
The German writer's slyly stitched collage (translated by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle) canters, January to December, through 12 busy months seldom laden with conspicuous doom. With a few detours to cultural Paris, London or New York, Illies concentrates on the artistic and intellectual networks of avant-garde Mitteleuropa. Often connected, erotically and spiritually, by those super-muses Alma Mahler and Lou Andreas-Salome, the young rebels write, paint, compose love and plot in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Munich – and assorted summer resorts around a fairly unhysterical continent.
The next three months will witness a ceaseless barrage of British books about the First World War. So far as I can see, this centenary bombardment will offer little in the way of startling revelation. Of course, newcomers to the infinitely sad and grim story deserve to have it told again, and well. But against this anniversary tide, with its assumptions that 1914-1918 smashed one world and made another, let's pay some attention to continuity as well as upheaval. For in 2013, we still live, think and dream in ways that the pioneer minds of 1913 had imagined.
The likes of Kafka, Rilke, Freud and Thomas Mann take centre-stage for Illies. He spotlights their tangled domestic lives as much as their output that year - though editor Kurt Wolff was keen to hear about the strange novella Kafka had just completed ("is it called 'The Bug'… Will you send it to me?"). Major metamorphoses in art aside, Illies has an unerring eye for the antics of the bit players. Or rather, bit players then. In May, an "architectural painter" from Vienna settled in Munich and found a room at 34 Schleissheimer Strasse. Rather odd, but polite and diligent, he would go out to paint every day, then come back and shyly ask for hot water for his tea. "Just sit down with us and have something to eat, you look starving," said Herr Popp, a tailor, to his lodger. But Adolf Hitler snatched the pot and fled up to his room.
Illies wants to free our heads from hindsight - and the ironclad determinism it brings – but at the same time make plain that a dread of future carnage had darkened some far-seeing eyes. Old Europe, its monarchies and hierarchies, did indeed founder in the trenches. Yet by 1913 – the year of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Malevich's abstract painting "Black Square on a White Background", the first volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time – we can already see the outline of so many breakthroughs in art and thought. Total war and its aftermath would germinate and hothouse the innovations of even the most outlandish maverick.
People, as much as ideas, could and did endure. Illies begins with a simmering feud, about work and the woman both loved, between Thomas Mann and his worst enemy: Alfred Kerr, the heaviest critical gun in Germany. Post-1918, Kerr would flourish and raise a family - until, in 1933, the racist madness of the "architectural painter" drove them into exile. You might not know Herr Kerr. But you, or your young ones, may well love the children's books of his daughter: Judith Kerr (see p.24), who recently celebrated her 90th birthday.
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