The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914

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The most breathtaking work of history since Paris 1919.

Europe, early in the 20th century: a world adrift, a pulsating era of creativity and contradictions. The hot topics of the day — terrorism and globalization, immigration, consumerism, the lack of moral values, and rivaling superpowers — could make one forget that it is a century ago that this era vanished into the trenches of the Somme and Vimy Ridge.

Or did it? The closer one looks, the ...

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Toronto 2008 Hardcover First Edition Very Good in Very Good jacket 8vo. Pp 466."The Vertigo Years discovers the great people, powers, and ideas of Europe after 1900. The ... approach is eclectic, brilliantly combining the novelist's eye with the craft of the historian. It opens up this era in all its contradictions and similarities to our own. " Read more Show Less

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Overview

The most breathtaking work of history since Paris 1919.

Europe, early in the 20th century: a world adrift, a pulsating era of creativity and contradictions. The hot topics of the day — terrorism and globalization, immigration, consumerism, the lack of moral values, and rivaling superpowers — could make one forget that it is a century ago that this era vanished into the trenches of the Somme and Vimy Ridge.

Or did it? The closer one looks, the more this world seems like ours, the more one sees that the questions and realities shaping our lives and thoughts were formulated and laid down at the beginning of the 20th century: feminism, democratization, mass communication, commercial branding, consumerism, state-sponsored genocide, and psychoanalysis were all concepts birthed in this period. This was a time radically unlike the Victorian era that preceded it, a time in which all the old certainties broke down. Philipp Blom succeeds in bringing to life the immediacy of the lives and issues of this fascinating, flawed pre-war period.

Through a series of historical vignettes, each chapter focusing on one particularly telling event for every year from 1900 to 1914, The Vertigo Years discovers the great people, powers, and ideas of Europe after 1900. The approach is eclectic, brilliantly combining the novelist’s eye with the craft of the historian. It opens up this era in all its contradictions and similarities to our own.

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Editorial Reviews

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. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Author and journalist Blom (To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting) skillfully evokes the profound changes that swept through Europe from 1900 until 1914. He emphasizes that it was a scientific revolution that provided the foundation for the major paradigm shift that took place during these early years of the 20th century. The groundbreaking work of Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, and Marie and Pierre Curie challenged previous theories of the physical world, while Freud, Durkheim, and Bergson delved into the more nebulous realms of human nature to challenge accepted perceptions of human behavior. The certainties of the Victorian age were shattered, and no supposed "truths" were left unchallenged. Europeans were left on shifting ground, with their confusion further exacerbated by rapid urbanization and industrialization. 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. Noticeably absent from his biographical profiles are Socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein. In fact, Blom has little to say about the burgeoning Socialist movement, an oversight that will certainly draw criticism. Although his book is a good choice for all modern European history collections, Barbara Tuchman's evocative The Proud Tower remains the best account of fin de siècle Europe.
—Jim Doyle

The Barnes & Noble Review
It is not uncommon to date the 19th century -- the "long century" -- from 1789 to 1914, so deep were the fissures of those benchmark years. While the French Revolution has long been another country, we still live in the shadow of 1914. We have what Jacques Barzun termed a "laggard state of mind": "[L]argely due to the blurring and dislocating effect of the First World War, we still hunt for solutions already found, we stumble over mental hurdles already removed, we rediscover na?vely and painfully." The mighty cultural, social, political, and technological ferment of Europe in 1900–14 is the subject of Philipp Blom's book. He wants us to look at these years as more than foreshadowing, to look back as if we knew nothing of ?the Sarajevo assassination, the Somme, the Great Crash, the Reichskristallnacht, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulags, or the Berlin Wall.? Blom gives over a chapter to each year and seems to have every conceivable subject comfortably to hand. The essay for 1906 flows from Wilhelm II's miserable childhood and envy of his uncle Edward VII of England, to the naval arms race between England and Germany, to Europe's militarism and extensive honor culture, to the trial for homosexuality of Wilhelm's close confidant, Philipp zu Eulenberg (and that of Oscar Wilde), to the celebrity of the bodybuilder Sandow the Great, to British popular novelists' Germanophobia, to Zionism (and ideas of Jewish virility), to the general worry over threats to the masculine identity. Each of Blom's chapters flows as sweetly, and over topics equally diverse. The Vertigo Years is a dazzling journey through a world changing rapidly. --Robert Messenger
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771016301
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 9/30/2008
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Philipp Blom is a writer, editor, literary translator, broadcaster, and journalist. A former editor of The Harvill Press, he holds a PhD in history from Oxford University. He is the author of four books of fiction and non-fiction. He currently lives in Paris with his wife, writer Victoria Buckley.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Today, the period before the outbreak of the First World War is often regarded as idyllic: the time before the fall, the good old days, a belle époque celebrated in lavishly decorated films, a beautiful, intact society about to be shattered by the forces driving it inexorably towards disaster. After 1918, ‘lower’ classes and the peoples in the colonies were rapidly outbreeding ‘civilized’ whites. We hear echoes of this debate today in the hysterical polemics about birth rates among Muslim immigrants to Europe, much debated forecasts about the growth of the world’s population, and the decline of numbers in Europe and the USA, not to mention biological research indicating the decline of fertility among Western men.

Speed and exhilaration, anxiety and vertigo were recurrent themes of the years between 1900 and 1914, during which cities exploded in size and societies were transformed, mass production seized hold of everyday life, newspapers turned into media empires, cinema audiences were in the tens of millions, and globalization brought meat from New Zealand and grain from Canada to British dinner plates, decimating the incomes of the old landed classes and enabling the rise of new kinds of people: engineers, technocrats, city-dwellers. Modernity did not rise virgin-born from the trenches of the Somme. Well before 1914, it had already taken a firm hold on the minds and lives of Europe. The War acted not as a creator, but as a catalyst, forcing old structures to collapse more quickly and new identities to assert themselves more readily.

The Vertigo Years had much in common with our own day, not least their openness: in 1910 and even in 1914, nobody felt confident of the shape the future world would have, of who would wield power, what political constellation would be victorious, or what kind of society would emerge from the headlong transformation. By contrast, during the second half of the twentieth century the Cold War created a quite different situation: the outcome seemed uncertain, but it was perfectly clear what was at stake, and equally clear that one of two ideological systems would eventually be victorious. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, some of the openness and uncertainty of the Vertigo Years have reappeared, and today it is much more difficult to say what the future will bring for our societies.

In a large part, the uncertain future facing us early in the twenty-first century arose from the inventions, thoughts and transformations of those unusually rich fifteen years between 1900 and 1914, a period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves. Everything that was to become important during the twentieth century — from quantum physics to women’s emancipation, from abstract art to space travel, from communism and fascism to the consumer society, from industrialized slaughter to the power of the media — had already made deep impressions in the years before 1914, so that the rest of the century was little more than an exercise, wonderful and hideous by turn, in living out and exploring these new possibilities.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction 1

1 1900: The Dynamo and the Virgin 5

2 1901: The Changing of the Guard 23

3 1902: Oedipus Rex 44

4 1903: A Strange Luminescence 71

5 1904: His Majesty and Mister Morel 92

6 1905: In All Fury 122

7 1906: Dreadnought and Anxiety 155

8 1907: Dreams and Visions 189

9 1908: Ladies with Rocks 219

10 1909: The Cult of the Fast Machine 249

11 1910: Human Nature Changed 277

12 1911: People's Palaces 308

13 1912: Questions of Breeding 334

14 1913: Wagner's Crime 360

15 1914: Murder Most Foul 388

Notes 409

Bibliography 426

Index 453

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