Norman Levine, like no other writer, manages to convey, squarely, through this single, sad, common reaching out at strangers, the horrific fear scarred across the nervous system of the post-Munch, post-Bacon, human condition

Image result for Norman Levine, I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well, .
Norman Levine, I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well, Biblioasis 2017.

Norman Levine's stories, so spare and compassionate and elegant and funny, so touching, sad, fantastic and unforgettable, rank alongside the best published in this country. Celebrated abroad, his work was largely unknown in Canada, except among the generations of writers he influenced, from André Alexis and Cynthia Flood to Lisa Moore and Michael Winter, who passed his work among themselves and learned much of their craft from studying Levine's own. His work long out of print, his entire output of short stories are collected here together for the first time, to be discovered by a new generation of Canadian readers and writers.

Norman Levine was a permanent outsider, by temperament and by choice — as Polish born immigrant, as resident alien, as writer, as Jew — and he observed life from the margins with an unsentimental eye. Raised in Ottawa after immigrating, Levine served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World war. He then lived an itinerant life for a time before settling down in the community of St. Ives in England, becoming close friends with painters such as Francis Bacon and Patrick Heron. Impressed by the emotional immediacy of their abstract work, he tried to do the same in his writing, with his words aimed to sear his readers' nervous systems. In the process Levine developed the minimalist style, using a lean, fragmentary, suggestive language which served to heighten the emotional charges laden in his work, for which he became so rightly celebrated and emulated by other writers.
Gathered together at last in a single volume, the stories in I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well present the best work of one of the great English prose stylists of the last half of the twentieth century. These stories evince a vivid texture and sensibility and are elegaic in their exploration of alienation, impermanence and the fragility of human hopes, while forcing the reader through his imagistic approach into a new and uneasy relationship with language and, through it, life. (From Biblioasis)

The joke in Norman Levine’s posthumous short story collection, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well has surely one of the most chilling, stalling effects in modern literature. Levine’s world is cold, it is a transatlantic, bureaucratic world of coastal publishers that gossip over contracts and writers and promiscuous BnB hosts that bed off-duty soldiers. Here, everybody is a stranger, and it’s better they remain that way.
The axe that comes break us, the weight that shifts the frozen sea, finally, is the deep loneliness portrayed in the characters attempts at telling each other jokes. And Levine, like no other writer, manages to convey, squarely, through this single, sad, common reaching out at strangers, the horrific fear scarred across the nervous system of the post-Munch, post-Bacon, human condition. That condition, it seems, is loneliness, and it weighs on us, in Levine, most poignantly through the frail passing of an awkward attempt at humour. The first two stories, ‘A Father’ and ‘In Quebec City’, end with characters telling jokes. And what should feel like union, feels like the end of the world:
“You used to tell me jokes, Mendel,” I said. “Where did they come from?”
“From the commercial travellers. They come to see me all the time. All of them have jokes. I had one this morning. What is at the bottom of the sea and shakes?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“A nervous wreck,” he said and smiled. “Here is another. Why do cows wear bells around their necks?”
I said nothing.
“Because their horns don’t work.”
In Levine’s work, the light joke, becomes the pivotal symbol for all that it embodies and decodes for us about how we behave around each other, the failure of connecting, the inevitable loneliness of settling for whatever happens. As these quotidian, short-lived attempts at union collapse, so do our plans, and our predictions. Lives in these stories never turn out as expected, but they do have the accomplish, the finish, of a life that feels real; sometimes to the point of unbearable pain. Whether it be an old friend that the protagonist bumps into that he can’t connect with, or a father whom he wishes not to be similar to in anyway, for his lack of power, these characters resonate with the human flicker of reality; the chaos that lurks behind the ordinary lives of strangers.
The description of industrial connectivity through modern transit clashes against the thick strokes of the coast, and even more so against the tortured pallet of the men and women who populate the stories: all seem to have lost something, whose detail they have forgotten—to the point where the only thing they seem to be aware of is that the thing they have lost was precious. In ‘Champagne Barn’ a mother is dying; she wants to both carry out her imminent death with as much practicality as possible, by helping her children, whilst also failing to comprehend any tragedy inherent in the situation. She seems to exist in two places at once. And the result, the portrait that is conveyed, is one of existential terror.
It is no wonder, then, that he was a good friend of Francis Bacon’s, the man responsible for skewed portraits described by a Prince Charles as “awful.” Levine wanted to capture that same immediacy that he saw in painting, he wanted to flare up the nervous system with flashes of everyday life, awful portraits of its sadness and subtle confusion swimming beneath the surface. He is so successful, that whilst reading these stories, one feels a sense that one is hardly reading at all—that the words written on the page have been scored somewhere between the invisible layer of the painfully visible and the necessarily unspoken. The prose is so clean, it carves like a knife into reality, and performs an autopsy on modern reality and social behaviours, so correct, it almost seems like it might, for a moment, bring the stifled, post war, nuclear world, back to life, back into some kind of awareness of what has been lost and what cannot be found.
During the eponymous story, the reluctant, unnatural social interactions between two characters shoehorned together, becomes odder the more realistic it gets. Al Grocer has lost his pen, and in their shared pursuit of a new one, the two men begin, slowly and subtly, to discover sides to one another that they like less and less. The story plays out like one of those no-days that you had very nearly forgotten:
We came out and walked along the front.
“I think we can get a biro,” I said, “in Literature and Art.”
But I’ve got one.” And he brought out from his fawn jacket pocket one of the plastic pens that were on sale in Woolworth’s. “What’s the matter,” he said good-humouredly. “Haven’t you ever taken something without paying for it?”
These distances, as stories navigate St. Ives, Ottawa and Montreal, push characters further away. What we are left with is an awareness and validation of the outsider, and the condition of separateness. But whilst these portraits create a reality so accurate we not only see the flesh but the nerves below, there is a redemption to be had behind the bleak separateness on display, in every town, in every house, on every train. Because at the heart of this unique collection is a beautiful message: the real—and rare—connection is worth the search.
About the reviewer: Chris Viner is a writer living in Los Angeles. His book Lemniscate (Unsolicited Press, 2017) is a book of poetry that attempts to champion the visionary in a changing city besieged by terror. He studied at Goldsmiths, University of London and St Anne’s college, University of Oxford. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart award. - Chris Viner http://www.compulsivereader.com/2017/12/19/a-review-of-i-dont-want-to-know-anyone-too-well-by-norman-levine/

Norman Levine (1923–2005) was raised by Orthodox Jews in Ottawa and received his education in Montreal. But he was born in Poland and spent much of his life in England, where he married, started a family, and became a writer. Which is to say that Levine was not really all that Canadian in the first place (his adversarial relationship with the country is on view in his 1958 memoir/travelogue, Canada Made Me). Yet by choosing exile – a status he felt suited his vocation – what might be regarded as Levine’s fundamental Canadian-ness became fortified. Levine’s short fiction, collected in I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, cannot help but be read as emblematic of our national literature. It is the work of an observant outsider regarding landscapes and buildings, places and culture, others and self.
The collection’s title is ironic in that intimate connections abound in Levine’s stories, yet this title is also indicative of a sensibility shaped by comfort with distance and exclusion. Levine’s protagonists are forever curious about another class, another generation, another place or culture; about alternative choices that might have resulted in different outcomes.
Levine’s early stories tend to be shorter and more performative, employing humour so dry it may not even qualify as humour, and marked with arresting elisions and idiosyncratic phrases: “I was riding away to war in a taxi.” “The feathers, they sleep with you like another person.” “Until he met me he thought everyone in the world was a Catholic.” The later stories are more expansive, patient, and comprised of larger swaths of time while simultaneously closing in on death. In “Soap Opera,” for example, the narrator ruminates that “whenever I go to a new place and walk around to get to know it, I inevitably end up in a cemetery.” Or take the final lines from “The Ability to Forget,” which was also Levine’s final story: “People disappear. And that’s that.” By the time you reach the end of I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well you feel as though you’ve been through something: decades of experience doled out in fictions.
The uninitiated might not understand how literally to take this. One reads several stories, nearly all of them written in the first person, all of them with the same tone, making the same highly distinctive observations. It’s easy to wonder if there is a major flaw in this otherwise masterful prose: the voice in Levine’s stories is always the same, no matter the narrator. Then one realizes that the narrator is always the same, no matter the name, and every narrator resembles Levine himself: male, Jewish, from Ottawa, McGill educated, a veteran, married to an Englishwoman, long indigent before finding success as a writer. Fiction is for Levine a vehicle for something very much like autobiography.
In an essay called “Kaddish,” which functions as a sort of afterword to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, John Metcalf writes, “Norman’s stories … are unusual in that invention is not his real interest: a little judicious rearrangement is often as far as he’s prepared to go.” As with A Manual for Cleaning Women, the recent collection of Lucia Berlin’s stories, part of the pleasure of reading I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well is in traversing the span of a life by reading the stories extracted from it. The stories in this volume are more or less sequenced to mirror events in the author’s life, endowing the book with a transcendent arc, a meta-coherence – the movement of memoir filtered through the collage of multiple self-contained narratives.
This emphasis on fiction as a means of self-examination should not obscure Levine’s profound interest in others, however much he may despair at our inability to communicate. “By a Frozen River” brims with encounters with transients. “Grace & Faigel” shows the narrator striking out with younger women because of misunderstandings regarding changing sexual mores. “Because of the War” considers the enigma of causality, how people enter and exit our lives under the illusion of choice or destiny. Several narrators visit ailing mothers; these stories are unspeakably tender. Levine’s narrators often enjoy the company of people no one else seems to like: the title story has the narrator hosting an annoying Australian radio broadcaster who has predilections for shoplifting and offering unsolicited marital advice.
On that note, the one character in Levine’s life we never get to know too well is his wife, who died of cancer when Levine was 50. This fact is noted in several stories, in which grief is ever-present but never dwelled on. But the wives in Levine’s stories, while commenting on the action, are seldom described in detail and rarely play active roles. This should be considered not neglect, but rather self-preservation – Levine’s way of saving something for himself alone. I can’t help but feel, however foolishly, that I got to know Levine from all that he reveals over the course of I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. But I’m most moved by those vast territories of experience he chose to leave out.
José Teodoro  https://quillandquire.com/review/i-dont-want-to-know-anyone-too-well-collected-stories/

In “Gifts,” one of the stories now gathered in I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, the collected stories of Norman Levine, the protagonist, a writer, meets two men and a woman at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. These strangers introduce themselves and claim to like his writing, chatting for a while. Then Julie, the woman in the group, says:
I have only read a few of your stories in magazines. I like the way you describe the small details of everyday life. But if I may make one criticism—you don’t make use of fantasy. If you could have fantasy in your stories then you would reach a wider audience.
The protagonist takes no offense at the comment, and later, after they have invited him to visit their room, sharing in champagne, the trio reveal they have recently robbed a branch of the Bank of Montreal. Someone robbing a bank, or anything as dramatic, is a weird moment in a Levine story, and given Julie’s prior suggestion in the narrative, extremely funny. It’s as if Levine, aware of the lack of car chases in his fiction, has accommodated his character’s criticism with a dramatic invention. One can’t help but feel he is giving us a wink too. These self-referential pages are revealing if one is trying to unlock the style and substance of what constitutes a story by Norman Levine, or to resolve some of the mystery as to why this meticulous, consummate writer received little attention during his lifetime, a source of frustration to Levine fans and scholars.
His enthusiasts know the biography. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Minsk, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa's district of Lower Town—occupied then by mostly French and Irish Catholics—before being sent to England as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Returning to Canada, he attended McGill University and published two poetry collections before his first novel, The Angled Road (1952) and a memoir, Canada Made Me in 1958 (“My writing begins with that book,” Levine would write). For some critics, this book is considered the main reason for Levine’s neglect in Canadian letters. Written as a three-month journey across the country, Levine’s recollections and portraits are less than flattering, depicting a gritty, desolate, working-class panorama of mid-century Canada. He writes: “No one is really a stranger in Canada if he was brought up in a small town. They remain so much the same across the country: a vast repetition, not only of the Main Street, the side-streets, the railway track, the river; but the same dullness and boredom."
A product of both honesty and bad timing, this account did not sit well with the nationalist cultural cheerleaders who, in the following decade, were engaged in improving the perception of Canada leading up to its centenary year of Confederation in 1967. In the Foreward to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, John Metcalf includes the obituary he wrote for The Independent on Levine’s death in 2005, in which he argues that Canada “never recognized Levine’s amazing talent and achievement” and “never forgave” him for the publication of Canada Made Me. Levine did not publish another book in his own country for seventeen years. Discouraged by the lack of reception and frustrated by the feeling that “there wasn’t enough going on,” Levine moved to England, settled in Cornwall, and save for a few stints as Writer-in-Residence at universities in Fredericton and Toronto, never lived in Canada again.
But he continued to publish what became his legacy: the short stories. Levine’s reputation rests on these, many of which saw their first appearance in the Sunday Times, New Statesman, Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue throughout the 1970s and 80s. Important collections followed, notably I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well (1971), Champagne Barn (1984), Something Happened Here (1991), and his final book The Ability to Forget in 2003.
Throughout these volumes, Levine’s stories share familiar details. With some exceptions, the setting is either St. Ives or Ottawa. There are the same locales: a mother’s home for the elderly, the Chateau Laurier, Rideau Bakery, the Cornish landscape, the country roads and cheap accommodations. Likewise, the core characters, sometimes with a name change, remain the writer-protagonist (always short on money, always scraping together just enough to pay the overdue bills), his patient wife (Emily, Marie, Coral) and an elderly mother. First-person point of view predominates; occasionally the third is used, as in “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice” or “A Small Piece of Blue.” It is also consistent for the main character to be arriving from somewhere else. “On Thursday morning the train arrived at Sault Ste. Marie,” begins “A Small Piece of Blue.” “I got into Riverside as the first grey light of the dawn came,” begins another.
...I came back to Ottawa...
...in the spring we left London...
...I had returned to Ottawa from the West...
In the winter of 1965 I decided to go for a few months to a small town in Northern Ontario.
Levine seemed to appreciate the psychological and dramatic consequences of transit, when the mind must shift between fixed emotional points, exposing tensions between the present and the past.         
These details are all, for the most part, recognizable from Levine’s own life. Some critics and fellow writers have pointed out the thin divide between Levine’s personal history and his “fiction.” In a contribution to the anthology of essays on writing, How Stories Mean, Levine has stated of his stories: “…in writing them I tried to be as close as possible to what I had seen and felt.” Metcalf, in an afterword to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, titled “Kaddish,” offers:
One cannot usually read fiction with any assumption that it is autobiographical. Norman’s stories, however, are unusual in that invention is not his real interest; a little judicious rearrangement is often as far as he is prepared to go.
It seems likely from Levine’s own comments that many of the characters and situations are based heavily on real people and events, but shuffled occasionally to suit the structural tensions in the story. Characters drawn from life may never have met there. Another essay from How Stories Mean, on the writing of “A Small Piece of Blue,” bears this out. In the story, the protagonist has taken a job at a mining camp in Northern Ontario. Yet Levine admits another character was based on a music teacher from North Devon. Still another was a customer in a pub in London. He says, “The pressure of writing the story was like a magnet that pulled these pieces from my past.”
Characters’ encounters are, in essence, the center of Levine’s fiction. They are social stories. Nothing else really happens. People run into or visit each other, they meet up, have a drink maybe, even spend a few days in each other’s presence, then move on. Sometimes (“Why Do You Live So Far?,” “A Visit,” “To Blisland”) a visitor arrives; in others the protagonist returns to Canada (“Champagne Barn,” “Soap Opera,” “The Girl Next Door”). Since so little occurs of any dramatic nature, this meeting of people is the crucial stimulus to these narratives and the reason why they are so evocative and addictive. Human connections are the source of both the emotional ballast and instability in Levine’s characters, and make apt the painful contradiction of his title I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Knowing someone well involves emotional investment, with its human rewards, but also the attendant disappointment and pain. Living in peripatetic conditions, Levine may have felt decentered and alienated, in search of a link to the past. The crisis plays out, at room temperature, throughout his stories. In these encounters, there is always a sense of deflation, of inadequacy, of better dreams tempered by experience. Controlled desperation is hinted at. On occasion, it boils to the surface in characters’ exasperated moments. “We can’t go on like this,” Rosalie says in “A View on the Sea.” Or “What am I doing here?” (“LMF”). “What have I done with my life?” says Mrs. Kronick in “Because of the War.”
In “The Girl Next Door,” the writer returns to Ottawa and introduces himself to a nearby tenant of a rented apartment. They talk, spending time together. He notices her restlessness. She tells him she’s had a quarrel with her boyfriend. She explains she’d tried art school but quit. “I was trying the wrong things,” she tells him. She continues hanging around until he explains he has to work. She leaves. Then she calls him the next day. “I’m going to kill myself,” she tells him. He takes a taxi and finds her. They hang out for a few more days until she decides to return to Toronto.
“Thanks for talking to me,” she said. “You don’t know how much all those talks we had meant to me."
And I felt bad. All I could think of was how abrupt I was with her. How little I did give of myself.
Expressions of outright despair are rare. Instead, Levine, like Chekhov, is a great observer of hidden watersheds, of mundane disquiet and loss. There are no screaming matches or slammed doors in these stories, no plot lines or “fantasy”; only an atmosphere of things barely acknowledged. It’s what makes his exquisite portrait, “A Father,” that opens this collected, so powerful. With seeming dispassion, in a few short, memorable sketches, Levine depicts his subject as a slightly pitiful, working-class fruit peddler, whose ineffective card-playing (“He made costly mistakes”) is a subject of embarrassment. In the final scene, the narrator, now an adult, sits in his parents’ living room on his last day of embarkation leave in 1944. He is wearing a new pilot officer’s uniform. His mother is crying (“She was sure I wouldn’t come back”) when his father begins to tell a string of stock jokes. They begin laughing. “And suddenly I felt immensely proud of my father...” the narrator notes before the taxi arrives and the son says goodbye. But this story must be read. Any synopsis fails to capture how bewilderment is replaced by understanding, how the jokes touchingly circumvent the desperate pain of the moment. In only six compressed pages, “A Father” achieves registers of human complexities difficult to meet.
Likewise, in “A Writer’s Story,” the protagonist and his wife rent a house in Cornwall, where he befriends some locals, including a Mrs. Burroughs and a Mr. Oppenheimer. Mrs. Burroughs tells him stories. He visits Mr. Oppenheimer at his office and his home. Oppenheimer reminisces about D.H. Lawrence, whom he knew briefly. Later, the main character and his wife decide they must leave and try living somewhere else they can afford. The day of their departure, he stops to say goodbye to Mrs. Burroughs, who informs him Mr. Oppenheimer has recently fallen in the street (“He is gone to live with his daughter in the country. We won’t see him again. That’s what happens...”) and offers a gift of a red glass vase (“Why not. They will only fight over it when I’m gone.”). In the final lines of the story, he shows the vase to his wife:
“It’s beautiful,” she said.But she was looking out of the window as the taxi drove along the coastal road. On one side—the earth with the small green fields, the yellow gorse, a stone church with old gravestones. And on the other—an immense sky against the thin flatness of the sea.
My wife took my hand. “I’m glad we are leaving,” she said. “Now things will begin.”
But the optimism evoked by the last line is subverted by the scenes of fatalistic, marginal life they have just abandoned. Likewise, the description of landscape is both stark and beautiful, the characters progressing literally along the edge of a closed past and an open vista, the future unclear.
Levine’s restraint and ambiguity is a product of his careful, unadorned prose, a style of orderly diction and disaffected narratives shaped into a literature of astonishing, enduring immediacy. Immediacy, directness, simplicity: these were all important to him in storytelling. Levine wasn’t interested in artifice. The less to block the reader from the direct experience of the story, the better. In the foreward to Levine’s work, Metcalf gives context to Levine’s place (or lack thereof) in Canadian and International literature, as well as some thoughts on Levine’s particular style. Levine had credited friendships with a group of abstract painters, and daily exposure to their work, as seminal in his growth as a writer. “When they finished a painting,” Levine wrote, “they wanted me to see it in their studio. And there it was. At a glance. Through the eyes. Onto the nervous system. I remember thinking: how could I get this immediacy in writing?” In the same foreword, Metcalf quotes Cynthia Flood’s essay on Levine’s work and development, his increasing need to strip away unnecessary clauses, articles and modifiers that “smother energy.” She claims Levine was trying to break the reader of the habit of reading only to reach the end of the story. Instead we need to experience the texture of the prose and take pleasure in its detail. “We are to look,” she writes. 
The Ricohflex camera is an apt cover image to this edition. Looking and recording was the skill Levine valued above all others. He stripped away unnecessary exposition to get to the essential images of the experience, balanced between the superfluous and the necessary. Levine knew the truth of human relationships is elusive, so never fed his readers conclusions, only suspended them in the suggestion of revelation. If the portrayal often seems bleak, it does not sacrifice beauty. In his prose, these extremes are inseparable.
At night I sit by the desk until my eyes become watery, and I get sleepy. I listen. The surf on the beach. Just one steady noise. The cars have stopped. The lights have been turned off. No sounds, except the sea. I go out along the Back Road to the beach. The breaking waves, white scars in the dark. They gash the black in several places. The gashes grow wider. They join. One white line the length of the beach. Then I come back. (“A View on the Sea”)
Though his writing was refined and concise, it accumulated, and the present Biblioasis edition, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well: Collected Stories, closes in on a generous 600 pages in length. Complex and understated, it remains to be seen if Norman Levine’s stories will reach that wider audience, but the publication of this edition makes them now available to savor. They are all worth reading. Only a few early stories seem unsuccessful, ones like “English For Foreigners,” where the flashes of detail fail to culminate. Most are masterpieces, studies in diminished hope and deflated epiphanies, the reader rewarded with complicated truths, each story a version of the question of what constitutes a life. - David O'Meara

Image result for Norman Levine, Canada Made Me
Norman Levine, Canada Made Me, Biblioasis, 2016.
read it at Google Books

This travelogue-turned-exposé of the “polite nation” at midcentury proved so shocking it took twenty-one years—despite initial acclaim when released in 1958—to see a Canadian edition. A record of his three-month journey across the country, Norman Levine’s vision of Canada’s seedy and unpleasant underworld is now a laconic classic.

"Far better than any book I've ever read about Canada."—Mordecai Richler

"Mr. Levine is a true artist, who grinds his bones - and anything else he can lay his hands on - to make his bread."—Bernard Levin

"Norman Levine sees with a clear eye a good deal of the tragic comedy of human life. And he writes in a marvellously clean, naked prose which is a joy to read."—Edward McCourt

"One of the most moving, most sad, most deeply felt, savage and loving pieces of autobiography I've ever read.—Charles Causley

Randall Martin: Norman Levine’s Canada Made Me pdf (p. 200-203)

Image result for Norman Levine, From a Seaside Town

Norman Levine, From a Seaside Town, Porcupine's Quill, 1993.
read it at Google Books

Joseph Grand, the hero of From a Seaside Town, is a travel writer struggling to eke out an existence in an English seaside town. He introduces us to the small circle of relatives and companions who figure in his life. As he explores the sequence of events that led him to his present state of limbo, it becomes apparent that his crisis is not merely financial but also a crisis of personal identity. A Canadian Jew, Grand has spent a lifetime seeking to submerge his past. Now as a consequence, he discovers that he belongs nowhere. By turns comic and moving, this beautifully observed and beautifully written novel is a striking example of Norman Levine's artistry.
From a Seaside Town has quietly become a classic. It is a book which simply will not go away.

`Mr. Levine is a true artist, who grinds his bones -- and anything else he can lay his hands on -- to make his bread.' - Bernard Levin

`Norman Levine sees with a clear eye a good deal of the tragic comedy of human life. And he writes in a marvellously clean, naked prose which is a joy to read.' - Edward McCourt
Image result for Norman Levine, Champagne Barn,

Norman Levine, Champagne Barn, Penguin Books, 1985.


The son of Polish Jews who emigrated to Canada, Levine grew up in Ottawa, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and thereafter lived in England for 31 years, where he wrote, married and raised a family. A good number of the 23 stories in this exceptional collection were written between 1958 and 1978 and are clearly autobiographical, centering on a Canadian writer living in England who relives his youth through trips back to Canada and visits from Canadian relatives. The narrator of Levine's stories recalls his past effortlesslyfamily relationships, lost loves, old friendships. And with pleasure the reader participates in these journeys, sharing Levine's experiences of fulfillment, disappointment and nostalgia. One doesn't easily leave Levine's tales behind, for as the narrator of the title story says in the volume's concluding line: "I would carry that sound with me long after I left." - Publishers Weekly

In March 1956, a Canadian writer named Norman Levine disembarked from a ship in Halifax. He was back in his country after nearly eight years in England, and he had decidedly mixed feelings about it. “Everything appeared boarded up,” he recalled. “It was as if some animal, a white enormous snake, had crawled in and filled up with its weight every possible surface, smothering and stunning all the life out of the place.”
Levine returned to Canada to write a book about his homeland. He had pitched the idea of a travelogue to the London branch of New York–based publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons. With the advance he received, Levine spent three months travelling from Halifax to Victoria and back east to Quebec, writing about places he knew well (Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and northern Ontario mining camps) and places he had never been (Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver, and British Columbia’s Cariboo region).
The result, published two years later as Canada Made Me, was 277 pages of squalor, dreariness, and grime. Winnipeg is “all width and loose sand blowing and women with bad complexions”; Victoria is “provincial” and “placid”; Edmonton is “still a small town, dull and boring”; Quebec City reminds him of a “well-kept cemetery,” but he approves of it, in a backhanded way, for its French Catholic idiosyncrasies—in the near future, he thinks, “people will come here to see this as something out of a museum, a museum piece, when the rest of the country has been swallowed up into a sameness.”
The arched barbs that fill Canada Made Me add up to an unsparing portrait of the country in the mid-1950s. Levine was particularly attentive to the artificiality of Canadian nationalism. At one point, quoting approvingly from a letter from an unnamed friend, he notes that the country was just something that “issued postage stamps and dollar bills, and set up customs offices next to American customs offices.” Coupled with his own poverty (he was constantly asking friends to wire him funds), Levine’s aversion to jingoism made him surprisingly sympathetic to the victims of Anglo-Scottish Canada: visible minorities, refugees, immigrants, First Nations people. “Of course, the white man did not like something he could not understand, so he tried to destroy it,” he noted in a characteristically offhand aside while visiting a reserve in British Columbia.
Such candour did not endear him to Canadian tastemakers. Though Canada Made Me was conceived as a joint publishing venture between the UK branch of Putnam and Canada’s McClelland & Stewart, after reading the manuscript, Jack McClelland refused to put his press’s name on the 500 copies that Putnam sent for distribution. Despite the book’s reasonably brisk sales, no further shipment was requested. Levine wouldn’t be published in this country again for over a decade.
The uncomfortable response to Canada Made Me likely cemented Levine’s status as a literary exile, but he had always been an outsider with an affection for those he called “the throwouts, the rejects.” In the book, his eye is drawn to the discontent and weariness of the miners in a northern Ontario bush camp, the noseless woman running a boarding house in Sault Ste. Marie, the old drunk who stumbles into a puddle in Winnipeg and is kicked by a passing stranger. Levine wrote what he saw, and what he saw was a country filled with people who didn’t quite fit the picture of civic health that the cultural apparatchiks were selling.
A similar unsentimentality runs through his short stories, forty-two of which have been collected in the recently released I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Levine’s fiction is at its most uncanny when a moment of sudden intimacy gives us a glimpse into the secret life of another person; it is at its most heartbreaking when it reveals how fleeting such glimpses can be. In “My Wife Has Left Me,” the narrator spends most of the story commiserating with his neighbour, whose wife, Colette, appears to have taken off with another woman. As the story concludes, the narrator learns in a casual conversation that the postman’s wife has also disappeared. The narrator serves only to provide the barest frame through which we observe Colette, her husband, and the wounded postman.
In his foreword to the collection, editor John Metcalf makes the case that the long-ignored Levine deserves to be hailed as one of Canada’s literary greats. Closer to the truth, perhaps, is that in a canon of lonely writers, Levine understood solitude best.
Born in Raków, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa’s predominantly Jewish Lower Town. Like others of his generation, Levine came of age too early to benefit from the Canadian literary boom of the sixties and seventies. Stifled by Canadian provincialism, he anticipated his contemporaries Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler by heading to Europe in the late forties. But where Gallant and Richler were drawn to the decaying splendour of Europe’s postwar capitals (Gallant settled permanently in Paris, Richler ended up in London), Levine found himself in the rather less glamorous St. Ives in Cornwall, England.
A tourist town during the summer months, St. Ives retained something of its isolated Cornish character during the desolate winters. By the early 1950s, it was home to a thriving community of abstract painters later known as the St. Ives School. Levine became friends with many of them, including Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and, later, Francis Bacon. He often claimed that he learned the minimalism and immediacy of his signature style by watching them paint.
Levine wrote prolifically throughout the sixties and seventies, in part because it was his only job and he needed to support a wife and three daughters. He honed a tight, observational prose less concerned with plot than with detail, more taken with the ambiguities of human interaction than with ascribing some kind of meaning to them. It’s as though he learned the lesson of Hemingway’s concision but subtracted the drama. Levine’s narrators are seemingly biographically identical to him; his themes and subjects are taken straight from his own life: the stories deal with poverty, identity, the claustrophobia of living in small towns, the excitement and inevitable disappointment of the occasional trip to London. Yet Levine is completely uninterested in himself as a character. Instead, he uses his own experience as a lens through which he can focus attention on others.
In 1978, Levine’s wife died. He left St. Ives shortly after, returning to Canada briefly before marrying again and moving to France. When his second marriage broke down, he returned to England and settled in the northern village of Barnard Castle. The last years of his life brought some recognition, including the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen Award for lifetime contribution, but were marked by the same poverty in which he had lived much of his early life. He died in 2005 at the age of eighty-one.
Levine’s transatlanticism meant that, for most of his career, his work was accessible only in piecemeal form, in small collections published by minor presses in Canada and the UK; this led to a significant amount of overlap. Early stories appeared in multiple later collections (sometimes under different names), passages from Canada Made Me were repackaged into short stories, and short stories were spliced into his 1970 novel From A Seaside Town (notably “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice”). If Levine lacks for a Canadian readership, it could be in part because there is no definitive, breakout collection of his stories, no equivalent of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades or Mavis Gallant’s My Heart is Broken.
That might change with I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Few publishers would release a collection of short stories totalling more than 600 pages, and by an author who has been dead for over a decade, without an agenda. Metcalf makes his clear. “Norman Levine’s stories stand at the very centre of achievement in Canadian short story writing,” he writes—news that would certainly shock most Canadian writers, not to mention Canadian readers. It would probably shock Levine himself—being on the edges of things (religions, movements, continents) was central to his art. We are, after all, talking about a man who complained Montreal was too provincial, then settled in Cornwall.
Metcalf positions Levine as a modernist who spent a lifetime developing a style “marked by its fragmentation, unorthodox grammar, and denial of cadence” that garnered accolades abroad (Le Monde, according to Metcalf, compared him to Chekhov) but was never properly appreciated by the parochial bien pensants of his homeland. Tilting at windmills long collapsed from neglect, Metcalf asserts (contra the Canadian cultural nationalists of the sixties and seventies, I guess) that Levine—the resident alien, the apolitical innovator, the writer’s writer—stands revealed as one of Canadian literature’s “most radiant figures.”
Allowing that these hyperbolic blandishments probably arise from the necessities of marketing copy, Metcalf’s obsession with style above all sometimes risks overlooking what is most moving about Levine’s work: all the compelling humans he creates. Consider the titular character in “Hello, Mrs. Newman,” the faded wife of a former colonial administrator, driven to what appears to be suicide by the loneliness of provincial life. Consider the pompous and tragic squadron leader Albert Richardson in “The Ability to Forget,” still pretending to live the soldier’s life fifty years after the war, or the irrepressible Eastern European travel-documentary maker Al Grocer in “I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well,” with his bulging eyes and ludicrous stories and nervous breakdowns.
It is these characters and their odd humanity I am left with, not Levine’s particular way of describing bruised pears, stopped clocks, or dust on furniture. And his way of drawing attention to the mysterious depths of the dullest, most obnoxious stranger is what makes the world look different when I close the book. If great writing has a mark, surely this is it. - André Forget https://thewalrus.ca/will-a-posthumous-story-collection-help-canada-forgive-norman-levine/

Obituary (The Guardian)
Obituary (Independent)

Henri Roorda - "Joyful pessimism." In this baleful, little-known treatise, Roorda presents debt and boredom in a world of capital as “his reasons for going,” and he dissects these motivations with such astuteness that his anatomy of himself and his perceived failures becomes spellbinding

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Henri Roorda, My Suicide, Trans. by Eva Richter, Spurl, 2017.

45 pages, free e-book in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI (Kindle) formats: http://spurleditions.com/my-suicide

Henri Roorda – a Swiss anarchist, math teacher, and columnist – shot himself in 1925, but left behind this essay, which examines his life and philosophy of “joyful pessimism.”
In this baleful, little-known treatise, Henri Roorda presents debt and boredom in a world of capital as “his reasons for going,” and he dissects these motivations with such astuteness that his anatomy of himself and his perceived failures becomes spellbinding. My Suicide is both melancholy and humorous, political and deeply personal – a meditation on unfulfilled desires and the “uselessness of old age.”

“For a long time I have promised myself that I would write a small book called Joyful Pessimism. This title pleases me. I like the sound it makes and it decently expresses what I would like to say.

“But I believe I have waited too long: I have aged, and there will probably be more pessimism than joy in my book. Our heart is not a perfect thermos that conserves the ardor of our youth until the end, without losing anything.”   — Henri Roorda

Henri Roorda van Eysinga was born on November 30, 1870, and killed himself on November 7, 1925. He was raised amidst revolutionary ideals: when he was a child, his family had to relocate to Switzerland after his father was declared persona non grata by the Dutch government, and there his parents befriended the anarchist thinkers Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin. The young Roorda studied math and went on to work as a teacher who was beloved by his students; he was, however, deeply disappointed by his work. Accordingly, Roorda wrote a progressive critique of the prevailing educational structure (Le Pédagogue n'aime pas les enfants), as well as humorous columns for the Swiss dailies, which were collected in numerous compilations. He frequently wrote under the name Balthasar. Before he died, he left behind a brief note to a friend and his final text, My Suicide (Mon suicide).


Marjorie Worthington - Strange World follows two writers in their turbulent relationship and marriage. Seabrook, a renowned writer of the occult, and Worthington, a novelist and short story writer, find themselves caught in Seabrook’s sadist world and his alcoholic, destructive downward spiral. This intense memoir is also a self-reflecting piece on Worthington’s life while married to Seabrook

Marjorie Worthington, The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, Spurl Editions, Spurl, 2017.
Excerpt on our blog / Excerpt on Berfrois

This is the somber, quietly stunning account of American author Marjorie Worthington’s life and relationship with William Seabrook.
A bestselling writer on the exotic and the occult, Seabrook was an extraordinary figure from the 1920s to the 1940s who traveled widely and introduced voodoo and the concept of the “zombie” to Americans in his book The Magic Island.
In 1966, years after his death from suicide, Worthington, a novelist and Seabrook’s second wife, cast her eye on their years living in France as lost-generation expatriates; their time traveling in the Sahara desert (where Seabrook researched his book The White Monk of Timbuctoo); their friendships with Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, and Michel Leiris; and the gradual erosion of their relationship.
Worthington was with Seabrook in France and later New York when his life became consumed by alcohol, and he took the drastic step of committing himself to a mental institution for a cure; though he wrote about the institution in his book Asylum, he remained an alcoholic. He was also fixated by sadistic games he played with women, which he and the surrealist Man Ray photographed. He later viewed these sessions as a way to initiate altered psychological states through pain.
The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is an intimate look at the complicated, torturous relationship of two writers. Seabrook was a sadist, yet to Worthington he was also enthralling; he was an alcoholic, but she believed she could protect him. Even after he had hurt her emotionally, she stayed near him. In brilliantly depicted moments of folie à deux, we watch Worthington join Seabrook in his decline, and witness the shared claustrophobic, psychological breakdown that ensues.

This cover may well be your first encounter with American writers Willie Seabrook and Marjorie Worthington. It was for me, although Seabrook, especially, captured a wide readership in his day, enlivening New Deal America with alluring dispatches from far-flung locations. On one memorable occasion he and Worthington flew in a small aircraft from Paris to Timbuktu, byword for fantastical remoteness, unable to speak over the roaring engine and communicating in notes. And it was through him, for instance, that readers in the West first encountered the figure of the zombie, a phenomenon which spoke to Seabrook’s more-than-solely-journalistic interest in altered states of consciousness.
Worthington, his lover and later wife, also enjoyed success as a writer, if to a lesser degree; everything about the pair’s relationship suggests it would not have survived an inverse allocation of renown. They met while married to others, but considering the extremely unconventional life they were to live together, Seabrook and Worthington’s meet-cute couldn’t have been more suburban – they were making up a quartet for bridge. The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, originally published in 1966 and now reissued by Spurl Editions, details the pair’s subsequent life together in France and the US from the mid-1920s to their split in 1941, with a mournful coda taking us up to Seabrook’s suicide shortly after the end of World War Two.
With this unsettling book, Spurl seem to have arrived at a mid-point between two of their other titles, the noir squalor of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed and the avant-garde stylings of Michel Leiris. That there might even be a Venn diagram that could offer an intersection between those highly contrasting circles offers some indication of the oddities that await you in this strange world.
Leiris himself turns up, along with numerous other between-the-wars luminaries. “It is impossible not to ‘drop names’ in writing all this,” announces the author. For real; she hasn’t even made it to the end of the first sentence before Gertrude Stein‘s name falls loudly to the page. Elsewhere we marvel at the porcine digits of Ford Madox Ford, visit a brothel with Carl Van Vechten, hole up next door to Aldous Huxley, and go for a night on the tiles with Dashiell Hammett when we bump into William Faulkner. Like you do.
Place names flash across the page like establishing shots and you just know someone interesting is going to arrive; as soon as there was mention of Toulon I realised with a thrill that one of the era’s most intriguing yet elusive figures couldn’t be far. And then, yes! along comes Princess Violette Murat herself, she of smoking-opium-in-a-submarine-with-René-Crevel fame. The name “Sanary” appears, and knowing there to be an émigré community in the Provençal seaside town at the time you realise that all manner of Mitteleuropa exiles will be along soon. Sure enough, there’s Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger and a dour, preoccupied Thomas Mann (son Golo lodged with Seabrook and Worthington for a time, sleeping with a loaded revolver under his pillow). Another temporary Sanary resident, Sybille Bedford, described Worthington as “a stiff, gentle woman with a soft voice and an unhappy face”, and that is precisely how she comes across in these pages.
In France Seabrook and Worthington lived an intensely eccentric, bohemian existence punctuated by brief moments of luxury. That the sanitary arrangements in their loft-like Toulon home can be described, in full, by the words “slop jar” provides some sense of the living conditions, but this is when they appear to have been at their happiest. In what was even by his own quixotic standards an impulsive gesture, Seabrook leased a hilltop château in such an advanced state of disrepair that they could do little more than picnic between its crumbling walls, accompanied by their pet monkey Boubou.
What a complex and contradictory figure this Willie Seabrook was. He grew up in ‘genteel poverty’ and hated the fact, at times enjoyed significant material comforts through his own hard work and the popularity of his writing, yet he would often deliberately dress down, presenting himself as a man of far slimmer means. And although his books sold in enviable amounts, he craved the company and validation of more prestigious writers. He could be intolerably boorish and insensitive to the point of abject cruelty, but was so moved by his first exposure to a Verdi opera that he threw up in the interval.
In some ways Seabrook was ahead of his time. His 1935 book Asylum appeared decades before the rise of the celebrity rehab confessional (with truly propitious timing he had himself committed the day Prohibition was repealed). And certainly his interest in S&M came years before such practices even had the cachet of modish taboo. His particular preoccupation seemed to be in invoking extremes of control, immobilisation, endurance. The cover image of a hooded woman depicts one such exercise, and earned me the disapproving looks of an entire Polish family on the S-Bahn. But Worthington was no participant, no Wanda von Sacher-Masoch, not even an Ella Grainger. She didn’t want to know about the succession of women who arrived for varying durations, some for a single session, some for weeks. She dismissed them as “Lizzies”, trying not to dwell on them as individuals, wishing only their departure and Willie’s return to what passed for normality between the two.
Worthington’s prose is… not artless, exactly, but certainly guileless. She seems to exhale her words in a fretful sigh, sometimes recording the lyrical sensation of moments recalled, sometimes shrouding painful events in silence but never gratuitously retouching the past. Few episodes illustrate the gulf in the pair’s respective sensibilities better than her appalled description of Seabrook cooking and consuming human flesh in a borrowed Parisian kitchen (later – in one of the book’s most disturbing passages – he cooks his own flesh, plunging his elbows into scalding water so he can no longer bend his arm to drink). That Worthington was pained by the careless, callous, crapulous Seabrook is clear enough. Had she lived longer she could have filled a substantial bookcase to groaning with self-help books warning women against precisely the behaviour that she exhibits in this book. She tries to locate the source of Willie’s psychosexual intensity (cherchez la mère, apparently), but fails to question her own dependency. She is no less paralysed than the Lizzies, but there is no safe word for what she undergoes. When the inevitable split comes she is as debilitated as any of Seabrook’s zombies, her personality still captive in Willie’s strange world. Finding late acclaim as a newly single writer, she is unable to inhabit her success, lacking Willie’s greater triumphs to lend it scale and meaning.
In journeying from the bright hilltop of bohemian exile to the grim, demonic depths of co-dependency and finally arriving at an equivocal twilit tranquility, there appears to be something appropriately ritualistic and cleansing to The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, an exorcism of sorts. It was Worthington’s last book, and I can only hope purging herself of it brought her some happiness for the last decade of her life. -

Strange World follows two writers in their turbulent relationship and marriage. Seabrook, a renowned writer of the occult, and Worthington, a novelist and short story writer, find themselves caught in Seabrook’s sadist world and his alcoholic, destructive downward spiral. This intense memoir is also a self-reflecting piece on Worthington’s life while married to Seabrook. Ülrika, for Brazos Bookstore’s Fall Favorites

Explorer, travel writer, occultist and cannibal, Willie Seabrook had the sort of lively CV that one doesn’t see enough of in the literary world these days. Although he is largely forgotten now, Seabrook was a best-seller in his time, credited most notably with introducing the legend of zombies to the popular imagination with his book The Magic Island, published in 1929. The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, written by his long term partner Marjorie Muir Worthington and originally published in 1966, is both a memoir of their lives together and a memorial to a bygone artistic age.
A member of the lost generation, living a bohemian, expatriate lifestyle in the South of France, Seabrook was a contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford and Edith Sitwell, although he was not considered in the same league as them artistically: ‘Because of the sensational material in his books, the fact that Willie wrote very well was overlooked by most of the literary critics‘. In some ways, Seabrook is emblematic of the faded promise of ‘that alcohol-and-love-bedimmed era’. He had fought in the First World War, and been gassed at Verdun in 1916, but still showed signs of survivor’s guilt, and even though he and his circle were insulated from the worst effects of the Great Depression (‘in our dream life in the South of France we hardly ever read the newspapers‘), the question of how to respond to the trauma they had lived through was an artistic and psychological challenge:
‘It may have been such an unsettled and problem-filled time in history that writers found it hard to dig into their souls for the timeless stuff of which great novels and plays are made… in fact, if you were a very sensitive writer who had escaped, you felt a deep sense of shame and an obligation to do something. But what?’
The books that Seabrook did produce during this time have a strong sense of escapism, and boy’s own adventure. The likes of Adventures in Arabia and The Magic Carpet were best sellers, ‘hair-raising tales about the Druses and whirling dervishes and the practice of voodoo in Haiti’. In proto-Gonzo style, Seabrook put himself at the heart of his writing; Air Adventure, for example, tells the story of Seabrook and Worthington flying in a light aircraft from Paris to Timbuktu to meet a defrocked priest (Worthington, at one point, almost died when she and her driver got lost in the Sahara Desert, after becoming separated from her partner). Worthington shies away from judging his literary merits, saying simply that ‘I was too close to him, too caught up in that powerful personality, to be a good judge of him as a writer. I only know that he wrote some illuminated passages of prose, and that he was, in his own peculiar way, a dedicated artist‘.
This dedication led Seabrook to engage in some notorious escapades, not least his acquisition of a portion of human flesh to cook, in order to add realism to his depiction of cannibalism.
In farcical circumstances, he is ejected from a series of kitchens, and comes dangerously close to serving up the dish to his eventual host’s vegetarian wife. With a mixture of admiration and forbearance, Worthington remarks that ‘his books on Arabia and Haiti and the jungle, although they may not have been literal truths, were better than that’.
Of course, like any lost generation writer worth his salt, Seabrook was plagued by demons, in the form of alcoholism and violent sexual impulses which  threatened to derail his relationships and career alike. Generally, Worthington recalls, Seabrook wrote from 5am until midday, completely sober, and then ‘drank as much as he liked, which was often more than he liked‘. Once again, Worthington identifies a deep need for escape in Seabrook’s behaviour: ‘Willie had experimented with drugs, just as he experimented with anything that would move life above or below the normal and respectable. But he was never drawn to any of them, finding in alcohol, which he consumed in gargantuan proportions, sufficient release from whatever he was trying to escape’.
His passion for life ‘above and below the normal and respectable’ was what drove Seabrook’s writing, and made him a captivating companion. However, his drinking was clearly debilitating, and not exactly conducive to digging into his soul for the timeless stuff of which great novels and plays are made: ‘With dread and an utter sense of inadequacy, I would watch the man whose intelligence and strength I loved turn into a babbling child or idiot. I had seen Willie set out deliberately to get drunk, to celebrate a job of work finished. But this was different. This was to deaden an inner anguish so deep a whole ocean of brandy couldn’t touch it’. Eventually, their life in France had to be abandoned altogether so that Seabrook could attempt to dry out in a series of American hospitals, an experience he would later write up in the style of one of his travel books.
Like many charismatic but troubled artists, Seabrook ‘had a way of making a nice woman feel that he needed her, that she alone could help him get rid of the demons that beset him, his drinking and his sadism‘. Worthington is extremely frank about her partner’s sexuality, and the problems it caused. Early on, she notes that ‘Willie loved women, in spite of a deep-seated hostility to his mother, Myra, that compelled him to make them miserable’. This manifested itself primarily in sadism. Although they were devoted companions for long periods, there was no sexual element to their relationship after its early stages, as ‘love-making, for Willie, was a complicated process, all mixed up with his complexes, fetishes and compulsions’, which Worthington had no desire to play along with.
His activities certainly seem like more of a compulsion than a kink. Psychiatrists ‘related his sexual fantasies to a desire to punish his mother, Myra, for some childish hurt’, but there must also have been a self-destructive impulse. At the height of his fame, Seabrook gave a public lecture on his journeys in Timbuktu while a half-naked sex-worker was suspended by her wrists on the balcony.  Later, whilst recovering from his hospitalisation in a wealthy village in upstate New York, and ostensibly researching witchcraft and occult rituals, he courted disaster by engaging in marathon S&M sessions with local girls in a barn. Understandably, all this was a cause of friction with Worthington, who was forced to take on the emotional labour of providing a stable home for her recovering partner, who appears never to have considered the psychological impact his behaviour would have on her: ‘He made no secret of his sexual twist. He wanted people to know about his sadism, and to talk about it. I always felt that it was something private and horrid, to be kept out of sight‘.
The tension that clearly exists between Seabrook and Worthington is the most fascinating aspect of the story. While it may be the accounts of his drinking and sexual mores that draw readers to the book, it is most effective as a thinly veiled portrait of a frustrated female artist being pushed into the background by her dissolute partner.
Early on, during a visit to Gertrude Stein, Worthington is vexed at being left in the company of Miss Toklas, whose role was ‘to entertain the wives of celebrities who came to see [her]… I found it disappointing to be considered a “wife”, because I was a writer too, and I knew a lot more about painting than Willie did’.
Later, we see further examples of Worthington being forced to surrender her own autonomy, as so much of her self is bound up in her relationship to Seabrook: at one point, she says, her love for him was ‘so intricately bound up with my breath I breathed and the blood that channelled its way in and out of my heart that only death could have put an end to it. My death, not his. As different as we were in so many ways, we had become one. I was never to be free of Willie, and, I don’t think, to the very end, he was ever free of me’. Experiencing life without him felt ‘as if I were acting in part of a film, the part with Willie in it having been left on the cutting-room floor’.  At other times, when Seabrook is drunk and belligerent, it is she who makes herself psychologically absent: ‘I had cultivated an ability to be present with the body and absent with the spirit‘.
We see Worthington struggle to reconcile her bohemian tastes with an innate ‘bourgeois streak… a mile wide’. This contrary nature makes it possible for her to survive in a world without Seabrook, but also makes the prospect seem unbearable: ‘I had been wondering how I could still be alive without Willie. Now I knew I would go on being alive in a world without heroics, a world full of little overcharges for repassage and laundry!‘ Thus, during Seabrook’s research into witchcraft, ‘I tried to keep things running smoothly, while knowing that in the barn studio some rather nice girl had been persuaded to let herself be hung by a chain from the ceiling‘. Mournfully, Worthingon adds, ‘aside from those nerve-wracking sessions, we were leading what was for us an exemplary and incredibly normal life‘ – playing golf and badminton, and working, in relative sobriety.
Ultimately, it is easy to see Willie Seabrook, charismatic but flawed, successful but self-sabotaging, as an emblem of his generation. While their life together had a sheen of bohemian allure, looking beneath the surface shows two frail and damaged personalities: ‘we were supposed to be ultra-sophisticates, but really we weren’t. Willie always remained seven tenths small boy, and I was often as self-conscious and shy as if I had never left home‘. The stories which captivated readers were in many ways the adventures of an overgrown child, but that child was too haunted by memories of his mother to negotiate adult relationships, or to tap into ‘the timeless stuff of which great novels and plays are made’.
Whilst the book’s cover, featuring a masked and bound woman chained to a jewel-studded throne, promises a story of exotic debauchery, what it actually delivers is quite different. Worthington is certainly frank about Willie Seabrook’s life and adventures, but as her narrative progressed, I found my attention being drawn away from its primary subject, and towards the author herself, trying to build a full psychological picture from the hints provided in her text. Whilst Seabrook’s writing has dated and been forgotten, Worthington’s straightforward, conversational tone is still compellingly readable, a forerunner of today’s confessional memoir. The gender politics, revolving around the emotional labour of supporting a wayward, borderline abusive partner, and a woman’s attempts to pursue an artistic career being deemed secondary to her husband’s, are certainly relevant, even if the experience is more hinted at than outright stated. While the outre details of Seabrook’s life jump off the page, it is the subtle description of Worthington’s own experiences which linger in the reader’s mind when the book is finished, allowing her, finally to step out of Seabrook’s shadow. - Thom Cuell

First things first. I have to take a minute and say thanks to Eva at Spurl, who brought this book to my attention.    Spurl is a small press, one that specializes in "unusual literature and photography," and I first heard of this publisher when they came out with Jean Lorrain's Monseiur de Bougrelon last year.  They "love the eccentric, the unexpected, the seedy and the absurd" like I do, so it's great match. 
Who is Willie Seabrook, you might ask, just as I did.  I did a half-hearted search on him just to find out what he'd written, but left it at that since I decided I really didn't want to know anything about him until I'd read this book. Here we get to know Willie Seabrook the author, the traveler, and the adventurer; he was a man with many friends who loved him, a man who knew a veritable who's-who list of famous writers and other colorful characters during his lifetime.   However, Marjorie Worthington probably knew him better than anyone. In a very big way, this book is her own story.  Her love for Willie she describes as
 "something so intricately bound up with the breath I breathed and the blood that channeled its way in and out of my heart that only death could put an into it,"
one, which says  "cut myself off from wherever I belonged in order to be with him."
Standing by him with the patience of a saint, finding deep reserves within herself upon which to draw, she documents that "strange world" she lived in with Seabrook, often at great risk to her own sanity, until a time when she just couldn't do it any more.  While the story is not pretty, it is compelling enough that I couldn't stop reading it, not so much because of any voyeuristic tendencies I may have, but because in Marjorie we have a woman who wrestled with her own demons while devoting herself to trying to help Willie with his. Written in 1966, the book takes us through Marjorie's years with Willie Seabrook, and then up until his death in 1945.  Whether this may be her own way of looking back and taking some measure of blame for his suicide, I'm not sure, although the argument could certainly be made here.
She begins her story in 1926 when they were both in Paris as part of what Gertrude Stein called the "Lost Generation."  The "core of her life" as she puts it, was during their seven-year stay in France; it was a time when they met for aperitifs and conversation with  people like Ford Madox Ford, Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Jean Cocteau.  There they lived in a small place in Toulon where they both worked on their writing, although they also spent time travelling  throughout France.   There's a lot of "name dropping," as Marjorie calls it, but we also get a brief glance into Willie's rather strange persona for the first time.  On page 19, she refers to Willie's relationship with women, saying that he liked them,
"in spite of a deep-rooted hostility to his mother Myra, that compelled him to make them miserable...Author, traveler, celebrity, he could still look wistful and sort of small boy, and he had a way of making a nice woman feel that he needed her, that she alone could help him get rid of the demons that beset him, his drinking and his sadism." (19)
These twin "demons" of "drinking" and "sadism"  will reappear many times throughout Marjorie's account, but more interesting is that after having finished the book, it seems to me that here we have the first clue about how Marjorie sees her own role in Willie's life -- she is that "nice woman" who wanted to feel needed, and with whose help he could exorcise the "demons" in his life. Everything that happens later (up to a point), I believe, comes back to this statement, as Marjorie will take his failures on her own shoulders, making them hers.  For example, during the 1930s when Willie began drinking "almost a whole bottle before lunch, and another bottle between the time he awoke from his siesta and nine o'clock at night," to
"deaden some inner anguish that lay so deep a whole ocean of brandy couldn't touch it,"
he came to the decision that he needed to go to New York, "to be shut up someplace 'behind bars' where he couldn't get a drink for love or money."  In Marjorie's eyes, she "had failed" because she "could not help him stop drinking," and she viewed Willie's decision to leave for New York as a way of him telling her that the two of them "weren't good for each other," that she was "the last one to help him stop drinking," and that together they'd "made a fine mess" of both their lives.
She also came to believe that while they were "physically drawn together," she had also failed when it came to taming Willie's other demon, manifested in the women who were paid for hours to allow him to put them in chains while he took sadistic pleasure in their pain.  She referred to these women by the "generic name" of Lizzie in Chains, and while she hated it, she put up with it, once in a while even obliging him herself.

Willie Seabrook and Lee Miller, taken by Man Ray, c. 1930. From "The Zombie King," by Emily Matchar, Atavist Magazine.
About his "Lizzie in Chains" fetish, she wrote that she
"had always kept some tiny thread of hope that one day Willie, who I believed could do anything, would be able to slay his evil demon before it destroyed him."  (293)
Things did seem to be on target for better lives after Willie's treatment for his alcoholism -- he was sober again, they married, he was writing, and they even bought a place in New York out in the country to take on "a new kind of life."   But even for a woman whose patience seemed to know no bounds, and despite her life devoted to  this man, Marjorie eventually came to discover that she had a breaking point, a realization that likely saved her in the process.
The Strange World of Willie Seabrook was written twenty years after Seabrook committed suicide. It is haunting, and between these two covers we find not only a lot of soul searching on the author's part, but also a picture of Seabrook as she knew him,  a deeply-flawed, severely-troubled human being who seemed destined for self destruction.  At the same time she leaves us with the idea that he was a
"fine, intelligent, and lovable man, with a touch of genius as well as madness,"
and that he inspired "deep and indestructible love" among those who "tried to help but were not successful." Perhaps Marjorie should have realized that the possibility looms large that Willie never really wanted help, saving herself a whole load of grief much earlier on.
very highly recommended and major, major applause to Spurl for bringing this book back into print.

- Nancy Oakes, The Real Stuff

This is a curious book. Marjorie Worthington (1900–1976) was the second wife of William Seabrook, an obscure figure today, known—if at all—as much for the lurid details of his life as for his books. In the 1920s and 1930s Seabrook was a well-regarded and very popular writer, delivering to the American public reports of his travels in the dangerous and exotic parts of the globe. Worthington was a writer herself, the author of novels, short stories and biographies, in addition to this memoir, her final major work. By the time The Strange World of Willie Seabrook appeared in 1966 Worthington’s subject was largely forgotten, his exploits eclipsed by wilder figures, while the “unexplored” areas of the world whose exotic lure had fuelled much of his writing were no longer so distant or so strange in a world of continental travel. Seabrook wasn’t completely forgotten at this time; I knew his name, if little else, from a paperback of Voodoo Island that my parents owned. This was a retitled reprint of The Magic Island (1929), a best-selling study of Haiti and its voodoo culture which, among other things, popularised the concept of the zombie.
Seabrook’s name is hard to avoid if you’re reading about witchcraft or the occult in the first half of the 20th century. Aleister Crowley knew him and mentions him in his autobiography, while Crowley is discussed in Seabrook’s Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1940). Crowley’s attitude towards Seabrook seems to have soured in later years, possibly because of some perceived slight or betrayal. The two men have a lot in common: both were the same generation (Crowley was born in 1875; Seabrook in 1884), both were addicts (Seabrook’s demon was alcohol), and both were fascinated by the outer limits of human experience. In Seabrook’s case this famously extended to eating human flesh, an experience he recounted in the follow-up to The Magic Island, Jungle Ways (1930). Marjorie Worthington gives a detailed account of this episode which was much more mundane than Seabrook’s printed version. When the African feast failed to materialise Seabrook decided to keep the incident in the book even if it meant staging a cannibal meal in Paris. One of the fascinating things about Worthington’s memoir is the frequent lurches of tone when Seabrook disrupts their generally placid domesticity with a hare-brained inspiration. If this makes him sound like an Jazz Age Hunter S. Thompson he wasn’t quite as mercurial, but the cannibal episode has a trace of the gonzo as the pair race around Paris one evening, looking for a convenient stove where Seabrook can cook the “rare goat meat” a friend has procured from a Paris hospital.
Worthington logs these and similar exploits with dismay, and one of the many curious aspects of her memoir is the unexamined nature of the attraction between herself and “Willie” as she calls him. Their relationship was an unusual one from the outset. Seabrook and Worthington were both married to other partners before they met; Worthington fell in love almost immediately but rather than go through the usual adulterous games the four people simply swapped partners and went on their way, all still married but now living with their opposite numbers. Worthington remained in love with Seabrook even though they were sexually incompatible, Seabrook having an obsession with bondage games whose outlet was provided by compliant women hired for the purpose. Worthington tried to be understanding but Seabrook’s fetishes and recurrent alcoholism strained their relationship, despite their mutual dependence. One of the ironies of the book is that Worthington recounts her abhorrence each time Seabrook retires to the barn for an endurance session with one of his new women but offers little detail as to what took place. This has the effect of stoking the reader’s curiosity which could hardly have been her intention. Seabrook told her he was interested in the mental effects caused by his bondage experiments—we see a photograph of one session on the cover of the new edition from Spurl—but the sexual dimension remains undiscussed.
The Strange World of Willie Seabrook isn’t an account of continual torment, however. Seabrook had many successful years, and the pair were friends with Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Aldous Huxley, the Astors and others. One of the best parts of the book concerns a journey by plane from Paris to Timbuktu at a time when international air travel was still a difficult and dangerous business. Worthington’s account of a noisy flight across the Sahara in a cramped aircraft that could only fly during the day makes contemporary moans about air travel seem like the whining of spoiled children. Her narrative comes alive when it assumes the character of travel writing, and she writes evocatively about her experience of the Sahara Desert. I’d have preferred more along these lines but for this it may be necessary to turn to Seabrook’s own works of the period, Air Adventure (1933) and The White Monk of Timbuctoo (1934).  John Coulthart, feuilleton

Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock - the most outrageous poet you’ve (probably) never heard of. Described by Yeats as a “scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert, most charming of men,” Stenbock is surely the greatest exemplar of the Decadent movement of the late nineteenth century


Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, Ed. by David Tibet, with an afterword by Tim d'Arch Smith, Strange Attractor, 2018.

An introduction to the Decadent writer Stanislaus Eric Stenbock for the general reader, offering morbid stories, suicidal poems, and an autobiographical essay.
Described by W. B. Yeats as a "scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert, most charming of men," Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock (1860--1895) is surely the greatest exemplar of the Decadent movement of the late nineteenth century.
A friend of Aubrey Beardsley, patron of the extraordinary pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, and contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Stenbock died at the age of thirty-six as a result of his addiction to opium and his alcoholism, having published just three slim volumes of suicidal poetry and one collection of morbid short stories.
Stenbock was a homosexual convert to Roman Catholicism and owner of a serpent, a toad, and a dachshund called Trixie. It was said that toward the end of his life he was accompanied everywhere by a life-size wooden doll that he believed to be his son. His poems and stories are replete with queer, supernatural, mystical, and Satanic themes; original editions of his books are highly sought by collectors of recherché literature.
Of Kings and Things is the first introduction to Stenbock's writing for the general reader, offering fifteen stories, eight poems and one autobiographical essay by this complex figure.

Described by W. B. Yeats as a “scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert, most charming of men,” Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock (1860–1895) is surely the greatest exemplar of the Decadent movement of the late nineteenth century.
A friend of Aubrey Beardsley, patron of the extraordinary pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, and contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Stenbock died at the age of thirty-six as a result of his addiction to opium and his alcoholism, having published just three slim volumes of suicidal poetry and one collection of morbid short stories.
Stenbock was a homosexual convert to Roman Catholicism and owner of a serpent, a toad, and a dachshund called Trixie. It was said that toward the end of his life he was accompanied everywhere by a life-size wooden doll that he believed to be his son. His poems and stories are replete with queer, supernatural, mystical, and Satanic themes; original editions of his books are highly sought by collectors of recherché literature.
Of Kings and Things is the first introduction to Stenbock’s writing for the general reader, offering fifteen stories, eight poems and one autobiographical essay by this complex figure.

“…most charming of men.”
And that, my friends, is the perfect description of the ultimate strange flower: Count Eric Stenbock, the most outrageous poet you’ve (probably) never heard of.
The four slim volumes which Stenbock published in his lifetime – three of poetry and one of short stories – are ridiculously rare, the only biography dedicated to him long out of print. Written by John Adlard, it bears the title Stenbock, Yeats and the Nineties, but apart from supplying that alluring opening description, Yeats is barely mentioned in the book; it appears the publishers were hoping a better known name might improve the book’s chances. Of his subject Adlard curtly states at the outset, “he was a sick man, a pervert, and his life was short.”
Stenbock was born in 1860 to an aristocratic Baltic German family and numbered a queen of Sweden among his ancestors. Largely raised in England, he produced his first collection of poetry in 1881 while at Oxford. Love, Sleep and Dreams was dedicated to Charles Bertram Fowler, a boy with whom Stenbock was infatuated, who died of consumption at age 16; Stenbock himself was ill for much of his short life, shortening the odds of an early death with alcohol and opium.
Stenbock inherited extensive estates in Estonia in 1885, and must have been quite the eyeful when he turned up in a green suit with an orange silk shirt. The conservative Baltic German gentry (a milieu memorialised by Marguerite Yourcenar in her novel Le Coup de grâce), were not ready for such exotic plumage. There was more to come: Stenbock set about turning his grand neo-classical manor into a hothouse cum menagerie, with red walls, tropical blooms and a variety of free-range fauna, including tortoises, monkeys, parrots, doves, lizards and salamanders.
The count’s bedroom featured a pentagram over the bed, and there he would smoke opium and play piano late into the night, emerging the next day – late, naturally – in a dressing gown with a snake wrapped around his neck. Even these quirks were not enough to dissuade misguided local landowners who hoped their marriageable daughters might catch Stenbock’s eye; when invited to dinner with them he would turn up with a pet monkey.
But realising there was more to life than freaking out Baltic blue bloods, Stenbock returned to Britain in 1887. Both his life and work perfectly captured the mood of the Decadent movement then in the ascendant, and not surprisingly this doomed, bizarre being made a lasting impact on his contemporaries. Arthur Symons, for instance, memorably categorised him as “bizarre, fantastic, feverish, eccentric, extravagant, morbid and perverse…” (which makes you realise how much more fun Snow White and the Seven Dwarves would have been as a Yellow Book rather than a Golden Book publication).
Symons deserves to be quoted at length on the subject of Stenbock: “There was in him something fascinating, disconcerting; the manners of the man might easily have become repulsive; yet, all the same, he might, for all I knew, have strayed out of a wild beast show, without any intention of returning thither. Then, as always, he was one of the most inhuman beings I have ever encountered; inhuman and abnormal; a degenerate, who had I know not how many vices.”
Writer Ernest Rhys remembers Stenbock taking five sugars in his tea and playing a Ukrainian lullaby on the piano. In the poet’s rooms he was welcomed by Stenbock with his “familiar” mounted on his shoulder: a toad called Fatima. Elsewhere Rhys discovered a devotional red lamp burning between a Buddha and a bust of Shelley. This eccentric shrine was even visited by Oscar Wilde himself, though he made the mistake of lighting a cigarette from that red lamp, much to his host’s horror.

Stenbock’s grandfather had once left him a sum of money, to be claimed not when but “if” he reached 21 and the poet’s persistent ill health mean he experienced his mortality more vividly than most. There may have been an element of camp to Stenbock’s morbid fixations, but in the 1890s his vision, dark at the best of times, was sunk in Stygian gloom. In 1893 he published a mournful collection under the name The Shadow of Death; the following year he claimed “the highest odds on my life now is five weeks”.
By this time, things were getting really weird. Stenbock could consume nothing heartier than bread and milk and his alcoholism brought on terrifying deliriums. Travelling for various cures, he was steadily losing his grip on sanity, accompanied everywhere by a dog, a monkey and a life-sized doll, whom he referred to as “le petit comte” and insisted was his son.
April 26, 1895 would prove a fateful date for both Oscar Wilde, the public face of Decadence, and Eric Stenbock, arguably its purest exponent. For Wilde, it was the first day of the trial which would eventually see him sentenced to hard labour, which would in turn hasten his death.
For Stenbock, that appointment could be postponed no longer. In one of his last verses he had exclaimed “Why/Should I, whose shaft has withered without bloom/Seek fallen flowers and fruit? – leave me alone to die”. He got his wish; at home in Brighton, he hit his head on a grate after lashing out at a member of his household with a poker and died, aged just 35. - James J. Conway

Few dates embody the “decline” inherent in the original French definition of décadence more than April 26, 1895, signalling as it did the fall of two of the figures most readily associated with capital ‘D’ Decadence. One hundred and twenty years ago today, Oscar Wilde was facing the first day in his trial for gross indecency, the start of the precipitous decline which would end five years later in his premature death. On the same day, Count Eric Stenbock expired in a fit of pique, gripped by madness, alcoholism and addiction, aged just 35.
In his life and afterlife Stenbock never attracted a fraction of Wilde’s renown, but no-one in the present day has done as much to change that as David Tibet. Recently when I posted a news report concerning the restoration of Stenbock’s ancestral seat in Estonia, David himself stopped by to comment. His interest in Stenbock is typical of his boundless curiosity. As prolific as he is with his group Current 93 and numerous other musical and artistic projects, David’s manifold ancillary interests are no mere sidelines, and he has brought passion and scholarship to subjects as diverse as Outsider artist Madge Gill and Coptic theology. Between 1996 and 2004, his Durtro Press imprint published more or less everything the Count wrote, works which were otherwise impossible to come by. During this period Current 93 issued the mesmerising sonic séance Faust, based on Stenbock’s story of the same name. The summit of David’s Stenbockian activities will be an anthology of the Count’s collected works, which will include numerous previously unpublished pieces.
David has generously agreed to answer some questions to mark this auspicious anniversary. It’s a rare pleasure to hear someone talk so knowledgeably about a beloved figure.
James J. Conway: You’ve been engaged with the life and work of Eric Stenbock for many years now. What was your first encounter with the Count, and what was it about him that captured your imagination?
David Tibet: I think the first time I heard of Eric was in 1979 when I read Francis King’s popular biography, The Magical World of Aleister Crowley. Obviously I bought it because I was interested in Crowley, but King writes somewhere when he’s talking about the people that had influenced Crowley, or were perhaps aesthetic bedfellows, “Stenbock made an attempt to understand his own homosexuality in terms of traditional occultism, eventually coming to view his condition as an aspect of vampirism and lycanthropy, torn between Catholicism and diabolism, he died, deluded that a huge doll was his son and heir, in 1895.”
In the 1990s I started collecting M. R. James first editions and became interested in other supernatural fiction of a similar antiquarian bent to M. R. James. I was having lunch with Tim d’Arch Smith and [he] said to me, “have you ever read Stenbock’s Studies of Death?”. I vaguely knew the title and then I remembered what I’d read about Stenbock. Tim said that Edwin [Pouncey], our mutual friend from Sounds – Savage Pencil – had a copy and might be willing to sell it. He did and I took it home, laid on the couch, read it, and became totally obsessed by Stenbock. Edwin said to me, “Studies of Death is rare but the three books of poetry are impossibly rare”, and that I would never get them; even the British Library didn’t have them all. But the obsession became so strong that I determined I would get these books. I also bought [John] Adlard’s excellent biography [Stenbock, Yeats and the Nineties] , and that set me on the quest. It really took me over and I just followed up every possible lead I could.
Perhaps I’ve always been drawn to people whose work I feel has been unjustly overlooked, people like Louis Wain, Tiny Tim, whose work I love but had been forgotten more or less, Shirley Collins, such a beautiful person, such a beautiful voice and forgotten for a long time. Also I thought of The Quest for Corvo. There wasn’t much beyond Adlard and a few other bits and pieces, Christmas with Count Stenbock, the few mentions in Ernest Rhys’s autobiographical writings. But I kept thinking about Enoch Soames in Max Beerbohm’s book where Enoch Soames says “I’m a diabolist, a Catholic diabolist.” So it also linked up with other things that have always fascinated me: grimoires, Catholicism, diabolism; Huysmans and his À Rebours and Là-Bas were huge influences on me in the early years of Current and they’re still books that I love.
JJC: John Adlard describes his subject as a “pervert” who “achieved almost nothing”, Arthur Symons called him a “failure”, while a contemporary review of his work declared “it must be a parody”. Do you have any sympathy for their views?
DT: Odd that Adlard called Stenbock a pervert. Adlard, I know was heterosexual and married, but he obviously had a great fondness for this pervert. But it seems even in 1969 a peculiarly blunt moral judgment. Symons did call him a failure although of course Symons in the period you refer to had been through a massive nervous breakdown and mental collapse. The contemporary view declaring “it must be parody” – that’s very much High Victorian Muscular Christianity in play I think. One of the things I love about Stenbock’s work is, for “the king of the Decadents” his writing style is remarkably undecadent. I think he was influenced by Balzac, who he loved; it was actually quite a plain, unornamented style. His poetry is sometimes very mauve, very purple. I don’t have any sympathy but I like the fact that they gave those views, because they were giving views on someone who was barely known. So God bless Eric – some people noticed him while he lived.
NPG Ax160653; Count Eric Stenbock by Unknown photographer
JJC: Stenbock’s first book of poetry came out in 1881, and examined themes of illness, decay and morbidity before Decadence was even established as a literary movement. He actually owned a hothouse in 1885, only a year after Huysmans published À Rebours. Do you think Stenbock deserves more recognition as an innovator in developing Decadent themes, both in his work and in his life?
DT: People come to his work expecting something incredibly Decadent, but if you look at the stories in Studies of Death, which is the one that people had the most access to, they’re not terribly Decadent. “True Story of a Vampire” is certainly Decadent. If you look at “Faust”, which I published for the first time, that is a masterpiece of Catholic, diabolist Decadence. Hopefully when I put out my edition of the collected works of Stenbock it will make things a lot easier and people can make their own mind up about him. When I first read Stenbock I fell in love with him. I fall in love quite easily with writers and poets and artists, especially when they’re no longer living and unable to disappoint me. Stenbock means so much to me, his work means so much to me – his success and his failure.
When I was trying to find the last of the first editions, the only one I didn’t have at the time was The Shadow of Death and I was on the phone with Martin Stone, one of the best book dealers, and a member of the Pink Fairies, one of my favourite bands. He had a lead on a copy and every time he rang up about it, a blue butterfly would come into my room from outside and I still believe that was Stenbock coming in the form of a butterfly, about which he often wrote. I believe that Stenbock was looking down on me and wanted me to help bring him back to public awareness or at least do the best that I could. I think Stenbock’s time will come. He’s a moving person; I met a lot of kindness in my search for his works. I feel I was in the right place at the right time. And it had always surprised me that no-one else had looked into him much since Adlard. For example, Adlard mentions all these papers at I Tatti [the Florence villa inhabited by Bernard Berenson and Stenbock’s childhood friend Mary Berenson, née Smith], and he says they’re of no literary value, or something dismissive like that, but nobody else had been there to look at them.
JJC: Stenbock’s bedroom in Estonia was notoriously adorned with a pentagram, he had some kind of shrine in his London house, but he was also conspicuously Catholic. How would you characterise Stenbock’s beliefs?
DT: I went to Stenbock’s bedroom at Kolk. Unfortunately there was no pentagram there any more although there was some nice blue-green wallpaper, although whether it was original or not, who knows. Again the shrine – it’s just difficult to know what the truth is. There’s traces of the usual Decadent pantheism and classical religion in Stenbock’s poetry, especially, and a heavy Catholicism. I have a letter in which his step-father [is] writing to his uncle; says “Disastrous news: Eric has converted to Catholicism.” And he goes on to say that “I hope in the fullness of time when Eric matures he will choose a less ridiculous religion”. He’s also suggesting to the uncle that they get Eric to join the Tsar’s army. So I think his family were pushing him to be more martial and masculine but realised they were swimming against Stenbock’s tide.
JJC: You commented that there is often no proof, positive or negative, for the more outlandish tales about the count, like the life-sized doll he claimed as his son.
DT: A couple of Stenbocks that I’ve met – I know three Stenbocks – don’t know where it comes from, they don’t believe it’s the case. I hope it’s the case, it’s a fantastic story and it’s so associated with Stenbock. Let’s just say it is the case but there’s no proof of it and I couldn’t find any papers which mentioned it, including diaries connected to Stenbock by people who knew him.
JJC: There’s also a story that Oscar Wilde visited Stenbock’s house…
DT: The meeting at Stenbock’s house when Wilde lights his cigarette from the flame in front of the bust of Shelley – again a fantastic story. Timothy d’Arch Smith thinks it isn’t true and I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Again it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Yeats met Stenbock and there’s Yeats’ record of his meeting with Stenbock [a thinly fictionalised account in The Speckled Bird, which David kindly brought to my attention]. There’s no record that Wilde met Stenbock.  I always check out Wilde indices to see if there is any mention of Stenbock, but I never see them. Stenbock did know Beardsley well and would buy Beardsley drawings.
JJC: Stenbock’s brand of arch, macabre Decadence will always appeal to a select temperament, but do you think the Count’s profound awareness of his own mortality and the sense of dissolution at the end of the 19th century have any resonance for a broader public in the present day, when we seem hell-bent on engineering our own decline?
DT: I think that people who are hell-bent on engineering their, as well as our own decline, are not going to take the time to read or even consider the meaning of three slim volumes bound in vellum of Decadent, tortured, vampiric, homosexual poetry. Maybe they should – I think there’s a message there for all of us. Stenbock still seems to be a great outsider. Even if you look at d’Arch Smith’s beautiful book Love in Earnest on the Uranians – an absolutely fantastic book, I can’t recommend it enough – even there he stands out, not one of the crowd, just ploughing his own strange furrow, somewhere between despair and ecstasy. He ended up in despair. Maybe there’s the resonance for the broader public in the present day: despair.
JJC: You’ve reissued Stenbock’s work in the past, including unpublished material. I know a lot of people are looking forward to the forthcoming anthology. What fresh discoveries await us?
DT: There’s a lot of unpublished material in my edition, lots of letters, there’s a fantastic unfinished – or incomplete – lost civilisation story. There’s the famous almanac with the sacred days of the week and the colours that the Idiot Club [a group formed by the young Stenbock and Mary Berenson along with two of her siblings] wrote, some photographs that people haven’t seen before. Not a huge amount of short stories that haven’t already been published. There’s poems for children. I’ve been working on it for so long and I wish it had been finished by now. Of course it’s a hobby of mine and not my main work. I hope to get it out for the end of this year.
NPG Ax160657; 'Stenbock's Idiot Club' by Unknown photographer
The Idiot Club, 1877
- James J. Conway https://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/the-quest-for-stenbock/


Studies of Death, Snuggly Books, 2018. [1894.]

During his lifetime the eccentric Count Eric Stenbock published a single collection of short stories, Studies of Death. These seven tales, at once feverish, morbid, and touching, are a key work of English decadence and the Yellow Nineties. This disquieting collection, long out of print, is here presented for the first time in paperback.