Secret Satan, 2021 part 1

It’s that time again …

For the neophytes: Secret Satan is an annual round-up of books from throughout the year with a Strange Flowers feel, with familiar themes and hopefully some titillating new input combining to create something at once dangerous, alluring and comforting, like a bondage dungeon with a breakfast nook. And it is almost guaranteed to have the least overlap with any other end-of-year book lists you will encounter.

In Germany we are in the dire fourth wave of what now appears to be a largely elective pandemic driven by the vaccine obstinacy of the usual mix of woo-woo merchants, morons, tinfoil milliners, Nazis, narcissists and your basic cousin who keeps WhatsApping you memes from a Kremlin bot. So THAT’S fun! Books, though; books won’t let us down.

For all its epochal crappiness and uncertainty, 2020 actually offered a healthy haul for our Satanic selection last year (see here). Now, whatever restraint the pandemic previously imposed on publishers appears to have disappeared entirely and we have, just, so many books to get through this year. And in search of an organising principle I have ordered them into bundles. You know, like one of them fancy independent publishers what’s got all them awards and tote bags and such! This is the first of two posts … I’m going to start where I am and see where I am when I stop.

Oh, and please, please support the small presses and independent booksellers (including Bookshop.org) who actually care about books and their creators. Do you really want to give your money to someone who’s just going to jizz it into the sky?

We start with the Babble on Berlin bundle, setting out from (my) home where the first snow is on the way. If you read a book or profile of Berlin of any length it will inevitably include a quote by Karl Scheffler: “Berlin is damned always to become and never to be”. We finally get to read more of Scheffler’s thoughts on the city in Berlin: Psychogramme of a City originally published in 1910 (here translated by Michael Hofmann, and with an introduction by Florian Illies, author of 1913). From the pre-war Wilhelmine era we skip ahead to the fraught imminence of civilisational collapse; the capital is the focus of Peter Walther’s Darkness Falling: The Strange Death of the Weimar Republic, 1930-33. In my odd corner of social media there is currently a debate about whether translators should be credited on the covers of translated works; here publisher Head of Zeus not only exclude translator Peter Lewis from the cover but anywhere in the promotional materials. Come (slap emoji) on (slap emoji) people (slap emoji)! And in Marc Caplan’s Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism we have a portrait of exactly the kind of cultural vigour and diversity that was about to be snuffed out.

We find more Yiddish in our Nature of the East bundle with A Cheerful Soul (translated by Daniel Kennedy) from Polish writer Hersh David Nomberg; expect “a motley cast of wanderers and exiles: modern Jews who have left their homes to join Europe’s counterculture of bohemians, artists, aesthetes and freethinkers” (which sounds very us, no?). That comes to us from Snuggly who also offer a rare and most welcome translation (by Daniel Corrick) of fiction by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, The Black Gondola. Conceptually manacled to the Marquis de Sade for all eternity, Austrian aristo Sacher-Masoch was a fascinating figure – supporter of women’s suffrage, opponent of antisemitism – who deserves recognition beyond his admittedly impressive contribution to the canon of sexual transgression. Meanwhile Hugo Hamilton’s The Pages recalls the most sublime chronicler of central European real-time nostalgia, Joseph Roth, or rather the odyssey of one of his books – Rebellion (reissued next year as an Everyman’s Library edition in Michael Hofmann’s translation). And once again I am grateful to Twisted Spoon’s guidance in this area because even though I live an hour from the Polish border my ignorance of Slavic languages is, shamefully, total. Their handsome edition of A Postmortem Dream (translated by Jed Slast) takes us into the mind of “a corpulent provincial shopkeeper who is either dead or dreaming (while passed out drunk), or maybe both”. Fabulously, that book’s Bohemian-born author Ladislav Klima “was expelled from gymnasium, and all the schools in the Austrian monarchy, for insulting the ruling Habsburg dynasty” (emphasis mine). To include my last selection in this bundle I shall need a shoehorn and some lube but I will get it in there. The first postcard was sent from the Austrian Empire around 150 years ago and in Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network Lydia Pine offers a survey of a medium which has inspired the artwork for my own books (see here, and here).

Here we come to a break-out bundle, Romaniamania, named for our guest country of honour. In Rakes of the Old Court by the dandyish Mateiu Caragiale (here translated by Sean Cotter) we are transported to Bucharest of yore where “an amoral opportunist, the shadowy narrator and his two affluent friends drink and gamble their way through a city built on the ruins of crumbled castles and bygone empires.” And we turn now to a trio of Romanian modernists who ended up in Paris, starting with Ilarie Voronca (born Eduard Marcus), an important Jewish-Romanian writer here represented by The Confession of a False Soul (originally written in French, here translated by Sue Boswell), “the story of a young man who has a specialist replace his damaged soul with that of a soldier who has died in the war”. Voronca committed suicide in 1946, leaving behind an unfinished book, its title: “Manual for Perfect Happiness”. By that time his compatriot Isidore Isou (Isidore Goldstein) had arrived in Paris; a dead ringer for Elvis, he would shortly found the avant-garde Lettrist movement. Andrew Hussey, responsible for the essential Paris: A Secret History, brings us his strangely enchanting story in Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou. Fortunately I still have my shoehorn to hand so I can squeeze in this next selection on the basis that it prominently features Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. Impasse Ronsin: Murder, Love, and Art in the Heart of Paris is the catalogue to an exhibition staged in Basel earlier in the year based on a street in the 15th arrondissement of Paris which was home to Brâncuși and dozens of other artists over the years, but also, compellingly, a certain “Madame Steinheil”, the “mistress and maybe murderer of the French President”.

And before we leave the ex-Habsburg domains, a very niche adjunct bundle – Get Outta My Dreams, Get onto My Couch, beginning with Freud’s Patients by Mikkel Borch-Jebsen. It offers portraits of the troubled individuals who sought out Sigmund Freud in Vienna, and grants them existence beyond the sum of their pathologies while also revealing the dubious methods that Freud sometimes employed both in his practice and his scholarship. In The Gift, reissued in a “definitive edition” this year, one of Freud’s most famous analysands, poet H.D., answers the classic psychoanalytical opener, “Tell me about your childhood” (H.D. – Hilda Doolittle – is a subject of Susan McCabe’s dual biography with long-time lover Bryher early next year). And we find Freud fictionalised amid the queer love story of Beatrice Hitchman’s All of You Every Single One, set in early 20th-century Vienna.

In the Mann oh Mann oh Mann bundle we have a triptych of books about Thomas Mann; as well as being a gift to sub-editors everywhere, as noted here he and his family are prodigiously represented in German-language bookshops. The big hitter in this trio is Colm Tóibín’s The Magician, which covers the entire sweep of Thomas Mann’s life as it weaves in and out of the headlines of 20th century history, with Mann’s mercurial political consciousness facing its greatest challenge in Thomas Mann’s War by Tobias Boes. During that war (second, world) Mann moved to Los Angeles, to a house which was bought by the German government a few years ago; before it was restored artist Sebastian Stumpf gained access and went in search of traces, with his photographs in Seven Palms accompanying an essay by Francis Nenik (who, paranthetically, also offers a highly idiosyncratic approach to 20th century history this year with Journey through a Tragicomic Century, translated by Katy Derbyshire).

We return to the old continent and swerve north for our Nordic Talking selection, starting with the Catalogue Raisonné of visionary Swedish abstract artist Hilma af Klint. Compatriot and contemporary Ivan Aguéli (born John Gustaf Agelii) trod his own eccentric path of art and spiritual pursuit and thus – I feel confident in asserting – has the category of “Swedish Anarchist Sufi Post-Impressionists” all to himself. His life and work are detailed in a collection of essays (including one by Per Faxneld, author of the must-have Satanic Feminism) edited by Mark Sedgwick. From arts we move to letters with a reissue of Mysteries (translated by Gerry Bothmer) by Norwegian literary innovator Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger. An introduction by James Wood claims that with this 1892 book “Knut Hamsun founded the modernist and postmodernist novel at once” which is almost precisely the claim I make of the (*ahem* earlier) novella Papa Hamlet, published this year in my translation, originally issued by Norwegian writer Bjarne P. Holmsen in 1889. But – twist! – Bjarne P. Holmsen never actually existed, and the book was actually written by two shitposting Germans, Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf. How’s that for postmodern. And we toboggan forth to eerily familiar terrain with an academic study, Nordic Literature of Decadence. “In the Nordic countries the new Parisian movements were seen as having caused a malicious invasion, a ‘black flood’ that was spreading over the North destroying the very foundations of Nordic national cultures. Nevertheless, the appeal of this controversial movement was irresistible to discontents and innovators …” I have complained repeatedly in the past about the pricing of academic books, so in fairness it should be noted that this can be had for a comparatively reasonable thirty-seven quid.

This segues neatly into the Decadent delights of our Fun de Siècle bundle, so named to distinguish it from the planet-trashing small-“d” decadence of, say, billionaires who think an appropriate response to a pandemic slash climate crisis is a space race. No, this is the awesome capital-“D” ennui, dissipation and hothouse flowers kind of Decadence. As ever we look to Snuggly Books to snuffle out the truffles in this field and we are not disappointed. Thanks to the frankly non-human translation output of Brian Stableford we have (among many other things) Flowers of Ether, a very Lorrain-esque sounding bouquet of perversity and camp by “Delphi Fabrice” (actually Gaston-Henri-Adhémar Risselin), and the similarly pseudonymous Georges de Peyrebrune (Mathilde-Marie-Georgina-Élisabeth de Peyrebrune) in A Decadent Woman, a satirical study which appeared in 1886 – soon after the first and most emblematic works of the genre (featuring a wonderful cover painting by Ramon Casas whose sitter can’t even). By the way, the two volumes of Stableford’s essential anthology, The Dedalus Book of Decadence – Moral Ruins and Black Feast – have also been reissued. And here we swivel to discover two intriguing present-day treatments of these themes. Jeremy Reed’s Red Carpets and the Gutter takes us to “the conspiratorial underworld ethos of London’s gay demimonde in the 1890s inhabited by Wilde and the notorious Count Eric Stenbock”, with Bowie making an appearance in “a consummately detailed essay on how both Wilde and Bowie conducted their first US tours, largely in drag”. That’s from Zagava, with typically stunning artwork which in this case references Aubrey Beardsley’s design for Wilde’s Salomé. And in Dancing with Salomé, Nina Antonia (among many other things responsible for a study of lost Decadent, Lionel Johnson) “unmasks the occult aspects of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated tome The Picture of Dorian Gray, whilst exploring how the unseen manifested not just in the famous author’s life but in that of his love interest, Lord Alfred Douglas”. Dorian naturally figures in The Culture of Male Beauty in Britain (by Paul R. Deslandes) alongside cover boy Rupert Brooke and other head-turners both fictional and real. Pan was a motif for the Decadent at heart including Wilde, who in his poem dedicated to the Greek deity “offers a kind of prayer to the ancient god to come and renew the dreary present of modern England” as we read in Paul Robichaud’s Pan: The Great God’s Modern Return. Unfortunately I missed out on seeing the exhibition Decadence and Dark Dreams in Berlin between lockdowns, but we have the catalogue at least, offering twilit enchantments in Symbolist, Decadent and Aesthetic styles from all your favourite seasonal affective Belgians. Jonathan Freedman’s The Jewish Decadence entices with chapters like “Salomania and the Remaking of the Jewish Female Body from Sarah Bernhardt to Betty Boop” and “Walter Benjamin’s Paris, Capital of Jewish Aesthetic Modernity”. And with all this talk of Salome/Salomé it should be noted there is a new edition of Gavin Lambert’s biography of silent star Nazimova (godmother to Nancy Reagan, dontcha know), who managed to tank her career with a highly ambitious, galactically queer adaptation of Salomé.

More to come …

9 comments

  1. Peter Lewis

    Many thanks for fighting the corner of translators in your remarks on ‘Darkness Falling’. Well said! I am that very translator, and the Translators’ Association has been lobbying publishers this year for credits on covers. Peter Walther’s excellent book was a real joy to work on; possibly my favourite translation job to date.

  2. What a sumptuous feast of books, the idea that the Decadent spirit is still very much manifest whilst everything else is going to hell is one of the few pleasurable ironies left.

  3. Nina Antonia

    Reblogged this on Nina Antonia and commented:
    A lovely mention of ‘Dancing With Salome’ in a perfect hothouse bouquet of Strange Flowers.

  4. Awsome! You’re on fire in this one. So many great phrases.
    “tinfoil milliners”
    “Do you really want to give your money to someone who’s just going to jizz it into the sky?”
    “Come (slap emoji) on (slap emoji) people (slap emoji)!”
    etc etc
    Thanks for another great roundup. So many books, so little time.

  5. Oh, dear. Now I see that you already mentioned Nina’s book in your email!

    Write me off as a pest, James.

    Darcy

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