Secret Satan, 2021 part 2

In Berlin, the first snow has fallen and the first Advent candle is lit. I better get a move on.

We finished part 1 of our book round-up with Decadence, we begin part 2 with the Father of Decadence (and modernism and just about everything else) who had the big two-oh-oh this year and gets his own Bicentennial Birthday Baudelaire bundle. That includes a catalogue of the exhibition Baudelaire, la modernité mélancolique currently on at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (only in French it seems, but appears to be image-heavy), a digital graphic novel treatment of his Haitian-born mistress Jeanne Duval in Mademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire, a new translation (by Aaron Poochigian) of his magnum opus The Flowers of Evil, plus a new rendering (by Rainer J. Hanshe) of the flânerie ur-text Paris Spleen.

As we stroll on into the Walk the Talk and Talk the Walk bundle we ask, where did the flâneurs go? Did all the psychogeographers become nature writers? Perhaps New Directions in Flânerie (edited by Kelly Comfort and Marylaura Papalas) might tell us, or a new edition of Walking and the Aesthetics of Modernity (edited by Klaus Benesch and François Specq) for those of you who can’t put one goddam foot in front of the other without a critical apparatus. Antonio Muñoz Molina accompanies us on a less academic, more personable urban amble in To Walk Alone in the Crowd (translated by Guillermo Bleichmar), and as ever our thoughts in these matters turn to Fernando Pessoa who is still, it appears, having a moment. Maybe we should accept that Pessoa is always having a moment. This year brings Richard Zenith’s toe-crusher of a biography and a new edition of The Mad Fiddler, a suite of verse which, like many of Pessoa’s works, is almost impossible to corral into a definitive version.

I’m calling this bundle French Letters and your objections on the matter are powerless. From Seagull (who are having a 50% sale until Christmas Eve!) comes The Three Rimbauds, in which Dominique Noguez plays alternative history with everyone’s favourite teen tearaway, the most famous disappearing act in French literature (translated by Seth Whidden, also author of a Rimbaud study in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series). Some achieve disappearance, some have disappearance thrust upon them; Surrealist Robert Desnos turned away from the movement’s self-anointed pontiff André Breton (always a good sign), joined the Resistance and died at just 44 shortly after liberation from Theresienstadt. From his surprisingly prolific late period Wakefield offers The Die is Cast (translated by Jesse L. Anderson), which portrays “a band of opium, cocaine, and heroin users from all walks of life in Paris, a motley group who share nothing but their addiction and their slow and steady descent into ruination and despair”. Hervé Guibert died of AIDS-related illness in 1991 at just 36, but not before leaving Arthur’s Whims (here translated by Daniel Lupo), an outré, transgressive, hallucinatory text which can hold its own with Lautréamont in the canon of illustrious perversion; another fascinating find from Spurl. In The Mysterious Correspondent it is the text itself which disappeared – nine recently rediscovered stories by Marcel Proust (translated by Charlotte Mandell). Proust may have challenged Jean Lorrain to a duel for effectively outing him but here he brings relative candour to the theme of same-sex desire. Contains the immortal phrase “I am the fairy of misunderstood sensitivities” (snap girl!).

If you’re anything like me, you begin each day propped up in bed with an organza shrug wrapped snugly about your shoulders and a finger pressed to your cheek as a thought bubble rises languidly above your head toward the eau-de-nil baldachin, in it the words “what news of Djuna Barnes?”. As well as two imminent academic studies which pair La Barnes with H.D. and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven respectively, our Emphatically Queer bundle offers a slim, recently rediscovered text from early on in her career: Vagaries Malicieux, in Sublunary’s eclectic and highly recommended Empyrean Series. Barnes biographer Phillip Herring calls it an “unmalicious, if rambling, article describing her first trip to Paris” in which Barnes encounters Joyce around the time he published Ulysses (expect centennial noise re same in February). While the author herself was dismissive of the piece, it holds literary historical value and offers winning descriptions, such as that of the “accidental aloofness” of Joyce. Here I will offer my customary lament that another year has passed without an English-language study of Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Except – gasp! – in The Buoyancy of the Craft, Morelle Smith offers just that, in a book which brings the sweep of the writer and adventurer’s life into novel form. And we offer thanks to Feral House and Sarah Burns for The Emphatically Queer Career of Artist Perkins Harnly and His Bohemian Friends. Read this, watch the video below, ask yourself – why am I only now finding out about this magnificent fairy of misunderstood senstivities?

Our Dames and Showgirls bundle draws inspiration from an audiobook, Simon Berry’s The Dame and the Showgirl which fictionalises the meeting between Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe (which as fictional as it sounds did actually happen). The pair are voiced by Emma Thompson and Sinead Matthews respectively. The Institut du monde arabe in Paris this year hosted an exhibition entitled Divas d’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida, a celebration of the greatest female singers of the Arab world. The catalogue is in French but even for the non-Francophone it offers an introduction to the iconography of artists like the enigmatic Asmahan and the immortal Oum Kulthumm, subject (sort of, but also not) of a 2017 film which provides the cover image*. That year also brought the biopic Nico, 1988, with the German-born singer and model also the subject of Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone. Like Annemarie Schwarzenbach (and Franziska zu Reventlow), Nico met her sad end after a bicycle accident. I have also recently discovered that Nico was discovered at Berlin’s premier department store KaDeWe, and I don’t really know what to do with that information but pass it on to you.

* Late entry! (i.e., I’m adding this after posting; I don’t want you to think I’m gaslighting you): thanks to a list of outstanding recommendations from the Dead Ladies Show here in Berlin I’ve discovered the related, and fascinating sounding Midnight in Cairo: The Female Stars of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s by Raphael Cormack.

Our Dreaming Rebels bundle begins with me feeling bummed that I will probably not get to the major exhibition of works by Czech Surrealist Toyen currently showing in Hamburg (*shakes fist at global pandemic*). But – as I have said before – at least we have the catalogue! This recurring phrase is starting to feel less like a book recommendation and more like a diagnosis of our current condition; we can’t experience reality but we can admire the pretty pictures thereof. Anyway, Toyen: The Dreaming Rebel (edited by Anna Pravdová, Annie Le Brun and Annabelle Görgen-Lammers) is probably the best introduction to one of the most fascinating figures of 20th century art available in English. The subject of Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel (edited by Nancy Ireson) left school at 11 to become an acrobat, modelled for Puvis de Chavanne’s enormous Allegory of the Sorbonne (including the men) for over three years, by which time she knew enough to become a highly accomplished artist in her own right. Suzanne Valadon gave birth to son Maurice Utrillo out of wedlock when she was 18, and later made an artist of him in an effort to get him off booze and then married a man even younger than him and painted him sans togs – apparently (and amazingly) the first female painter to ever depict a male nude. So – yeah, I’d say there’s a story there. in Jugendstil Women and the Making of Modern Design, Sabine Wieber goes in search of the rebel women of Wilhelmine Germany including Anita Augspurg and Sophia Goudstikker, who lived in relative openness as a couple and whose Elvira studio was not only the first solely female-owned business in Germany, housed in the most emblematic Jugendstil structure (designed by August Endell), it was also an important focal point for the progressive thinkers of Munich around the beginning of the 20th century, a time when the Bavarian capital was producing new ideas in industrial quantities. In Catherine Prendergast’s The Gilded Edge we explore the fate of women living in bohemian Californian configurations around the beginning of the 20th century. Meanwhile the remarkable Gertrude Abercrombie, the “queen of the bohemian artists” who was praised as “the first bop artist” by none other than Dizzy Gillespie, appears in Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time, along with choreographers Katherine Dunham and Ruth Page, art historian Katharine Kuh and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Finally (and I realise that chronologically I’m all over the place) we have a welcome, serious study of clairvoyant women in Emily Midorikawa’s Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, spiriting us away to a “lamp-lit world on both sides of the Atlantic, in which women who craved a public voice could hold their own.” Subjects include the Fox sisters, Georgina Weldon and Victoria Woodhull, first female candidate for the US presidency.

In Communicating Vessels we join hands and summon the Purchase button with a bundle of occult and occult-adjacent dainties. The book of the same name (not to be confused with the book of the same name by Friederike Mayröcker, which is not to be confused with, yet was inspired by, the book of the same name by André Breton) offers artistic responses to the life and work of Ithell Colquhoun. Communicating Vessels includes an introduction by Amy Hale, who in her biography Genius of the Fern Loved Gully mentions an unpublished novel about a witch cult by Colquhoun written in the mid-1960s. Unpublished no more: Destination Limbo is appearing in print for the first time, with an introduction by Richard Shillitoe. Colquhoun was intimately connected to the Cornish landscape where she lived and worked, and to the pagan and occult lore of the region. Her beloved stone circles are part of the terrain covered in the imminent Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain, which also takes us to “the Cotswolds town that worshipped Pan”, “the ancient forest where Gerald Gardner’s coven performed a ritual to prevent the German invasion” and “the Scottish mansion where Aleister Crowley summoned the Lords of Hell” among many other sites. Meanwhile in Aleister Crowley in England (actually coming out early in the new year), Tobias Churton continues his protracted global stalking of the Great Beast, while a little later we can narrow him down to the capital in City of the Beast: The London of Aleister Crowley by Phil Baker, who has also provided a guide to Austin Osman Spare’s time in the city.

Our Modernism & Exile bundle offers Gallery of Miracles and Madness in which Charlie English shows all too clearly how a culture war (here, the Nazis’ loathing for the work of Modernist artists by then scattered throughout the world) can presage actual war. Their “degenerate art” found a more sympathetic audience in exile as Lucy Wasensteiner’s The Twentieth Century German Art Exhibition, now in paperback, reveals. In Caroline Maclean’s Circles and Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists, exiles like Walter Gropius meet locals like Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore, with such outcomes as the “Unit One” group of Modernist artists. Swedish-born Nell Walden left both her adoptive home of Germany and her husband, key modernist catalyst Herwarth Walden, in 1933. While my sympathies will forever be with the first Mrs Walden, Else Lasker-Schüler (and I’ll be issuing a collection of her prose next year), Nell Walden was a creative force in her own right – an artist, poet and art collector, as we discover in Nell Walden, Der Sturm, and the Collaborative Cultures of Modern Art by Jessica Sjöholm Skrubbe.

Lastly we come to our Happy Place, or the idea of a happy place at least. The utopian project, humanity’s ceaseless quest to start again and refigure society in idealised microcosm is a saga of repeated failure which nonetheless offers extraordinary stories driven by compellingly wayward individuals. In Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser’s Elusive Utopia (which I missed when it first came out, but appearing here in paperback) we travel to Oberlin, Ohio to discover an inspiring experiment in racial harmony established prior to the Civil War, but eventually overrun by the realities of the society around it. Anna Neima’s The Utopians takes us to intentional communities in India, Britain, Japan, France, Germany and the US, with figures like Gerald Heard, Rabindranath Tagore and G. I. Gurdjieff. While hardly germane and certainly nothing to do with the community he founded in France, my favourite story about the Armenian mystic relates how once, when he was broke, Gurdjieff upcycled sparrows by dyeing them yellow and selling them as canaries. We also visit the ambitious, progressive Dartington School, further fleshed out in The Elmhirsts of Dartington, one of Routledge’s new series of six 20th-century texts dealing with utopia, both as an abstraction and attempted reality. Mirra Alfassa’s planned town of Auroville, in India (built in the late 60s and still going) is the setting for Akash Kapur’s investigation of his own complex family history in Better to Have Gone. And finally, Utopia’s Discontents by Faith Hillis follows the trails of Russian émigrés and examines how their “communities evolved into revolutionary social experiments in the heart of bourgeois cities. Feminists, nationalist activists, and Jewish intellectuals seeking to liberate and uplift populations oppressed by the tsarist regime treated the colonies as utopian communities”. These outposts sprang up in places like London, Paris, Geneva and – bringing us ouroboros-like back to where we set out from in the beginning of part 1 – my own happy place, Berlin.

One comment

  1. Nina Antonia

    Another enthralling line-up of books, that like lanterns in the darkness remind us that magic, wonder & the splendid yet unheralded (until now) can still reach out to us across the centuries. Not forgetting the poetically tragic, either!

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