14 books for 2014

Princess Sheila Margaret MacKellar Romanov by Cecil Beaton

Happy new year! I hope you haven’t used up your Christmas book vouchers yet, because there is much published wonder of a Strange Flowers flavour coming our way this year. My resolution is to get through this lot:

The last time we looked at forthcoming bookish offerings, I mentioned Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, The Pike. Since then it has received the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize, and now, a year later, comes a new translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of the Italian writer’s first novel, Il Piacere: Pleasure (previously translated under the title The Child of Pleasure), out tomorrow. We can turn to Hughes-Hallett for more on d’Annunzio’s approach:

Half a decade before the motion picture camera was invented, he structured his first novel as though it were a film script. Pleasure‘s narrative is a sequence of lavishly visualised scenes. It employs flashbacks and abrupt cuts, distant views and voice-over-like meditations. […] In Pleasure, d’Annunzio holds out a vision of a beautiful life, only in the end to condemn it as empty and sterile.

The young poet

The young D’Annunzio

Like the Italian poet, British occultist Aleister Crowley was both appalling and appealing, though he’s a far more familiar presence in bookshop biography sections, capable of filling a fair-sized shelf on his own. Two more contributions to the crowded Crowleyan canon are due in (the northern) spring: Gary Lachman’s Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World arrives in April, and explores The Great Beast’s influence on the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and too many metal bands to mention. This is not exactly virgin territory but Lachman is more than usually qualified for the job, having written numerous books on the occult after graduating from rock (Blondie).

The Beast in Berlin

The other title hits closer to home, revelling in the title The Beast in Berlin: Art, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic, which for sheer button-pushing could have been produced by an online name generator. Tobias Churton’s book draws on previously unpublished materials to describe the two-year stint Crowley spent in Berlin as the Weimar Republic was wheezing to its ignominious conclusion.

The fascination of the Weimar years is self-evident, but the longer I live in Berlin the more engrossed I become by the German Empire (1871-1918) which preceded it. Hopefully the rolling World War One anniversaries which begin this year will also draw more attention to this era. Because while the reactionary, militaristic imperial order is our dominant impression of Germany at the time, there was also an incredibly vibrant counterculture exploring new ideas, rehearsing for new societies and forging new attitudes in ways which appear remarkably modern. Witness this rallying cry for gay rights:

I stress, to avoid any confusion, that these demands in favour of homosexuals relate to nothing more than what adults in free agreement do with each other; and that society must of course protect against those who infringe the rights of third parties, who assault minors, […] who use violence.

Those words could have been penned last week, but were in fact written 110 years ago by Magnus Hirschfeld in his book Berlin’s Third Sex. Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement by Rolf Dose (translated by Edward H. Willis) tells of the early struggle to both define a modern gay identity and reform the legislation which policed its expression. Hirschfeld appears again in Edward Ross-Dickinson’s Sex, Freedom and Power in Imperial Germany, 1880-1914, also due around the end of January. It skews academic but sheds valuable light on the conflict between the private and public spheres of Wilhelmine society, the most explosive of those conflicts being the Harden-Eulenberg scandal, a tale of gay cliques in the highest imperial circles which rocked the Hollenzollerns’ entire power structure and may well have hastened its demise.


The cultural space opened up by the collapse of that order had no more radical inhabitants than the Dadaists. Collagist Hannah Höch, the only female artist in Berlin’s 1920 Dadaist “art fair”, is the subject of a welcome monograph to accompany an exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, beginning on 15 January. Another exhibition beginning in Frankfurt on 7 February concentrates on the other city to which Strange Flowers most often gravitates. Esprit Montmartre, with its subtitle Bohemian Life in Paris Around 1900, is right up our rue. The accompanying catalogue is available in English from April.

Esprit Montmartre

The liberated atmosphere of Paris also proved irresistible to foreign publishers hoping to issue works too daring for their countries of origin. A Publisher’s Paradise: Expatriate Literary Culture in Paris, 1890-1960, covers a time when the French capital “became a special place for interrogating the margins of sexual culture and literary censorship, and a wide variety of English language “dirty books” circulated through loose expatriate publishing and distribution networks”.

I can’t stay away from the carnival of crazy that was Belle Époque Paris for long. Historian Mary McAuliffe explores the era in two volumes with Dawn taking the account up to the high noon of 1900. As Twilight steals over the heedless frivolities of the pre-World War One era we find Modernism mobilising, with the likes of Gertrude Stein leading the charge.

9780374708818_p0_v1_s260x420It was at a performance of The Rite of Spring that Stein, as we saw, met American writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten (whose extraordinary photographic portraits we glanced at recently), and he would eventually become the literary executor of her estate. All of this and more is related in Edward White’s The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. It follows Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades and the more recent Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White.

Thayer by cummings

James Dempsey explores a lesser known attendant at the birth of modern America in his biography of the mysterious, eccentric Scofield Thayer (captured above by his friend, poet and painter e e cummings). Until now it was a name known to me only from the book Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, in which John Richardson describes him as a “Jazz Age des Esseintes“, in a chapter entitled “The Madness of Scofield Thayer”. The insanity which enveloped much of Thayer’s life was preceded by a hugely productive period in which he collected avant-garde art and published The Dial. A key outlet for Modernist literature, Thayer’s journal was the first to issue T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, received fan mail from Marcel Proust, and ran an article by Sigmund Freud (a possible conflict of interest seeing as Thayer was under treatment from Freud at the time).

Mock Modernism

But the Modernism espoused by The Dial made more enemies than friends. Some were threatened by the new forms, others repelled by their practitioners’ arrogant self-absorption, and then there were those who suspected they were being hoodwinked by a vapid, exasperating nonsense. Mock Modernism: An Anthology of Parodies, Travesties, Frauds, 1910-1935, edited by Leonard Diepeveen, reminds us that cultural movements do not simply follow one other in untroubled succession, and that opposition can eschew outright indignation in favour of elaborate caricatures (e.g. J.C. Squire’s poetic parodies), which sometimes even issued from within the Modernist camp (e.g. Brian Howard‘s “Bruno Hat” hoax).

Berners, Heber-Percys

Gertrude Stein (yes, her again) was a frequent target of parodies by everyone from Ernest Hemingway to a New York Times sub-editor (“Gerty Gerty Stein Stein Is Back Home Home Back” ran one headline). And then there was this: “What with one thing and another. What with another and one thing. What with what with what what wit and what not…”. This was an affectionate dig from Stein’s friend and collaborator, Lord Berners, the eccentric English aristocrat and polymath aesthete. His partner for a number of years was a certain Robert Heber-Percy, also known as “Mad Boy” (who was one of the handful of mourners at the funeral of the Marchesa Casati). Even after Mad Boy married he stayed with his wife, and Berners, at the latter’s manor, Faringdon (pictured above – note also the notorious golden rooster); it was a highly unconventional arrangement which recalls the blended family of Edward James and Plutarco Gastelum. The story is told in the forthcoming Lord Berners, The Mad Boy, My Grandmother And Me, the “me” of the title being Heber-Percy’s granddaughter Sofka Zinovieff, who in Red Princess recalled another ancestor, her namesake Sofka Dolgorouky, a Russian princess of revolutionary sympathies.

SheilaAn even less likely Russian princess was born in my home state of New South Wales in 1898 with the sub-regal name of Sheila Chisholm. Admired as a beauty in London society, she was photographed by Cecil Beaton (main photo), inspired Evelyn Waugh to write about Forest Lawn Cemetery in The Loved One, bedded the future King George VI and finally wed Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich, nephew of the last Tsar. I always like to see a local girl get ahead, so I’m looking forward to reading her story in Sheila: The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society, by Robert Wainwright.


As ever, please let me know if I’ve missed anything. Meanwhile I’ve followed up a couple of missing leads from last year: Best-Kept Boy in the World, the biography of male courtesan Denham Fouts, has been delayed a number of times but according to the publisher it will finally be out in June of this year, as will the collected correspondence of Edward James (yes, him again). And a whole two years ago I mentioned an anthology of the great Decadent figure Count Eric Stenbock which was supposed to appear in 2012; it will hopefully arrive this year but there is no firm date as yet.



  1. Andrea Rossetti

    Dear James, as usual read your blog is a real pleasure. Thank you for the great work you do!!

  2. Happy New Year! These are so relevant to my New Year’s word digesting goal- I’ve set myself the task of reading the entirety of Gerty Gerty Stein Stein’s “The Making of Americans” this year, so I pre-gamed by reading Sam Steward’s letters to her and Alice B. (charming!), plus both of Alice’s memoirs (surprisingly catty!), plus several of the Van Vechten introduced editions of her work (always flattering!). I realized I don’t really know anything about Van Vechten at all, aside from the fact that he had seemingly boundless energy and was able to turn most of his passion projects into profit, when few of his contemporaries could say the same.

    The Thayer bio is one I’ve been waiting for for years now. And all word on Lord Berners is instantly overdue, because anyone that fascinating deserves the constant re-examination of a Kennedy or Monroe.

    So the biggest gift I got this holiday season was this list! Muchas gracias, Señor Strange.

  3. A tempting list indeed! Oh, to be an artist in fin de siecle Europe…I love Berlin now, but there was more to revolt against in those days…

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