Strange Flowers is feeling kinda service-y, so here is a bumper list of suggestions for enlivening your seasonal gift-giving. For instance, when you get the inevitable work mail about Secret Santa, just pretend you misread it and offer one of these divertingly demonic, divine, Decadent, dandyish, Dadaist, de-lovely de-literary delights instead. The ideal co-worker will relish any one of these books, and discovering someone who shares your sensibilities will lighten both your journeys through the fluorescent labyrinth of paid employment. Or give it to someone you know will appreciate it. Such as yourself.
I will begin by referring you back here to some book suggestions with which we began the year (and I can confirm that Giorgio de Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin from that list is just about the creepiest thing I’ve ever read; I still can’t hear street noises at night without thinking… well you’ll just have to read it). Now on with what I believe I am obliged by ordinance to describe as a “curated selection”.
You expect to see familiar faces at Christmas, and it is no different here where we encounter a number of familiar Flowers. In addition, the frustrations and rewards of establishing a small press have given me even more profound respect for those who have pursued their singular visions to offer important and inspiring books year after year, and in honour of Small Press Week most of the selections below are from independent publishers. Naturally I will, because I can, draw your attention to my own foray in this field, the first two books from Rixdorf Editions. Even if I didn’t translate them I would be hugely excited about The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe by Franziska zu Reventlow (extract here) and Berlin’s Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld. Launched in fine style earlier this month, these books come free with the smug feeling that you were in on the ground floor of the great rediscovery of progressive Wilhelmine Germany (this offer may take some years to redeem). While Hirschfeld is a far from unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, I remain baffled that the inspiring life and compelling work of Franziska zu Reventlow should be so entirely absent outside Germany. People, help me turn this sorry state of affairs around.
From the same period and in an adjacent style Wakefield Press give us two books by the intriguing Mynona (born Salomo Friedlaender), “a serious philosopher by day and a literary absurdist by night”. My Papa and the Maid of Orléans and The Unruly Bridal Bed contain examples of the “grotesque” short story form popular in early 20th century Germany. Those books’ translator, W. C. Bamberger, is also responsible for the first English edition of Hashish by Oscar A. H. Schmitz, with an afterword by yours truly, now arriving in January. This is still a strong year for other newly translated Decadent fiction; I direct you to Snuggly which offers another title from our old friend Jean Lorrain, Masks in the Tapestry, and the first English edition of Félicien Champsaur’s The Latin Orgy, both translated by Brian Stableford (and for the hardened Rolfeans looking for something with which to stuff the lone stocking hung over the two-bar fire in their ill-lit bedsits, Snuggly also have a collection of Baron Corvo‘s short fiction, An Ossuary of the North Lagoon). Another book that is most definitely Decadent and which – despite the author’s insistence that he was drawing from his life – we must shelve in the fiction section is The Dead Past by Sir Edmund Backhouse. It forms a prequel to the deranged campery of Décadence Mandchoue, which “detailed” (fabricated) the author’s erotic odyssey through late imperial China. Peter Jordaan’s introduction informs us:
The Dead Past forms the first part of Sir Edmund’s fictionalised memoirs, and was completed only some months before his death in 1944. Like an opium dream, it blends truth and fantasy to bring alive a youth spent in the company of the leading personalities of the fin de siècle. Those featured include Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Walter Pater, Paul Verlaine, Lord Rosebery, and the courtesan La Belle Otéro, some of whom are described as his lovers.
Wilde inspires more fiction in The Scarlet Soul, a contemporary anthology of works based on The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by Mark Valentine (with cover by John Coulthart). The man himself is the subject of Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years. Past the glittering apogee spangled with bon mots and stippled with danger, past the spectacular fall, even, author Nicholas Frankel depicts Wilde in prison and during the brief time allotted to him thereafter.
Spurl Editions are advancing their programme of neglected treasures with flawless taste, recently presenting us with The Strange World of Willie Seabrook by Marjorie Worthington, an absorbing, provocative memoir of between-the-wars bohemia which will keep you immobilised for hours, following their reissue of Michel Leiris’s Nights as Day, Days as Night. Robert Desnos, who features in Leiris’s 1961 dream diary, is the author of The Punishments of Hell, his first work of prose which was originally written in 1922. This new Atlas Press edition, in Natasha Lehrer’s translation, blends Dada and Surrealism (hopefully less traumatically than this collision of Dada and Surrealism attended by Desnos).
Last night I got to hear a great reading of The Other Hoffmann Sister by its author Ben Fergusson. Covering the first twenty-odd years of 20th century German history (a period which, as I believe I’ve established, is of great interest to me), the novel draws on the country’s little-known colonial history, and the turmoil immediately after the end of World War One. These hidden histories are filtered through a beautifully rendered family chronicle which harbours its own perplexing mysteries. I was struck by one character’s insight into the “this little art” of translation (to borrow from Kate Briggs’s spellbinding book-length essay on the subject) which rang particularly true: “You change a word, and then you pluck the string and it sounds flat. Then you change it back, add something, take something out, and then you pluck it again. And eventually you have the whole thing singing. If it goes well.”
New Directions (US) and Serpent’s Tail (UK) have “The Complete Edition” of Fernando Pessoa‘s The Book of Disquiet, in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation. My (incomplete?) edition carries a quote from Philip Pullman suggesting this is ‘The very book to read when you wake at 3am and can’t get back to sleep’. With respect to Mr Pullman, I need to be clear on this – this is the worst book to read at 3 in the morning. It is, in fact, a whole book of the dark, paralysed, elliptical, self-reproaching thoughts you have on waking in the middle of the night, so why would you make it worse? Do as I did and read it on a beach to enjoy its pin-prick sensitivity and linguistic virtuosity while resisting its riptide of hyperanalytical torment.
The difficulty in determining the contents and scope of Pessoa’s posthumously published work (detailed here) finds a parallel in ongoing contention about what exactly constitutes Walter Benjamin‘s Arcades Project, and whether the fragments he left behind were notes for a complete work or a work in themselves. At least we have those fragments, unlike “What was in the black suitcase”, as a chapter in Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books (Pushkin Press) describes Benjamin’s last writings which went missing after his suicide in 1940. They join Lord Byron’s memoirs and Sylvia Plath’s Double Exposure in the dead zone of destroyed or mislaid works. In a somewhat related vein is The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. The selection is far more weighted to (once) popular fare, but it is good to see such a spirited defence of Ronald Firbank alongside appreciations of formerly ubiquitous writers like R. M. Ballantyne (“What drew the Scots to literary tropicana? Did they just enjoy reading books in which nobody wore a jumper?”). An extensive degustation menu, it offers nothing more than a taste of each author which will ideally leave you wanting more.
It’s been quite a wait for Ithell Colquhoun’s Decad of Intelligence, created in Lamorna, which Fulgur have put back to the end of this month following production issues. The reproductions of the artist’s enamel work already look stunning and I can’t wait to see them up close, but I also respect the level of perfectionism going into the project. And the Colquhoun revival continues with a new edition of her “alchemical novel” The Goose of Hermogenes, originally published in 1961, also featuring her own images, through Peter Owen.
Bjørn Berge’s Nowherelands, an atlas of countries that are no more, speaks to the map-devouring child nerd I once was. Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney is a hand-drawn Baedeker of more personal, localised memory which triggered long-dormant associations from my hometown with surprising force. I can’t bring myself to make the allusion to Proust’s madeleine customary in these situations, but will instead glide on over to the man himself and his enchantingly cranky Letters to His Neighbor in Lydia Davis’s translation (and you can find a whole lot more of Marcel’s missives next year).
In From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty travels the world to find the good death, advocating a more positive and engaged reckoning with the one thing we can’t avoid. Meanwhile, a huge range of textual and graphic approaches to our mortal destiny – anthropomorphism, worship, embellishment, denial – are to be found in Death: A Graveside Companion. Death stalks the film I Am Not Your Negro, not as a stylised abstraction but a painful reality of loss and anger; the deaths, specifically, of civil rights activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., none of whom saw the far side of 40. They were all friends of writer James Baldwin whose reflections on their lives and violent deaths formed the screenplay for this incredibly powerful film, which I was lucky enough to see introduced by director Raoul Peck earlier this year. The previously unpublished text of I Am Not Your Negro is now available in print form.
Diabolical Fantasia is a new volume highlighting the graphics of Der Orchideengarten, a journal of horror and eeriness which originally appeared in 1919. More exciting still, Zagava have revived the first issue of Der Orchideengarten in a lovingly rendered facsimile with translation by Helen Grant. The attention to detail is truly impressive; observe as strange flowers come to life once more:
Ida Nettleship (later Ida John, whose letters were published earlier this year), Sophie Brzeska and Fernande Olivier are hardly household names. Almost inevitably, considering the time in which they were operating, it is the three women’s relationships with more famous male artists – Augustus John, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Pablo Picasso respectively – that weighs most heavily with posterity. But in Bohemian Lives, Amy Licence examines the trio’s own, neglected creative output, the lives they led and the lives they might have led had they not taken hold of the poisoned chalice inscribed ‘muse’.
While the biography of the dancing marquess Henry Cyril Paget remains scandalously unwritten*, we can console ourselves with a bookified version of Seiriol Davies’ chamber capriccio about the profligate peer, How to Win Against History, with relentlessly jocular yet informative annotations about Paget’s brief, incandescently camp existence (and it’s nice to see the marquess on the cover of the National Trust’s new LGBTQ heritage guide, Prejudice & Pride).
It’s hard to go past the cover of California Infernal, a book that features photographer Walter Fischer’s portraits of odd couple pals Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey, head of the Church of Satan. If this conjunction of names means anything to you it won’t come as a surprise that Kenneth Anger supplies the introduction. A related volume just in is Satanic Feminism by Per Faxneld. I mean – the title alone! But what might seem like a provocation, or a fundamentalist rant, is actually a weighty, scholarly account of distaff diabolism. It is an alternative reading of cultural history in which “Lucifer became reconceptualized as a feminist liberator of womankind. In these counter-myths, he is seen as an ally in the struggle against a patriarchy supported by God the Father and his male priests. Eve’s ingestion of the forbidden fruit becomes a heroic act of rebellion against the tyranny of God and Adam.” A heady, compelling concept, meted out in chapters like “Witches as Rebels against Patriarchy” and “Lucifer and the Lesbians: Sapphic Satanism”. This brings us into contact with known occult figures of the period like French poet Berthe de Courrière and German provocateuse Marie Madeleine but even more intriguing is Faxneld’s revelation of Satanic undertones in the self-presentation of Sarah Bernhardt, Renée Vivien and the Marchesa Casati.
The indivisible life and artistry of Casati reside magnificently in The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell, an entertaining and enlightening study of eras, personae and tastes within one singular, eccentric structure. The eponymous Venetian home saw the Marchesa at her most Casatian and Peggy Guggenheim reinventing herself as the grande dame of Modernism, while between their occupancies came a less-known but no less fascinating inhabitant, Doris Castlerosse. Meanwhile the definitive account of Casati’s life, Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino’s essential Infinite Variety, has just been re-issued in a lavishly illustrated edition. Which of course makes perfect sense; it is impossible to fully appreciate Casati without the galvanic charge of her likeness in photography, art and fashion. Infinite Variety retains the original foreword by Quentin Crisp, written at the end of his life, describing his brief encounter with the Marchesa toward the end of hers.
Crisp returns in The Dandy at Dusk, Philip Mann’s sublime account of melancholy, masculinity and elegance in the 20th century. Among its rare and unexpected treats is an entire chapter on Bunny Roger which comes with a primer on neo-Edwardian menswear. Mann’s reference points skew cinematic, but the case for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s dandyism is less compellingly tabled than, say, that of Jean-Pierre Melville (paraphrased by the cover image of Alain Delon in Le Samourai; le sigh!). The chapter about the Duke of Windsor is largely about clothes because the uncrowned king was a bit of an idiot on a lifelong quest for irrelevance, fussing endlessly with his collars and cuffs to fill in that awkward part of the day between waking and cocktail hour. The chapter about Quentin Crisp, meanwhile, is mostly about ideas because Quentin Crisp was a genius.
Today is the feast day of Saint Quentin, who died on this day in 1999, and it is to him that we grant the last word, more specifically The Last Word. Crisp shared his nativity with You-Know-Who so this last, long-awaited instalment of his memoirs could not be a more appropriate Christmas gift. It is published today along with a visual record, Quentin Crisp in Black and White with images by Martin Fishman and edited, like The Last Word, by Phillip Ward.
Right, now go get some books.
* Update: a bio is apparently on the way!