From the Publisher
“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.”
“Impressive and thought-provoking....encapsulate[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.”
Globe and Mail
“In this enthralling, panoramic sweep of the 15 years preceding the First World War, Blom convincingly argues that it was this decade and a half that truly marked the start of the modern age, with all its grandeur and calamities…. With his impressive synthesis of historical literature, old and recent, and his finely drawn portraits of both emperors and workers, Blom's Vertigo Years will surely enlighten and interest another generation of readers in an era far in the past, yet worth understanding all the same.”
“Blom is an amazingly talented writer who seamlessly draws the cultural and philosophical connections between art, science, politics, culture, literature and society as a whole… Two thumbs WAY UP for The Vertigo Years.”
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.
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.
Read an Excerpt
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, notleast 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.
From the Hardcover edition.