A Shot Unheard in Britain

It would be strange not to mark today’s date, this being a Centenary-of-World-War-One project. And yet it isn’t really fitting, either. Of all the many British authors I have read, only a handful even discuss the assassination. Their stories start later, perhaps with the dawning awareness of late July, but more typically with an abrupt lurch on August 4th (when I had originally intended to begin this project) or, in many cases, even later, when they entered the army or reached France. Today’s date is only significant in retrospect, and can only be a sort of place-holder, the solid fact that casts the unseen shadow over all that sunny innocence. A war writers go back and mention it, but we’ll mark that sort of remembering tomorrow–after all, most people in England who did get the news got it the following morning, with their paper.

Instead, although I am not pretending to even pretend to consider to pretend to cover the continental literature of the war (although sometimes I look at my unread copy of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 and shed a tear) I recently stumbled across this eminently Middle-European account of this afternoon, a century back, and thought it would be another way of quickly marking the beginning of the great cascade of fact, futility, nationalist idiocy, and mobilization timetables. Here is how Stefan Zweig, (he’s so hot right now!) then in the imperial capital of Vienna, remembers that afternoon:

I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention. Nevertheless, I was simultaneously aware of the wind in the trees, the chirping of the birds, and the music which was wafted toward me from the park. I heard the melodies distinctly without being disturbed by them, for our ear is so capable of adapting itself that a continuous din, or the noise of a street, or the rippling of a brook adjusts itself completely to our consciousness, and it is only an unexpected halt in the rhythm that startles us into listening.

And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly. I did not know what piece the band was playing. I noticed only that the music had broken off… Something must have happened. I got up and saw that the musicians had left their pavilion… I noticed that the people had crowded excitedly around the bandstand because of an announcement which had evidently just been put up. It was, as I soon learned, the text of a telegram announcing that His Imperial Majesty, the successor to the crown, Franz Ferdinand…[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 215. Is this a seminal text on white noise, or the ironic uses thereof?