The Year Before the Storm

translated by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle

Before the war to end all wars, there was the year to end all years . . .

It was the year that Henry Ford first put a conveyer belt in his car factory, and the year Louis Armstong first picked up a trumpet. It was the year Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract, and that Coco Chanel and Prada opened their first dress shops. It was the year Proust began his opus, that Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, and the first Armory Show in New York introduced the world to Picasso and the realm of abstract art. It was the year the recreational drug now known as ecstasy was invented.

It was 1913, the year before the world plunged into the catastrophic darkness of World War I.

In a witty yet moving narrative that progresses month by month through the year, and is interspersed with numerous photos and documentary artifacts (such as Kafka’s love letters), Florian Illies ignores the conventions of the stodgy tome so common in “one year” histories. Forefronting cultural matters as much as politics, he delivers a charming and riveting tale of a world full of hope and unlimited possibility, peopled with amazing characters and radical politics, bristling with new art and new technology . . . even as ominous storm clouds began to gather.

Florian Illies is a German journalist who has worked for major European newspapers and magazines and cofounded the art magazine Monopol. He is the author of four previous bestselling books, which have sold more than 1 million copies. 1913 is his first book to be translated into English.

Shaun Whiteside’s translations include Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless.

Jamie Lee Searle’s recent translations include works by Ursula Poznanski, Frank Schatzing, and Dora Heldt.

“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.” —the Weekly Standard

“What a treat: bite-sized vignettes of cultural and political figures making their way across the last year of peace.” —Richard Brookhiser, holiday book picks for the National Review Online

“The rich range of subjects, the vibrancy of the writing, here translated by Whiteside and Searle, and the intimate details of the biographies all make this a fast-paced and engrossing read… Highly recommended.” —Library Journal, starred review

“The beauty of German author Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year Before the Storm is in its structure and its voice.” —the Albany Times-Union

“An utterly delicious treat or an ideal present for anyone even mildly interested in 20th-century art, music and literature….an irresistible book, excellently translated and packed with factoids and surprising encounters.” —Michael Dirda, the Washington Post

“Interactive and full of vigorous energy as moments intertwine, and connections one rarely contemplates in the same context are finally connected… With confidence the text reverberates through the following years by offering a new perspective on the roots of the 20th century… A welcome presence on any book shelf.”

“An astonishingly rich cultural portrait of Europe just before World War I… an immensely enjoyable, imaginative, and textured history of one the most vibrant periods in Western culture… [1913] upends traditional narrative to offer an intimate portrait of the era.” —Shelf Awareness

“A fascinating new structure of writing… With exceptional wit and understanding, Illies shows the societal and cultural changes propelling man toward modern art, new thought processes and war.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“An absolute gem of a book … the most original historical account I’ve come across … Illies’ genius turn of phrase, beautifully retained by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle’s elegant translation, can be found throughout … The entries read like history’s footnotes, but as anyone who’s read Freud knows, the footnotes always tell the best story’ The Observer

“An entertaining and illuminating study/” — The Independent

“A hugely enjoyable idiosyncratic month-by-month narrative, in which the frenzy of artistic activity in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Trieste is conveyed with vigour and humour’ — The Daily Telegraph

“A vivid, richly textured book that chronicles a world crackling with talent, energy and foreboding. The pace and scale of activity is at times breathtaking … Illies’ talent is to weave all this together in a way that keeps the reader with him’ The Financial Times

“Illies is blessed with a lightness of touch and a lively mind with a feel for the colourful and the human, often at its silliest … This highly entertaining month-by-month account of 1913 is rich in detail, humour and vivid pen portraits … 1913 is the best possible holiday read – or gift – as it is so enjoyable, yet the breadth of information and astute insight will prevent one feeling guilty of indulgence … a wonderfully idiosyncratic book, alive with funny, strange, unexpected yarns’ — Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times

“Thorough and fascinating’ Time Out

“Illies is as astute a researcher as he is an observer of the zeitgeist … reads like something out of a magic realist novel’ –The Guardian

“A fascinating book’ –The New Statesman

“A brilliant game of original quotations and tracings’ Der Spiegel

“This author shapes his material not as a scholar, but as a wordsmith, as a storyteller with a strong sense for dramatic effect and composition…His ability to explain paintings vividly and translate them into words and metaphors is extraordinary and a source of both intellectual and sensual delight…What captivates Florian Illies—and us too—is the ‘tremendous un-simultaneous simultaneity’ in 1913… the most enjoyable book I’ve read in years.” — Die Welt Book of the Week

“This is not a work of unease and apocalyptic anxiety, but a text of joys because Illies has a notoriously cheerful style…only someone with a sovereign command of his material and knowledge can write as lightly and succinctly as he does.” — Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

“A light-footed chronicle of the final year in the long 19th Century.” — Abendzeitung München

“Illies makes the hundred years between 1913 and his readers disappear… and at the same time almost wrenches open the trenches of the catastrophes separating us from those distant years… a beautiful book.” — Süddeutsche Zeitung

“Florian Illies describes the summer of 1913 with the suspense of a thriller.” — Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung 

“Astounding, humorous, clever.” — Flair

“An effortless and sympathetic book. ”Deutschlandradio

“He expertly interweaves the best stories from countless biographies, ordering the creative chaos into months.”NZZ am Sonntag

‘The construction of this book is extraordinary, Florian Illies’ gift for anecdote is not to be sneered at, the characterisations of people and situations are impressive. I read even the things I thought I knew in an entirely new way.” — Henning Ritter

“I couldn’t stop reading—Illies’ stories are simply magnificent.” — Ferdinand von Schirach

“Connections and constellations play out with extraordinary lightness in Illies’ text. Every sentence works, as if each word has been weighed and measured a hundred times until all the parts glide smoothly together…Rarely has a book explained more intelligibly the extent of art’s impact on society.” — taz

“This book deserves the highest praise: it’s as if you’d been there.”Rheinische Post