Reviewed: 1913 - the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

In search of lost time.

1913: the World Before the Great War
Charles Emmerson
Bodley Head, 544pp, £25

Not many saw the bloodbath coming and it wasn’t inevitable. One of the great merits of Charles Emmerson’s global panorama is to show events in the months leading up to the summer of 1914 as something other than a precursor to mass slaughter. You didn’t have to be quite as mistaken as the University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who in 1911 nominated Kaiser Wilhelm II for the Nobel Peace Prize, to think that things were going well enough.

The three kingly cousins who ruled a third of the world –Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II and King George V –met in Berlin and the crowds cheered. A few years earlier, Britain and France had replaced their deeply entrenched rivalry with an entente cordiale. The Economist, never frightened of a bit of prediction, thought that it was “an expression of tendencies which are slowly but surely making war between the civilised communities of the world an impossibility”. Note the civilised world bit – because virtually nobody in power in Europe on the eve of a European-made war thought that the continent’s empires were anything other than a reflection of moral superiority, as well as military power.

Emmerson starts with a tour of Europe’s major cities but this is largely a device for a series of potted and fairly orthodox histories of each country, stretching back 50 years or so – Germany and Italy since their respective unifications, France under the Third Republic, the Habsburg empire since Hungary and Austria formed the dual monarchy, and so on. The obvious neuroses, as well as the complacencies, of the mighty are described and analysed. Britain, though still top dog, was weakening fast, enervated by the Irish Home Rule crisis and suffragette violence that posed a serious enough threat in 1913 to close many of London’s major tourist attractions. France, meanwhile, was obsessed with its declining population and Berlin’s modernity. Emmerson also points out that some of the more reactionary regimes – notably Russia and the Ottoman empire – were enjoying an economic boom. Their crises were born as much out of growth as political decrepitude.

Emmerson sprays his book with quotations, many of them too long. Some hit the mark, however, such as this from Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador to Britain, in a letter to Woodrow Wilson: “We are in the international game . . . in the inevitable way to leadership and to cheerful mastery in the future; and everybody knows that we are in it but us.” That is acute. Then there’s this from Lenin: “Capitalism has triumphed all over the world.” (Perhaps in the long term he had a point.)

There are other surprises. Argentina was seen by many as a new United States, with Buenos Aires a world city adored by City of London investors and brimming with artistic life; its engineers lectured around the Old World on the back of the construction of a spanking new underground system. Winnipeg, the largest grain centre in the Americas, was a cosmopolitan hub and similarly poised for greatness. By contrast, Tehran is described as a hellhole, in a much worse state than Bombay, Algiers or even Mexico City, then in the grip of civil war.

There is some attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture but it’s a bit half-hearted: 1913 was the year of the riot in Paris on the opening night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but Emmerson barely mentions it. Proust published the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was translated into English. Yet we are none the wiser about their impact.

Emmerson, reasonably enough, does not peddle an overarching thesis to link his individual portraits of cities, states and empires but he is good on racial fears and tensions – and not only in the context of European colonialism. Wilson, who could do sanctimony on a grand scale, presided willingly over a deterioration of the position of African Americans in the federal government. Gandhi, who was still in South Africa, fought his first big successful campaign of passive resistance on behalf of the country’s Indians but was not much concerned with the plight of the black population, whose limited land rights were eroded even further in 1913.

In California, ethnic Japanese similarly found their property rights curtailed but, back in Tokyo, the Japanese were only too keen to insult, at the highest level, the Chinese or Mongolians.

Naturally, the shadow of 1914 is present much of the time – it could hardly be otherwise. Yet, occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary – and none better than this from a French author arriving in New York who noted the questioning style of US customs and immigration. “Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Are you an idiot? Have you ever shown signs of mental alienation?” The war changed most things – but not everything.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

An "electric brougham" in Waterloo Place in London in 1913. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era