A look into the mother of mod­ern dance’s an­guished mind

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY JOSH COOK book­world@wash­post.com Josh Cook’s writ­ing has ap­peared in the Vir­ginia Quar­terly Re­view, the Iowa Re­view and the Mil­lions.

Un­til now, Amelia Gray has been known for her three books of moody, quirky and some­times vi­o­lent sto­ries, of­ten com­pared to the likes of David Cro­nen­berg and Jorge Luis Borges. Weird­ness abounds: A mid­dle school­boy vom­its ev­ery time he opens his mouth; a young woman gives birth to a new baby ev­ery night; a “how-to” story in­structs “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover.”

But her work is not all blood and spon­ta­neous ba­bies. Gray also has an aus­tere streak, dol­ing out starkly re­al­is­tic sto­ries that chart ro­man­tic dis­in­te­gra­tion or static grief. Her sen­tences are painfully pre­cise. Thrills come from telling ges­tures and orig­i­nal thoughts rather than plot twists.

“Isadora,” how­ever, charts a new course for Gray. Gone is the oc­ca­sional cold­ness and fab­u­list trick­ster­ism. Here, Gray ex­plores the mind of Isadora Duncan, the mother of mod­ern dance, who “claimed that if the ideal of beauty could be found in na­ture, then the ideal dancer moved nat­u­rally.”

It is April 1913, a year be­fore the out­break of World War I. Isadora en­joys vast fame across Europe and Amer­ica and runs a school in Darm­stadt, Ger­many, for elite pro­teges in­tent on fol­low­ing her into a “glo­ri­ous new move­ment.” When her two young chil­dren drown in a freak accident in the Seine, Isadora’s world shut­ters.

“My mind turns to re­gret,” she says, “an emo­tion that has lately found an end­less quarry in me, my mind’s dark­est tun­nels bear­ing cart­loads of salt for the wound.”

The novel is split into four parts, fol­low­ing Isadora’s un­rav­el­ing by lo­cale — Corfu, Con­stantino­ple, Viareg­gio and Paris — over the course of a year. Al­though Gray fea­tures a rov­ing cast, much of the novel spins around Isadora. Her sec­tions are told in the first per­son; all oth­ers are in third.

Paris Singer — Isadora’s lover, fa­ther to her youngest child and an heir to a sewing ma­chine for­tune — spends the novel sad­dled be­tween con­stant worry and man­ag­ing the house­hold. When Isadora trav­els to Greece to re­cu­per­ate with her sis­ter, El­iz­a­beth, he stays be­hind to look af­ter their flood of guests. “They had be­come tourists to his tragedy, in­sert­ing them­selves into his grief,” Gray writes.

In Con­stantino­ple, Isadora per­suades an ad­mirer not to kill him­self but to come to her ho­tel room, in­stead. They lie around naked and drink wine. “The only miss­ing thing is sat­is­fy­ing sex­ual congress, though we cer­tainly tried,” Isadora says.

More than once, Isadora her­self con­sid­ers sui­cide. She car­ries around her chil­dren’s ashes, in­gest­ing them slowly through the course of the book. “I can eat only when the fla­vor is at­tended by the sub­tle ash of the chil­dren in my mouth.”

Ev­ery­one in Isadora’s uni­verse is pre­oc­cu­pied: Paris be­comes ob­sessed with avi­a­tion; her sis­ter, El­iz­a­beth, pines for a lover she meets in Corfu; El­iz­a­beth’s “man,” Max, looks af­ter Isadora’s school, dream­ing up and im­ple­ment­ing a cal­is­then­ics rou­tine he knows Isadora will de­spise.

“I pre­fer her bedrid­den, hon­estly,” El­iz­a­beth tells her lover at one point. Most peo­ple prob­a­bly would. Isadora picks fights con­stantly and rarely con­cedes. But she gains sym­pa­thy through the de­tails of her younger years in squalor, liv­ing in ho­tel rooms and per­form­ing on the streets.

“Nar­ra­tive arcs and char­ac­ter tropes are just rules to break,” Gray told the New Yorker in an in­ter­view. In­deed, the only con­ven­tional plot­line here in­volves Max’s scheme to im­ple­ment cal­is­then­ics, which crops up only oc­ca­sion­ally. In­stead, the novel fo­cuses on th­ese char­ac­ters’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, which high­light the ways they ig­nore one an­other’s pain.

Isadora is so con­founded by her fame and grief that she’s in the dark about her own emo­tions, even as her ex­pres­sive dances cap­ture the world’s at­ten­tion. Gray por­trays that great irony in heart­break­ing de­tail and psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­ity, her lan­guage hing­ing lyri­cal flight with wry di­rect­ness.

It can be dif­fi­cult, at times, to sit through Isadora’s sec­tions. She’s self­ish, rogue, head­long, un­avail­able. But the novel’s great­est test is also its great­est strength. You might not like me, it says, but what do you know of ex­tra­or­di­nary grief ?


Isadora Duncan in an un­dated photo. Author Amelia Gray imag­ines the dancer’s suc­cess­ful yet tragic life in her lat­est novel.

ISADORA By Amelia Gray FSG. 386 pp. $27

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