‘1913: The Year Before the Storm,’ by Florian Illies

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-Salomé , Pablo Picasso, Arthur Schnitzler and Marcel Duchamp.

The book opens with a bang:

A gaucho rides a wild horse during the annual celebration of Criolla Week in Montevideo, April 15, 2014. Throughout Easter Week, 'gauchos', the Latin American equivalent of the North American cowboy, from all over Uruguay and neighboring Argentina and Brazil will visit Montevideo to participate in the Criolla Week to win the best rider award. The competition is held from April 13 to April 20 this year. REUTERS/Andres Stapff (URUGUAY - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY)

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“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 Kraków.” His forged passport bears the name Stavros Papadopoulos, though history knows him better as Joseph Stalin. While Stalin resides in Vienna, working on his pamphlet “Marxism and the National Question,” he takes regular walks in the park near the Schönbrunn Palace. As it happens, a young Austrian, 23 years old, also strolls there in the afternoon. A failed painter living in a cheap hostel, Adolf Hitler is waiting for his big break. As Florian writes, “the two men . . . may have greeted one another politely and tipped their hats as they made their way through the boundless park.”

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-Schüler. Nobody shows any interest in their work, however, so the artists buy one another’s pictures to make up a derisory 1,600 marks for their friend. Florian can’t resist commenting that “the total value of the works unauctioned on 17 February 1913 would amount to around 100 million Euros today. Oh, what the heck — probably closer to 200 million.” That would be more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

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-Schüler embark on an affair that will inspire some of the greatest German love poetry of the century. The beautiful widow of composer Gustav Mahler sleeps with Oskar Kokoschka, the ugliest man in Vienna, who paints her nearly a hundred times, always while wearing the red pajamas “which he tore off her at the start of their affair.” Alma duly promises to marry Kokoschka when he creates a great masterpiece, and he determinedly does so: “The Bride of the Wind” depicts the couple embracing. Nonetheless, Alma weds the architect Walter Gropius instead (and later still marries Franz Werfel). The brokenhearted Kokoschka eventually hires a puppet maker to create a life-size doll of his lost love, accurate in every detail.

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-Salomé , the former confidante of Nietzsche, and the “high priest of the inexpressible,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke — who lost his virginity to Salomé years earlier — stop by the Fourth Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association. There the quarrelling Sigmund Freud and his “son” C.G. Jung are meeting for the last time. Appropriately, Freud is finishing “Totem and Taboo,” wherein he speculates that parricide lies at the basis of civilization. By contrast, the gloomy Oswald Spengler, feverishly at work on “The Decline of the West,” notes in his diary that “I have never had a month without thoughts of suicide.”

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.

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