18 books for 2018

Before too much of the new year elapses, I wanted to share news of some titles appearing in the rest of 2018 that stray into Strange Flowers’ beat of wayward cultural history. Hopefully you can find something in this lot to look forward to.

Let’s start with a book that I know a few people reading this will be excited about. Of Kings and Things is an anthology of works by Count Eric Stenbock collated by David Tibet, who stopped by to discuss his obsession with the Estonian-born Decadent writer a couple of years ago. Mild caveat: this is not the mooted complete works, rather an introduction to the writings of the fabulously morbid Stenbock. Get in quick for the limited edition hardcover signed by Tibet plus a Stenbock-themed tote bag, from Strange Attractor (MIT Press in the US). Our namesake delves further into the Gay Nineties with Incurable, a collection from Lionel Johnson who – like Stenbock – converted to Catholicism, drank to excess and died young.

Our third selection from an impressive Strange Attractor/MIT 2018 line-up records the words of a London identity who is perhaps even more obscure, yet closer to us in time. A while back I picked up a rare copy of What Rough Beast?, published in 1939. This highly unusual and innovative experiment in life writing, described by its author Mark Benney as “an anatomy of stupidity”, took as its subject a self-mythologising eccentric who had walk-on (or hobble-on) parts in numerous memoirs of London’s demi-monde around the mid-20th century, Ironfoot Jack. Sydney-born hobohemian Jack Neave, appropriately enough a man of all trades (including a foray into gastronomy so brief it may actually have been fictional) is soon to be seen in the film version of Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. And released around the same time is The Surrender of Silence, a recently rediscovered autobiographical account of the man himself.

Fun fact #1: boxer-poet Arthur Cravan (as he never let anyone forget) was the nephew of Oscar Wilde. The European ideal is very much alive in Maintenant?, a bilingual English-French edition issued by Italian publisher Silvana Editoriale to accompany an exhibition in Spain about the Swiss-born Cravan. This, we are told, is “the most substantial book on Cravan in English yet published”. The spirit of his famous uncle hovered as an éminence rose well into the 20th century with which he was barely acquainted, invoked in the culture war that blazed while Britain was still fighting the last stages of the very real World War One. It pitted the John Bullish caricature, MP Noel Pemberton Billing, against a morally suspect creative class represented by the dancer Maud Allan, famous for her risqué adaptation of Wilde’s Salomé. You may recall Philip Hoare’s treatment of these events in Wilde’s Last Stand (1997); now Wendy Buonaventura revisits this contested territory in Dark Venus (Amberley).

Fun fact #2: Wilde was assisted in writing Salomé in the original French by Marcel Schwob. Imaginary Lives (originally published in 1896) is one of two books by Schwob newly translated by Chris Clarke and soon to appear through Wakefield Press. This sounds very us:

These twenty-two portraits present figures drawn from the margins of history, from Empedocles the “Supposed God” and Clodia the “Licentious Matron” to the pirate Captain Kidd and the Scottish murderers Messrs. Burke and Hare. In his quest for unique existences, Schwob also formulated an early conception of the anti-hero, and discarded historical figures in favor of their shadows, be they divine, mediocre, or criminal.

Fun fact #3: Marcel Schwob was the uncle of Lucy Schwob, (slightly) better known as Claude Cahun, one of the most radical and original forces in 20th century (self-)portrait photography. She, and her lover/partner/step-sister Marcel Moore are the subjects of Rupert Thomson’s forthcoming novel through Other Press, Never Anyone But You (the pair also turned up in last year’s non-fiction study The Militant Muse, which examined alliances between women in and around the Surrealist movement, romantic and otherwise). Late Surrealist Desmond Morris (as in late to the movement; the painter and Naked Ape author is happily still with us) reveals more about how persona informs creativity in the forthcoming The Lives of the Surrealists (Thames & Hudson).

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz: Portrait of Maria Nawrocka (1910)

The career of Polish artist and writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (a.k.a. Witkacy) coincided with the rise and apogee of Surrealism, and although not officially aligned with the movement, he did admit elements of its absurd dream logic into his art and even more so into his writing. Twisted Spoon will soon release his admirably frank 1932 prose work Narcotics (here translated by Soren Gauger) – they had me at “Meandering, acerbic, and burlesque“. It also includes portraits created by Witkiewicz under the influence of meticulously documented stimulants.

In Diary of a Drug Fiend, Aleister Crowley fictionalised his own response to and dependence on different substances. Its publication followed his World War One-era New World adventure now captured in Tobias Churton’s substantial new book, Aleister Crowley in America (Inner Traditions). I look forward to reading more about Crowley’s impulsive gesture of prematurely proclaiming the Irish Republic in 1915 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty to a fiddle accompaniment by Leila Waddell (first he took Manhattan, then he took Berlin). But with Crowley’s own works entering the public domain this year, expect to see a flood of cheap reissues with multiples offenses against typography. The Great Beast is joined in the post-copyright wildlands this year by fellow Golden Dawn adherent Arthur Machen, although happily one of the first Machen reissues this year is a highly respectful compendium. It comes from Centipede Press, who normally specialise in pricy collectables with lavish production values. But their new edition is a refreshingly economical, generously proportioned introduction to Machen’s strange fictional universe.

Alastair, c. 1910

I wouldn’t ordinarily flag foreign-language publications, but this is too good not to mention: the first biography of Alastair, the German polymath whose transcendent artistry and fanatically curated selfhood launched Strange Flowers back in – Jesus H. Crisp, have I really been doing this that long? Yet another of the post-1890s generation transfixed by Wilde and in particular Salomé, Alastair illustrated a 1925 French edition of the work. The artist, dancer and poet was still around in the early 1960s when author Manfred Zieger met him, and the two continued to correspond until the maestro’s death in 1969. I find it difficult to explain how very, very excited I am about this book. Possibly it is something that, like Alastair’s own most compelling appearances, could only be expressed through the medium of the dance. I will report back with some key findings once I’ve calmed down and had a chance to absorb it.

Another thing you’ll rarely see in these round-ups is a big-ticket academic title, but here’s one I couldn’t resist. Out mid-year for a mere one hundred and ten of your British pounds, Sissi‘s World (Bloomsbury Academic) examines ‘The Empress Elisabeth in Myth and Memory’, and appropriately enough it is not the flesh and blood (and hair) consort on the cover, but representations of her in cinema and art. Chapters include “Sissi, the Chinese Princess: A Timely and Versatile Post-Mao Icon” and “The Remains of the Stay: The Corporeal Archive of Empress Elisabeth in the Hofburg”.

Sissi’s Vienna overlapped with but was entirely distinct from Gustav Klimt‘s. Next month marks the centenary of Klimt’s passing and while the works of the Austrian artist are unfamiliar to exactly no-one, it is his highly idiosyncratic life – including his complicated relationships with the fascinating Flöge sisters – that is celebrated in Patrick Bade’s Gustav Klimt at Home. Another woman who lingered in his shadow – and not just his – is remembered in a forthcoming book by Sasho Dimoski (translated from the original Macedonian by Paul Filev). Alma Mahler is a fictionalised account of the woman (unhappily) married to composer Gustav Mahler. With later marriages to Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, affairs with Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, her personal connections to many of Vienna’s early Modernists completely overshadowed her own creative output in writing and composition. Here Dimoski gamely imagines Alma Mahler’s life (much like Zurab Karumidze conceived the life of Norwegian writer Dagny Juel, ill-fated wife of the sulphurous Stanisław Przybyszewki, in 2011’s Dagny, or a Love Feast, also through Dalkey Archive).

All of this speaks to my inexhaustible fascination for the fictionalisation of real figures. Marcel Proust alone conscripted a small army of personalities and measured them up for the dress uniform of artifice – Princess Violette Murat and Comte Robert de Montesquiou to name but two who have featured in these pages. Caroline Weber’s Proust’s Duchess (Penguin Random House) examines three women of late 19th century French society who compositely informed Proust’s characterisation of the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Lesley Blanch sold her most famous book as history, although on excavating the past she wasn’t above plastering holes in the narrative with the Polyfilla of conjecture to achieve a smooth facade (I’d stand back if I were you – this metaphor could collapse at any moment). In The Wilder Shores of Love (1954) she examined the lives of a quartet of Western European women – including Jane Digby and Isabelle Eberhardt – who sought liberation from social constraints in the Middle East. In Journey into the Mind’s Eye (NYRB Classics), on the other hand, she turns to another adventurer – herself. I look forward to these ‘fragments of an autobiography’ from the writer and historian who died in 2007, and if necessary revising my judgment of her as “arguably the last of the unreconstructed Orientalists“.

We close with a book that brings us dangerously close to the present day, the wonderfully titled House of Nutter (Crown Archetype/Chatto & Windus). I talked to author Lance Richardson a year and a half ago about his forthcoming debut, which looks at the Nutter brothers, Tommy and David, who made their mark in tailoring and photography respectively. This is “the stunning true story of two gay men who influenced some of the most iconic styles and pop images of the twentieth century […] a dual portrait of brothers improvising their way through five decades of extraordinary events, their personal struggles playing out against vivid backdrops of the Blitz, an obscenity trial, the birth of disco, and the devastation of the AIDS crisis.”

Happy 2018!

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2 comments

  1. Linda Hollander

    Well, I’ve already ordered products duchess!! As always, thank you for your brilliant work, eclectic interests and witty proese. A very happy 2018 to you and yours, James.

  2. Linda Hollander

    Uh-oh, autocorrect rea rd it’s ugly head…sorry! Proust’s….

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