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3.8 out of 5 stars
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3.8 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 August 2013
This book focuses mainly on the artistic world of 1913, with a strong emphasis on what was happening in Germany and Austria at that time. Ranging across art, literature and music the author introduces a range of characters from a single year; Thomas Mann, Kafka, Rilke, Picasso, Coco Channel, Egon Schiele, Sigmund Freud, and Hitler, amongst many others, appear in these pages, and are all featured in interesting anecdotes.

Whilst this book does focus on happenings in the German speaking world Louis Armstrong, Proust and Stravinsky all appear, and add something to the picture.

All this makes for interesting reading which creates the atmosphere of the arts world on the eve of a destruction they couldnot fully forsee. An index would have been useful, but there is a splendid bibliography for those who want to learn more
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This book is very well researched, providing personal and sometimes intimate information on the literary, artistic and political giants of 1913, some already famous, some, like Hitler to emerge later. The book is arranged on a monthly basis through the year, and provides shortish snippets on each individual and his/her relationships, gaining some narrative force by building on these through the year.

I learned quite a lot, for example the extent of Kafka's neuroses, Hitler's single minded pursuit of a living through production line painting, and Thomas Mann's homosexuality, the autobiographical links to Death in Venice and the fact that Katia his wife is upset. However after a while this all began to jar on me, there seemed to be no underlying thesis or dynamic, and it began to feel like voyeuristic tittle tattle. This was heightened by the author's rather amused, God-like overview; he knows what's going to happen but they don't, and in this sense it felt disrespectful towards his subjects.

Furthermore, referring to the book's subtitle "The year before the storm" I was expecting greater resonance between the lives described and the broader political and social mood and events leading to war.

Looking at the other reviews I can see I'm rather out on a limb here, a disappointment for me, but an informative book for those wishing to know more about the remarkable individuals depicted.[...]
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on 14 September 2013
I adored this book. It's a strange one, a bit of a cross between fiction & historical fact. Month by month, the book lets us into the lives of the wonderful & talented of Europe in 1913. We see what people like Freud, Franz Ferdinand, Picasso, Hitler, Stalin et al were doing & where they were during this year. It also gives a feel of the political situation of the time, & in places you can see the cogs in place moving Europe towards war.
The prose made the book for me. It was almost poetic in parts & some of the little snippets read like a short story. I found myself re-reading lines over again to take them in. I enjoyed it so much I almost wished I could read German proficiently enough to read the original.
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on 29 July 2014
An enormous disappointment. The idea -- a collection of anecdotes about prominent artistic and other people throughout the year before the breakout of the First World War -- is promising. But it needs an organizing principle. This book has none, beyond returning month by month to a few particular individuals: Franz Marc, Rainer Maria Rilke, Artur Schnitzler, Alma Mahler and Sigmund Freud among them. I bought the book because of a continuing interest in Alma Mahler and Freud, but there's absolutely nothing new here. On the contrary, what there is is superficial and often inconsequential. Worse, the effect is simply silly. For example, the idea that, since Stalin and Hitler were in Vienna at the same time, imagine that they might have passed each other while walking in the park. So what?! The speculation is entirely idle, and completely meaningless. It says nothing about either man, but a lot about the author's barrenness of ideas. Also, though it could be the fault of the translation, the writing is often slipshod. A waste of time.
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VINE VOICEon 30 July 2013
This book focuses on events in the German speaking world, especially in Vienna and Berlin. The political background is always there (especially as we know what they didn't about what was coming next), but its main concern is with artistic, musical and literary events and personalities. I found the best way to read it was to break off and look up the works of art and pieces of music mentioned although I must confess I haven't yet been motivated to read any of the, rather heavy sounding, literature referenced. The revelation, to me at least, that Max Weber was an alcoholic and drug addict was somehow immensely disappointing; I don't know why.

Anyway, notwithstanding the rather intellectual content of the book I am also pleased to report that I remain shallow enough to be amused by the appearance of a character by the name of Bruno Frank, if you know what I mean Harry.
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on 26 July 2013
This is not a history reference book or a novel. It is a diary of 1913, presented as a series of footnotes, asides, gossip and waggish speculation. The personal & professional lives of everyone from Picasso to Kafka, Mann (Heinrich) to Mann (Thomas), via Duchamp, Else Lasker-Schuler, Freud and Jung get a thorough ventilation - but national issues are not left out. A well written counterpoint, if a bit too "chatty" at times, to the dry, pre-war dominoes history that was forced upon us English speakers at school... And a reminder of how the art world (German speakers in particular) was to be decimated and scattered by that war. It presents interesting contrasts: Some of those mentioned are starving in garrets while others are at the height of their fame. Twentysomething Hitler is living as a (sortof) itinerant painter. Teto drives racing cars. Thirtysomething Stalin is (sortof) working on an essay. Though it focuses mostly on Paris, Berlin and Vienna every city from Chicago to Moscow gets at least a mention (The South Pole even gets in there). It seems it was a very busy year though the book never feels "crammed". The pace, moments of levity and pathos give, by turns, an absurdly logical character and a sense of glowering immanence to the great convulsion that is soon to come. Well, well worth reading. Best read in sequence the first time around and then dipped into here and there (as a throat clearer) between novels or (for men) "auf der klo" reading. With or without it's modish dust jacket a handsome book.
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on 10 August 2013
This is an entertaining and informative book about literary and historical figures and what they were up to in 1913. However it lacks some depth (compared to the superior and more erudite "1922") and contains too much trivia. And to say that certain persons such as Hitler and Stalin, who were in the same city around the same time, "may" have met or "may" have been sitting at the same cafe at the same time is very unfair on the reader. Facts are sacred and presumptions and possibilities have no place in a serious history. Having said that, the book is well researched and does provide an informative, even detailed, record of the period.
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on 30 August 2013
This may seem a little unfair, but I found this book rather disjointed. I realise that in some way this is the point: what was happening in different lives at a similar point in time. Even so, a little less satisfying than I had hoped. I think this might, ultimately, be the somewhat speculative nature of the reanactment of these moments in time: i.e.
Hitler and Stalin may have been in a given park at a given time. Also, unless you are well-informed about early twentieth century art you may struggle to follow the protagonists.
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on 12 February 2015
I'm sorry, but even with my knowledge of art and history of this period and even Germany and Austria, I found myself losing interest in a vast amount of people I'd never heard of as the book, and the year in question, went on...
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on 24 September 2014
This was a book club choice, and not a great one. Here are my notes.

Overall:
What was the point of this book? It surveyed the lives of German Avant-Garde artists during 1913, but their foibles cannot be extrapolated to paint a picture of German or European society in the year before the First World War. The chief lesson that I took away from this book is that although Bohemian artists of the period rejected the morals of society it did not make them any happier. An odd idiosyncratic little book, that is occasionally entertaining but less than the sum of its parts.

The good
I enjoyed the structure of the book with its pithy little vignettes. The strengths of this book are in his scholarship, and intimate knowledge of the diaries and letters of his subjects. Some of the little factlets I enjoyed:
• Stalin, Hitler and Tito were all in Vienna in 1913 where they may conceivably have unknowingly bumped into one another
• Egon Schiele received a rejection letter from the director of a gallery stating that his latest painting was far too obscene for public display, but also stating that the director himself wished to buy it: as the author states that is a neat encapsulation of public and private morality
• There was already war in the Balkans in 1913 between Bulgaria and Serbia, which was not something I knew. However, this book is not about the political situation of the period, and this whole subject is only lightly explored.
• Adolf Hitler was a draft dodger who was sought after by the Austro-Hungarian military police
• Kaiser Wilhelm II shot 1,100 pheasants in 2 days. This seems barely plausible, is this credible? Has the author swallowed Royal propaganda?
• The whole section covering Franz Kafka’s letters to his fiancée, and his fiancee’s father, is hilarious. He wrote the worst love letters in history.

The bad
Why should I care about the tortured lives of these obscure German artists? He fails to make a compelling case for their relevance. Frankly much of the book went in one ear and came out the other. There is not enough discussion about the political and social concerns of both Germany and Europe. There is not enough about Europe outside Germany.
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