One part of this project which has surprised me in its scope is “books about years” – this has become something of an obsession, and having started, I’ve been working my way up to having a shelf full of them, which means I also need to read the things. So far the entries in the series have been fairly sporadic, but coming up to the first world war there is a positive flood of the things (then they immediately become sporadic again at the end of the war) – so quite a bit of reading to be done over the next few months.
This one is critically acclaimed, which is a first, and written by a major German intellectual. In a sense it is a good view of the year, though the view it presents is weirdly myopic. At the start we do have Hitler and Stalin nearly bumping into each-other in Vienna, but on the whole Illies steers completely away from any sort of politics, preferring to concern himself with the lives of a handful of writers, artists and musicians living in the more cosmopolitan parts of the German-speaking world. There are many fascinating anecdotes within, the whole thing is very readable, but ultimately at the end I felt I’d been sold a bit of a pup. He presents these artists and thinkers of symptomatic of a cultural moment, which naturally they are – but I want to hear more about the lives of other people, across a much broader area of the world, and waiting patiently for him to get to that bit was a fruitless task.
None of this is fair – if I had approached this book with a better understanding of what it was I would have finished it in a much happier state, and many of these figures have fascinating internal lives which are vividly recreated. But that sense of impending doom, of what was about to come, I just can’t seem to find it anywhere at all. Again, this is probably my problem, not his. But still…
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