If you’ve been reading for a while now, you’ll know what to expect – each year around this time I select a bunch of books with a Strange Flowers flavour which you might like to share with intimates who share your skewed sensibilities, to enlighten/scare off those who don’t, or of course to treat yourself. And you’ve survived your ride on this sorry-go-round of a year, so knock yourself out.
I am full of admiration for anyone who published a book in 2020; it’s more than I managed. But this year, the question of how to buy seems as pressing as what to buy and now more than ever I would implore you to support local bookstores and independent publishers; the link for each title will take you to the publisher’s page. And because convenience and principle needn’t be mutually exclusive, you’ll also find links (where available) to buy the book at the UK and/or US versions of Bookshop.org, “an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores”. Bookshop is still in beta and comes with an unfussy layout – perhaps a little too unfussy; an option to sort or filter by date, name and other criteria would be welcome. But why don’t we, collectively, aid them in improving the site and help keep passionate booksellers in business rather than showering venture capitalists and tax avoiders with our cash so they can further over-engineer our lives?
OK, enough with the PSA and on with the books. Christmas is fast approaching so I’m going to try and keep this brief – let’s see how that works out, eh?
The intersection of the occult and graphic arts is a recurring theme this year, with a particular focus on divination – perhaps it’s just an understandable collective desire to see what will emerge from this busted crank hole of a year? Zoom out with The Art of the Occult or the major survey of Not without My Ghosts – although it looks like the catalogue for that exhibition may have been held over until next year – and lay your cards on the coffee table with a large-format graphic survey of the Tarot from Taschen (who are also issuing a new edition of Salvador Dalí’s tarot set). The Leonora Carrington revival continues with The Tarot of Leonora Carrington by Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq in a range of typically handsome editions by Fulgur. Last year the same publisher issued a survey of Ithell Colquhoun’s abstract tarot designs; the artist’s entire career of images and text is covered in the highly recommended Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of the Fern-Loved Gully by Amy Hale (and I’m honoured that it includes one of my images of Lamorna, where the artist and writer spent much of her life). In the catalogue Pamela Colman Smith: Life and Work we discover more about the most celebrated tarot artist of all, a Jamaican-born bisexual bohemian who died penniless even though her works have been reproduced in the millions.
Colman Smith appeared in Arthur Ransome’s 1907 Bohemia in London as “Gypsy”, inhabitant of a milieu that James Gatheral examines in The Bohemian Republic: Transnational Literary Networks in the Nineteenth Century (UK) as he moves from the Parisian origins of bohemianism under the July Monarchy to highlight comparable communities that emerged in the Anglophone world, a theme that Sherry L. Smith takes up in Bohemians West: Free Love, Family, and Radicals in Twentieth Century America (US). Their spiritual descendants offer seasonal day drinking inspiration in Darren Coffield’s Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia (UK), celebrating the London bar notorious for hostess Muriel Belcher’s salty welcome and the Homeric quantities of alcohol consumed by its artist and writer patrons; Barry Humphries recalls his pre-teetotal days in the foreword. As an archetype the bohemian combined the vagabond’s disdain for the bourgeoisie with the hauteur of the dandy, figures captured – respectively – in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from The Golden Age of Vagabondage by Ian Cutler (UK/US) and Dandyism: Forming Fiction from Modernism to the Present (UK/US), in which Len Gutkin pursues some immaculate coat-tails through literary history.
The dandyish Gabriele d’Annunzio represents a particularly dark glamour. In The Fiume Crisis (UK/US). Dominique Kirchner Reill details the episode that began when d’Annunzio, writer and war hero, led a group of loyalists to capture a city with a majority Italian-ethnic population in the newly created Yugoslavia after the end of the First World War. The short-lived state which resulted was a paradoxical endeavour; the glorification of power, violence and ethno-nationalism – not to mention d’Annunzio’s title of “Duce” – clearly inspired Mussolini. But there was a carnival-esque atmosphere to Fiume, where fur-lined caves hosted coke-fuelled orgies; note, too, the Fiume constitution, which was surprisingly progressive. This and other former sovereign states and geopolitical anomalies are included in Gideon Defoe’s An Atlas of Extinct Countries (UK/US), the kind of larky, middle-brow survey of historical and geographical quirks to which I am all too susceptible. In Saffron Jack (UK), meanwhile, Rishi Dastidar offers a narrative poem which brilliantly burlesques the conventions of treaties and foundational documents to explore nationhood, identity and belonging. Nicholas Daly’s Ruritania (UK/US) offers nations of no map in a notional Baedeker of fictional realms from the original Ruritanian adventure, The Prisoner of Zenda, to The Princess Diaries. The “Princess” of The Princess and the Prophet (US) was Eva Brister, Noble Drew Ali the Prophet and in them and other Black variety performers of the 1920s Jacob S. Dorman locates the origins of the Nation of Islam, a search for a conception of belief and society that transcended the segregation of Jim Crow America. It was a story continued in Claude McKay’s Harlem: Negro Metropolis, but in the major recent rediscovery Romance in Marseille (UK/US) the Jamaican author reaches even further with a Transatlantic tale of race, class, sexuality and disability.
A booted and suited Flowers favourite returns in Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Aufbruch ohne Ziel, a major survey of Schwarzenbach’s outstanding photographic work; the text is in German but if you can wait until next year, Seagull are reissuing her All the Roads are Open and Death in Persia in translation (and here let me add my annual note of bafflement and regret that no one has published an English-language bio of Schwarzenbach). I don’t know for sure if the Swiss writer and photographer encountered the striking figure of sculptor Renée Sintenis in the lengthening shadows of late Weimar Berlin, but it’s highly likely. Renée Sintenis: Between Freedom and Modernism (US), includes what I believe to be the first English text on the artist. Another particularly welcome English survey is Karla Huebner’s Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic (UK/US). As I mentioned a few years back on encountering her work in Prague, Toyen’s erotica is among the most vivid and fearless that Surrealism had to offer. And completing our quintet of androgynous between-the-war image-makers are Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, although Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets (UK/US) takes us through the (second) war itself, with a non-fiction account of the step-sisters/lovers and their extraordinarily brave campaign of subversion against the Nazis, as movingly fictionalised by Rupert Thomson in Never Anyone But You.
Who are you Alexander Smith Cochran, and why are you here? Walter Goffart’s The Industrialist and the Diva (UK/US) introduces the “millionaire carpet manufacturer, noted philanthropist, and avid yachtsman” who started an Elizabethan club at Yale. It sounds … well, thou do thou Alex, but not gonna lie you don’t really sound us. But who is the “diva” of the title? Ah, that would be your wife, the sublime Ganna Walska, who (partly) inspired the figure of Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane by pursuing an opera career in which she offered little by way of musical accomplishment but big-ticket glamour without end, with her turn as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni costumed by none other than Erté. The stone cold roué returns in Brigid Brophy’s reissued novel The Snow Ball (UK). Detailing the author’s core obsessions of “Mozart, sex and death”, it’s the perfect New Year’s Eve reading if you’re not going out (chances are you aren’t, and shouldn’t). And it includes a “two-page orgasm”, so there’s that. Staying in costume, we recall one of Cecil Beaton’s most celebrated and mocked images which showed Stephen Tennant, the photographer himself and other Bright Young Things dressed for a fête galante, included in the catalogue for Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things (UK/US), an exhibition of the photographer’s face work from London’s National Portrait Gallery; the accompanying Cecil Beaton’s Cocktail Book (UK/US) offers further day-drinking inspiration. Meanwhile Catherine Hewitt’s Art is a Tyrant (UK/US) tells the story of Rosa Bonheur, an eccentric French artist who enjoyed considerable fame in the 19th century, while dressed as a bonhomme of the previous century and living openly with her female partner and a menagerie of animals. British-born French writer Renée Vivien greeted the Belle Epoque dressed as though she had just emerged from a Versailles wormhole. Her short fiction is included in The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories (UK) (translated by Karla Jay & Yvonne M. Klein), her life threaded into the fabric of The Passion according to Renée Vivien by Catalan writer Maria-Mercè Marçal (translated by Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery).
If A Night at the Amazon’s sparked your fascination for Vivien and the rest of the circle around Natalie Clifford Barney, we have another short fiction set by another of La Barney’s lovers in The Last Siren and Other Stories by Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (translated by Brian Stableford). Publisher Snuggly also offer a new version of Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon (translated by Brian Stableford) with extra short stories, also available in a splendid deluxe edition by Side Real Press with illustrations by Drian (longer term readers will know of my love for a previous translation of Lorrain’s novel, by Eva Richter). Translated by Lawrence Venuti, Fantastic Tales (UK/US) collects works by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, who lived a restless existence, plagiarised wildly, and died young, remembered as a key figure of 19th century Italy’s Scapigliatura movement, whose bohemian provocations cast a bridge between Romanticism and Decadence. Also found in translation this year is Munchausen and Clarissa: A Berlin Novel (UK/US) in which the eccentric bohemian polymath of Wilhelmine Berlin, Paul Scheerbart, visits my home country of Australia (in his mind, at least); translation by Christina Svendsen. Freshly arrived from there in another millennium I saw a London stage adaptation of Street of Crocodiles by Polish writer Bruno Schulz and remember – more vividly than just about anything else of the period – the play’s traumatised protagonist desperately trying to recreate tableaux of the past, moving figures around on the stage to concord with his memory of a lost world. Now a slim volume translated by Frank Garrett offers Schulz’s first published piece, the recently rediscovered Undula (US). Try this for a 2020 opening: “It must’ve been weeks now, months, since I’ve been locked up in isolation. Over and over I sink into slumber and rouse myself anew, and real-life phantoms get jumbled up, blurring into drowsy fragments.” And a reissue of The Man of Jasmine & Other Texts by the deeply troubled Unica Zürn (translated by Malcolm Green) joins a recent rediscovery of the radical author, The House of Illnesses (UK).
Exhibitions throughout the year – inevitably rescheduled – introduced New York to two of the most singular apparitions of the Belle Epoque and we can – at least – enjoy the catalogues. Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde (UK/US) at MoMA was a survey of a caustic art critic and radical catalyst barely known to English readers, while the Morgan Library & Museum presented a no less anarchic and avant-garde existence in Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being (some of the exhibits are online); the catalogue is by Sheelagh Bevan. Decadent Catholicism and the Making of Modernism (UK/US) by Martin Lockerd shows how fin-de-siècle posturing amid the smells and bells of the Mother Church became a crucial touchpoint for a certain strain of prose stylist in the 20th century. Decadent, Catholic and wholly absurd, Montague Summers is still referenced for his research into witchcraft, the Gothic novel and adjacent fields, which also informed his works of fiction as here in The Bride of Christ and Other Fictions (UK/US). And we get to see what the Russian avant-garde was up to around the same time in Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia’s Silver Age by John E. Bowlt (UK/US); the Munich edition of this series is one of my essential references.
We cast adrift with two women whose privilege and genius for reinvention propelled them far from the safe harbour of dull upper class society. Nancy Cunard, Perfect Stranger by Jane Marcus (US) rejects reductive readings of the poet, publisher and activist and reconsiders her place in literary Modernism. Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa (UK/US) revisits the later life of the great patron and highlights the works she collected during her time in Venice (edited by Karole P.B. Vail, Vivien Greene). Like many moneyed gay men of the time, Oscar Wilde was drawn to the sympathetic legal environment and sun-dazed sensuality of Italy as captured in Renato Miracco’s Oscar Wilde’s Italian Dream 1875-1900 (UK/US). It was to the island of Capri that he decamped on his release from prison, a haven for sexual minorities as authoritatively detailed in Pagan Light by Jamie James, who sadly died earlier this year. It was home for many years to Norman Douglas, subject of Unspeakable (UK/US), a work of moral genealogy by Rachel Hope Cleves which reveals the uncomfortable truth that many in Douglas’s circle were aware that he sexually exploited minors, and not especially disapproving of the fact it would seem. And while it wasn’t solely high-brow sex tourism that drove Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden to 1920s Berlin, it wasn’t exactly a deterrent as Colin Storer details in Britain and the Weimar Republic (UK/US).
I hope there’s something for you in that lot. And here’s to 2021, when with any luck we shall return to our routine of masked orgies, full-body poetry slams and foam lute recitals.