Such are the peculiarities of this most seasonal of seasons that our rundown of forthcoming titles comes at an indecently brief interval after our last bookish blow-out; this Janus-faced time of year(s) looks back and looks forward and evidently needs something to browse wherever it casts its eyes. Our planned reading for the coming year sees us returning to familiar themes with hopefully enough new stimuli to repel middle-aged stasis.
We begin in Berlin where left-wing activist Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by a reactionary militia during the Spartakus rebellion 100 years ago today, her body dumped in the Landwehr Canal from which it was retrieved only months later. Early on, Luxemburg championed freedom of opinion and warned of the dangers of Russia’s emerging Soviet dictatorship, and the fact that her name continues to adorn public spaces in Berlin while no-one would think of reviving, say, Stalinallee tells us much about her enduring significance. Klaus Gietinger’s Eine Leiche im Landwehrkanal was published a few years ago and now appears in English as The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (translated by Loren Balhorn) to mark the anniversary of her death.
If that occasion marked the violent baptism of the Weimar era, in 1931 German court reporter Gabriele Tergit provided a vital account of its sickly demise. Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm, her first work of fiction, addressed the machinations of the media itself, its core narrative offering us a largely talent-free singer who is suddenly elevated to ubiquitous renown. That alone makes it highly relatable in the present day, but it is also a brilliantly observed and bitterly funny account of Berlin as the lights started going out. It is great to see NYRB Classics bringing this scandalously forgotten piece of Weimar literature to English-speaking readers as Käsebier Takes Berlin (translated by Sophie Duvernoy).
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven didn’t quite conquer the Kurfürstendamm when she returned to Weimar Berlin toward the end of her life, in fact all she did there was sell newspapers. Now the artist and writer known as the ‘Dada Baroness‘ appears as an elusive presence in Siri Hustvedt’s forthcoming novel Memories of the Future. Another extraordinary, highly eccentric image-maker accedes to the fictional realm in French author Nathalie Léger’s Exposition, published by the wonderful, new-ish press Les Fugitives, which revisits the life of Second Empire self-portraitist Countess de Castiglione and is translated by Amanda DeMarco (who also translated Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin).
The task of fictionalising Arthur Cravan, the proto-Dadaist boxer-poet nephew of Oscar Wilde, was something Cravan himself managed quite well, even leaving us with a cliffhanger in the form of his mysterious (presumed) death. But his multiple identities and the irresistibly incongruous set of associations triggered by his existence mean there is still a lot to unpack in his life. Unsurprisingly he has been a subject of recurring academic interest, the latest example being The Fictions of Arthur Cravan by Dafydd Jones. Its cover is a naive image Cravan painted under another pseudonym, Robert Miradique, as explained in the extensive catalogue for last year’s exhibition Arthur Cravan: Maintenant?
Cravan’s uncle is never far from these pages. Despite the forbidding taboo around Wilde in the years following his death, a number of writers who came of age in that era – including Brian Howard, Ronald Firbank and the Sitwells – were drawn to the Yellow Decade they were too young to participate in, even as the 20th century brought new forms that cast the 1890s further into shadow. It was a paradox captured in Martin Green’s Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England after 1918 (1976). Now comes Decadence in the Age of Modernism (edited by Kate Hext and Alex Murray) which “argues that the decadent principles and aesthetics of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Algernon Swinburne, and others continued to exert a compelling legacy on the next generation of writers, from high modernists and late decadents to writers of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Returning to the source, it is highly surprising to discover that How to Become a Mage is the first English translation of French Decadent mystic Joséphin Péladan (courtesy of K. K. Albert with Jean-Louis de Biasi) in over a hundred years. Interest in Péladan was buoyed by the 2017 Guggenheim exhibition Mystical Symbolism, which explored Péladan’s own late 19th century exhibition series Salon de Rose+Croix, a landmark event of hermetic image-making in the modern era.
In a related vein, Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Magic and Visual Culture from Fulgur looks at “the fascinating intersections between esotericism and visual culture through a decidedly cross-cultural lens, with topics ranging from talismanic magic and the Renaissance exploration of alchemy, through to the role of magic in modern art and 20th century experimental film.” Meanwhile Hilma af Klint’s moment continues in World Receivers, the catalogue to an exhibition currently to be seen in Munich in which the Swedish artist’s pioneering abstraction appears alongside images by English medium Georgiana Houghton and geometric patterns of compulsive intricacy by Swiss Outsider artist Emma Kunz.
Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald is a name even less likely to excite recognition than the above trio. An exhibition starting in Berlin next month, with accompanying catalogue raisonné from Zagava, aims to bring the early 20th century German illustrator to a wider public. Ewers-Wunderwald touched on occult themes in her work, with some of her best-known images adorning works penned by her husband, the notorious Hanns Heinz Ewers.
In 1898, the dandified bisexual Ewers encountered one of his heroes – Oscar Wilde (see? I told you. He’s everywhere). The setting was the island of Capri, “a wildly permissive haven for people – queer, criminal, sick, marginalized, and simply crazy – who had nowhere else to go” according to the forthcoming A Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri. They include Flowers favourites Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Jean Lorrain, Romaine Brooks and the Marchesa Casati. James’s 2016 book, The Glamour of Strangeness, was a thrilling account of a diverse sextet – including Walter Spies, Isabelle Eberhardt and Maya Deren – and their respective pursuits of fulfilment in distant locations. His trip to Capri promises to be another genius combination of locus and persona and frankly I can’t wait. And an even more localised cultural history of an Italian island location awaits us at the distant horizon of the year in Grand Hotel, Palermo: Ghosts of the Belle Epoque, Suzanne Edwards and Andrew Edwards’ study of the Sicilian hotel where Wagner completed Parsifal and Raymond Roussel finally encountered oblivion in an act that may or may not have been suicide.
Similar uncertainty surrounds the early death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who published a prodigious amount of Romantic poetry under the name L.E.L. which was highly popular in its time, fell into disfavour, attracted the posthumous scorn of Virginia Woolf and much later praise from Germaine Greer. Lucasta Miller’s new biography of the writer, L.E.L., highlights a life “lived in a blaze of scandal and worship, one of the most famous women of her time, the Romantic Age in London’s 1820s, her life and writing on the ascendency as Byron’s came to an end.” Her rapid fame came with rumours of sexual impropriety, as difficult to verify as the cause of her death in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana).
Reaching even further back we find two highly contrasting responses to antiquity. In Heliogabalus, or The Anarchist Crowned (translated by Victor Corti), Antonin Artaud considers the legendary depravity of the emperor, ancient Rome’s ultimate teen tearaway, in a book originally published in French in 1934. Artemis Leontis, meanwhile, offers Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins, the first biography of a woman who grew up in an eccentric and artistic milieu in New York City and later dedicated her life to the revival of ancient Greek culture, including a recreation of the festival of Delphi. She shared her passion with the similarly rigorous Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora), who would become Eva’s brother-in-law when she married Greek writer Angelos Sikelianos (brother of Duncan’s wife). In the course of her research Leontis discovered a trove of correspondence that illuminated an even earlier liaison of the young Eva Palmer, with Natalie Clifford Barney.
You know me so you know I will have something to say about Wilhelmine Germany and its neglected treasures. This year’s bounty includes a new English translation (by Gary Miller) of Eduard von Keyserling’s pre-WWI masterpiece Waves, from Dedalus. Keyserling is Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite writer, well-respected in Germany, yet he remains criminally ignored in the wider world. He was one of the few German exponents of literary Impressionism, but is almost as well known for his alarming appearance as his exquisite prose. Lovis Corinth’s unsettling 1900 portrait of the author (above) was the subject of Klaus Modick’s recent book Keyserlings Geheimnis. Like Alvin Albright’s attic-bound portrait of Dorian Gray in the 1945 film adaptation of Wilde’s novel (see?!), it suggested not just physical but moral corruption as well; Keyserling was in the advanced stages of syphilis.
When translating Magnus Hirschfeld’s Berlin’s Third Sex, one of the many things that struck me was how utterly familiar the sexual and romantic practices of early 20th century Germany seemed. For instance – Hirschfeld describes a telegraph hook-up service by which subscribers could summon temporary companions corresponding to their fetishes and other preferences. So, basically Grindr over 100 years ahead of time. In Love at Last Sight, Tyler Carrington explores the technologically advanced means by which the lonesome and horny found like-minded strangers in Wilhelmine Berlin. This year will also highlight the visual sophistication of the era in Friedrich Nietzsche and the Artists of the New Weimar, based on an exhibition in Ottawa this year that examines the philosopher’s impact on art, and Constructing Imperial Berlin: Photography and the Metropolis by Miriam Paeslack, which captures the German capital at its most self-confident.
Finally, 15 January also marks the day on which this nonchalant chap – Austrian writer Hermann Bahr – died, in 1934. Bahr is interesting for more reasons than I can list, not least his crucial role in the cultural hothouse of fin-de-siècle Vienna, his championing of new forms in German-speaking Europe and his status as a catalyst of Modernism. Best known for drama (both as a critic and a creator), secondarily as a writer of transgressive prose, it was one of his non-fiction works that attracted my attention. It is my next translation for Rixdorf Editions and will appear later in the year.
Antisemitism, originally published in Germany in 1894, finds Bahr setting out to examine modern manifestations of an ancient hatred by interviewing the great and good. It was an extremely innovative approach; the word (and concept) “interview” had only just been adopted in German, and Bahr’s broad focus – talking to writers, politicians and others in Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and beyond – suggested that antisemitism was a pan-European problem that required a pan-European solution (Bahr later referred hopefully to the idea of a “United States of Europe”). His respondents included Social Democrat patriarch August Bebel, spiritual leader Annie Besant, French writer Alphonse Daudet and German scientific polymath Ernst Haeckel. Bahr’s survey is by no means an echo chamber, with his interviewees widely distributed across a spectrum of opinion from philosemitism to extreme prejudice.
Once again, so much here seems modern, not least the susceptibility of sections of the public to clueless, bigoted loudmouths. Antisemitism was nearing its pre-Nazi zenith, a rising political force in Germany and a major disruptive power in France which was about to descend into the rancour of the Dreyfus Affair. What is particularly striking is the number of well-meaning respondents who predicted that if everyone just ignored it, antisemitism would simply burn out and disappear. And how well did that turn out? It would be unfair to confront figures of the past with their lack of clairvoyance, but nor can we ignore this most glaring lesson from history: Don’t. Fuck. With. Fascists.
So that is our self-imposed lot, but there are still more titles that I should like to mention briefly; for example, In the Stillness of Marble, a “tragic and personal, visionary and transgressive” text by troubled Chilean writer Teresa Wilms Montt. The mysteries of the Czech capital reveal themselves to Surrealist Vítězslav Nezval in A Prague Flâneur (Twisted Spoon, translated by Jed Slast), while if you have five hundred free-falling British pounds burning a hole in your backstop you can treat yourself to the mammoth three-volume International Encyclopedia of Surrealism. And if you want to go full coffee table there’s John Richardson: At Home, highlighting the big-ticket boho interiors of the collector and Picasso biographer I will always remember as author of the hilariously snarky Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters.
OK, now I feel like I’m talking over the orchestra at the Oscars. But there’s more! The Kindness of Strangers by blacklisted emigré Salka Viertel, buddy of Greta Garbo! Edythe Haber’s Teffi: A Life of Letters and Laughter about a bizarrely forgotten Russian writer who rejected Rasputin and lived to tell the tale! My agent whose name I just forgot! A catalogue of an exhibition covering the gloriously queer life of Archduke Ludwig Viktor! The Caledonian cultural miscellany of Kirsten Norrie’s Scottish Lost Boys!
*crescendo, indistinct shouting, something about Oscar Wilde*