For the pioneering dancer Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), ideas about how the world should be were not abstract but woven into the bodily art for which she is still remembered. The boldness that defined her dancing, her personal life, her politics, and her sexuality all seem decidedly ahead of her time. In an article in The New Yorker from January 1927, Janet Flanner wrote, “A decade ago her art, animated by her extraordinary public personality, came as close to founding an esthetic renaissance as American morality would allow,” and Flanner later dubbed her “the last of the trilogy of great female personalities our century produced.”
Amelia Gray’s new novel, Isadora, is set over approximately two years of Duncan’s life. In a prologue, Gray writes, “April 1913: Isadora Duncan is at the height of her power.” That’s soon to change, though; an accident in Paris will claim the lives of her two children later that same month, causing her to sink into a severe depression and deepening fissures in her personal life. Duncan retreated into seclusion in Greece for a few years, attempting to recover from the aftermath of these events. Isadora, then, is the story of a figure grappling with an unimaginable loss, and how that affects the people closest to her.
As befitting a novel whose central character upended the aesthetics of her field, this novel also marks a seismic shift in tone for Gray, whose work up until now — three acclaimed collections of short stories, plus the award-nominated novel Threats — has eluded easy categorization and pushed firmly into the experimental realm. In the case of Isadora, readers will likely encounter a disorienting sensibility at work — but it’s less to do with perceptions of realities breaking down or the impossible being translated onto the page; instead, it’s a sense of personal collapse even as aspects of the world are being remade.
Gray is far from the first writer to translate Duncan’s life into prose. Over the last century, she has shown up in literary works by a host of notable figure, a phenomenon that began while she was still alive. John Dos Passos worked aspects of her life into his USA trilogy, while Aleister Crowley’s 1923 novel Moonchild, about two camps of warring musicians, included a fictionalized version of Duncan among its cast of characters. And Duncan herself contributed to the mythmaking via her posthumously published memoir, My Life. The version that was published then was edited due to concerns over some of the material contained therein; an unedited version was released by Liveright in 2012.
Writing in the London Review of Books in 2013, Laura Jacobs called My Life “a splendid book, an inspiring book, doors and windows and eyes and arms wide open to the world.” Though My Life may have some of its own issues with full veracity. In her review of the 2013 edition in the New York Review of Books, Joan Acocella wrote that Duncan’s working process for her memoir was somewhat contentious:
For six months she worked on the book, dictating, as a rule, and usually after a number of drinks. It is reported that her first typist could be heard saying, “Miss Duncan, you don’t mean to say this . . . you simply cannot.”
Feel free to insert your favorite commentary from the long and recent debate over the porous boundary between fiction and nonfiction here. Alternately: it may well be that dance was not the only artistic discipline in which Duncan was ahead of her time.
“I drew some dialogue from her autobiography,” Gray says about the writing of Isadora. She also acknowledges that My Life is considered to have taken some liberties with the truth, which appealed to her in terms of fictionalizing Duncan’s life. “It was a nod to the reality that she wanted to create, which was this fabulous dialogue and baroque exchanges between people, that no doubt did not actually happen,” Gray says. “It ended up being a collage or pastiche of reality. But it was important to me to have it be a jumping-off point rather than the whole stage.” In the acknowledgements for the novel, she also cites two works of nonfiction: Peter Kurth’s biography Isadora: A Sensational Life and Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War.
Gray first encountered Duncan’s life when working on an article about “It Girls” in history. “I read about how she insisted on living her own particular life, despite what was going on around her, and I was really fascinated by that,” she says. Her research process included everything from familiarizing herself with the political, social, and cultural climates of the early twentieth century to taking a couple of dance classes. (“[I] learned that it’s incredibly difficult.”) But for all that choosing to write about circa-1913 Isadora Duncan makes for an abundance of powerful emotional moments in the novel, it also allows for numerous moments of historical foreshadowing, as the First World War and the subsequent rise of fascism in Europe both loom in the background of numerous scenes.
As Gray tells it, the sense of encroaching political dread was something that echoed her process of writing the book. “I started writing the book right after Obama’s second term began,” she says. “I had the luxury of not thinking daily about politics. And I was very surprised to see that mirrored in history.” To Duncan and her peers, the imminent war would come as a terrible surprise; 1913 hardly felt like the eve of a conflagration. “The stuff you read about in history class was all happening, but people were optimistic and living their lives and enjoying new technology.” Their conversation was about “art galleries and shows and performances opening. It started to look pretty similar to today in a way that seems pretty obvious in hindsight.”
Part of the challenge for any novelist who puts an artist at the center of their work is the question of description. “Ballet,” Gray points out, “has a ton of beautiful terms, and you can visualize them.” In writing about Duncan. whose approach to dance turned away from ballet’s rigid forms, Gray also needed to find the right language to evoke Duncan’s theories and practices. She opted to describe it in terms of “natural movement than anyone can visualize: your toe making a half circle across the floor. Anyone can see that, and most can do that,” she says. “And even if one can’t, it’s a thing that’s felt rather than being academically understood.”
For Gray, there was also an affinity with Duncan’s particular philosophy of dance. “[S]he worked so hard to create what felt like natural movement, what seemed to the audience to be spontaneous natural movement, but had a lifetime of rehearsals and practice and effort behind it,” Gray says. “Which is the same thing as writing fiction. The goal is, it comes off invisibly, and the work takes years and years.”
While Isadora may seems like an aesthetic break from Gray’s past work, she doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “I like inhabiting voices, getting really close to how somebody might think,” she says. “That was an iteration of that, which I already do. It just happened to be in a totally different sense.” Fundamentally, she describes Isadora as “the story of grief, as apprehended through an incredibly self-centered character.”
Where will her next work take her? “I find that the artistic life moves in a duet with the real. I have been trying to come closer to my self, to operate in a more thoughtful sense in my life, and in a more meditative sense with my surroundings,” she says.
“I don’t know what kind of work will come out of that. I’m finding as I move through my thirties, there’s a patience with the work that I haven’t felt before, and a patience with not-knowing that is new to me. I’m just as curious as anyone, I guess.”
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