The word “Gift” means poison in German, but “1913: The Year Before the Storm” is anything but that: It’s an utterly delicious treat or an ideal present for anyone even mildly interested in 20th-century art, music and literature. Rather than producing an earnest scholarly book about 1913 — the year of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” and the Armory Show in New York — Florian Illies instead presents modernism’s birth as a sexy, comic and occasionally heartbreaking soap opera. Only this time, the angst-ridden, star-crossed characters are named Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, Virginia Woolf, Alma Mahler and Lou Andreas-Salom
The book opens with a bang:
“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.”
The boy — he is only 12 — “had wanted to see in the New Year in New Orleans with a stolen revolver.” On the morning of Jan. 1, he is consequently dispatched to “the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys,” where its director will eventually hand the unruly youngster a trumpet.
During those same first days of January, “a slightly scruffy 34-year-old Russian arrives at Vienna’s Northern Station from Krak
That February in Munich, a group of artists — including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky — organizes an auction to help the impoverished poet Else Lasker-Sch
In the next month, the “profoundly depressive” Virginia Woolf publishes her first novel, “The Voyage Out.” She does only slightly better than the painters. “Barely fifty copies of the book were sold in 1913,” writes Illies, “and by 1929 it was only 479.”
That same March, the even more deeply disturbed sculptor Camille Claudel, beloved in her younger days by her mentor Auguste Rodin and the composer Claude Debussy, is finally committed to an insane asylum by her brother, the poet Paul Claudel. About the same time, Albert Schweitzer receives his doctor of medicine degree and leaves for Africa to found a jungle hospital.
And — still in March — an insurance company employee in Prague, who writes at night, receives a letter from the publisher Kurt Wolff, who has heard about a new work called, he thinks, “The Bug.” “The Bug”? It is, of course, only the most famous German-language short story of the century, Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” That summer Kafka proposes by mail to Felice Bauer, ending his offer of marriage by stressing that she will have to give up Berlin, her own work and friends, and the prospect of children. In return she will gain “a sick, weak, unsociable, taciturn, sad, stiff, pretty much hopeless human being.”
As Illies wryly interjects: “Who could turn down an offer like that?” Kafka never did marry Felice Bauer.
That July, Henri Matisse, carrying a bouquet, drops round to see the ailing Picasso. Illies cannot suppress his delight at “one of the two most important artists of his time bringing a bunch of flowers to the other most important artist of his time.”
Meanwhile, sex is on everyone’s mind. Poet Stefan George surrounds himself with handsome young boys. Gustav Klimt wears nothing under his smock when he paints his naked female models. Gottfried Benn and Else Lasker-Sch
Meanwhile, the poet Georg Trakl has grown madly infatuated with his sister Grete, who eventually becomes pregnant by him or his best friend or possibly her husband. It’s hard to say for sure. In September, Lou Andreas-Salom
As it happens, on Sept. 14, the comparably gloomy Kafka — on his way to a sanitarium — and the exceptionally vain novelist Robert Musil, author of the satiric masterpiece “The Man Without Qualities,” are stopping briefly in Trieste. As Illies daydreams, it’s possible that either or both might have crossed paths with James Joyce, who is teaching English there to, among others, Italo Svevo, who will go on to write the brilliant “Confessions of Zeno.”
Three enigmatic masterpieces finally bring 1913 to a close. The “Mona Lisa,” stolen two years before, is recovered; Duchamp attaches a bicycle wheel to a stool and creates the first “ready-made,” and Kazimir Malevich, at a Futurist congress in Finland, exhibits his absolute break with representation, “Black Square on a White Background.” These last two works, declares Illies, are “the twin starting-points of modern art.”
In “1913” Florian Illies has written an irresistible book, excellently translated and packed with factoids and surprising encounters. Those two human encyclopedias of all things modernist, Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport, would have loved it.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.