Happy new year!
Our annual look at forthcoming books is…forthcoming. Naturally the quixotic nature of publishing schedules is such that you can miss a lot from a January vantage point, and it strikes me that I should really do this twice a year. Meanwhile, here is a handful of late 2016 titles that may be of interest.
A sense of place is the common denominator in the majority of these titles, a number of them dwelling on the city and its secrets. Franz Hessel’s recently translated Walking in Berlin presented one key to these secrets in the person of le flâneur. But what of la flâneuese? Is the unmediated, unplanned exploration of the urban environment a solely masculine prerogative? In 2008, Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough’s The Invisible Flâneuse? offered a tentative, academic reply. An emphatic non is the answer supplied by Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, subtitled Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, out since mid-year in the UK and due in late February in the US. In a spirited text, Elkin uses examples as diverse as Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Martha Gellhorn and Sophie Calle to illustrate the worlds encountered by women on foot.
A more digressive city stroll comes in Nancy Cunard‘s “Parallax”, included in the collection Selected Poems from Carcanet Press. The writer and publisher’s indelible image is far more present in our day than her work. This volume is therefore a timely reminder that Cunard is not just handy for padding out your “bracelet ideas” Pinterest board. That those prodigiously ivoried arms were also known to move across paper, work the presses and raise themselves in righteous activism is too readily forgotten. I include this also as a note-to-self to share with you some images of Cunard’s childhood home which I visited last summer.
The perils and pleasures awaiting the unwary at large in the metropolis are sketched in Scott Spector’s Violent Sensations. This is a scholarly text built around an irresistible set of keywords, its subtitle of Sex, Crime & Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914 depositing it squarely in Strange Flowers’ sphere of interest. It contrasts the self-image of a rational, industrialising society with the chaos that re-emerges in the form of unruly desires and criminal savagery. There is much to recommend Spector’s book, particularly its fearless collapsing of academic compartments. One quibble from this reader is that it too readily conflates the abstractions of Decadent literary themes – which were only ever of interest to a small, rarefied subset of the educated public – with the often brutal, real-life convulsions of societies in flux.
These “Decadent literary themes” were very much the focus of Nicole Albert’s 2005 book Saphisme et décadence dans Paris fin-de-siècle. Recently translated by Nancy Erber and William A. Peniston and published by Harrington Park Press, it comes to as Lesbian Decadence. Here the English-language reader discovers that love between women was an idée fixe of French literary Decadence, but generally broached by those who were themselves alien to the experience (men, in the main). Consequently, the approach of these works ranges from censorious to fetishistic, appalled to inspired. Speaking of Belle Époque preoccupations…
One thing that surprised me on my first trip to Paris many lunes ago was the huge amount of esoteric literature available from the Seine-side bouqinistes and Left Bank bookshops. Hermetic enquiry was never entirely erased from the crucible of Enlightenment rationalism. In Occult Paris, Tobias Churton shows “how a wide variety of Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Martinists, Freemasons, Gnostics, and neo-Cathars called fin-de-siècle Paris home”. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the conjunction of time, place and subject matter that the singular figure of Joséphin Péladan features prominently. You may remember Tobias Churton as our guide to Aleister Crowley’s Berlin and may thus be interested to know that he has a similar study of the Great Beast in America under way.
It’s been more than half a decade since the name Theodore Wratislaw appeared in these pages. He was, as I wrote then, “at once one of the most emblematic of the English 1890s poets and one of the most obscure”. Now, more than 80 years after his death, the veil of obscurity lifts with the publication of D.J. Sheppard’s Theodore Wratislaw: Fragments of a Life, through Rivendale Press. Sheppard up-ends the suspicion that Wratislaw was a timid parvenu toying with modish themes. In fact the writer’s mental turmoil meant that “Wratislaw’s struggle was to maintain some semblance of bourgeois respectability rather than to escape it”. Benefiting from access to previously unpublished documents – including Wratislaw’s unfinished memoirs – it also carries a seal of approval from no less a Yellow Decade aficionado than the brilliant Barry Humphries.
More late Victorian literary curios in Simon Goldhill’s collective biography of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, and his offspring. Like the Manns, the Benson children came in a six-pack of personal eccentricity and were, as the book’s title avers, A Very Queer Family Indeed. “The Archbishop and his wife had six children,” we learn, “none of whom ever had heterosexual intercourse, as far as we can tell; certainly none of them ever married.” They included E.F. Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia books, and R.H. Benson, Frederick Rolfe‘s ally-turned-adversary, best known as the author of Lord of the World, a highly idiosyncratic piece of speculative fiction.
Even further off-road: Peter Owen Publishers, whose namesake sadly died in 2016, recently issued two prose works by artist Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988). Colquhoun was better known as a painter but in The Crying of the Wind and The Living Stones she records her discoveries in Ireland and Cornwall, respectively. Each volume comes with a foreword by Stewart Lee (and yes, for the British readers – it is the Clarkson-baiting comic). Cenotaph South, from Penned in the Margins, is perhaps an even more left-field choice, which I include partly because I once lived near Nunhead Cemetery which is the book’s focal point. In a highly personal journey through this south-east London resting place and its surrounds, author Chris McCabe discovers fellow poets and hidden histories amid the headstones and the ivy.
Finally, our sole fictional selection comes in the form of Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake in Jamie Bulloch’s translation, available through Pereine Press. The female protagonist of this dark, perverse tale “lives with her servant in an apartment full of bizarre souvenirs” and may in fact be (or may not be, or may merely resemble) our old favourite Elisabeth (Sissi) of Austria. Guten Appetit.