Last book of the year, more than likely, is 1913: the year before the storm (Amazon) by Florian Illies, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Searle. I’m going to call this for curated writing – it’s a collection of anecdotes about historical and cultural figures mainly, but not exclusively, centred on Vienna and the German speaking world and arranged by month, a thing of beauty in conception and execution. Much more than one of those what happened on this day? lists it’s put together with wit and artistry, making you want to read on to find out whose got the sniffles now. And it doesn’t hurt that it references any number of writers and artists who feel like old friends.
Philip Oltermann notes Illies’ “novelist’s eye for detail and liveblogger’s sense of urgency”. (He also comments that those looking for a more international account might turn to Charles Emmerson’s 1913: the world before the Great War.) Written in the historic present, Illies’ 1913 doesn’t try to bring in the benefit of hindsight by showing a world hurtling into war, but reveals instead some of the smaller incidents which make up everyone’s life, then as now. He can’t resist occasional hat tips to the future however, noting that Stalin, Hitler and Tito were all in town at the same time and could well have passed each other in the street.
I’ve a couple more of these books of the year browning on my bookshelf – Philip Metcalfe’s Berlin 1933 (published 1989) and Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, which it turns out he followed up with Thunder at twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 (published in 1979 and 1989 respectively), but it seems that the master of the genre may well be Walter Kempowski, who amassed a collection of raw material such as personal documents, letters, newspaper reports and unpublished autobiographies over a period of 20 years, published as Echolot (Sonar) auf deutsch. One volume has just been published in English – Swansong 1945, translared by Shaun Whiteside (again), covering a mere four days.
(Update, Dec 2015: I have one of his nine volume Deutsche Chronik series (Aus großer Zeit/Days of greatness, 1978/82), the final part of which (Alles umsonst/All for nothing, 2006; review), set in East Prussia no less, has just come out in English, translated by (obv) Anthea Bell.)
A further addition to the canon is Moscow 1937 (Amazon | The Atlantic | Times Higher), which I’m seriously considering investing in. Written by Karl Schögel, a lecturer at a university in Frankfurt an der Oder, this looks like classic curational writing, if enciting the adjectives encyclopaedic and exhaustive, something I also struggle with. A snippet in the London Review of Books describes Schlögel as “the most distinguished flâneur among historians of Russia”. Update, 12 Feb 2015: the Danish library service obliged. A stunning piece of work, readable but very, very long.
Shout outs too for James Fox’s documentary series Bright lights, brilliant minds (clips inc Café Central) on BBC over the summer, covering Vienna 1908, Paris 1928 and New York 1951, and The Enemies Projet’s Kakania (anthology), exploring the culture of Hapsburg Vienna.
So, books read this year: 22. A significant improvement on the all time low of 7 in 2012, but a long way to go to surpass 2006’s 39, when my LibaryThing records start, although I have been recording books read since 1992. Quite a pool of data there, which it could be fun to try to do something with.