The Feast Day of Saint Quentin of Crisp is already behind us, so it’s high time we got naughty, nice and nasty with our annual seasonal book list. I’m not going to lie – this year Satan’s little helpers have found a shizzload of interesting books that stray into our purview of wayward cultural history. And remember – these are just the titles originally published in English. We still have another post of translated books to come.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
This year marks a century since Walter Gropius established a certain school of architecture and design in Weimar, and trying to buy all the Bauhaus-related books out this year will probably land you in the poorhaus. You don’t need me to tell you why Bauhaus remains a big deal; much that is currently in your line of sight, including the device on which you are reading these words, probably owes at least something to the functional design of Gropius and associates (a forthcoming book explicitly joins those dots). But the official account of Bauhaus and its streamlined aesthetic has itself been streamlined, planing away the ludic, the mystical and the illogical for which the faculty and student body had a much greater susceptibility than the school’s reputation for machine-tooled rationalism would suggest. An even graver omission from the story is the contribution of women; in fact women made up the majority of applicants when the Bauhaus first opened, but they were largely fobbed off to the weaving department. One of their large-scale works was a rug for Walter Gropius’s office, and it’s hard to ignore the symbolism of their work being trod underfoot by men. So among the deluge of editions this year it is especially gratifying to see these lacunae addressed in a quartet of books by experts Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler. Otto’s Haunted Bauhaus offers us an “investigation of the irrational and the unconventional currents swirling behind the Bauhaus’s signature sleek surfaces and austere structures” while the women of Bauhaus get the Taschen treatment in Rössler’s Bauhausmädels, a theme that the pair also tackle in Bauhaus Women and (as editors) in Bauhaus Bodies which draws these strands together and adds body culture, fashion, performance, utopianism and mysticism, including the Mazdaznan cult of the extraordinary Swiss artist Johannes Itten (for whom there is a new catalogue raisonné, of which the first volume appears this year).
Itten turned up as a character in a recent German drama series about Bauhaus, along with Gropius’s wife Alma Mahler in a big hat and even bigger Viennese accent; she is the subject of a new biography by Cate Haste, Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler. Back in Vienna, Alma Mahler was not best pleased when she received a bill from Dr Sigmund Freud in 1911, particularly as it was not even for her own therapy, but sessions taken by her first husband, Gustav. Who had just died. Now with our minds still very much on Vienna – the first part of our wanderings in the city can be found here, the second is coming up next week – we visit Dr Freud (who naturally features in Norman Lebrecht’s Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947). In Vienna a century ago he published one of his most influential papers, one that dealt with das Unheimliche, the uncanny – the unsettling amalgam of compulsion and repulsion, familiarity and alienation, a quality that had long been evident in visual arts and literature and was particularly at home in German letters. In London, in the very home he inhabited in exile, the Freud Museum is hosting an exhibition to commemorate, accompanied by a catalogue, plus there’s also a new collection of essays entitled On Freud’s “The Uncanny” (edited by Catalina Bronstein and Christian Seulin). Oh, and you can also get an “uncanny candle”, which apparently smells like the roses from the Freud Museum garden rather than, say, haunted calculators.
Another of Freud’s famous analysands was the modernist poet H.D., or Hilda Doolittle, who took to the fabled couch in part to pick apart this mess; a clutch of her essays are now collected in Visions and Ecstasies (through David Zwirner Books, in a series that also includes a history of the codpiece by Michael Glover). Joining Doolittle in the Pennsylvania-born Modernist Lesbian category is Gertrude Stein, and in Gertrude Stein Has Arrived by Roy Morris Jr. we get to revisit the delightful anomaly of an out butch modernist who left the US to produce resolutely radical works ending up a fêted literary celebrity in her homeland. Stein inspired the title of The Outside Thing: Modernist Lesbian Romance by Hannah Roche, and features alongside Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes, the latter also celebrated in Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism edited by Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz, and in a little volume of three stories she wrote under the name Lydia Steptoe. Sadly Djuna Barnes’s biography of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven never saw the light of day, but we do have an experimental study of the poetry of the “Dada Baroness” by Astrid Seme, more specifically the punctuation therein — Baroness Elsa’s Em Dashes. Can I share something embarrassing? For years I have struggled with the difference between em dashes and en dashes. Which is the wide one and which is the shorter one? And then THIS YEAR it was explained to me that – duh — the letter “m” is wider than “n”. Anyway Elsa’s hand-drawn punctuation marks might more properly be termed emmm dashes, such is their length.
Now if you would like to adopt a suitably beatific expression and follow me to the spirituality section (watch yer riah on them dreamcatchers…), allow me to present American Messiahs by Adam Morris, which speaks deeply to my fascination for apocalyptic cults. A fictional, English version comes in Claire McGlasson’s The Rapture in which a vicar’s widow declares herself a Daughter of God, forms the “Panacea Society” and pronounces the English commuter town of Bedford to be the site of the original Garden of Eden. Except that outline isn’t actually fiction at all, it really happened (just in case you were wondering why Bedford seemed too idyllic to be a mere Thameslink terminus).
In The Professor & the Parson by Adam Sisman, we encounter Robert Parkin Peters, “plagiarist, bigamist, fraudulent priest and imposter extraordinaire”. He was first exposed by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who also uncovered the perfidy and peccadillos of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse (and whose nose for deceit famously and calamitously deserted him when he was presented with the “Hitler diaries”). “Motivated not by money but by a desire for prestige, Peters lied, stole and cheated his way to academic positions and religious posts from Cambridge to New York, Singapore and South Africa. Frequently deported, and even more frequently discovered, his trail of destruction included seven marriages (three of which were bigamous), an investigation by the FBI and a disastrous appearance on Mastermind.”
I am grateful to Wormwoodiana for their pointer to a reissue of The Devil’s Saint by Dulcie Deamer, originally published in 1924. Like Rosaleen Norton, with whom she shared thematic interests, Deamer was born in New Zealand but found infamy in the bohemian underworld of Sydney. Once, on being evicted from her accommodation, Deamer avenged herself by leaving behind a horse she had coaxed to an upstairs bathroom (she left it with a bale of hay and a bath full of water). Crowned “Empress of the Holy Bohemian Empire”, she was the presiding spirit of the city’s Artists’ Balls, which she appears to have parodied in The Devil’s Saint (extract here). You will search this book’s colophon in vain for the words “nihil obstat”, but it looks like fun.
American photographer Shannon Taggart has investigated spiritualist practices for years, and Fulgur have published the results in a typically exquisite production, Séance, with a foreword by Dan Aykroyd (wait, what?). Oh, and if you happen to find yourself at a séance wondering who you’re gonna call, Adrian Dannatt has some prime suggestions in Doomed and Famous: Selected Obituaries. It includes an extremely Strange Flowers-y selection, “an almost fictive cast of characters including an imaginary Sephardic count in Wisconsin, a sadomasochist collector of the world’s rarest clocks, a discrete Cuban connoisseur of invisibility, an alcoholic novelist in Rio, a Warhol Superstar gone wrong, a leading downtown Manhattan dominatrix, a conceptual artist who blew up a museum and much much more.” Meanwhile Heather King, self-described “ex-barfly Catholic convert” offers Fools for Christ: Fifty Divine Eccentric, Artists, Martyrs, Stigmatists and Unsung Saints, which may well appeal to ex-Catholic barfly converts as well.
Three gay Catholic converts of the late 19th/early 20th century who are close to our hearts yet sadly not included in that collection are represented in reissues this year through Snuggly (along with a mysterious stranger from Düsseldorf). Snuggly are on a hot streak right now. There are more selections to come in our translation post so it is probably easier to just point you and your PayPal account in the direction of their website, but for now I commend to your awareness The Shadow of Death by “scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert” Count Eric Stenbock, Six Ghost Stories by the faux-priest Montague Summers, who combined “a manifest benignity with a whiff of the Widow Twankey”, and Amico di Sandro, an unfinished portrait of Botticelli by failed priest and would-be pope Baron Corvo.
A French trio of the same era enliven the latest work from Julian Barnes. The titular hero of The Man in the Red Coat is Samuel Pozzi, a handsome individual immortalised by Sargent in the portrait that is included sans head on the cover (was the hand inspired by Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man, as featured on the Corvo edition?). Pozzi was a surgeon and gynaecologist who operated on a prestigious Parisian clientele in his Place Vendôme practice. But Barnes’s book is also about Prince Edmond de Polignac, half of one of the most notorious lavender marriages of the day, and our old favourite, arch aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, who inspired some of the greatest examples of Decadent literature. And if you need context we have the authoritative new Decadence and Literature edited by Jane Desmarais (whose cultural history of hothouse flowers, a classic Decadent motif, I can highly recommend) and David Weir.
Nihilist poet Harry Crosby was inspired by the great flowering of Decadence although he arrived in Paris too late to have experienced it directly. He cycled rapidly through influences and in 1927 he was proclaiming his “swan-song to the decadent” and embracing the prevailing avant-garde movement of Surrealism. This trajectory is captured in Seeing with Eyes Closed which collects the prose poems originally published in limited quantities by the Black Sun Press he operated with wife Caresse. Although arriving much later, Penelope Rosemont was another American captured by the hypnagogic mutiny of Surrealism. In Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields we find her “rubbing shoulders with some of the movement’s most important visual artists, such as Man Ray, Leonora Carrington, Mimi Parent, and Toyen; discussing politics and spectacle with Guy Debord; and crossing paths with poet Ted Joans and outsider artist Lee Godie.” Artist and writer Ithell Colquhoun, at least nominally a Surrealist, is enjoying a posthumous renaissance that continues with a collection of her shorter written works entitled Medea’s Charms, and a biography by Amy Hale coming in the new year, Genius of the Fern Loved Gully. The Viktor Wynd Museum in London is currently hosting the first exhibition of Colquhoun’s work in the city for over 40 years, although with the Tate having acquired her extensive archives this year, it is unlikely to be 40 years until the next one.
Feral House have just reissued the memoirs of “Dirty” Helen Cromwell, who sounds like she was all kindsa fun. Good Time Party Girl (written with Robert Dougherty) is the “long-lost autobiography of a woman who lived life with no regrets from the 1880s to the 1960s” which takes us “into the colorful criminal underworld from New York to San Francisco and every whorehouse, tavern, and mining camp in between.” Elsewhere, Into the Night, edited by Florence Ostende with Lotte Johnson to accompany an exhibition currently showing at the Barbican in London, examines the night-spot as a laboratory for creation and progress. Venues like the Chat Noir in Paris provided a space for artists and writers to mix, hone their personae and bring new forms to life. The Chat Noir even issued its own magazine, which influenced a Gilded Age vogue for similar titles across the Atlantic as Brad Evans relates in Ephemeral Bibelots: How an International Fad Buried American Modernism.
The parameters of modern life were expanding, but this change wasn’t all issuing from candle-lit taverns and small-run journals. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman explores the lives of American women of colour, “the first generations born after emancipation.” “These were the pioneers of free love, common-law and transient marriages, queer identities, and single motherhood – all deemed scandalous, even pathological, at the dawn of the twentieth century, though they set the pattern for the world to come.” At the same time, W.E.B. Du Bois zoomed out to encompass the black American experience as a whole; you may well have already seen the extraordinarily modern graphics he created for this purpose at the beginning of the 20th century. These are now paired with contemporary photographs in Black Lives 1900.
City Lights Books are publishing the Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, 60 years after they issued one of his very first works, the absurd “Abomunist Manifesto”, in which Kaufman burlesqued the apocalyptic tone of political and cultural statements of intent. Death to the Fascist Insect, a collection of writings by the Symbionese Liberation Army, is considerably more earnest, and genuinely apocalyptic. The SLA became notorious for the kidnap and brainwashing of Patty Hearst, who parlayed the traumatic experience into an unlikely cult movie career, appearing in the last five movies by John Waters. His latest book, Mr. Know-It-All, is a wise and hilarious primer on pretty much everything and although some anecdotes may be familiar if you’re a long-time fan, I would rather listen to John Waters repeat himself than almost anyone else extemporising. Here he riffs on Hearst’s experience and fantasises about William Donohue, the viciously homophobic President of the Catholic League, being kidnapped and forced to watch Pasolini’s Salò on repeat (“A ransom would be pointless because who would want him back? I bet even the Pope thinks he’s an asshole”). Alongside Salò in the canon of extreme cinema that John Waters has championed is Derek Jarman’s Blue, which brings us to Dungeness Blues, a stunning edition by Zagava which includes poetry by Jarman himself and responses from Jeremy Reed, also included on a cassette.
In Germany it is always the anniversary of something. The Twenties are around the corner again and the flood of Bauhaus books suggests we will be recalling the innovations of Weimar Germany in real time + 100 years. Brendan Nash, who can tell you more about Isherwood’s Berlin than anyone, summons this period in his first novel, The Landlady. And we recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that dominates Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man, a deeply affecting love story disguised as a thriller. This is the perfect book to end on because it has my favourite ending of any book this year. And the fact of my knowing both these writers as fine, upstanding members of their community in no way influences my enthusiasm.
I’ll be back imminently with some translated selections. And please – support the people who truly care about books and who are making this wealth of reading possible by ordering directly from small presses and/or supporting your local independent bookshops. It really makes a difference.