You didn’t see me.
I’m just going to leave these ten book selections here, but keep it to yourself. If you tell anybody they’ll be like “I don’t know what you think you saw, because James only does his book recommendations at the beginning and end of the year.” I’ll just deny it all, and they’ll think you’re losing your mind. You want that? You want people to think you’re crazy?
No, I didn’t think so.
In keeping with the season* this capsule collection focuses on travel, or at least a strong sense of place, book-ended by my city of birth and my city of residence. A recurring theme is writers making new lives for themselves away from their homelands, either by choice or necessity. This list also functions as tacit acknowledgement that our ongoing situation will prevent many of us from actually moving very far from where we currently dwell this year.
* the northern summer; I remember how annoying it was growing up in Australia when everyone on the top half of the world presumed their seasons were global. No, some of us were well acquainted with the two-bar heater come July. By way of compensation much of the country has, by northern European standards, at least nine months of summer a year.
Joyce Morgan: The Countess from Kirribilli
I grew up near Sydney Harbour. My childhood home overlooked a container terminal, not at all the sexy part of the harbour that you see on postcards, but nonetheless a compelling tableau which fired my young imagination. I would watch ships inch in and out of port and reflect that everyone, everything on board had seen more of the world than I had. Had I been born somewhat earlier to a shipping magnate perhaps I too might have grown up in the prime harbour frontage of Kirribilli like a certain Mary Beauchamp (1866-1941). A cousin of Katherine Mansfield, in later life she would be a sister-in-law to Bertrand Russell and mistress to H. G. Wells. But it was after travelling through Europe and marrying a Junker count that she became known as Elizabeth von Arnim. She had married into a storied family; as with the Mendelssohns, it’s extremely difficult to keep track of which Arnim is which (two of them turn up in entirely different circumstances here, for instance). It was on and inspired by the count’s estate in what is now Poland that our heroine penned the work that secured her reputation, the highly popular Elizabeth and her German Garden. All of this Joyce Morgan recounts in The Countess from Kirribilli.
Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston moved in decidedly more bohemian circles. Shortly after the Second World War the married couple left Sydney and, after a spell in London, ended up on Kalymnos, one of the Greek islands that was all but emptied around this time with many residents ending up in – Australia. Johnston and Clift continued to swim against the tide, moving onto Hydra before it was discovered by international travellers, as captured in companion volume Peel Me a Lotus (UK/US). It offers the same acute, lyrical observations, but with an increasing note of sadness; Clift would commit suicide in 1969. Clift and Johnston, and Hydra, were later better known for their association with Leonard Cohen, but honestly that was one of the least of the attractions when I visited the island. Friends have tried to convert me to his music but it just won’t take, and it is now consigned to the “things that James has tried and never needs to try again” along with natural wine, olives, Wes Anderson movies, zip-lining, musicals and literally any spectator sport.
Alicia Foster: Nina Hamnett
God knows I love Nina Hamnett. I love her art, I love her lust for life, I love her filthy, hard-won wisdom, I love her fearless independence, I love the tales of her bohemian exploits – down but not out in Paris and London. Why she isn’t better known I couldn’t say; her work has become more or less invisible, and the last book about her was Denise Hooker’s 1986 Queen of bohemia (which is fine as an introduction, but overly reliant on the artist’s own memoirs). So the news of both a major retrospective of Hamnett’s work at Charleston (the Bloomsbury exclave once home to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant) and a new book could not be more welcome. Alicia Foster’s Nina Hamnett is part of a series of compact monographs of women artists issued by Eiderdown Books, which also includes studies of Lee Miller, Eileen Agar and the magnificently dandyish Marlow Moss.
This reissue takes us to the Moroccan port where cheap living and the unique administrative anomaly of the international zone fostered a spirit of tolerance and hedonism. While the “Interzone” formally ended in 1956, that freedom persisted, supporting a bohemian community of foreigners. The diaries of English writer John Hopkins, who died earlier this year, offer a clear-eyed account of the city and its famous inhabitants and visitors, including his mentor Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. “Tangier is a lax place,” notes Hopkins. “Too much dope and too many servants. Food is fresh, booze is cheap and rents are low. In other words, paradise!”
You may recall Melanie C. Hawthorne as a translator of Rachilde and biographer of duellist, writer and sculptor Gisèle d’Estoc, a cross-dressing bisexual anarchist. The featured trio of her latest book will be familiar to long-term readers (and if not, here’s a fictional window into their world, and a primer on their complex, interlocking relations). In this academic text, Hawthorne shows how the three creative professionals from the US (Barney and Brooks) and Britain (Vivien) used the privilege bestowed by their wealthy families to explore the world and script new lives for themselves in France, but also the limits that their gender placed on even that privilege. “Drawing on the discourse of jurisprudence, the history of the passport, and original archival research on all three women, the books tells the story of women’s evolving claims to citizenship in their own right.”
French writer Adrien Bosc’s Outrageous Horizon (translated by Frank Wynne) is a fictional rendering of events covered in the 2018 book Escape from Vichy, by Eric T. Jennings. In 1941, the Paul-Lemerle was the last ship to leave Marseilles before the port was blocked by the Vichy regime. The Martinique-bound voyage reads like a Modernist bottle episode, with passengers including exiled German writer Anna Seghers, French Surrealist André Breton and his wife, painter Jacqueline Lamba, along with French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and Russian revolutionary Victor Serge. But there are equally compelling characters to discover both before and after the voyage, including the American journalist Varian Fry, whose bravery helped thousands to escape from the Nazis, and Martinique writer Suzanne Césaire, whose encounter with Breton led her to develop the concept of Afro-Surrealism.
This year marks a century since the establishment of the Jerusalem district of Rehavia, a planned, orderly contrast to the contested labyrinthine of the almost adjacent Old City. Along with nearby Talbiya, it later became a magnet for German-speaking Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, including philosophers Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. It was in Rehavia, for instance, that the exiled Else Lasker-Schüler discovered the reality of the “Orient”, a realm she had long romanticised in her writing; she died here in 1945. Thomas Sparr’s study (translated by Stephen Brown) also offers a welcome introduction to writer Mascha Kaléko, who was starting to enjoy popular success for her poetry just as the Nazis took over. Although she had contact with Lasker-Schüler and other bohemian writers in interwar Berlin, Kaléko spent years of exile in the US before arriving in Jerusalem in 1959. Considering – well – everything that has happened in the region in the last century, it is also interesting to note that Rehavia was the birthplace of Brit Shalom, a movement through which Buber, Scholem and others voiced opposition to the Zionist project. Lasker-Schüler’s solution of sending Jews and Arabs off to a fun fair may have been slightly more whimsical, but it shared Brit Shalom’s far-sighted concern that simply introducing newcomers and displacing inhabitants would result in calamity.
Gesa Stedman, Stefano Evangelista (eds.): Happy in Berlin? (UK/US)
To an extent, the residents of Rehavia were seeking to recreate the intellectual openness and cultural vitality of Weimar Berlin, the setting for our last three selections. Happy in Berlin? is a modestly scaled exhibition currently running at Berlin’s Literaturhaus, which examines English writers who gravitated to the German capital in the 1920s and early 1930s. Christopher Isherwood may well be the first name that comes to mind here, and it is Christopher and his kind (including W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender) who dominate the exhibition, but the catalogue is a more rounded and nuanced study. We learn for instance that Berlin offered the best opportunities to view cutting edge cinema at the time, which proved an influence on the filmmaking activities of H. D. and Bryher after their visits to the city. Other writers featured include Vita Sackville-West’s camp brother Eddie, Wyndham Lewis, who rejected the “buggers’ paradise” beloved of Isherwood and his friends and succumbed to the allure of Hitler, and footnotes like Helen D’Albernon, an ambassador’s wife and Sargent subject who gave lavish parties but found at one such event that her distinctly ancien shepherdess costume struck a bum note in the fractious city.
You would be forgiven for drawing a blank at the name Curt Corrinth. His 1919 novella Potsdamer Platz is best known for the accompanying illustrations by Paul Klee while the text itself reads like a Drunk History retelling of a Félicien Rops etching. The titular Berlin square, which in the Weimar era was a frenetic junction where two rail termini constantly disgorged goggle-eyed provincials into the heart of the teeming capital, becomes the centre of an orgiastic liberation movement, a pornocracy that seeks to supplant the young republic. Translated by W. C. Bamberger, Potsdamer Platz is best approached as a demented curio rather than a lost classic. But it is particularly striking how Corrinth, evidently in isolation, mirrored the messianic insanity of the “Inflation Saints” – Ludwig Christian Haeusser and the other wandering prophets who were starting to preach a gospel of violently libidinous salvation to traumatised post-war Germany around the same time.
Barbara Hales: Black Magic Woman: Gender and the Occult in Weimar Germany(UK/US)
This persistence of primal, arcane forces at a time of rapidly advancing mechanisation was typical of a city that attracted both Albert Einstein and Aleister Crowley, in a polarised period that embraced both the irrationality of Dada and the sobriety of the New Objectivity. Barbara Hales’s academic text investigates Weimar archetypes such as the New Woman, whose wilful independence could be read by the misogynistic observer as a dark force akin to witchcraft. “Whether fictive or historical, the occult woman’s supernatural ability to tap into an unseen world serves to reconfigure female identity in a time of social and political crisis in the in the popular Weimar imagination: from its traditional conception of woman as nurturing mother and demure housewife to a beastly monster, who threatens the enfeebled and emasculated post-World War One psyche.”
OK, I’m out.
Remember, you didn’t see me.