21 books for 2021

As our dire global circumstances keep us away from each other and from communal physical experience, books are among the few cultural artefacts we get to explore in a similar timeframe to our fellow humans that don’t require the intercession of a prism of expensive glass (unless you use an e-reader, of course). Mindful that I just recently dumped reading suggestions on you, I nonetheless offer you this selection of books coming up this year. It paces familiar territory but as ever I hope you discover some welcome surprises.

And once again – please support independent bookstores and small presses, and/or consider Bookshop.org, which combines the convenience of online shopping with support for local businesses. Where available, links to Bookshop.org in its UK and US versions are included for each title.

We begin by dialling the clock back exactly seventy-five years; on this day in 1946 Jack Parsons met artist Marjorie Cameron. The occult-fixated rocket scientist had summoned his mate, he believed, in a series of rituals he undertook in the desert with L. Ron Hubbard. He planned to create a “moonchild” with Cameron, a kind of hermetic messiah. Michael William West reveals this and other stories at the intersection of the erotic and the esoteric in Sex Magicians (UK/US). I’m looking forward, for instance, to reading more about the thrilling Maria de Naglowska, a Russian aristocrat who set herself up as a “priestess of Satan” in between-the-wars Paris and conducted sex rites in her own temple; and Paschal Beverly Randolph, a Black occultist and Rosicrucian who introduced North America to the concept of ritualistic sex magic. Then there are subjects more familiar to these pages, such as Austin Osman Spare, Anton LaVey and, inevitably, Aleister Crowley.

One of the reasons I cannot wholly subscribe to the cult of Crowley, despite his compelling message of radical selfhood, is the callousness if not abject cruelty with which he treated many of those around him. A particularly pitiable example is Victor Neuburg, who became a disciple and participant in some of Crowley’s “sex magick” rituals no doubt outlined in West’s book. Crowley tormented the hapless Neuburg, subjected him to antisemitic abuse and contributed to his mental collapse. Obsolete Spells (US), edited by Justin Hopper, offers a welcome opportunity to discover a curious, troubled figure on his own terms, collecting Neuburg’s own works and those he published under his Vine Press.

This, too, sounds fascinating: The Eater of Darkness by long-time New Yorker writer Robert M. Coates, an art critic who coined the term “Abstract Expressionism” (and thus not to be confused with famously terrible Regency actor Robert Coates). Originally published by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions in 1926, and long out of print, it’s the “first Dada novel published by an American” and comes with an introduction and notes by biographer Mathilde Roza. Prepare yourself for “both an acclaimed crime novel and a study in surrealist fiction; an experimentation of style, structure, and syntax; and an innovative, avant-garde concoction from an author who wrote years ahead of his time.”

So you remember December when I mentioned a Leonora Carrington revival? The first half of this year brings no less than three manifestations of this renewed interest in the British Surrealist artist and writer, with a reissue of her most celebrated novel, a memoir and a work in which she appears in fictionalised form. NYRB Classics are issuing a new edition of her 1976 tale The Hearing Trumpet, (US), which Merve Emre recently described as “one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century” in The New Yorker; this comes with an afterword by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. You may recall Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead and her biography, The Surreal Century of Leonora Carrington; now Gabriel Weisz Carrington offers an intimate portrait of his mother in The Invisible Painting: My Memoir of Leonora Carrington (UK/US). And in Leonora in the Morning Light (UK/US), Michaela Carter takes a life that often seemed as if it were straining at the bounds of reality and gently prods it into the fictional realm (Elena Poniatowska essayed something similar in 2011, in the book simply entitled Leonora).

In Eight Girls Taking Pictures (2012), Whitney Otto developed the lives of fictional women photographers into a large-format panorama. Another eight girls take pictures in Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography through Other Lives (US), a memoir that considers the influence of the not-at-all fictional Sally Mann, Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater, Ruth Orkin, Tina Modotti, Lee Miller, Madame Yvonne and Grete Stern. Meanwhile Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz’s 2018 novel Kokoschka’s Doll (UK) is appearing in English this year, translated by Rahul Bery. Starting in Dresden during the catastrophic firebombing in the late stages of World War Two, its characters are linked to each other as well as one of the most disturbing products of the 20th century artistic imagination – the life-sized doll Oskar Kokoschka made of his lover Alma Mahler (sorry Amelia – she’s baaaack).

While I was dimly aware that film director Billy Wilder had been a journalist in his pre-Hollywood years – a German edition of his articles came out in 2000 – I have never actually read his newspaper pieces and now I’m thinking I really should. Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna (UK/US), edited by Noah Isenberg, offers a selection in English for the first time (translated by Shelley Frisch); one story details his experience as a paid dancing companion to older women (compare David Bowie’s character in Just a Gigolo). A number of these articles first appeared in Berlin’s B.Z. newspaper, which is still around and still one of the city’s more lurid media outlets. 

A new edition of Joseph Roth’s satirical novel Flight without End (US) in David Le Vay’s translation is imminent, and it got me to wondering if Roth and Wilder ever crossed paths. Their trajectories were surprisingly similar; they both came from Jewish communities in Galicia, both spent time in Berlin and Vienna between the wars and detailed their experiences for newspapers (although Roth wrote for more prestigious titles), and both left Berlin for Paris after Hitler came to power. So on balance: probably, but I can find no record to confirm.

Earlier than either, Swiss writer Robert Walser came to Berlin in 1905, but he too wrote up his observations in the kind of hyper-aware miniature that prompted W.G. Sebald’s description of him as Clairvoyant of the Small, now the title of the first English-language biography of Walser. The author is the foremost translator of Walser’s works into English, Susan Bernofsky.

An even earlier example of the Wahlberliner (elective Berliner) is Lou Andreas-Salomé, who shacked up near the city’s Anhalter Bahnhof with Paul Rée in 1882, just 21, just starting to write, and just in time to witness the start of the German capital’s ascent to world city status. Das Haus, on the other hand, is one of her mature works, originally published in 1921, and now appearing in English as Anneliese’s House (UK/US), translated by Frank Beck and Raleigh Whitinger. While Andreas-Salomé is known for her associations with Freud, Nietzsche and Rilke (who appears here in fictional form), English editions of her work are rare, so this is very heartening to see. A caveat: it comes from an academic publisher, with pricing to match; eighty pounds is a steep ask for a work of fiction shy of 300 pages, even an annotated edition.

Completing our tour of German-speaking Europe is comedy Austrian malcontent Thomas Bernhard. A number of his works have been published in English, through Seagull, Penguin and a major series by Faber. One title that eluded translation was The Cheap-Eaters (US), in which the protagonist observes a group of down-and-out diners at the Vienna Public Kitchen, told in Bernhard’s characteristically relentless prose (pro tip: get out of tiresome chores by carrying a Bernhard novel around with you; when called upon to, say, do the dishes, say “I’ll just read to the end of this paragraph” – this will buy you a lot of time). It is now available in English, translated by Douglas Robertson and available through Spurl (who have an elegant new format for their fiction titles).

A new work examines the life of Jamaican-born Claude McKay, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance whose fiction is currently undergoing rediscovery. In particular it details his political journey, which included an actual journey to the Soviet Union, where he was warmly received. “Dedicated to confronting both racism and capitalist exploitation, he was a critical observer of the Black condition throughout the African diaspora and became a committed Bolshevik,” as Winston James details in Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik (UK/US). I don’t mean to harp on about pricing, but the hardcover for this lists at £112, or $135. I mean, what?! Thankfully the paperback is a quarter of that, but do a couple of pieces of stiff card really justify that kind of differential?

I will never exhaust my fascination for the Belle Époque. A clutch of new books vividly map out the personal eccentricity, daring innovation and outrageous spectacle of France and in particular its capital accelerating up to and over the starting line for the 20th century. Take dancer and courtesan Liane de Pougy. A figure of enormous public fascination well in control of her destiny, la grande horizontale gave an avid public numerous opportunites to purchase pieces of her life and likeness, drawing a gauzy veil over her prodigious liaisons with male and female partners in books like A Woman’s Affair and Chasing the Dream, now available in English courtesy of Graham Anderson. Pougy merch also included the first-ever celebrity scent, coloured postcards and posters of her appearances at the Folies Bergère.

Also treading the boards at the Folies Bergère was Chicago-born Loie Fuller, who revolutionised the use of coloured electric light in performance (and launched the career of Isadora Duncan). “Credited today as the pioneer of modern dance, she was perennially broke, never took no for an answer, spent most of her life with a female partner, and never questioned her drive,” as Liz Heinecke discoveres in Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist and a Friendship Forged in Light (US), which examines Fuller’s unlikely friendship with scientist Marie Curie.

In Cabarets of Death (UK/US), the late Mel Gordon (known for introducing Anita Berber to English-language readers) explores a ridiculous high-concept Belle Epoque endeavour targeted at a cashed-up bourgeoisie hungry for novelty. The three Montmartre cabarets in question were based respectively on the themes of “Heaven”, “Hell” and (my favourite) “Nothingness”. “Each had specialized cuisines and morbid visual displays with flashes of nudity and shocking optical illusions” (which reminds me of a restaurant I went to on one of my first visits to Berlin where all the desserts shared a theme of death; the restaurant is long gone but happily the afterlife afters are visually preserved). André Breton lived for a time in the same building as “Hell” and would sometimes meet other Paris-based Surrealists there amid its infernal decor.

While these temples of the beyond have themselves passed over, you can still (in less infectious times, at least) visit the city’s Musée Nissim de Camondo, a repository of high French style. The titular Camondo was the son of the owner, Moïse de Camondo. Nissim was killed in the First World War and his father bequeathed his exquisite collection of furniture and decorative items to the French state in his name, along with the building in which he had gathered them. In Letters to Camondo (UK/US) Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, tells the story of the remarkable family which rose to prominence after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and ended with the Holocaust. Finally, Dominique Kalifa sums up the whole era with the cultural history of The Belle Époque, translated by Susan Emanuel.

I think that brings us to 20 already, but as always there’s more. Such as: No Dandy, No Fun by Hans-Christian Dany and Valérie Knoll (UK/US), an essay coinciding with an exhibition in Bern. “Like an elegant harbinger, a Dandy arrives in times of crisis when societies are undergoing transformation. Like the hands of a clock, their silhouettes become messengers of change.” Then there’s a new monograph dedicated to design polymath Carlo Mollino, whose pharaonic love shack I visited in Turin a few years ago. Napoleone Ferrari, co-curator of Mollino’s legacy, and Michelangelo Sabatini explore Mollino’s extraordinary contributions to Modernism and the built environment, including the Teatro Regio, in Carlo Mollino: Architect and Storyteller (UK/US). Or perhaps I can interest you in Modernism in Trieste: The Habsburg Mediterranean and the Literary Invention of Europe, 1870-1945 (UK/US), a scholarly work by Salvatore Pappalardo which explores writers in the Italian city whose allure was so movingly evoked by the sadly departed Jan Morris. This is another academic title, so along with the usual caveat on pricing I would point out that it includes headings like “James Joyce and the Ethnolinguistics of Hiberno-Punic Mythography”. And something else I’m looking forward to, the first biography of cross-dressing English poet Valentine Ackland, particularly her turbulent relationship with Sylvia Townsend Warner. Valentine Ackland. A Transgressive Life (UK/US) comes to us from Handheld Press, whose fascinating list of original works and rediscoveries also includes The Akeing Heart by Peter Haring Judd, which covers part of this story from a different angle.

Both Ackland and Warner appear alongside Anne Lister, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Renée Vivien, Allen Ginsberg, Patricia Highsmith and many others in the forthcoming pink and purple pantheon that is Queer (UK), edited by Frank Wynne, which I am very pleased to say also contains an extract from my translation of Berlin’s Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld. Oh and there will be a new title to join Hirschfeld in the Rixdorf Editions line-up this year, and meanwhile over on Twitter I am tweeting out #AYearofStrangeFlowers again, so stop by to marvel at a different exhibit in the cabinet of human curiosities each day.

3 comments

  1. Frank Beck

    Thanks for your mention of ‘Anneliese’s House’, which was translated by Raleigh Whitinger and me. Please don’t be put off by the price. We expect there to be less expensive paperback and ebook editions before too long.

  2. I must say, as an inhabitant of Trieste, is quite tiring to always be associated to the same authors: Svevo, Joyce, Saba and (sometimes) Sir Richard Francis Burton. From my perspective we’re more an austrian than an italian city, at least from an historically perspective. I find myself more at home in Austria than in Italy and I don’t even speak german. But that’s a personal impression. Maybe It’s the architecture’s fault…

  3. Pingback: Summer* reading list | Strange Flowers

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