LOTE is a literary novel which follows present-day narrator Mathilda’s fixation with the forgotten black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Drumm. Lush and frothy, incisive and witty, Shola von Reinhold’s decadent queer literary debut immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscurement of Black figures from history…”

You can purchase LOTE from the publisher here.


An Excerpt from LOTE

This section takes place halfway through the novel. Mathilda has come to an unspecified European town known as Dun having applied to a residency purely for the stipend. When she arrives however, she is unable to tell whether it is a theoretical artist’s residency or a corporate business retreat. In the town she meets Erskine-Lily who like her is obsessed with an interwar modernist cult known as LOTE. Members of LOTE believed that the mythological Lotus Eaters were in fact a very real mostly queer proto-communist society located in West Africa and organised around pleasure, luxury and the decorative arts. The founding members of LOTE were the writer and artist (and professional beauty) Stephen Tennant; Hermia Druitt, an obscure Black Scottish modernist poet; Richard Bruce Nugent the Harlem Renaissance writer and aesthete, and the poet, publisher and activist Nancy Cunard.

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.

*

On the reverse of a miniature portrait in violet letters.

Erskine-Lily

(Image on frontside: portrait of Erskine-Lily in the style of an oval miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, sporting what might be a silver pinked doublet or androgynous Elizabethan bodice and hooped skirt (the portrait cuts off at the waist); a high collar with a voluminous, gauzy lace ruff that reaches the limits of the image; matching lace sleeve cuffs; emerald earrings; brimmed black sugarloaf hat with a jewelled band, cheeks glazed orchid. On the flat azurite background, a heraldic device depicting a fruit on a branch like a white-pink raspberry, faintly translucent with an opalescent lustre, leaves half green and half yellow, the branch emerges from a cloud; some gold letters below read ΛOTE. This fruit is simultaneously an allegorical device and heraldic as the figure reaches to pluck the fruit whilst gazing towards the viewer.)

Span:

Memorabilia: Obscure aesthete-quaintrelle and amateur painter resident in Dun. Revived LOTE, a minor society of the ‘20s founded there almost a century earlier, said in itself to be a revival of a Renaissance society.

Sensation: Moonlight sighing up and down the tube of the spine, and through hollow bones.

*