Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Lull Before the Storm

Life Between 1900 and 1914

This coming Saturday, on 28 June, is the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian Prince Royal Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo which only a couple of weeks later led to the outbreak of the first Great War of the twentieth century. It’s often said that the greater part of European population welcomed the war believing that it would be short, thus no more than a clearing thunderstorm in the sultry heat produced by ardent nationalism and the fervent desire of the ruling powers to show strength at any cost. Be that as it may, people started into the twentieth century with many hopes and fears based on technological progress and scientific discoveries. The wind of change was in the air and war seemed to many a scourge of the past that in a modern world would never find a place to rage again. As we know now, they were terribly mistaken.

It was a promising and inspiring period which allowed for the first time the quick and global exchange of ideas, and yet, literature shows that on the whole the atmosphere was rather melancholic, if not entirely pessimistic. There was a feeling of loss. The simple and clear rules which life had followed for generations no longer seemed to be valid. People saw signs of decadence and degeneration everywhere. Above all the youth was thought to be too soft or in other words too weak to get on well with life. The fault was given to a heightened sensitivity which was allowed to gain ground in society and in the eyes of many the only means to check the development was a strict education. In his master novel Buddenbrooks (1901) Thomas Mann put to paper the impressions and thoughts of a whole generation. Almost twenty years later, in 1919, his older brother Heinrich Mann painted the blunt picture of boys’ education under the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II in his impressive, but far too neglected novel The Loyal Subject (Der Untertan). The Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, on the other hand, portrayed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch: 1932) and a family.

As always artists sought new ways of expression. They wanted to capture the uncertainty and discontent with life that were characteristic of the early twentieth century. Inner worlds and impressions gained importance over the mere facts and events of life and in literature the stream of consciousness was introduced which allowed to write from subjective points of view. Arthur Schnitzler shocked the conservative society of his time with innovative novellas like None but the Brave (Leutnant Gustl: 1900) and Berta Garlan (1900), but above all with his many plays (e.g. Anatol: 1893; Flirtation [Liebelei]: 1895); Reigen: 1897; The Lonely Way [Der einsame Weg]: 1903; The Vast Domain [Das weite Land]: 1911; or Professor Bernhardi: 1912). Colette appeared on the scene of Belle-Époque France with her Claudine novels Claudine at School (Claudine à l’école: 1900), Claudine in Paris (Claudine à Paris: 1901), Claudine Married (Claudine en ménage: 1902), and Claudine and Annie (Claudine s’en va: 1903). A little later Marcel Proust (»»» read my author's portrait) wrote the novels of In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past: 1913-1927). James Joyce brought out Dubliners (1914; »»» read my review) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). At the same time Henry James and Edith Wharton painted the picture of modern American society. dare say that everywhere in the world the beginning twentieth century was an enormously productive time in literature. It brought forth a huge number of important as well as highly creative writers and many of them are widely read up to this day. Their works can teach us a lot about circumstances and thoughts of a society unknowingly headed for disaster… but also about ourselves, our hopes and fears. To learn more about the period I recommend Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West. Europe, 1900-1914, Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2008.

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