It is the perfect note upon which Florian Illies chooses to commence his account of the year 1913: a moment of inspired writing as he connects the then present with the then future.
One of the significant moments of the 20th century, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 July 1914 has been described as, “The shot heard round the world.” Of course this is a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”, which commemorates the early skirmishes of a the American Civil War. In Illies’ text, the event that would set empires tumbling is anticipated in the story of Louis Armstrong, at a time less than two years before “The shot heard round the world.”
Through his natural and eloquent turn of phrase Illies writes: “All at once Louis Armstrong falls silent, picks up the instrument almost tenderly, and his fingers, which had been playing with the trigger of the revolver only the previous night, feel the cold metal once again, except that now, rather than a gunshot, he produces his first warm, wild notes from the trumpet.” From an encounter with the cold metal of a revolver to the grace of the trumpet, Armstrong would help to define the century that was still in its infancy, offsetting the destruction of war and genocide with creativity, all of which began in January 1913.
From its opening pages 1913: The Year Before the Storm makes an immediate impression, as one cannot simply help but simply be struck by the stories of individuals that were unfolding side-by-side. From artists to totalitarian dictators; royal liaisons to Alma Mahler’s adultery; commerce and publishing as well as success and self-doubt, Illies paints an impression of layers, one on top of the other, that create the portrait of a moment, whether it be a month or an entire span of a single year.
What connects these individuals is time; the same window in which according to Illies, “A cat crept onto Sigmund Freud’s couch”, whilst “Thomas Mann nearly gets outed and Franz Kafka nearly goes mad with love.” Two encounters with seemingly nothing in common, their context within the landscape of a single year were defining moments, and once connected serve only to illuminate 1913: The Year Before the Storm with an aura that singles it out as a work of significance in its approach to the past.
Illies offers a refreshing account of history, embracing the importance of moments as he peers into a fragmented past to offer something that is simple yet monumental. Illies’ text comes to share an affinity with French filmmaker Robert Bresson, the structure of his text mirroring Bresson’s own monumental work, Notes on Cinematographer.
In 1913: The Year Before the Storm, each chapter is a list of anecdotes of the particular month, therein creating a chronicle with a unique perspective. It’s an appreciation of moments, individual moments, but also communal in nature. As one cracks open this book, one cannot help but sense the fresh breeze of the past; of history that, in Illies hands, is not stuffy nor does it fill the nostrils and line the throat with dust. Rather, it’s interactive and full of vigorous energy as moments intertwine, and connections one rarely contemplates in the same context are finally connected. Our perspective of history is often a ‘compartmentalised’ one, but Illies’ international bestseller fills in the cracks of this ‘compartmentalised’ view of history to show how the relationships and events of the future are shaped in the past.
What Illies has created here is a tempting prospect; a means by which other years could be explored with a similar approach. 1913 The Year Before the Storm is a work that only a skilled researcher, writer and editor could construct. Illies never veers off course, cautious to lay a path that carves its way through the year that was a prelude to war, and whose “shot heard round the world”, unlike the American Civil War, would be a shot that would plunge the world into its first World War. This single shot of not a skirmish but an assassination would leave a scar that would only be deepened as cause and effect would ring out throughout the century.
Perhaps there was a strategic awareness on the part of Illies; understanding that there are moments in history that are ripe for close exploration. Whilst 1913 is a single year which fits this model, of decades the ‘Roaring’ 1920s probably fit the bill, and in the shadow of this observation the impression is inescapable that 1913: The Year Before the Storm is imbued with an intimacy .
If there is a criticism of the text, it’s not of the writer or the work per say, but rather the limitations of oneself or the personal aesthetics that can limit us. The fragmented text may not be the preferred form for every reader, but to the interested and curious individual it will be met with a decided warmth. A certain level of general knowledge would be advantageous, if one is to truly immerse oneself in the journey Illies’ narrates through a diverse cast of characters. But then perhaps the joy of this text is that it can be read and experienced as a reference book – one can flick through the book and pick pages or months at random to eavesdrop on a personal or impersonal moment in history.
In Illies’ hands, history is not disconnected but reconnected, and if history has been fractured, then, for at least the year 1913 he has remedied this. With confidence the text reverberates through the following years by offering a new perspective on the roots of the 20th century. One cannot regard 1913: The Year Before the Storm as anything short of a welcome presence on any book shelf.