Found Highways, February 23, 2009 (view all comments by Found Highways)
Philipp Blom's excellent social history, The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 covers politics, philosophy, architecture, art, music, opera, literature, film. It tells the stories of actors, kings, scientists, and murderers of both kinds (the psychopaths who killed one person at a time and political leaders who enslaved millions).
It's the story of what George Bernard Shaw called “the New Man, demoralizing himself with a halfpenny newspaper,” someone who (according to Octave Mirbeau) “can no longer stand still . . . impatient to get going once he has arrived somewhere because it is not somewhere else. . .”
But everyone who lived then wasn't like Shaw, in essence a person of the nineteenth century. There were artists (like Picasso and Matisse) and scientists (like Einstein, Curie, and Edison) who saw what benefits this new world of speed could bring to humanity if it were allowed to.
The Vertigo Years asks: how would we have experienced the first fifteen years of the twentieth century if the rest of it (with Nazism, Stalinism, two world wars, and the atomic bomb) didn't haunt us from the future?
The Vertigo Years is very readable history, not counterfactual fantasy, but it does prove what Emile Durkheim said: “Reality seems valueless by comparison with the dreams of fevered imagination.”
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Virginia Woolf famously declared that 'human character changed' in the year 1910; this dizzying survey of European history and culture before WWI elaborates. Historian Blom (Enlightening the World) examines every innovation of the turbulent period that, in his estimate, gave birth to modernity and its discontents. Automobiles, airplanes and electricity gave humans unprecedented speed and power; the explosive growth of industry, cities and consumerism shattered and rebuilt communities; women, moving into schools and workplaces, demanded new rights; mass politics and mass media challenged traditional authority; psychoanalysis and the theory of relativity challenged ideas about humans and about time and space. The panorama is almost too much to take in, especially since Blom rightly complicates the picture by exploring the diverse ways in which different countries experienced these upheavals. His stab at a unifying theme — a perceived crisis of masculinity that panicked everyone from Proust to proto-Nazi racists as sex roles changed and a machine-driven, bureaucratic economy made muscle-power and martial virtues obsolete — is fruitful, but it only partially illuminates the times. This is a stylish, erudite guide to an age of exhilaration and anxiety that in many ways invented our own. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Booklist (Starred Review),
"We, of course, know how the story ends, but Blom succeeds in infusing this outstanding chronicle with drama, compassion, and poignancy."
by Library Journal,
"Blom's profiles of numerous artists, architects, writers, activists, politicians, and just ordinary Europeans gives the reader a sense of the magnitude of the transformation that took place in pre-World War I Europe."
by The Economist,
"Impressive and thought-provoking....[E]ncapsulate[s] complex historical and biographical events pithily and in an illuminating context....The book brings the fears, enthusiasms and blindspots of the period brilliantly to life."
by The Guardian (U.K.),
"The vertiginous atmosphere of a tumbling prewar society — at the same time exciting and frightening — is described with atmospheric clarity. The combination of easily worn scholarship, fascinating character studies and fluent story-telling that is often very funny makes this a hugely enjoyable and illuminating book....A work of narrative history at its best."
The old order gives way to the new in a vast panoramic history of Europe on the brink of the Great War.
From the tremendous hope for a new century embodied in the 1900 World's Fair in Paris to the shattering assassination of a Habsburg archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, historian Blom chronicles this extraordinary epoch, year by year.
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