1913 The Year Before The Storm. By Florian Illies. Chivers Audiobooks. Read by Bill Wallis. (2013)
We draw back the net lace curtains onto the everyday worlds of a vast cast of famous and infamous characters on the eve of the First World War. Florian Illies’ perambulation around the drawing rooms and lodging houses of Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Paris sketches with a wit and an irony that reduces many of the lives to the that of the enjoyably ordinary. Adolf Hitler trying to sell his paintings of Munich’s churches, Bertolt Brecht a schoolboy poet and Louis Armstrong sent to a school of correction for tearaways.
As a patchwork of quotes, anecdotes and the minutia of life Kafka, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and the Kaiser amongst many others it is a fascinating and entertaining listen. Bill Wallis’s voice gives a jaunty and at times serious tone to the prose. His slightly growly sound pitches up and down neatly giving plenty of texture to the often extraordinary stories of poverty, betrayal, lust, intrigue and outrage. It’s a voice that is the audio version of a ginger nut biscuit lightly dunked into a hot sweet cup of Earl Grey tea. The underlying strength is retained but there’s a slightly fluffy and spicy feel on the surface while the tea is charged with a swirling crumbs of ginger and a couple of bubbles representing Wallis enthusiasm for Illies’ rambling narrative.
The stories paint a wide social canvas but miss out as much as they include. At times it needed context and detail of the backgrounds to the cities, countries and characters described. And the voices of those in Bosnia and Serbia where the war was sparked were missing. Instead Illies goes for the box office names of Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Wilhelm Bölsche, Oswald Spengler, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Kafka, Felice Bauer and Stalin. Their walks, their love affairs and their frustrations at not yet being famous or not famous enough.
Harry Mottram 2014