Gerda Wegener, Cuckoo, 1920. Note the fallen black mask on the floor: it repeats in many of Gerda’s erotic paintings.
This is the true story of turn-of-the-century lesbian romance, erotic Deco illustrations rife with harlequins and crinolines, the world’s first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, and the 1950s pulp novel that brought it all to light.
The story begins one hundred years ago. In 1912, artist couple Gerda and Einar Wegener arrived in Paris, hoping for greater prosperity and freedom than their conservative hometown of Copengahen would allow. They checked into the Hôtel d’Alsace, where – they were shocked to learn – they had been placed into the very same room where Oscar Wilde had once died twelve years earlier. The couple spent the next few days reading Wilde’s works out loud to each other. The forbidden sexuality, transformation, beauty and tragedy in Wilde’s work was reflected in the couple’s following years together.
Gerda, left. Lili, right.
In Paris, Gerda quickly became well-known for her sensual, free-spirited illustrations. Her work often featured a mysterious beauty with a stylish short bob, full lips, and beguiling brown eyes. In 1913, the public was shocked to learn the identity of the mystery model: Gerda’s husband, Einar. Einar was transitioning to living life openly as woman named Lili Elbe.
In the next room, tucked away in a fireproof lockbox, there’s a handwritten note from 1952, hastily scrawled down on looseleaf paper by a man named John (aka Jack) Whiteside Parsons. (My partner and I are both fascinated by the tales surrounding Parsons and his equally scintillating wife, Marjorie Cameron.) Purchased a few years back from a reputable private collector, it’s a short list of the books from Parsons’ personal library– the ones he planned to take with him when he relocated from Southern California to Mexico. Everything from biochem science to William Blake to Alice in Wonderland. Only… Parsons never made it to Mexico. Within days of writing that note, the man blew himself up amid persistent, weird rumors of ritual workings, sex magick, portals.
Sixty years ago to this day, in fact.
June 17th, 1952: a “brilliant young rocket scientist and occultist was killed in an explosion in Pasadena of origins that remain mysterious [...] Five days later, Pasadena police closed the case and announced that he dropped a vial of fulminate of mercury onto the floor of his home laboratory [...] He was 37 years old and one of the country’s top chemical engineers, a founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the inventor of the solid fuel that would take man to the moon.” (via)
Such a strange fellow, with such an utterly bizarre life trajectory! And for me, for whatever reason, something about that list of indispensable books feels more eerie and portentous than any of his “Do What Thou Wilt”/”As Above, So Below” writings. But in any case, thoughts of Parsons’ mythic Moonchild loom large in my sky tonight. His biography is one of the most compelling stranger-than-fiction stories of the 20th Century. Here’s some highly recommended reading for the newly intrigued:
The following embed of a notorious 1987 indie film called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story comes to us courtesy of New Zealand-based comic book writer and artist Dylan Horrocks, who says “I remember seeing it at the Auckland Film Festival and being disconcerted, impressed, and powerfully moved. [...] The audience laughed a lot at the beginning. But by the end, we watched in stunned silence. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Two years after graduating with an MFA from Bard College, Superstar director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine,Far from Heaven,Safe) shocked and moved unprepared audiences with the now-infamous and nigh-impossible-to-track down 43 minute film. “Seizing upon the inspired gimmick of using Barbie and Ken dolls to sympathetically recount the story of the pop star’s death from anorexia, he spent months making miniature dishes, chairs, costumes, Kleenex and Ex-Lax boxes, and Carpenters’ records to create the film’s intricate, doll-size mise-en-scene. The result was both audacious and accomplished as the dolls seemingly ceased to be dolls leaving the audience weeping for the tragic singer.” (via)
Richard Carpenter, upon viewing the film, was apparently enraged at its depiction of his family– especially by Haynes’ insinuations that Richard was gay. In 1989, after confirming with A&M Records that Haynes had never obtained proper music licensing for numerous Carpenters songs used in the film, Richard Carpenter served Haynes with a cease-and-desist order and sued him for failing to obtain proper clearance. Haynes offered “to only show the film in clinics and schools, with all money going to the Karen Carpenter Memorial Fund for anorexia research”, but Carpenter was unrelenting, and eventually won his lawsuit against Haynes. All copies of Superstar were recalled and destroyed. (According to Wiki, the Museum of Modern Art retains a print of the film, but has consented to never screen or exhibit it at the Carpenter estate’s request.)
More than two full decades after it was made, copies of Superstar still remain very difficult to track down. Except, of course (somewhat dubiously), on YouTube.
O frabjous day! (Callooh! Callay!) It is March 20th, 2012– the official US release date of UK-based author Nick Harkaway‘s second novel, Angelmaker.
Comrades, if you appreciate joyful and highly original storytelling, you need to pick up this book. Immediately. Trust me when I tell you that Angelmaker is easily one of the most endearing works of fiction that will be published this year… or next, for that matter.
Better yet, trust William Gibson: “You are in for a treat, sort of like Dickens meets Mervyn Peake in a modern Mother London. The very best sort of odd.” Or Tim Martin: “this is as far as it could be from the wearied tropes that dominate so much of fantasy and SF.” Or Glen Weldon: “A big, gleefully absurd, huggable bear of a novel.” Or Charles Yu: “Nick Harkaway’s novel is like a fractal: when examined at any scale, it reveals itself to be complex, fine-structured and ornately beautiful. And just like a fractal, all of this complexity and beauty derives from a powerful and elegant underlying idea.”
(Yes. YES! THIS. What they said. All of it, plus tax, and with great interest.)
Who among you has read Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World? Those who have know what a big-hearted and ferociously intelligent storyteller he is– how he crafts narratives that defy categorization (and sometimes gravity), shunting his intricate, multi-pronged prose along at breakneck speeds. TGAW is a sprawling, surprisingly poignant hero’s epic that unfurls like a Lichtenberg figure against an unlikely backdrop of pirates, mimes, ninjas, horrific super-weapons and devastating post-apocalypse. It’s equal parts meticulous, silly, sincere, impassioned, hilarious.
The yarn of Angelmaker is made of similarly electric stuff, only spun even more finely, and woven so intricately that many passages play out like a kind of multi-layered literary sleight-of-hand: How did he do that? Within his wordplay, Harkaway ensconces acts of commensurately deft swordplay, espionage, gangbuster hijinks, and even higher fantasy. Intricate family bonds are explored and philosophical quagmires grappled with. There are trains, planes, automobiles, and submersibles. Sex! Monks! Murder! Mechanical bees! We are introduced to tragic elephants and a heroic pug. Harkaway dares us not to fall in hopelessly in love with each and every character and object and exotic locale he braids into the microcirculatory tapestry. (Bear in mind, there are thousands of distinct and lavishly described elements.)
At the golden hammering heart of the story we find Joe Spork, a lonely/adorable identity-crisis-having horologist, and Edie Banister, a ninety-year-old former superspy whose badassery transcends time and easy pigeonholing. Together –with the help of their magnificent friends/lovers/family, and thwarted by an assortment of deliciously loathsome villains– Joe and Edie must rescue the world from an antiquated doomsday device unlike anything anyone ever imagined… save for the tormented genius Frenchwoman who haplessly invented it.
It all sounds utterly absurd, doesn’t it? Well, it is. Ravishingly so.
Now. That being said, I’m delighted to present the following Coilhouse interview with Nick Harkaway, author of Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World. Huge thanks to Qais Fulton for supplying several of these questions, and downright humongous thanks to Mister Harkaway for taking the time to answer them all so thoughtfully.
Nick Harkaway. Photo by Rory Lindsay.
COILHOUSE: You were a professional screenwriter before becoming a novelist. Both The Gone Away World and Angelmaker –while infinitely more complex, dense, and multi-layered than the medium of film could ever allow for– have decidedly cinematic qualities: panoramic descriptions of places and scenes, well-paced bursts of action, crackling dialogue. Do you often find yourself pushing or pulling against that previous construct, or have you compartmentalized the two mediums? What (if any) are some of the most important tools you’ve brought with you from your screenwriting career? NICK HARKAWAY: Mostly for me the sense of the story leads the writing, so I know where I’m going and I come up with how to say it as I go. (I don’t mean that character doesn’t drive, rather than I have an overarching sense of what character and plot will do in combination, and I then have to write a line through that using the right scenes and the right language to express it. There’s a constant battle to find words and events which properly capture the concept in my head. And sometimes it turns out that the concept has conveniently ignored some logical realities and I have to bridge a gap…)
But screenwriting is a terrific base to work from. There are two gifts it gives which are obvious: if you’ve written a movie script, you know that you can finish a story. (I swear, more people get hung up on sheer terror of the long form than anything else.) And you know about concision. Every good writer I know has at one time or another worked in a field which required them to be able to express a lot in a short space, with minimal linguistic flourish. Whether that’s journalism, the civil service, the law, or something else, it’s a great discipline. I, obviously, have sort of abandoned that kind of sparse writing, at least for the moment, but that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from it.
What pushed you to write your first novel? Was there a specific catalyst?
Yes. I was heartily sick of pitch meetings. I couldn’t stand taking another great story to someone who was fried on Starbucks’ coffee and not really paying attention and have them object to everything which was interesting about it and then complain that what was left wasn’t original enough. Or some variation on that theme. The final straw was a musketeer-ish story I wanted to write which was about a women who had, in her youth, dressed as a kind of D’Artagnan figure. She’s in middle age, her kid gets kidnapped, and she has to go back to being an adventurer – but she’s no longer a waif. She’s a farmer. She’s strong, heavy, and very obviously female. So she puts on a fake beard and decides essentially to be Porthos instead. There was all kinds of fun stuff in that story – just talking about it I want to get it out of the drawer again. Anyway, my panel of (female) execs sit through this, and at the end they say “well, it’s kinda hard to place stories with a middle-aged female lead”. And that is their entire critique apart from a nice extra kiss-off about transvestitism being hard to sell, too. And I just thought “screw this”.
I was doing research for another post a while back, and found something a bit…unusual. It was an old Japanese scroll about farting. No, you didn’t misread that last sentence. The whole scroll, which is called He-Gassen (“The Fart Battle”) is just about people farting. Farting at other people, farting at cats, farting off of horses, farting into bags; just farting everywhere. [...] I kept expecting to find some deep cultural explanation as to why these guys made whole scrolls about farting. But I think it really just boils down to one universal truth: farts are funny. We can pretend that our senses of humor are more sophisticated than that, but let’s face it: when somebody lets one rip, you’re going to chuckle.
Couldn’t have put it better myself!
Click this link to read and see more. Click it now. Trust me. You may not know it yet, but you need more 19th Century Japanese fart scroll in your life. Delve deep into this dubious cleft of cryptohistory.
“Fuck You” Opening Party is tomorrow (Thursday, February 16th) from 6pm-9pm. Exhibition closes Thursday, March 8th. Boo-Hooray is open every day from 11am-6pm.
There’s a gallery space down on Canal St. in NYC called Boo-Hooray; it’s a splendid place dedicated to 20th/21st century counterculture ephemera, photography, and book arts. Tomorrow evening (Thursday, Feb 16th) is the opening night for their most recent exhibition: a comprehensive collection of publications from Ed Sanders’ legendary Fuck You Press, including a complete run of Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts.
Ed Sanders‘ an unofficial patron saint of the 20th century underground who has often been referred to as “the bridge between the Beat and Hippie Generations”. More specifically, he’s a poet, singer, activist, author, and publisher. Any way you cut ‘n’ paste it, this man broke the mold and the mimeograph!
Sanders shares a bit of history about his publication:
“In February of 1962 I was sitting in Stanley’s Bar at 12th and B with some friends from the Catholic Worker. We’d just seen Jonas Mekas’s movie Guns of the Trees, and I announced I was going to publish a poetry journal called Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts. There was a certain tone of skepticism among my rather inebriated friends, but the next day I began typing stencils, and had an issue out within a week. I bought a small mimeograph machine, and installed it in my pad on East 11th, hand-cranking and collating 500 copies, which I gave away free wherever I wandered. (…)
Fuck You was part of what they called the Mimeograph Revolution, and my vision was to reach out to the “Best Minds” of my generation with a message of Gandhian pacifism, great sharing, social change, the expansion of personal freedom (including the legalization of marijuana), and the then-stirring messages of sexual liberation.
I published Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts from 1962 through 1965, for a total of thirteen issues. In addition, I formed a mimeograph press which issued a flood of broadsides and manifestoes during those years, including Burroughs’s Roosevelt After Inauguration, Carol Bergé’s Vancouver Report, Auden’s Platonic Blow, The Marijuana Review, and a bootleg collection of the final Cantos of Ezra Pound.
Other contributors to Fuck You included Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Julian Beck, Ray Bremser, Lenore Kandel, Charles Olson, Tuli Kupferberg, Joel Oppenheimer, Peter Orlovsky, Philip Whalen, Herbert Huncke, Frank O’Hara, Leroi Jones, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Robert Kelly, Judith Malina, Carl Solomon, Gregory Corso, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Michael McClure, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Gilbert Sorrentino, and countless others.
It was a ‘zine “dedicated to free expression, defying taboo subjects, celebrating sexual liberation and the use of psychedelics years before the Summer of Love. Sanders and his collaborators bridged the Beats of the Fifties and the counterculture of the late Sixties, and helped define many of the differences between the two—the latter building on the breakthroughs initiated by the former.”
The Fuck You opening party is happening Thursday, February 16th – 6pm-9pm. Sanders will be reading from/signing copies of his book. Exhibition closes Thursday, March 8th. Boo-Hooray is open every day from 11am-6pm.
New Yorkers! Don’t miss this! (And by all means, report back in comments.)
Our dear and charming and preternaturally intelligent friend Mister Thomas Negovan was recently invited to give a TED talk in the midwest United States wherein he shared, among more personal revelations, “how unearthing obsolete technologies teaches us about our future.” Here it is:
Thomas, in addition to making music and running the Century Guild art gallery, regularly lectures all over the world on subjects ranging from Art Nouveau to Weimar-era Berlin cabaret; his talk on the subject of populism and technology is both informative and self-assured.
As one who shares Thomas’ interest in archaic technology and antique musical instruments, and as a fellow wax cylinder experimenter, I found the live/real-time demonstration of the wax cylinder machine especially intriguing!
Thomas’ sexy wax cylinder player, playing to the crowd at our fundraising Ball last summer in NYC.
The advent of animated features and silent films remains one of the most significant accomplishments of the 20th century. Sadly, before celluloid preservation standards were set in place, much of the early studio output of the 1920s was lost or damaged beyond repair. One of those pieces is an animated film, The Centaurs, produced by Windsor McCay in 1921. Of the sole print, which disintegrated due to negligent storage, only about 90 seconds have been salvaged.
The animation style is quite beautiful, very influenced by the Art Nouveau motifs of the times, recalling Jugendstil illustrations, like this one, in particular.
There is no solid indication available anywhere about McCay’s original intentions for the feature. Was there to be a plot, or did he mean for it to be a romantic, picturesque montage of frolicking centaurs? (Nothing wrong with the latter.) At least we have this little bit to enjoy.
Gaze in awe upon the majesty of the Bennie Railplane, designed and built by Scotsman George Bennie (more details about which can be found linked below). Capable of producing a a steady 60 brake horsepower, it was projected it would be able to reach sustained speeds of 120 mph. By 1930, a prototype of this weird not-a-monorail was running on a 130 yard test track at Milngavie near Glasgow, transporting thrill-seekers from one end to the other. By 1937, however, Bennie had gone bankrupt (no doubt due to the fact that his machine only traveled 130 yards) and, in 1950, the line was demolished for scrap, thereby closing this ridiculously impractical great chapter in land-based, propeller driven transportation.
Not long after the Railplane began its brief service, another strange wonder emerged from Europe: Germany’s Air Torpedo. Developed by Richard Pfautz, it was meant to transport mail from one side of the country to the other. The claim was that such a trip could be made in 40 minutes, the sleek, propeller driven bullet riding on rails (you can see a larger image here). The cost? Six cents. And here we are, sending our mail by truck and plane when, instead, we could be building air torpedo rails. Shameful.