Friends who give you great books are priceless. I have savored and just completed 1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies. Sadly, my German language skills are nil, but I read an excellent translation, thanks to the skills of Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle. This amazing book offers a month-by-month description of selected events that took place before “the war to end all wars.” Henry Ford put a conveyer belt in his car factory, Louis Armstrong picked up a trumpet, Chaplin signed his first movie contract, Proust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring—the list goes on. Some quotes:
from Thomas Mann: “And how greatly and severely war is felt as a crisis of moral cleansing, as a grandiose stride of life’s seriousness beyond all sentimental confusions.” His reference was the war of 1870-71.
from Thomas Mann (again): “Give us today our daily sheet of paper.” All writers should relate to that comment. On the same subject: “I need white, smooth paper, fluid ink and a new, softly gliding pen nib. To prevent myself making a mess of it, I put a sheet of lined paper underneath. I can work anywhere; all I need is a roof over my head. The open sky is good for unbridled dreams and outlines, but precise work requires the shelter of a roof.”
Illies shares a story from June 20, 1913, when an unemployed thirty-year old teacher, Ernst Friedrich Schmidt walked into a school “draped in weapons.” He went on a shooting rampage with loaded revolvers. Five girls, aged 7-8, died; eighteen children and five adults were severely injured. A passer-by overpowered him. His rationale? He was protesting not finding a teaching position. It seems that mass shootings are not as new as we think.
And from Illies, talking about Thomas Mann: “…but only by the sea does one have an uninterrupted view of the soul—and of the mountains before it.”
May we all write with such grace.