On the Brink
A world in transition before the Great War.
Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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.