I can’t believe it’s already whatever day it is of whatever year this is. It’s high time we took a look at new titles of a Strange Flowers flavour coming up this year. As much as I look forward to sharing new book recommendations, time is short so forgive me if I keep my commentary brief this go round.
We start by making a small dent in the “list of writers James can’t believe haven’t been translated into English” with the welcome news that the fascinating Emmy Hennings, a writer, performer and – along with later husband Hugo Ball – key figure in the development of Dada in Zurich, is finally available in translation. Hennings overcame poverty, drug abuse, prostitution, prison, attempted suicide and the Spanish Flu to leave a unique body of work. Das Brandmal (here translated, by Katharina Rout, as Branded) was originally issued in 1920. Described as “the Joan of Arc of the Expressionist generation”, Hennings here offers the most Catholic of Modernist novels, a confessional and thinly fictionalised account of her own troubled progress prior to the First World War.
Also issuing from the pre-World War One period is Three Prose Works by the great German-Jewish writer Else Lasker-Schüler coming out through Rixdorf Editions in my translation. I honestly don’t just come up with these lists to trumpet my own work (and anyway, the egregious self-promotion is happening over here) but even if I hadn’t translated it I would be tripping over myself to alert you to this trio of fictional works now appearing here in English for the first time. Wild and intoxicating, fragmentary and gem-like, they trace the author’s development as she moves from bourgeois comfort to bohemian experimentation, as the scope of the constituent pieces in each work expands from vignette to parable.
Lasker-Schüler’s friend Magnus Hirschfeld (whose book Berlin’s Third Sex I translated OK I’LL STOP NOW) is the subject of Laurie Marhoefer’s Racism and the Making of Gay Rights which “shows how Hirschfeld laid the groundwork for modern gay rights, and how he did so by borrowing from a disturbing set of racist, imperial, and eugenic ideas. Yet on his journey with [Chinese lover Li Shiu Tong], Hirschfeld also had inspiring moments – including when he formulated gay rights as a broad, anti-colonial struggle and as a movement that could be linked to Jewish emancipation.”
So while Hirschfeld remained broadly on the side of social progress, forthcoming book Bad Gays by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller (based on their highly recommended podcast) evaluates the legacies of gay subjects who are, to say the least, problematic. “From the Emperor Hadrian to notorious gangster Ronnie Kray, the authors excavate the buried history of queer lives. This includes fascist thugs, famous artists, austere puritans and debauched bon viveurs, imperialists, G-men and architects.”
In the Netflix series Pose, MJ Rodriguez‘s Blanca stages a sit-in at a gay bar frequented by the kind of bad gays who, arriving at a certain level of societal acceptance, pull the ladder up behind them to reject other minorities – trans women like Blanca, for instance. The title of Ricky Tucker’s And the Category is … may still be ringing in your ears in the voice of Billy Porter after the third and sadly last series of Pose, set in the late ‘80s/early 90s New York ballroom scene. This book – a “love letter to the legendary Black and Latinx LGBTQ underground subculture, uncovering its abundant legacy and influence in popular culture” – reveals not just the struggle and the activism, but celebrates a scene “where trans lives are respected and applauded, and queer youth are able to find family and acceptance.”
Earlier that century: “On a Saturday in New York City in 1912, around the wooden tables of a popular Greenwich Village restaurant, a group of women gathered, all of them convinced that they were going to change the world. It was the first meeting of ‘Heterodoxy’, a secret social club.” They issued from bohemian circles, in which women may have had more freedom of expression, but even in more unconventional households they were often expected to wait on their menfolk. But the members of Heterodoxy were “passionate advocates of free love, equal marriage, and easier divorce. They were socialites and socialists; reformers and revolutionaries; artists, writers, and scientists. Their club, at the heart of America’s bohemia, was a springboard for parties, performances, and radical politics.” All this in Hotbed by Joanna Scutts.
Here we swivel to a combination of time and place to which my thoughts ever turn – Belle Epoque Paris – to visit one of the most emblematic figures of the period, can-can dancer La Goulue. Born in 1870 as Louise Weber, La Goulue would “borrow” clothes from the laundry where her mother worked, and as she paraded them in the music halls she first got a taste for nightlife, eventually becoming the star of the can-can. In a new biography by Will Visconti, Beyond the Moulin Rouge: The Life and Legacy of La Goulue, we learn how “La Goulue overcame loss, abusive relationships, and poverty to become the very embodiment of nineteenth-century Paris, fêted by royalty and followed as closely as any politician or monarch.”
La Goulue is featured on the “Pataphysical calendar”, a time-keeping system which begins with the birth of arch-provocateur Alfred Jarry in 1873 (today, for instance, is 24 Décervelage 149, and is dedicated to “Saint Weidman”, whoever that is). Parodying the Catholic liturgical calendar, it combined invented personas with figures identified with or admired by practitioners of Pataphysics (also rendered as ’Pataphysics). This movement employed slightly aggressive forms of pseudo-scientific nonsense, using humour to unsettle rather than cajole or comfort. It draws devotees to this day, with a dedicated “Collège de ’Pataphysique”. The essays in ’Pataphysics Unrolled (edited by Katie L. Price and Michael R. Taylor) “create an unauthorized account of pataphysical experimentation from its origins in the late nineteenth century through the contemporary moment. […] Touching on disciplines such as literature, art, architecture, education, music, and technology, this book reveals how pataphysics has been a platform and medium for persistent intellectual, poetic, conceptual, and artistic experimentation for over a century.”
One latter-day champion of this anarchic spirit was Boris Vian, a member of the Collège de ’Pataphysique and a highly prolific author and songwriter. Vian only lived to be 39, his very death a critical gesture; he died of a heart attack after decrying the screen adaptation of one of his novels. Written during World War Two, his novel Vercoquin and the Plankton (translated by Terry Bradford) “describes the collision of two worlds under the Vichy regime: that of the youthful dandyism of the ever-partying Zazous, and the murderously maniacal bureaucracy of a governmental office for standardization.”
Following Diana Souhami’s No Modernism without Lesbians, which included the fascinating Bryher (born Annie Winifred Ellerman) among its quartet of subjects, Susan McCabe looks at the writer’s long relationship with H. D. (who is also the subject of a forthcoming study, Winged Words). In H. D. & Bryher we revisit one of the great partnerships of the 20th century with all its tangled interconnections (I had a go at mapping them here). “When they met in 1918, H.D. was a modernist poet, married to a shell-shocked adulterous poet, and pregnant by another man. She fell in love with Bryher, who was entrapped by her wealthy secretive family. Their bond grew over Greek poetry, geography, ancient history and literature, the telegraph, and telepathy.”
In Theatres of Melancholy: The Neo-Romantics in Paris and Beyond, Patrick Mauriès explores artists working between the wars who embraced the figurative while much of the avant-garde was turning to abstraction, who were excluded from the grand narrative of Modernism, or included only with a wealth of asterisks and clarifying footnotes. “They were influenced by Picasso, in particular his Blue and Rose periods, but went beyond him to forge new ways of painting. These artists liked to play with forgotten references and obsolete visual devices such as trompe l’oeil.” This young, international cohort included Christian Bérard, Thérese Debains, Pavel Tchelitchew, Eugene and Leonid Berman, and Kristians Tonny.
Mina Loy seems to be forever hovering at the edge of greater recognition. Now in Mina Loy: Apology of Genius we have the first major study of Loy this millennium, following Carolyn Burke’s substantial Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996). Perhaps it was the very variety of her activities and connections which makes it difficult to place her – a “poet, painter, novelist, essayist, manifesto-writer, actress, and dress and lampshade designer” as author Mary Ann Caws describes her. “Her life involved an impossible abundance of artistic friends, performance, and spectacular adventures in the worlds of Futurism, Christian Science, feminism, fashion, and everything modern and modernist.”
The imperialist episode in which Napoleon III of France decided ruling Mexico would make fun busywork for a spare Habsburg (Archduke Maximilian) is not exactly a knockabout, but it does have stretches of dark humour. Setting off from Trieste with his wife Charlotte (Carlota), “Emperador Maximilano” found himself out of his depth as soon as he arrived, as we discover in The Last Emperor of Mexico (Edward Shawcross): “The ensuing saga would feature the great world leaders of the day, popes, bandits and queens; intrigue, conspiracy and cut-throat statecraft, as Mexico became the pivotal battleground in the global balance of power, between Old Europe and the burgeoning force of the New World: American imperialism.” As it all started unravelling, Carlota returned to Europe to solicit aid; in the 1939 film Juarez, Bette Davis chews the scenery, playing a paranoid Carlota close to mental collapse as she berates Napoleon III. As excessive as it seems (and Bette, bless her, was drawing on her own instability of the time), the portrayal was largely faithful to the facts. So unhinged was Carlota that when she went to Rome to petition the Pope she would only eat chickens kept for the purpose in her hotel room; after Maximilian was executed in 1867 she never fully recovered.
A name previously unknown to me, Amélie Rives combines factors which seem distinctly Flowers-friendly if Jane Turner Censer’s The Princess of Albemarle is any indication: “Rives’s most famous novel, The Quick or the Dead?, published when she was just twenty-four, was a sensation in its time, but soon she began to grapple with marital woes, an addiction to morphine and cocaine, and reams of unfavorable press coverage. Dramatically she took control of her celebrity: she divorced her husband and married a Russian prince, broke free of addiction, and changed her image to that of a European princess. Rives then regained her writing career, including plays produced on Broadway.”
In Carl Abrahamsson’s Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan we have a study of probably the most influential Satanist of the modern era. While the “Black Pope” LaVey and his Satanic Bible may seem mere fodder for adolescent provocation, the belief system they espouse is relatively benign. It doesn’t see Satan as a literal entity, a bogeyman, a paragon of evil or lord of darkness, rather an entirely symbolic figure representing the limits of individual will. Now, whether that’s a good thing or not is of course debatable; the radical self-seeking of modern Satanism has plenty of overlap with libertarianism, for instance. But it’s impossible to witness the sideshow stylings of LaVey and believe yourself in the company of evil.
Born in 1913 in (what is now) Berlin, artist Meret Oppenheim was largely active in Switzerland and France. In Paris she fell in with André Breton’s Surrealists, exploring and ultimately rejecting the roles which the movement customarily reserved for women (model, mistress, muse) to become a vital creative force. Here art historian Simon Baur brings his years of engagement with Oppenheim’s career to a new study, Meret Oppenheim Enigmas (translated by Bronwen Saunders).
In Letters to Gwen John, artist Celia Paul draws on her life and career and finds numerous parallels with the titular fellow artist (who died around the start of World War Two). While Paul is often mentioned in the context of her relationship with Lucian Freud, the Welsh artist had not one but two older male artists of her own to assert herself against (brother Augustus John, lover Auguste Rodin). There are also shared motifs in the work of the two women, such as the recurring image of women with their hands folded in contemplation. “Letters to Gwen John is at once an intimate correspondence, an illuminating portrait of two painters (including full-color plates of both artists’ work), and a writer/artist’s daybook, describing Paul’s first exhibitions in America, her search for new forms, her husband’s diagnosis of cancer, and the onset of the global pandemic.”
The recent departure of André Leon Talley reminded me that I once saw him – he was difficult to miss – at a major show of Jean Cocteau’s work at the Pompidou Centre in 2004 (which had an adults-only section; the French just make dirty pictures more fun). A curio of the Cocteau oeuvre, published in 1950 but only now available to us in translation (by Alex Wermer-Colan) is Letter to the Americans. In this slim volume – slight, even – the author “sees the incredibly buoyant hopes in America’s promise, while at the same time warning of the many ills that the nation will have to confront—its hypocrisy, sexism, racism, and hegemonic aspirations—in order to realize this potential.”
I’m also happy to see the (expanded) reissue of a book I’ve been meaning to get my hands on: American Magus Harry Smith (edited by Paola Igliori), which explores the vast oeuvre of polymath Harry Everett Smith. Smith’s best-known project, the hugely influential Anthology of American Folk Music, grew out of his near-manic collecting of old 78s (he also collected paper airplanes, string figures, Ukrainian Easter eggs and tarot cards). It should come as no surprise that amphetamines were central to Smith’s working practice, reflected in the obsessive mandalas and shamanic patterns of his paintings, and the experimental films which set this imagery in motion. All of this captured in this collection of essays, many of them by friends and associates.
We close with a trio of Berlin-related works in reissue. I had a bit of a Joseph Roth moment over the holidays, inspired by Dennis Marks’s 2011 book Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth. This short, pacy book is an incisive overview, and helpful in sorting out the characters who recur in Roth’s books. It also explores the author’s hometown, Brody (now Ukraine), the surrounding territory of Galicia and its contested status as a buffer between east and west (plus ça frickin’ change, huh?). This inspired me to read a handful of books by the man himself that have eluded me to date, including Die Rebellion (a book which, as previously noted, is itself the subject of a study by Hugo Hamilton, The Pages). Now reissued in Michael Hofmann’s translation, Rebellion shares with Roth’s classic Job the motif of a simple man so ground down by circumstances that he rebels against the highest authority of them all (*points skyward*). The disintegrating psyche of the one-legged protagonist, just one of the war-wounded adrift in early Weimar Berlin, inspires some of Roth’s most unconventional yet moving prose.
Rahel Varnhagen was the first book by Hannah Arendt, completed as she went into exile in 1933 but only published in 1957, and then only in an English translation (by Clara and Richard Winston). Some of the notes that Arendt took are the only record of primary sources lost when archives were destroyed in the Second World War. Her subject is the great early 19th-century writer and salonnière who built on the traditions of Moses Mendelssohn and Goethe in equal measure. Rahel Varnhagen was one of the first in a grand legacy of Jewish women who ran salons in Berlin – oases of culture, enquiry and sophistication at a time when the city was little more than a barracks town.
Another welcome re-run is a collection of works on paper by Berlin-based Dadaist Hannah Höch (edited by Dawn Ades, Butler Emily, Daniel F. Herrmann). The stand-outs here are the collages where Höch’s superlative eye produced memorable compositions out of images torn from newspapers and magazines. Like Georges Bataille’s journal Documents around the same time, these assemblages transgressed the barriers between high and low culture, according equal respect to politicians and botany, Hollywood glamour and ethnography, engineering miracles and dancing girls.