20 books for 2020

So December was all about gorging, and January is all about going dry or whatever variety of performative asceticism is congesting your social feeds right now. But it seems strangely appropriate. After our intemperate two-part pre-Christmas Grande Bouffe bookish blow-out of works both translated and originally published in English, this selection feels a little lean. Is this just not a banner year for the corner of crazy in which we dwell? It certainly appears to me that there have been better years in this annual selection of forthcoming titles, and that’s OK. And it’s OK not to pretend otherwise. Anyway I’m not fishing and if this is your perfect book shopping list, that’s swell. So before too much more of the year in question elapses, here we go …

A fair number of these selections fall under the banner of queer history. In Before Trans, for example, Rachel Mesch examines three writers who came to prominence in late 19th century France, born female but identifying to various degrees as male – Jane Dieulafoy, Rachilde and Marc de Montifaud. All three were married and their careers were entwined with those of their husbands; all three adopted male clothing and two of them male names. The provocative title highlights the difficulty of imposing present-day understanding of gender and sexuality on historical figures. And I recognise the complexities and contradictions that can arise in so doing, even within myself; for ease of understanding I would describe Ludwig II as gay although he would never have applied the label to himself, but simultaneously I wouldn’t refer to an historical figure with pronouns that the individual didn’t use while alive. It’s complicated.

In 1933, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler issued the novel The Young and Evil, which was fearless both in its bracingly modernist style and its depiction of (what I would call) gay, urban life. The forthcoming The Young and Evil (edited by Jarrett Earnest) recycles this title for a survey of Ford, Tyler and other queer modernists of the period, including George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Margaret Hoening French and Ford’s lover Pavel Tchelitchew (who was the unlikely crush of Edith Sitwell, who cast the original Young and Evil to the flames egged on by crotchety closet Edward James; it’s … complicated).

In April – finally! – comes Diana Souhami’s No Modernism without Lesbians, inspired by Truman Capote’s oft-quoted summation of Romaine Brooks’s portraits as “the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes” and restoring their subjects and other associates – Natalie Barney, Bryher, Una Troubridge, Gluck, Ida Rubenstein – to their rightful position at the heart of modernist endeavour in Paris and other cultural hubs in the first half of the 20th century.

In the life of Maurice Sachs, a gay Jewish writer who converted to Catholicism, we encounter competing and often contradictory currents of between-the-wars France. From the unfailingly inspiring Spurl Editions comes Sachs’s Witches’ Sabbath (translated by Richard Howard), an autobiographical work originally published after the Second World War, at the close of which Sachs was shot on a forced march from a German concentration camp. “He recounts how, as a young man, he befriended Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel, both of whom he stole from, as he stole from many others in his life … Every period of Sachs’ life is marked by his dialogue with living and dead authors; Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Stendhal, all are featured. Thanks to his lifelong obsession with literature, Sachs developed a style all his own: peppered with keen, acerbic portraits of his contemporaries, sometimes picaresque, introspective and often full of irony.”

A similarly hybrid identity is captured in the title of Marc David Baer’s book German, Jew, Muslim, Gay. The subject is philosopher Hugo Marcus, born in Posen (now Poznań) in 1880. Marcus moved to Berlin in the early 20th century and joined the gay rights group of Magnus Hirschfeld, wrote in favour of pacifism during World War One, and found himself in the expansive circle of acolytes around German poet Stefan George, before converting to Islam in 1921 and adopting the name “Hamid”. He represented a strain of Muslim intellectualism and gave lectures in Berlin’s only mosque of the time, drawing the attention of writers Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1938, he was freed just before the war and fled into Swiss exile. He remained in Switzerland after the war and wrote for the influential gay magazine Der Kreis which also attracted writers such as Kurt Hiller and Sam Steward. So, yep, on balance you can see why someone might think there’s a book in the life of Hugo Marcus.

Der Kreis had the distinction of being the only gay magazine operating in Europe during World War Two, but it was started by exiles who had been associated with a clutch of popular titles in Weimar Germany that were targeted at newly confident sexual minorities. Much of this activity was overseen by Friedrich Radszuweit, who not only published newsstand periodicals for gay men, but also the world’s first magazines for lesbians and transvestites, respectively, and established the Federation for Human Rights in 1923 – eventually a huge gay advocacy group. Radszuweit’s successful business model was built on a growing sense of community and polite activism, magazines offering both informative articles and thirst traps, and the consoling message to wider society that why, us inverts are just like you regular folk. All of this is covered in Javier Samper Vendrell’s The Seduction of Youth, a canny title that could refer to the images of decorative young people found in Radszuweit’s magazines or – for their conservative opponents – the young readers who might be lured off the righteous path of monogamous, matrimonial heterosexuality. But while his blend of progressive identity politics and sexy commercialism makes Friedrich Radszuweit seem like a 2020 kind of guy, there was a considerable dark side; in the early 1930s he sought accommodation with the rapidly rising Nazis and was quite happy to throw the Jewish Magnus Hirschfeld under the bus, although Radszuweit died in 1932, before Hitler came to power. For more, take your ears over here to the highly recommended Bad Gays podcast.

From the same fractious period comes Lance Olsen’s novel My Red Heaven. “Set on a single day in 1927, My Red Heaven imagines a host of characters—some historic, some invented—crossing paths on the streets of Berlin. The subjects include Robert Musil, Otto Dix, Werner Heisenberg, Anita Berber, Vladimir Nabokov, Käthe Kollwitz, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Rosa Luxemburg—as well as others history has forgotten: a sommelier, a murderer, a prostitute, a pickpocket, and several ghosts.” Presumably Rosa Luxemburg, murdered in 1919, is among the ghosts.


The forthcoming exhibition Fantastic Women at the Schirn in Frankfurt – and accompanying catalogue (ed. Ingrid Pfeiffer) – feature an outstanding selection of female artists associated at least partly with Surrealism who looked at the roles that Breton’s movement offered women (which included the silent, eroticised muse and … well that’s about it) and said “nuh-uh”. Muses to no one but themselves, they include (deep breath) Louise Bourgeois, Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Maya Deren, Frida Kahlo, Sheila Legge, Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim, Valentine Penrose, Dorothea Tanning, Toyen, Remedios Varo, Unica Zürn, Ithell Colquhoun and Leonor Fini. That’s really some kinduva line-up.

The last two of those names are also represented elsewhere this year; Amy Hale’s Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of The Fern Loved Gully is hotly anticipated (by me, anyway, and other persons of taste no doubt), being the first major biographical study of the artist. “After decades of neglect, Colquhoun’s unique vision and hermetic life have become an object of great renewed interest, both for artists and for historians of magic. Although her paintings are represented in such major collections as Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery, Colquhoun’s rejection of both avant-garde and occult orthodoxies resulted in a life of relative obscurity. Her visual and written works have only recently received adequate recognition as a precursor to contemporary experiments in magical autobiography and esoteric feminism.”

We just saw some footage of the magnificent Leonor Fini, but we are not fini with Fini! Like Ithell Colquhoun, Leonor Fini incorporated mysticism and eroticism into work that encompassed both text and images. This year brings major examples of both from the Argentine-born Franco-Italian artist. From Wakefield comes a translation (by William Kulik and Serena Shanken Skwersky) of Rogomelec, one of three works of fiction Leonor Fini originally issued in French in the 1970s. This novella’s ambiguous narrator sets off for the isolated locale of Rogomelec—where a crumbling monastery serves as a sanatorium and offers a cure involving a diet of plants and flowers—and moves through a waking dream involving strangely scented monks, vibratory concerts in a cavernous ossuary and ritualist pomp with costumes of octopi and shining beetles.” As far as I can make out this is the first English translation of Fini’s fiction. Also out this year is a catalogue raisonné (edited by Richard Overstreet and Neil Zukerman) of Leonor Fini’s oil paintings – two volumes and over a thousand colour plates.

One of my favourite facts about La Fini is that her erotic illustrations for the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette were printed in secret on a Vatican printing press in 1944. She is included in Alyce Mahon’s forthcoming The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde, “The writings of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) present a libertine philosophy of sexual excess and human suffering that refuses to make any concession to law, religion, or public decency. In this groundbreaking cultural history, Alyce Mahon traces how artists of the twentieth century turned to Sade to explore political, sexual, and psychological terror, adapting his imagery of the excessively sexual and terrorized body as a means of liberation from systems of power.” As we discover, the impact of the transgressive pre-revolutionary writer on the intellectual and cultural life of the 20th century ranged from Susan Sontag to Pier Paolo Pasolini, from Man Ray to Angela Carter.

Like the Bastille’s most famous inhabitant, Richard Wagner exerted an enormous influence well beyond the confines of his chosen discipline. While some of us believe the pinnacle of Wagnerian scholarship to be the micro-genre of “Amazon customer reviews for Penetrating Wagner’s ‘Ring’” – I am puerile and I own it – this year Alex Ross (author of the utterly essential The Rest Is Noise) offers us Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. “For better or worse, Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. Around 1900, the phenomenon known as Wagnerism saturated European and American culture. Such colossal creations as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal were models of formal daring, mythmaking, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation. A mighty procession of writers, artists, and thinkers, including Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf, Isadora Duncan, Vasily Kandinsky, and Luis Buñuel, felt his impact. Anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. Then Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and the composer came to be defined by his ferocious anti-Semitism. His name is now almost synonymous with artistic evil.”

It was in Sicily that Wagner brought his operatic oeuvre to a close, finishing the last notes of Parsifal in Palermo’s Grand Hôtel et des Palmes. The hotel is still going (although currently closed for renovations) and in Ghosts of the Belle Époque by Andrew Edwards and Suzanne Edwards we have one of my favourite kinds of cultural history, one that can find strata of drama, secrets and significance in a highly confined setting. Later guests included Aleister Crowley, the cast of Visconti’s The Leopard, a bunch of Mafiosi and Raymond Roussel, who never checked out.

Francesca Wade offers a slightly broader canvas in Square Haunting, detailing lives that coincided on London’s Mecklenburgh Square, on the edge of Bloomsbury. “In the pivotal era between the two world wars, the lives of five remarkable women intertwined at this one address: modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In an era when women’s freedoms were fast expanding, they each sought a space where they could live, love, and—above all—work independently.”

Our minds are ­­– still – on Austria (if you’re just joining us, last year we visited Alfred Kubin in Zwickledt before advancing to Empress Sissi on the edge of Vienna, then the capital itself in two parts). The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body by Alys X. George skews scholarly as it “explores the modernist focus on the flesh by turning our attention to the second Vienna medical school, which revolutionized the field of anatomy in the 1800s. As she traces the results of this materialist influence across a broad range of cultural forms—exhibitions, literature, portraiture, dance, film, and more—George brings into dialogue a diverse group of historical protagonists, from canonical figures such as Egon Schiele, Arthur Schnitzler, Joseph Roth, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to long-overlooked ones, including author and doctor Marie Pappenheim, journalist Else Feldmann, and dancers Grete Wiesenthal, Gertrud Bodenwieser, and Hilde Holger.”

Joseph Roth, the great elegist of Austria-Hungary, is also represented in a collection of shorter fictional works, The Coral Merchant (translated by Ruth Martin). The “pre-cataclysmic” style remarked upon by admirer Barry Humphries is much in evidence; perhaps nowhere does Roth’s nostalgia find greater expression than the character of Count Franz Xaver Morstin with his pan-European recollections and mournful regret for the great unity of diversity in Franz Joseph’s unwieldy empire.

Vienna-born Hermynia Zur Mühlen offered between-the-wars parables which, in contrast with so many German-language fairy tales whose messages are “avoid forests” and “don’t be a child”, are updated to reflect the concerns of the politicised proletariat. Imagine the seven dwarves in collective bargaining talks and you’re halfway there. “For example, in ‘The Glasses,’ readers are encouraged to rip off the glasses that deceive them, while in ‘The Carriage Horse,’ horses organize a union to resist their working and living conditions. In ‘The Broom,’ a young worker learns how to sweep away injustice.” A selection is collected in The Castle of Truth and Other Revolutionary Tales, translated by Jack Zipes.

Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist (ed. Richard Canning, Gerri Kimber) is a scholarly work on the great prose stylist, principled campaigner and Ronald Firbank‘s greatest champion. “This book explores all aspects of Brophy’s literary career, alongside contributions on animal rights, vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionism, humanism, feminism and sexual politics, not only celebrating Brophy’s eclectic achievements but fully reflecting them. Contributors include literary critics, animal rights activists, Brophy’s daughter, Kate Levey, and Brophy herself.”

Our final selection speaks to my interest in anomalies of place, the outcome of a childhood spent poring over atlases and memorising national capitals. Exclaves, eccentric borderlines, tiny countries – I loved them all, but as an adult I came to appreciate the intriguing geopolitical grey market in self-declared sovereign states. Dylan Taylor-Lehman’s Sealand celebrates one of the most famous, a tiny platform in international waters claimed in the 1960s by the Bates family, who still issue titles – lord, baron, count, duke, sir and their female equivalents. And even though the international community don’t recognise Sealand, you’ll at least have something interesting to pick from the “title” drop-down on online forms.



  1. Wow, so much to look forward to!

  2. crackerneck1

    Very excited about this list! Thank you!

  3. Amazing collection of interesting reading, with a good mix of fact and fiction!

  4. Pingback: Distraction | Strange Flowers

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