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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, book blogger Laura Moreno shares her review of LOTE by Shola Von Reinhold.
Written by Laura Moreno
Author Shola von Reinhold’s very first book, LOTE, is a tour de force. It has already won the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the James Tait Black Prize, and many more are sure to follow. The luscious, textured writing is astonishingly good, full of surprises and little-known information, such as the existence of a class of black angels called the Luxuries (alongside the seraphim, archangels, etc.), found in Ethiopian lore, but apparently omitted from Western religious and art history.
The young protagonist and narrator of the book Mathilda is a seriously talented, educated, and practically homeless underachiever who stumbles onto fascinating research into the Luxuries when she discovers a photograph of poet Hermia Drumm (the fictional composite of several black artists/socialites invented by Reinhold) while volunteering at the National Portrait Gallery Archive in London.
Hermia Drumm, like Josephine Baker, was an American who found greener pastures for herself in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, even dubbing herself Princess Hermia from a distant land. It turns out that Hermia Drumm revived a secret society called LOTE with artists like Stephen Tennet (the real-life queer inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshed Revisited”), British-born writer/poet/publisher/activist Nancy Cunard, and Black Scottish poet Richard Bruce Nugent known as the Bright Young Things and the Bloomsbury Group.
100 years after they made their mark, Matilde communes with these long-gone artists in daydreams she calls her transfixions. Not unlike “holy rapture,” they give her a tangible spiritual connection to these artists, her only peers at times in her world.
As she continues her research, Matilde must sort out the nature of their secret society, whether they were based on Homer’s mythical Lotus-Eaters (said to have lived on the Libyan coast in peaceful bliss) or have some other origin, the nature of the Luxuries, and what to do with this fascinating information.
Fortunately, pecuniarily speaking, she joins a ridiculously nihilistic writers’ residency of “Thought Artists” (who seek to eliminate all audiences of their work, among other self-defeating notions!) in the “distressingly beautiful” town of Dun (because Hermia Drumm lived in Dun). There Matilde joins forces with trans character and local resident Erskine-Lily. Together, they emerse themselves in the magical world of LOTE.
I must admit, talk of this book being part of the Black Mediocrity movement – that every person and every black person should be valued as people in and of themselves whether or not they bring excellence to the table – in no way prepared me for how truly brilliant the book is on every level, leaving the reader very much wanting more.
Excerpt from LOTE
The following is an excerpt from the novel:
I demanded Erskine-Lily take me on a tour of Dun, something I’d never properly been given.
At night we swanned all about the town, which had become more palatial, more of a pleasure-ground than ever, amplified by Erskine-Lily’s painting of it as much as my own will to envisage it as such – he seemed to be an astute historian of the place and rendered a context so thrilling I wondered if he was making it all up. This was hard to tell since it was as much a folkloric history as any other. In his company, the town, already a place of alternately consoling and faintly distressing beauty, became an extension of his flat, which was in turn an extension of his attire, physical person, persona.
We visited the square with the grey obelisk.
“This obelisk is where the two so-called angels are said to have been chastised. The town is unnamed in the story, but it says in The Book of the Luxuries that the citizens sealed two winged beings within a pillar. Hermia, Stephen and the other Lote-Os believed this was the very pillar and town. What certainly is true is that the book dates to around the early sixteenth-century and it’s not unlikely a small number of people read and practiced its teachings, as was the case with numerous other contemporaneous mystical treatises. And, as you’ve gathered, Hermia and Stephen sought to re-establish this practice in their own way. There’s a sort of allegory in the book – have you managed to read any of it?”
I told him I didn’t even know there was a translation.
“There isn’t. I managed to get some bits translated. The person doing it lost interest. Then I hired an academic but I could only afford so many pages, including a sort-of-allegory, it’s extremely charming.
“It follows a section on the nature of the Luxuries: Where we consider angels to be spiritual messengers, we might well think of the Luxuries as sensory ones, communicating with the aesthetic aspects of the soul. They are described as having skin like black marble and parti-coloured wings that far outstrip any peacock. They wear immensely gaudy-sounding robes (not unappealing) and outrageous jewel- encrusted slippers (tremendously appealing).
“The book also says these same Luxuries once came to the Lotophagi – the Lotus Eaters – and revealed the lotus fruit to them, showed them how to make wines from it and how to weave and carve innumerable delicacies from its other parts. Ornaments, jewellery, marquetry and so on.
“When the Lotus Eaters beheld the Luxuries, whose mouths were something like ruby, they also stained their nails and cheeks and lips that colour with the juices of the lotus fruit and flower. (Varnish, rouge and lipstick, Mathilda!)
“Of course, everyone knows the Lotus Eaters from Homer. The Book gives another account, saying when dull Odysseus looked upon all this he was horrified. He could not distinguish man from woman. They insulted his sense of goodness, this effeminate people who loved nothing more than to dine upon the lotus and decorate endlessly. To lose themselves in the holy act of adornment, which The Book calls volution.
“The volute, you see, is divine: the sinuous line, the serpentine line, the corolla, the curl, the twist, the whorl, the spiral and so on, are all related in their volution, convolution, revolution. Volution is the essential and irreducible aspect of ornamentation, just as the phoneme is the smallest irreducible unit of sound in language. Locked into each coil, each curl of ornament, just like the coil and curl of your hair, and my hair, darling— Afro hair, as we call it—is the secret salvation of us all.”
He had coloured said hair with a fine nacreous substance.
“We are, you know, fundamentally ornamental creatures. Especially the likes of us. And the Lotus Eaters were the arch-decorators of myth. But even the Greeks must at one point have realised the importance of ornament. They called the universe “kosmos”, meaning decoration, surface, ornament: something cosmetic. Like make- up. Like lipstick! Like rouge. The cosmos is fundamentally blusher. But then the Greeks probably got the idea from somewhere else. They could never stick to it. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Which ruined ornament for everyone. Plato was quite the basher of ornamentalists. He had it in for what he called philotheamones – sight- lovers, spectacle-lovers. Framed them as veritable trash next to his kingly philosophers who loved the true beauty of ideas, not the decorative beauty of the world. Long after the Greek’s seriously puerile demotion of the ornamental, the Romans, Kant, Winckelmann, Hegel and all the rest damned it for being cosmetic. “Inessential ornament”, they called it. Quite hilarious really: if you ever need evidence of someone’s brutishness, it’s deeming ornament inessential!
“They humiliated our ancestors for adorning themselves in flowers and beads and gold and tattoos and braids and jewels; they’re still at it. The universe as decoration, of course, comes from Black people, and the idea survives even after the ransacking and incineration of our libraries and palaces – the same very precise fractal geometry, unknown to Europeans for centuries, can be found underpinning ancient forms of adornment like millennia-old Black hairstyles, but also in the architectural organisation of whole kingdoms, most famously the medieval Benin city and palace.”
“Oh but the allegory! – The Book of the Luxuries says that the Greeks wiped out the people they called the Lotus Eaters and tells us that Herodotus situated them in North Africa. Others West.
“The Luxuries are the primordial lotus-eater. Indeed, they were thought to have disappeared with the Lotophagi until they reappeared one day in a town in order to bequeath The Book of the Luxuries. But they were mistaken for wicked spirits, for demonic tempters, and sealed inside a pillar.
“There was a woman known to visit this pillar, having observed the punishment of the Beings from her rooftop. She returned nightly, whispering to the interior spirits.
“On her rooftop one morning she noted a strange flower, growing from a crevice, something like a lily – or a lotus – but as hard as shell. She plucked this flower and took it to the pillar where she cupped it against the stone and put her ear to it and could hear a form of music inside. The music described a system. In this way, the inhabitants of the pillar dictated to her the Book.
“In accordance with their system she grew a secret lotus garden upon her roof and spent her days in idleness and luxury, cultivating her senses. The End!”
He was vibrating.
“I’m quite devout you know.” “Devout how?”
“Religious! About the Luxuries. I’m a modern day Luxurite, just as She was, some ninety years ago – Hermia.”
I wanted to ask if he honestly, literally, believed in the winged beings. Did he, for example, think they were stuck inside the obelisk right now? I presumed Hermia and Stephen had possessed what amounted to an aesthetic interest in the Luxuries, that their reconstitution of the Enochian Order of the Luxuries (which may never have existed – Griselda had suggested the book was possibly a work of nineteenth century charlatanism) was a matter of taste, and even of principle, but without any serious theism being involved. The great interest in all things occult that sprung up in the period had always seemed largely affected to me, except for some of the post-war talking to the dead: Stephen had grown up in an atmosphere of séances and mediums, his mother often trying contact his father.
The glee Erskine-Lily exhibited as he related the story of the pillar persuaded me not to ask him, just in case. I would not have minded, did not mind. Whereas some individuals’ credulity was entirely off-putting and terrifying, in Erskine-Lily it could never be. Would instead be a corrective to the much scarier fanaticism of the Residents.
No, what was off-putting was the way it reminded me of my own flights of grandeur, which would come when I thought about my Transfixions in the wrong way. It was clear just now that those flights had never stopped. That all this time I had been figuring out a way to augment myself, to mythicise my Transfixions and then slot myself in. And now here it was. They were all part of this, and now so was I. So was Erskine-Lily, who struck me once more as a Transfixion, a living one. [END of excerpt]
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