We now turn to a highly subjective selection from the phenomenal wealth of books translated into English that appeared throughout 2019, encompassing a narrower thematic range than our original English language list. This is worth emphasising, as I would hate you to think that this is in any way representative of anything but my own odd areas of interest. For one it’s an almost entirely European selection, and heavy on the French, whereas a lot of the most interesting work in literary translation of late has been in works from non-European languages. Look around and you will find far more wide-ranging year-end lists of books in translation.
Uniting many of the selections here is the idea of the alternative canon, or anti-tradition – concepts particularly applicable to many lesser-known works of French literature from the late 19th and much of the 20th century. Often they were too perverse, too singular to feature, say, in any official account of literary Modernism, or make their way onto curricula. Disruptive in form and language, transgressive in theme and intent, they could be caustic, macabre, ecstatic, obscene, oblique, unfathomable. To an overwhelming degree it is passionate small presses that have sustained interest in this disparate body of work, rediscovering, re-contextualising and often bringing them into English for the first time. It was certainly their example that inspired me to start Rixdorf Editions.
This anti-tradition is nothing if not fertile, with secret inheritances from one writer to another, as well as considerable overlap with sympathetic creative professionals in visual arts, performance and cinema. Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman with Marlene Dietrich and That Obscure Object of Desire, the last of Luis Buñuel’s films, took their narrative from The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs, originally published at the end of the 19th century and now available in a new translation by Jeremy Moore through Dedalus. “The novel opens during the boisterous Seville Carnival of 1896, which Andre Stevenol, an amorously-inclined young Frenchman, succeeds in attracting the attention of the alluring young Concha Perez. A rendezvous is arranged, but before it can take place Andre meets Don Mateo, who, in a long monologue recounts his affair with Concha and seeks to dissuade the younger man from becoming embroiled with the ‘worst of women’…”
These fin-de-siècle tropes of erotic obsession, duplicitous womanhood and hapless masculinity are paraphrased by the cover image, by Félicien Rops. One of the Belgian artist’s most famous works – Pornokrates – adorns the cover of the first English translation of Mephistophela by Catulle Mendès, a key Decadent work originally published in 1889. Now, there are few combinations of words more likely to excite my interest than “thinly veiled fiction of the Belle Époque”, and this is just one of three examples of the form that Snuggly have presented this year, all translated by Brian Stableford.
Mendès poured into Mephistophela his entire era’s anxiety about women pursuing romantic and sexual fulfilment sans blokes, and the train of disgrace this would – inevitably! – trigger. Here this results in what a British tabloid might paraphrase as My Kinky Satan Lesbo Sex Drug Hell. But it is not the moralising of the novel, but the sheer bonkers intensity of the dissipation depicted therein that seems so modern. Or consider the point where our heroine Sophie thinks back to her First Communion, refashioning it in her mind as a same-sex wedding well over a century before this was actually an option. But Sophie is lost to heterosexuality by the trauma of her actual wedding night and once she embraces same-sex love she cannot! get! enough! She soon adopts the more masculine name Sophor and embarks on a chem-sex odyssey. “If a woman does not keep within the bounds of normality, she is condemned to the extremes,” claimed Mendès, “for her, there is no relief, not even for a moment, if she rejects everyday life and heads for the outer limits.” This kind of pathologising was typical of the author whose stand-in here is – what else? – a doctor.
But who is Sophie? Ah, that would be Sophie-Mathilde-Adèle-Denise de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, better known as Mathilde de Morny, or “Missy” – butch fatale of the Belle Époque. Mendès was obsessed with the mannish marquise, and submitted her “case” to a psychologist for phoney-baloney “analysis”. Never mind that the real Morny was a clean-living individual with a healthy teint; apparently this was just “her system’s last instinctive defence before physical and moral collapse”. Well, of course. The key takeaway, the last slide in the “So, you want to be a female character in a fin-de-siècle novel?” PowerPoint presentation is: YOU CAN’T FUCKING WIN.
Mendès was not alone in his Morny mania; Rachilde and the marquise’s most famous lover Colette also drew literary inspiration from Missy, so too Jean Lorrain. His articles of the early 1890s were studded with “blind items” about Missy (although calling her “Mizy” and referring to the Mendès book kinda cut out the guesswork). Morny wanted to take him on in a duel – she had priors on that count – but was dissuaded by a friend who shared what appears to be the first recorded variation on the advice that “it doesn’t matter what people say, as long as they’re talking about you.” And that friend? Only Sarah goddam Bernhardt. But Missy decided to sue Lorrain instead. And won.
Lorrain and his poison plume were rarely out of trouble; in 1903 a story entitled “Victim” landed him in court again; the painter Jeanne Jacquemin – a patient of Dr Pozzi whom you may remember from our other book list – surmised that it was about her and drew Lorrain into a protracted legal battle; he lost and had to knock out the book La Maison Philibert to pay the legal fees. Here “Victim” joins “gossipy character sketches, of actresses and mystics, gigolos and dowagers, of an entire rogues gallery of fin-de-siècle types” in Fards and Poisons, originally published in 1903; three years later Lorrain was dead – on Dr Pozzi’s operating table.
The third romp à clef is a new translation of A Woman Appeared to Me by Renée Vivien, in which the author turns the tables on Mendès and his ilk by claiming in fact that heterosexual sex is a “crime against nature” and “abominable”. Vivien (born Pauline Tarn) appears as San Giovanni, her lover “Vally” is none other than Natalie Clifford Barney, who rivalled Missy as the most clef’d figure of the Belle Époque (srsly). Both women cultivated a cultish allure, and A Woman Appeared to Me is filled with religious allusions; when Vivien died at just 32 Barney claimed she was a “priestess of death, and death was her last masterpiece”.
Before we move on, I am also grateful to Snuggly for the introduction to Jane de La Vaudère (actually Jeanne Scrive), one of the few French female Decadent writers of note, of whom Rachilde is the most prominent example. While some of La Vaudère’s works are squarely located within familiar Decadent territory of drugs, androgyny and the occult, in this selection she branches out into the exotic, erotic East in a dual edition of Three Flowers and the King of Siam’s Amazon, also translated by Brian Stableford.
We find more Francophone exotica with the extraordinary polymath Victor Segalen, who died 100 years ago. This Chinese-speaking naval doctor idolised Huysmans and wrote a paper on “neurosis in contemporary literature” while studying medicine, and would later pen a libretto for Debussy. Joining the navy as a doctor allowed him to pursue traces of the Frenchmen who had ventured out into the wider world before him; in the South Pacific he arrived on Tahiti three months too late to see his idol Paul Gauguin alive; in Djibouti he found living witnesses to the later life of Arthur Rimbaud, who died over a decade earlier. The imminent publication In a Sound World by Victor Segalen combines the novel of that name, “a work of fantasy concerning an inventor lost in his own immersive harmonic space”, along with the libretto for Debussy’s Orpheus Rex and an essay on synesthetics and Symbolism (the collection is edited by Marie Roux and Rod Hunt; it is unclear if either or both also translated).
Arguably the most emblematic figure in this anti-tradition is Alfred Jarry, partly because he transcended the modish, perfumed perversities of the Belle Époque to create work that was crude, provocative, incendiary in a way that found recurrent favour with the radical creators of the 20th century. The Pope’s Mustard-Maker (translated by Doug Skinner) is the last work Alfred Jarry finished before his death in 1907, a “bawdy three-act farce loosely based on the medieval legend of Pope Joan, with a huge cast and lively songs bubbling with rhymes and wordplay”. The cast includes “cardinals, tourists, salvationists, muleteers, bull carriers, porters, gondoliers, pontifical Zouaves, Scots Guards, Swiss Guards, little mustard-makers of the Sistine Chapel, the faithful, ballets of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, shameful apothecaries …”
Meanwhile, the purest exponent of the anti-tradition was Raymond Roussel, who exerted an enormous influence on avant-garde practice long after his death in 1933. So the rediscovery of a lost Roussel novel is a big ol’ deal. L’allée aux Lucioles, which would have been the author’s third novel, was part of a trove of Roussel papers found in a furniture warehouse in 1989. I’m not sure why it has taken 30 years for this to make it to English, but here we are: The Alley of Fireflies and Other Stories, translated by Mark Ford. Abandoned shortly before the start of World War One, the novel finds the author reflecting on European civilisation reaching back to the Enlightenment, but in a typically elliptical Rousselian way. In his biography Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams, Ford describes the book thus:
Lavoisier … has developed a kind of non-melting ice that proves perfect for keeping wine cool in hot weather without the risk of diluting it. Since Voltaire is among the guests staying with Frederick, by way of compliment Lavoisier models this ice into little figurines that allude to a new chapter of Candide in which the adolescent Pangloss, then a chorister, is seduced by a ravishing Marquise. She prosecutes the affair under the watchful eyes of her jealous husband by dressing the fresh-faced philosopher in women’s clothes and claiming he is Amanda, the daughter of a poor relation…
And then things get weird.
There have been recent welcome stirrings from two presses who have done more than just about anyone to honour this alternative canon/anti-tradition, particularly of late 19th/early 20th century French works – Exact Change and Atlas. Both have, for example, published editions of Jarry and Roussel in the past.
Exact Change emerge after a long absence with Mount Analogue by René Daumal, translated by Roger Shattuck. “A touchstone of Surrealism, Pataphysics, and Gurdjieffian mysticism, Mount Analogue tells the story of an expedition to a mountain whose existence can only be deduced, not observed. Left unfinished (mid-sentence) at the author’s early death from tuberculosis in 1944 and first published posthumously in French in 1952, the book has inspired seekers of art and wisdom ever since – Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain is a loose adaptation”.
Meanwhile Atlas Press return with To Those Gods Beyond (translated by John Walker) by Giorgio Manganelli, part of the post-war Italian avant-garde along with Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. “In Manganelli’s innumerable universes, beyond the gods we know or suspect we know is an endless array of other gods. Everything that is seemingly finite or known in our world becomes infinite and unknown. We die, we find ourselves among the other dead, and we die again, only to find ourselves somewhere even more unknown and with death still awaiting. We are both monarch and victim in a gothic simulation illuminated by sombre flashes of sardonic rhetoric that reveal only an astounding desolate wreck.” Yikes.
Anti-tradition in its drier, more cerebral mode is represented by The Penguin Book of Oulipo, edited by Philip Terry (who perhaps also partly translated it? Apologies, I’m not getting a very strong signal on that). Even among adherents of experimental literature, the post-war works issued under the banner of Oulipo aren’t for everyone. The movement’s stylistic work-outs and self-imposed restraints (e.g. Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, or Georges Perec’s La disparition, famously written without the letter “e”) can seem like smug, bloodless parlour games. This edition combines the (largely French) works of Oulipo itself with earlier texts that work with similar restrictions.
This selection has already been far more Francophone than I had anticipated, so before we expand our linguistic horizons I will just mention Exposition by Nathalie Léger, which has just been issued by Les Fugitives in Amanda DeMarco’s translation. My interest was particularly piqued by its depiction of 19th century Italian-born courtesan Countess de Castiglione, who inspired the fantasies of aesthetes like Robert de Montesquiou, the Marchesa Casati and Ganna Walska, and has strayed into performance, film and contemporary art but has rarely been captured in fiction. Unless I am missing something there is nothing between a disguised appearance in Émile Zola’s His Excellency Eugène Rougon in 1876 and Léger’s novel, originally published in 2008 (Alexander Chee later enrolled the countess into a huge cast of Second Empire figures in The Queen of the Night, 2016). Castiglione’s notoriety begins with machinations at the Savoy court before moving on to France, where she became mistress to Napoleon III and intrigued for the cause of Italian unification; interesting enough in itself but of course it is the extraordinary photographs that the countess confected with Pierre-Louis Pierson up to and during her morbid, reclusive, half-mad decline that ensure her immortality. “Mysterious yet over-exposed, adored and despised in equal measure, Castiglione was a flamboyant aristocrat, the mistress of Napoleon III and a rumoured spy. Examining the myths around icons past and present, Léger meditates on the half-truths of portrait photography, reframing her own family history in the process.”
Death Mort Tod – A European Book of the Dead by Steve Finbow and Karolina Urbaniak is an odd and profoundly unsettling scrapbook of mortal reflections from throughout the continent, a kind of Eurovision replacing power ballads with free-form ruminations on death (read more about it here). With bureaucratic doggedness it covers every country in Europe, so here’s Liechtenstein with an enigmatic collage of decline and demise, there’s San Marino with cut-up reports of the deaths of race car drivers. The United Kingdom is represented by selections from the Moors Murders tapes, a transcript of evil so extreme as to be utterly unendurable.
The book’s entry for Poland is a dense Mitteleuropa network of references that begins with Ludwig Wittgenstein setting out, and failing, to save the moody, maudit poet Georg Trakl when he was stationed in Poland during the First World War. Issued in Poland before the war, A Death: Notes of a Suicide by Zalman Shneour (translated by Daniel Kennedy) operates in a similar atmosphere. Originally written in Yiddish, this “dark, expressionist love affair develops in a large, unnamed Eastern European city between the young, impoverished, and violently self-loathing teacher, Shloyme—and a hungry, spiteful, and unsettlingly sensual revolver…” It appears to express a particularly Eastern European Jewish mode of Nietzschean nihilism I recognise in another writer I have only recently come into contact with, Jacob Elias Poritzky.
From the same period and also from Wakefield – themselves great champions of the alternative canon – comes Samalio Pardulus by Otto Julius Bierbaum (translated by W. C. Bamberger). “Buried in an isolated castle on the outskirts of a city in the Albanian mountains, the wildly ugly painter of blasphemies, Samalio Pardulus, executes works too monstrous to bear viewing, and espouses a philosophy that posits a grotesque world that reflects the ravings of a dead, grotesque god. […] Samalio Pardulus describes the simultaneous descent and ascent of the titular anti-hero into a passionate perversion of Catholicism in which love and madness become one, as a dark, incestuous incubus settles into a doomed family.” So that sounds fun. And who do you get to illustrate such a “grotesque world”? Duh, it could only be Alfred Kubin.
Continuing our Austrian theme, we discover a missing link in Robert Musil’s early output, a publication that followed his first novel The Confusions of Young Törless in which he processed his traumatic boarding school experience. Originally published in 1911, Vereinigungen is a double edition of stories that deals extensively with Musil’s own double, his future wife Martha Marcovaldi. Perhaps appropriately this is available in double translations (this, as I have found, is the hazard with public domain works – if they are free for you to translate, they are free for anyone else to translate; it’s a double-edged sword). Genese Grill has translated the two stories as “The Completion of Love” and “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica” and the collection as Unions; Peter Wortsman offers us Intimate Ties comprising “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica”.
From the same incredibly fertile pre-World War One period, I make no apology for including my translation of Else Lasker-Schüler’s The Nights of Tino of Baghdad in this company. And I’m not even charging for it. Available free as a PDF with the Rixdorf Editions newsletter, according to some fragrant genius this is “an episodic fantasia, a heady journey through landscapes that author Else Lasker-Schüler had only explored in her mind.” I translated this short, intoxicating work of fiction in part as response to the long, sobering work of non-fiction which was my other Rixdorf contribution for this year, Antisemitism by Hermann Bahr. Originally published in 1894, it is a collection of interviews with Bahr’s contemporaries – everyone from Annie Besant to August Bebel – on the scourge of anti-Jewish hatred then taking on specifically racial and political form to replace the older, almost folk religious prejudice. Sadly, much of it reads like it could have been written last week.
In 1909 both Bierbaum and Bahr were included in Der Roman der XII, an “exquisite corpse” exercise in which a dozen authors successively contributed chapters to a novel, the gimmick being that the names weren’t attached to the chapters, and readers were encouraged to enter a competition to guess who wrote what. One of the other authors was Hanns Heinz Ewers, whose early life is an irresistible combination of drugs, polysexual escapades, travel to exotic locales and themes of horror and compulsion (and he is also credited as the first auteur film director). But he was almost 40 before he produced his first novel, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which also appeared in 1909. This and Vampire were the book ends of a trilogy that included the phenomenally successful Alraune. Here Side Real Press complete the trio with Ludwig Lewisohn’s translation which was issued in censored form in 1927, with the excised parts restored by Joe E. Bandel. This is a handsome edition compiled with evident passion, and includes source material as well as a stage play drawn from the same material. Like many of Ewers’s works, the first edition of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice came with a cover illustration by his brilliant artist wife, Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald. Her intensely intricate Jugendstil works were the subject of an exhibition in Berlin earlier this year; the original catalogue with text by Sven Brömsel is published in my translation by Zagava in a beautiful edition, The Art of Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald. Yes I am mentioning another project I worked on. I’m drunk on power! Somebody stop me!
Hanns Heinz Ewers’s later accommodation with the Nazis is a morality tale too complex to fully explore here, but the next three authors are also instructive of the ways in which Weimar vitality was abruptly stilled. Kurt Tucholsky was an implacable enemy of fascism and had already moved to Sweden in 1929, which inspired his best-loved work, Castle Gripsholm, here in a reissued translation. While it is great to see Tucholsky’s works available in English, and even better to have them translated by Michael Hofmann, what particularly commends this to our hearts is its satirical portrayal of Elisàr von Kupffer, the gay mystic who founded a two-man homoerotic order with partner Eduard von Mayer, building a temple thereto in Minusio, Switzerland – “Elisarion” – adorned with Kupffer’s paintings of naked, androgynous figures in idyllic settings. Here Kupffer becomes Polysander von Kuckers zu Tiesenhausen and Elisarion “Polysadrion”, transported to Copenhagen.
Tucholsky was a frenemy of Irmgard Keun, initially a champion, later a critic, accusing her of plagiarism for her most popular work, The Artificial Silk Girl, now reissued in Kathie von Ankum’s translation (although not credited; Jesus, c’mon Penguin). Like Gilgi, One of Us, also reissued this year (translated by Geoff Wilkes), it explores the elusive highs and habitual lows of liberated Weimar womanhood. Both were popular on first publication, but were unsurprisingly banned by the Nazis; Keun eventually went into exile, although she returned to Germany in mysterious circumstances after faking her suicide in 1940, and lived in generally perilous conditions until 1982.
Friedo Lampe never left. Born in 1899, he was a little older than Keun but tragically his literary star was ascending just as the lights went out. Rediscovered and translated by Simon Beattie, his 1933 debut At the Edge of the Night is a stunningly evocative nocturne, an ambitiously digressive, vividly cinematic journey through a summer’s night in Bremen whose frank depictions of sexual difference are just part of its expansive embrace of life as it is actually lived. While it didn’t have the mass appeal of Keun, Lampe’s book didn’t have a chance to find the acclaim it deserved; conceived at the end of the Weimar Republic, the fact that it was published after the Nazis took power is remarkable enough in itself, its prohibition shortly thereafter hardly surprising. Lampe was gay, and like Ewers he stayed in Germany despite the evident danger. And like Ewers he didn’t make it out of the Third Reich alive; tragically Lampe was shot at the very end of the war in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
As always I am grateful to Twisted Spoon whose fine editions open up a whole half-continent of literature. Their translations of Eastern European works encompass both newly discovered titles reaching back to around the beginning of the 20th century, and contemporary works; they were one of the first English-language presses to issue the work of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, for example. Their output this year includes a new edition of the inter-war The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch (“Having become the ‘lowliest worm’ at the hands of his estranged wife, Helga, the Queen of Hells, Sternenhoch eventually attains an ultimate state of bliss and salvation through the most grotesque perversions”) by Ladislav Klíma, translated by Carleton Bulking and A User’s Manual by Jiří Kolář (translated by Ryan Scott) which combines collages with text that parodies the imperatives of communist rule.
Our last selection is not strictly speaking a work of translation but it is a vital linguistic study all the same. Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! concerns the rich heritage of the gay dialect Polari, which was subversively beamed into homes across Britain on the late 1960s radio show Around the Horne. I bow to no man in my love for Kenneth Williams and I can think of few more thrilling introductions than the words “Hello I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy” with which Hugh Paddick would preface whatever enterprise he and Williams were embarked upon that week, from Bona Publishers to the Bona Gift Boutique (“Jule’ll follow you around and make suggestions, won’t you Jule?”). Much of their dialogue was encoded in Polari, allowing them to get away with things you are still unlikely to hear at prime time in unencrypted form. Baker also published the lexicon Fantabulosa! for anyone who doesn’t know their aris from their elbow.