Florian Illies


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‘The gunshot at midnight. Cries in the alley and on the bridge. Ringing bells and clock chimes.’ A report from Prague: Dr Franz Kafka, a clerk with the Workers’ Accident Insurance Company for the Kingdom of Bohemia. His audience in faraway Berlin, in the apartment at 29 Immanuelkirchstrasse, is a lone individual, but to him she is the whole world: Felice Bauer, twenty-five, a bit blonde, a bit bony, a bit gangling.

A shorthand typist with Carl Lindström Ltd. They had met briefly in August, the rain pelting down, she had had wet feet, and he’d quickly got cold ones. But since then they’ve been writing to each other at night while their families are asleep: hot-headed, enchanting, strange, unsettling letters. And usually another one the next afternoon. Once, when there hadn’t been a word from Felice for a few days, after waking from unsettled dreams, in desperation he desperately started work on Metamorphosis.

He told her about this story, which he had finished just before Christmas. (It now lay in his desk, warmed by the two photographs of herself that Felice had sent him.) But just how quickly her distant and beloved Franz could turn into a terrible mystery she would learn only from his New Year’s letter. He asks her out of nowhere, by way of introduction, whether, if they had arranged to go to the theatre in Frankfurt am Main, and if he had instead just stayed in bed, she would have beaten him violently with an umbrella. And then, apparently innocuously, he evokes their mutual love, dreams that his hand and Felice’s will be forever bound together. Before going on: it is, ‘however, always possible that a couple might once have been led to the scaffold bound together in such a way’. What a charming thought for a prenuptial letter. They haven’t even kissed, and here he is already fantasising about their walking hand in hand to the scaffold. Kafka himself seems momentarily startled by the thoughts spilling from him: ‘But what sort of things are these, pouring out of my head?’ he writes. The explanation is simple: ‘It’s the number 13 in the year.’ And that is how 1913 begins in world literature: with a fantasy of violence.

Taken from: Illies, Florian (2012): 1913 – The Year Before the Storm.
London: Profile Books Limited. 3f.

Florian Illies

1913 heralds a new age of unlimited possibility. Kafka falls in love; Louis Armstrong learns to play the trumpet; a young seamstress called Coco Chanel opens her first boutique; Charlie Chaplin signs his first movie contract; and new drugs like cocaine usher in an age of decadence.

Yet everywhere there is the premonition of ruin - the number 13 is omnipresent, and in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Trieste, artists take the omen and act as if there were no tomorrow, their brief coincidences of existence telling of a darker future. In a Munich hotel lobby, Rilke and Freud discuss beauty and transience; Proust sets out in search of lost time; and while Stravinsky celebrates the Rite of Spring with industrial cacophony, in Munich an Austrian postcard painter by the name of Adolf Hitler sells his conventional cityscapes.

1913 - The Year before the Storm (Clerkenwell Press, 2013)