This essay discusses modernity’s fascination with prehistory as a cognitive and imaginary object, spurred by a series of paleontological discoveries from the mid-nineteenth-century onward, as a way to cope with modernization through the quest of an elusive point of ‘origin’. Benhaïm draws a parallel between this cultural reality circa 1913 and the ‘prehistory’ of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu, that is the book’s ‘false starts,’ Proust’s various other works and drafts before 1913, and connects them with similar creative processes of ‘false starts’ from other modernist writers and artists, like Valery Larbaud. Ultimately, the structure of the monumental Recherche is seen as dominated by the new concept of ‘prehistory’, understood as a new relationship with time that escapes linear historicity and permits the coexistence of different temporalities.
1913: The Year of French Modernism is the first book to respond to two deceptively simple questions: “What constituted modernism in France?” and “What is the place of France on the map of global modernism?” Taking its cue from the seminal year 1913, an annus mirabilis for French modernism with the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, Alcools, La Prose du Transsibérien, among others, the book captures a snapshot of vibrant creativity in France and a crucial moment for the quickly emerging modernism throughout the world. While studies on modernism have turned increasingly toward neglected, peripheral, national traditions in order to illuminate modernism as a global phenomenon, this book offers a view of one of modernism’s central occurrences, the French. 1913: The Year of French Modernism shows that even ostensibly central manifestations of modernism remain to be explored, demonstrates how the global is embedded in the regional, and finally reconstructs and rethinks the centrality of France for modernism as well as the meaning of centrality all together for a global phenomenon. Essays from specialists on works of literature, art, photography, and cinema, that were created or made public on and around 1913 in France outline the physiognomy of French modernism: its protagonists, strategies, and genres, its dynamics, themes, and legacies.