1913 by Florian Illies, abridged by Pete Nichols

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Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 22-26 July 2013
1913 was a momentous year - not only was it the final year of peace before the so-called "War to End All Wars" began, but all over Europe people were engaged in a variety of activities that would ultimately change the world.  The Futurists and Expressionists redefined art; Freud and Jung fell out; the Mona Lisa still had not been found - having been stolen in 1911; Stravinsky caused musical mayhem; while Einstein and Kafka experienced personal troubles while trying to continue their innovative work.
A best-seller in Germany, Florian Illies' book is very similar in structure to the works produced by British historian David Kynaston, as it weaves together different incidents to create a multi-layered recreation of life during a single year.  The only difference is that Illies restricts his focus to well-known figures; we do not hear the voices of ordinary people and how they responded to the stresses of daily life.  This is a shame, as I think this strategy might have given us greater insight into what life was like at that time.  As it stands, 1913 seems a bit like a glorified soap opera, with several plots unfolding at one time involving a limited cast of famous protagonists.  Illies has certainly done his research, even though there are some wild surmises (would Hitler actually have encountered Stalin at this time?), and the narrative proves an entertaining one.
In Michael Maloney's dramatic reading, complete with background music, we are reminded of the importance of this period.