"The first second of 1913. A gunshot rings out through the dark night. There’s a brief click, fingers tense on the trigger, then comes a second, dull report. The alarm is raised, the police dash to the scene and arrest the gunman straight away. His name is Louis Armstrong.” Armstrong is 12 years old. At the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, where he is later dumped, he is so unruly that the home’s director thrusts a cornet into his hands to help the boy blow off steam. He never puts it down. A star is born.
With this shot in the night, the German art historian Florian Illies opens this entertaining romp through the mind-boggling year 1913.
Among historians, who stare mesmerized into the vortex of insanity that produced the Big Bang of August 1914, the precursor year is a bit of an orphan. World politics are in a holding pattern; the players of the future lounge about, biding their time. Hitler is painting postcards, Stalin is writing nationalist essays, Trotsky is playing chess. All three are in Vienna. Hitler and Stalin enjoy morning walks in the park of Schönbrunn, as does the old emperor Franz Josef, who is contemptuous of the Erzherzog (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) racing through Vienna in a car that has golden spokes like the emperor’s coach.
Stalin beats Lenin seven times in a row at chess before leaving Krakow for Vienna. But it is Leon Bronstein (Trotsky) who becomes known as the best player in the Café Central. That year, the man who will kill him in Mexico is born in Barcelona. That’s the sort of thing one learns from Illies.
This marvelous book is like a box of rich cultural chocolates, each wrapped in the brightly glittering foil of its own significance. They are tightly packed, one next to the other in chronological tiers called months. The result is a stunning kaleidoscope of High Modernism: Artistically, 1913 was exploding in fulfillment. Best known is the pandemonium that erupted on May 29 at the premiere in Paris of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, choreographed and danced by the scandalous Nijinski and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Although Maurice Ravel, from his cheap seat, yelled “genius” above the outraged audience, the next morning Le Figaro surmised that the Russians weren’t prepared for the French proclivity to protest “once stupidity has reached its nadir.”
The enjoyment of Illies’s spirited depiction is a bit marred by the translation. It was originally done for a British readership. Hence, one has to get used to Briticisms, such as “interval” for “intermission.” Fair enough, if we acknowledge the seniority of British over American English. But there is no excuse for telling us that Gabriele d’Annunzio, who sat in the audience on May 29, had run away from his disciples (Gläubigen) in Italy, when he had really escaped from his creditors (Gläubigern).
Unlike Stravinsky, Arnold Schönberg cannot be suspected of meeting his audience in Vienna unprepared on April 13. Many in the audience had brought their house keys to be rattled in displeasure; audience and maestro were prepared for battle. But keys aren’t enough when Schönberg decides to present, in addition to works by himself, Gustav Mahler, and Anton von Webern, Alban Berg’s Five Songs with Orchestra on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, op. 4. Hissing, laughter, and rattling of keys ensue: “Then Anton von Webern leaps to his feet and shouts that the whole rabble should go home, to which the rabble replies that people who like such music belong in the Steinhof [Vienna’s insane asylum and current residence of the poet Peter Altenberg].” Unlike Pierre Monteux, who, unperturbed by the tumult around him, conducted Sacre to the last bar, Schönberg “stops the orchestra and shouts into the audience that he will have any troublemakers removed by force.”
To be schoolmastered by such a man is too much for the Viennese bourgeoisie. All hell breaks loose. The conductor is challenged to a duel, and a man is seen climbing over the seats: “When he reached the front row, Oscar Straus, composer of the operetta The Waltz Dream, boxed the ear of the president of the Academic Association of Literature and Music, Arnold Schönberg.”
Public spectacles seem to have been a necessary stimulant for artistic growth.
No public spectacle was more closely watched than the obsessive love affair of Alma Mahler-Werfel, widowed since Mahler’s painful death in 1911, and Oskar Kokoschka. It produced dozens of Alma paintings and one true masterpiece, Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut). The equivalent in Berlin was the insane mutual attraction of two poets: the dirt-poor, opium-addicted single mother Else Lasker-Schüler and the parricidal medical pathologist Gottfried Benn, who swooned publicly in poems of unrivaled intensity. In Vienna, the poet Georg Trakl was madly in love with his sister, and the painter Egon Schiele was infatuated with his sisters, Melanie and Gerti, whose pubescent bodies he drew with exact attention to gynecological details. At the same time, Arthur Schnitzler wrote his novel Frau Beate und ihr Sohn, never translated into English, about a mother who makes love to her son in a boat on a lake, after which they drown themselves.
Not all love affairs are public, though; Kafka, for one, never raised his voice. His letters to the quite ordinary, big-boned Felice Bauer in Berlin are marvels of quiet loopiness. It is one of the great merits of Illies that he exposes Kafka’s indecisiveness as its own brand of a sweetly endearing ludicrousness. His letters to Felice culminate in a marriage proposal that is a quiet self-annihilation, and he tops it off with a letter to her father (written on Goethe’s birthday, August 28) in which he explains that if Felice were to marry him, who loved her more than he would ever love anyone, she’d condemn herself to a monastic life with a taciturn hermit.
That’s one way to end things.
Rainer Maria Rilke, in contrast, was in the business of accruing women. They were good for his poetry and his purse. They liberated him from having to make a living; he could take his time with his poems. Exposure of Rilke’s lazy lounging is another great merit of 1913. One comes away with gratitude from passages in which the author prefers the company of the scalpel-wielding Benn, on his daily dissections in the morgue, to reading yet another of Rilke’s gossipy letters to a lover who has fallen for his calculated charm.
But it was another quiet man who, in that noisy year welcomed with Louis Armstrong’s gunshot, turned out to be the true revolutionary. In a year when artists and intellectuals prided themselves on not being able to sleep—on writing, dancing, talking through the night—and the greatest literary works were about waking up to life, however messy it may turn out to be, Marcel Proust opened the first volume of his magnum opus with this surprising sentence: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” (“For a long time, I would go to bed early.”)
Illies’s stylish evocation of 1913 is thrilling entertainment for those who have heard it all before but wish to experience—one more time, perhaps—the bleary-eyed ecstasy that is the result of staying up all night reading a book in one sitting.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.