Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor

Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor

Hugo Ball

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Illustrations by Tal R / Translated by Catherine Schelbert / Introduction and chronology by Marc Dachy / May 2014 / 6 x 9, 200 pp. / 978-1-939663-03-0

“The idea of the Cabaret Voltaire grew out of literary thoughts as well as the slum atmosphere of the music-hall performers, the singers, the magicians, fire-eaters, and others portrayed by Ball in his novel Flametti.”—Richard Huelsenbeck

In 1916, Hugo Ball (1886–1927) cofounded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and penned the “Dada Manifesto,” launching what would become the Zurich Dada movement. That same year he completed his semi-autobiographical novel, Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor, which would be published two years later. Drawing from his pre-Dada period of struggle and poverty in the nightclub circuit, Ball immerses us in the rise and fall of Max Flametti and his vaudeville company. Fishing in the local river to feed his company, dabbling in drugs, strolling through the vegetable market on the Gemüsebrücke in Zurich, ducking into a side street to avoid running into the police, Flametti marches through the pages of Ball’s novel passionately pursuing a career that culminates in the presentation of the theatrical extravaganza The Indians at the Krokodil in Zurich (a locale that still exists today as a Spanish restaurant). Overcoming odds and alternately averting, succumbing to and embracing financial ruin, Flametti ultimately emerges as a tragic figure—a Willy Loman of vaudeville. Flametti portrays a frenetic Zurich that had been the backdrop to the Dada movement, and is comparable to other such literary cities and eras as Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin.

Hugo Ball (1886–1927) founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, a year after moving there with his wife, Emmy Hennings. In doing so, he helped launch (and according to some accounts, named) the Dada Movement. After authoring one of the first Dada manifestos and some landmark sound poems, he grew disenchanted with how Dada was evolving, broke ties with the movement and relocated to the Swiss countryside with Hennings, where he wrote one of the first studies on the work of Hermann Hesse.

“Hugo Ball, the co-founder of Dadaism and co-initiator of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, was, alongside Franz Kafka, the most significant German-language vaudeville existentialist… In his 1918 novel Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor, he assembles a pandemonium of marginal figures from the sideshow and circus milieus and has a speaker declare that these people are truer humans than the ordinary citizens who seemingly manage to keep to the middle. The vaudeville people know more about ‘real life’ because they are those who have been thrown to the margins, the fallen and the battered. These ‘jostled humans’ are perhaps the only ones who still exist authentically.”—Peter Sloterdijk


Winner of the 2015 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translation Prize

“It is not often I read a novel so enthusiastic and unconstrained (and so funny) in its use of language and in its building of worlds.”
—Hannah Alpert-Abrams, Full Stop

“We must cherish Schelbert’s diligence and passion in bringing this novel into English so that we too can laugh with and scream at Flametti, that greatest of dreamers, jackasses, and artists.”
—Alex Kalamaroff, Entropy Magazine

Flametti appears in a beautifully produced edition with superb illustrations by the contemporary Israeli-born artist Tal R. The translation must have been a daunting challenge but Catherine Schelbert’s wonderfully idiosyncratic rendering perfectly captures the period.”
—David Collard, Times Literary Supplement

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