A Dancer Is Unstrung By Grief In 'Isadora'

May 25, 2017

In her autobiography, My Life, the legendary American dancer Isadora Duncan wrote, "The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet." She would never have the chance to give any kind of inheritance to her three children; they all died before she was killed in a freak accident in 1927. She was either 49 or 50.

Duncan's life was obviously a tragic one, and what might have been her most difficult year — the period between the deaths of her first two children in a car accident and the birth of her third — form the basis of Amelia Gray's breathtaking new novel, Isadora. It's a stunning meditation on art and grief by one of America's most exciting young writers.

Gray sets the tone of Isadora early on, with a brief introduction that sets the scene, describing Duncan's charmed life just before the death of her children: "An energy builds around her, a feeling that fascinates her and informs her work. She anticipates that an artistic revolution will emerge from that energy, and that she will stand at the forefront of an era devoted to the sublime. Unfortunately, she is mistaken."

As the novel opens, Duncan is in shock, and her partner Paris Singer — son of sewing machine magnate Isaac, and father of one of Duncan's children — is left to arrange the children's funeral. Duncan finds herself unable to handle her sudden loss, at one point thinking, "The keening scream spread swiftly from my body to the walls and floor to make a residence of sound, echoed through my empty core, my ribs a spider's web strung ragged across my spine, a sagging cradle for the mess of my broken heart."

At Singer's insistence, Duncan embarks on what's meant to be a restorative trip to the Greek island of Corfu, accompanied by her sister Elizabeth, also a dance instructor. But it does little to calm her, and soon she takes ill, unable or unwilling to leave her bed. Elizabeth grows exasperated with her sister, whose stubbornness has always rankled her: "If anyone could make herself sick by willing it, it was Isadora. She carried such a sullen power over her own body, the despotic ruler of a nation constantly on the brink of civil war." When Duncan finally makes it back to her Paris home, after visiting a friend in Tuscany, she has eaten her children's ashes; she's emotionally battered, unstable and unpredictable.

The novel concludes with an ending so mind-bogglingly sad, it would have seemed unnecessary and unreal if it hadn't actually happened. But Gray handles it beautifully — she doesn't insulate her readers from the cruelties of grief, but she's never exploitative and she never uses cheap pathos. "I always thought that if I suffered enough in service of Art, if I laid down my life to please the world, I could live in peace," Duncan reflects shortly after the death of her children. "Now I know that the world will consume everything in its path. Art is not even an appetizer to the horrors of the world. The world consumes horror itself and savors it and is never sated."

While the book is, for obvious reasons, frequently depressing, Gray manages to work in some genuinely funny moments that don't cheapen the novel's tone. Some of these are in the conversations between the Duncan siblings; others come in the form of the explanatory headings before each chapter, like "After a few featureless weeks, Isadora remains ill enough for her siblings to almost worry" and "Max attempts to practice the life of the mind in order to forget he is trapped with Elizabeth and her terrible family."

Gray's portrayal of Duncan is a remarkable one. While she's certainly sympathetic, she doesn't shy away from Duncan's not unsubstantial mean streak — she could be a "hissing flirt" who would instigate fights and "shrug off blame" whenever she felt like it. Duncan the character cops to this at one point, while still managing to portray herself as a victim: "I could lay a powerful curse indeed, for the beaten dog has the gravest bite."

Gray is a gutsy, utterly original writer, and this is the finest work she's done so far. Isadora is a masterful portrait of one of America's greatest artists, and it's also a beautiful reflection on what it means to be suffocated by grief, but not quite willing to give up: "In order to understand the greatest joys of life, you must do more than open yourself to its greatest sorrows. You must invite it to join you in your home and beguile it to stay."

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