Somehow it is already the first day of Advent, which means we are drawing ever closer to that most wonderful time of the year, the day that brought the birth of our saviour Quentin Crisp. You are doubtless wondering how you can mark the season with gifts to passive-aggressive co-workers, Brexit-voting cousins and flag-flying neighbours in a way that will leave your reputation as an inscrutable recondite snoot intact. Allow me to present a round-up of giftable cultural history with which you can unmistakably signal your degenerate cosmopolitan values:
… because if you were to wind the clock back 100 years (the kind of thing we’re given to doing around here; witness a proto art intervention, an early milestone in marriage equality and the respective deaths of the ‘heathen madonna’, the ‘sandwich man of the beyond’ and a yellowface magician) and you were to find yourself in Munich, you really would need a copy of Dreamers to know what the hell was going on. Volker Weidermann’s book (translated by Ruth Martin, who talks about it here) describes a moment when poets, anarchists and chancers impetuously seized the reins of power in Bavaria in the immediate wake of World War One. It couldn’t last, of course, but as you read this magnificently rendered account you will find something extraordinary on just about every page.
… because while that was going on in Munich, Berlin’s artists were preparing a revolt of their own amid the post-war ferment, although the Scheisse wouldn’t well and truly hit the Ventilator until January. Because it’s where Dada met Bauhaus (and in fact predates the formal establishment of Bauhaus) and not nearly enough people are familiar with the Novembergruppe, a radical, revolutionary, multi-genre, interdisciplinary movement that encompassed everyone from Kurt Weill to Hannah Höch, Walter Spies to Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Otto Dix. Because Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the group’s first meeting (although their name celebrated the inspiration of the previous month), and an exhibition reflecting its insanely varied output is currently on in Berlin, accompanied by a catalogue.
… because women have been written out of the canonical narrative of early Modernism long enough and because five years after I saw and was astonished by a show of her work in Berlin it is great to see that Swedish abstract pioneer Hilma af Klint is having an actual MOMENT, oh yes she is, a proper uptown-exhibition, multiple-monographs, articles-in-foldy-out-newspapers moment, and it’s wonderful and so richly deserved. Paintings for the Future accompanies the Guggenheim show while Notes and Methods draws the reader further into her profound, idiosyncratic mysticism.
… because women have been written out of Surrealism long enough, here’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of Surrealist fiction which complements over-familiar names like Louis Aragon, André Breton and Salvador Dalí with the likes of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy and Leonora Carrington.
… because Leonora Carrington brings us to her compadre, Spanish artist Remedios Varo whose written work can now be enjoyed in a new Wakefield anthology, Letters, Dreams & Other Writings (translated by Margaret Carson).
… because for some unfathomable reason there is STILL no Annemarie Schwarzenbach bio in English, and while this is in German, Jenseits von New York (Beyond New York) at least features her outstanding photos of segregation- and Depression-ravaged rural America.
… because having done devastating between-the-wars verité you may be interested in its aesthetic antithesis which you will duly find in Jane Stevenson’s Baroque between the Wars, which brings to mind Stephen Calloway’s masterly compendium Baroque Baroque.
… because I recently had a MAJOR BIRTHDAY and not to boast or anything, but I got a signed Alfred Kubin lithograph from my partner. How good is that? It’s an image of the prophet Jeremiah playing the harp and bitching, because ‘I thought you might relate to a complaining old man’. This catalogue is from an exhibition currently showing in Munich which explores the Austrian artist’s relations with that city’s avant-garde Blaue Reiter group, and while it, too, is in German it is at least a quality trove of Kubin images, something that is surprisingly hard to find.
… because we love Pierre Loti around here and are pleased to see him take his place in the Reaktion ‘Critical Lives‘ series, right there between Lenin and Jean-François Lyotard. Because author Richard M. Berrong is well-versed in Lotiana, having published In Love with a Handsome Sailor: The Novels of Pierre Loti and the Emergence of Gay Male Identity. Because – speaking of handsome sailors – on page 120 there is a photo you really must see of Loti’s special friend Léo Thémèze. Woof! as I believe no one says any more. And because there is also an extraordinary photo of La Loti herself in circus attire on page 44. Run, don’t walk. Run.
… because in rooting around at Reaktion I stumbled across this, Monsters under Glass: A Cultural History of Hothouse Flowers from 1850 to the Present by Jane Desmarais, a study of one of the great Decadent motifs.
… because hothouse flowers made me think of the wonderful vignette of Aubrey Beardsley scenting his carefully cultivated blooms in the utterly essential account of the English Decadence, Passionate Attitudes, and that book’s author Matthew Sturgis has a new life of Oscar Wilde, and if there is anything more to say about said life I would certainly trust him to say it.
… because that in turn reminded me that last year there was a great article in the London Review of Books by Colm Tóibín in which ‘De Profundis’ framed a fascinating double portrait of Ma and Pa Wilde, and that he followed it up with studies of the respective fathers of W. B. Yeats and James Joyce and it made me want to read more, and now in Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know I can.
… because you might be curious to know how Joyce shaped up as a father himself, which you can in a fictional account of the life of his troubled daughter Lucia, by Alex Pheby.
… because that brought to mind the curious intersections in the lives of Lucia Joyce and Antonin Artaud who were both treated by the same doctor in the same Parisian psychiatric clinic and had both been discovered roaming Dublin, manic and dishevelled. Artaud’s disjointed thoughts from his erratic pilgrimage through Ireland are recorded in letters now issued by Infinity Land Press as Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, translated by Stephen Barber.
… because even though a lot of my conscious hours are monopolised by translation and I am never less than fascinated by the process I sometimes feel like I understand it less the more I do it and reading Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor makes me grateful that smarter people than I are giving more thought to it than I ever could.
… because if you ever wondered what went down in the sessions between Sigmund Freud and his analysand, the great Modernist poet H.D. (and who among us has not?), Kath MacLean can offer you an idea in Translating Air.
… because this is unexpectedly turning out to be a great year for uncovering unjustly neglected stories and although Gentleman Jack, Angele Steidele’ study of lesbian Regency diarist Anne Lister, orginally appeared in German it has been translated by Katy Derbyshire so you know it must be good.
… because, like I said, the unsung are having their moment, as Ria Brodell’s illustrated Butch Heroes um… illustrates, and it also reminds me that next year will bring Diana Souhami’s No Modernism without Lesbians, a title that is brilliant, bold and true.
… because untold stories always contain more untold stories, as evidenced by Joan E. Howard’s We Met in Paris, in which Grace Frick steps forth from the shadow of her partner Marguerite Yourcenar.
… because Spurl Editions are congenitally incapable of a dull book. I have reviewed three of them and I never write book reviews (this? darlings, this is a shopping list). Because their unerring sensibilities have turned up another treasure in Luigi Pirandello’s 1926 novel One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand (translated by William Weaver), which boldly busies itself with ‘The definition of madness, the problem of identity, the impossibility of communicating with others and with being (or knowing) one’s self’.
… because when I was flying into Thessaloniki earlier in the year I was reading Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express, specifically the chapter describing 20th century development in said city (which is entitled ‘No, No, No, No’… spoiler alert: he’s not a fan) and as fond as I am of Greece’s second city the book was so fascinating and well-argued I couldn’t hold it against him. Because from Lviv to Madrid, it ably defines and analyses the nature of the European city in a book abounding in erudition, observation and discernment.
… because of the numerous people to live out their penniless decline in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, couturier Charles James, ‘the Ovid of fashion’, was possibly the most unlikely and most interesting, as reflected in Michèle Gerber Klein’s Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man.
… because the Decadence and Translation Network recently got under way and it’s always good to see more Decadent works appearing in translation, such as Jean Lorrain’s withering satire Errant Vice and Lilith’s Legacy, an anthology of works by Renée Vivien. Because both are translated by Brian Stableford who judging from his translation output alone is actually a sleepless compulsive – and what could be more Decadent?
… because it’s always fascinating to see how the recherché literary modes of Belle Époque Paris mutated throughout space and time, as reflected in And My Head Exploded: Tales of desire, delirium and decadence from fin-de-siecle Prague (translated by Geoffrey Chew) and Drowning in Beauty: The Neo-Decadent Anthology.
… because if you only know occultist Pamela Colman Smith from her tarot cards, or not at all, Stuart R. Kaplan’s authoritative, exhaustive and superbly realised monograph The Untold Story will open your eyes to an extraordinarily gifted and characterful artist whose work ranged from fairy tale illustrations to graphic representations of Beethoven sonatas.
… because if you had a choice of taking life lessons from a) a guy who hung out with Gertrude Stein and André Gide, tattooed bikers, slept with hundreds of men (including Rock Hudson and Lord Alfred Douglas) and kept meticulous notes thereof, penned gay erotica while introducing a hitherto absent transgressive note to the Illinois Dental Journal or b) oh, I don’t know, Alain de Botton or some insufferable ballache like that – who would you choose? The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward is lost no more. Hallelujah.
… and because if there is anything I have absorbed from the teachings of Christ, it is to love others as I love myself, to remember those less fortunate and (I’m paraphrasing here) to celebrate His birth by flogging my latest product. Ilse Frapan’s visionary feminist novel We Women Have no Fatherland, originally published in 1899, is reflective, despairing, exorbitant, inspiring, sentimental and angry.
Just like Christmas.