1913: A Year of Gossip

This is a much better cover than the dark, ominous one of the Kindle edition.

I reviewed this title on goodreads, I described it as “People magazine for prewar Germany & Austria, with Louis Armstrong and a stray Frenchman thrown in for good measure.” There’s no traditional narrative, more a long series of vignettes that immerse the reader into the year’s artistic and social scene. Here, those two converge, since Illies principally shares the lives of artists, painters, and so on. There are exceptions: Freud and Hitler both appear several times. Some of the content has been gleaned from letters, diaries, and the like, but some passages don’t have an obvious source. Interviews, perhaps. Although my unfamiliarity with many of the subjects and my acute disinterest in their torrid sex lives meant that I poked through much of this, there are many interesting moments — the recovery of the Mona Lisa, for instance, and Kafka’s frankly hilarious wedding proposal, in which he advises his intended that she would “lose Berlin, the office you love, your friends, little pleasures, the prospect of marrying a healthy, cheerful, good man, and of having beautiful, healthy children, which you, if you stop to think about it, really long for. And on top of this inestimable loss, you would gain a sick, weak, unsociable, taciturn, sad, stiff, pretty much hopeless human being.” A marketing man, he was not. Though I would not read a book of this approach again, there is value in this style of writing, and the way it immerses us in the personal reality of a year — experiencing the romantic anguish, the bliss of an unexpected warm day in the chilling autumn, etc — rather than using mere facts about those lives to build a narrative that’s about something other than the world they experienced.

Some quotes, to give a flavor:

The winter day is already drawing to a close, the noise in the square is deafening, it’s the busiest square in Europe, and passing in front of him are the city’s main arteries, but also the lines of tradition and the modern age: come up out of the U-Bahn into the slushy streets of the day and you will see horse-drawn carts delivering barrels, side by side with the first high-class automobiles and the droschkes trying to dodge the piles of horse droppings. Several tram lines traverse the big square, the huge space rings with a mighty metallic scrape each time a tram leans into the curve. And in among them: people, people, people, all running as if their lives depended on it, above them billboards singing the praises of sausages, eau de cologne and beer.

So, in the first months of the year 1913, Stalin, Hitler and Tito, two of the twentieth century’s greatest tyrants and one of its most evil dictators, were, for a brief moment, all in Vienna at the same time. One was studying the question of nationality in a guest room, the second was painting watercolours in a men’s boarding house, and the third was circling aimlessly around the Ringstrasse to test how well various automobiles handled the corners. Three extras, or non-speaking parts, one might think, in the great play that was ‘Vienna in 1913’.

For a long time the Anthroposophical Centre in Berlin was at the rear of 17 Motzstrasse. Rudolf Steiner lived there with his wife, Anna, but he insisted that his loyal companion and lover Marie von Sivers move in too, which, of course, didn’t work well for long.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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10 Responses to 1913: A Year of Gossip

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    This was my take away when I read it in 2014:

    “The world of 1913 was gone forever and, despite its many faults, we should morn its passing. If nothing else this book has given me a brief glimpse through a dirty window at a very different age. To begin with I really wondered why this quirky volume has become an international best seller. By the time I had read ¼ of the book I began to see why. By the end I was hooked and mesmerised. Magical, wonderful, strange and highly recommended”.

    You might want to follow this with ‘1913 – The World before the Great War’ by Charles Emmerson

    • I couldn’t find your review in History when I went looking for it, and I wondered if maybe you’d read another “1913” since there are two in my library! I’m planning on reading the Emmerson title in Jan — right now I’m trying to finish two more science titles before year’s end, one for the TBR and one just because I had it on hold.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Use the search thingy for ‘1913’ and both of them will come up straight away – or in my WW1 label. I still haven’t figured out the link thing! The Illies book was reviewed in March 2014 and the Emerson book in Jan 2015.

      • I found it that way earlier today. Thanks! My home browser blocks the search plugin (I run with various extensions blocking social media plugins, scripts, etc, and sometimes useful things are caught in the crossfire), so I didn’t think to look for it.

  2. Mudpuddle says:

    excellent prose… i saw some of Hitler’s drawings of buildings once: they were very accurate and precise… he had a talent of some sort; i guess it was more for mass murder than for art, tho…

  3. Cyberkitten says:

    BTW – The 1st of my set of Naval novels – ‘The Guineaman’ – is up with two more already in the review pile. 2021 is going to be a bummer year for sea stories I think!

    • So I saw! Enterprize caught my eye for obvious reasons, though I’d be reluctant to read a novel about a slaving ship. Will check out the author, though!

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Only about the first 20% (or less) is actually aboard ‘Enterprize’. The rest takes place either in Antigua or on other trade ships. The main characters first experience of slavers is definitely his last. The 2nd book in the series is better though. Review due next week. That’s the one I mentioned with takes place during the early American Revolution years.

  4. DoingDewey says:

    I’m not sure if I’d enjoy this one or not! I like nonfiction that gives me a picture of people’s daily lives in different time periods, but I think I might share your ‘unfamiliarity with many of the subjects and … acute disinterest in their torrid sex lives’ 🙂

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