Isadora is a shocking and visceral portrait of a woman and artist drawn to the brink of destruction by the cruelty of life. In Amelia Gray’s breakout novel, described by the Los Angeles Times as “a heavenly celebration of women in charge of their bodies,” Amelia Gray offers a relentless portrayal of a legendary artist churning through prewar Europe. Isadora seeks to obliterate the mannered portrait of a dancer and to introduce the reader to a woman who lived and loved without limits, even in the darkest days of her life.
Upstairs at their hotel on Corfu, unseasonably warm and not much by way of windows
A fat old rug runs from one edge of the hall to the other, folding over itself at the doorways to the guest rooms and offering thick shelter to cigarette ash and flattened crumbs, obliterating every hard corner and giving anyone walking through the hall the feeling of a blood cell squeezing through a fat vein.
A woman once worked the pedals of a loom broader than her spanning arms to make this lovely rug, easing back at times to rest on a rolled rug of lesser quality, one of her own early attempts. The finished product was sold or loaned or given in good faith, and the woman was paid or thanked or allowed to remain alive to make another, and the rug continued to exist beyond its creator’s desire to know it. My body may move gracefully without attention but cannot move artfully without intention, and so my art will die with me. A certain sturdiness is asked of me! I am rug and woman both.
Our hotel suite is a well-stocked womb. Some Monastiraki Marie Antoinette had a glorious fantasy of what a French hotel should look like, and it shows on the tin trays stocked with useless little carved pieces, elephant figures in ivory and amber, and empty perfume bottles shaped like cut jewels and smelling of cinnamon and mold. The old armoire splinters at the base, but they did a fair job of patching it up with wood glue and covering the rest of the damage with a few strategically placed hatboxes. I removed six pinecones from a biscuit tin in the bathroom, poured in the childrens’ ashes, and found they have taken on a pleasant woody flavor.
Removing my wet dress reveals in the mirror a slab of noonday flesh, belly puckered above the mound, strong legs drawing down to a pair of ankles that could stop a door. Under the thin skin of my doubled tit, fine blush organs hang sweetly from their skeleton frame. Arching back and bending forward, I go hand to feet in a dancer’s hanging stretch. My bones complain, but the organs go along with their alignment turned entirely upside down. My liver and heart work some magic to keep themselves from tumbling out of my mouth and pooling on the floor. My body is proof of resilience and witness to it. Even if I had leapt from the cliff ’s edge, the men who fished me out would find me buoyant and bound, my heart and lungs intact in their human raft, holding out against the invasive attentions of fish and waterfowl. Deep in my stretch, my spine begins in gradations to ease.
Once during a period of nagging injury I was treated to an impromptu demonstration by a doctor, who held a rat’s cleaned skeleton as he spoke. The animal evolved for a life of labor, he explained, tracing his finger along the bucked bridge of the rat’s spine, showing how the bone and its attendant bits were supported by the four legs, the brain sending simple telegraphs to the heart and tail. But humankind, the doctor said, was unusual among nature. He tipped the rat so that its front paws reared in surrender and showed me the stress it placed on the hips. Mankind is born to bear its own faulty frame. The skeletal ridges of the human spine do their level best to lift the brain. Every one of us is born in balance, everyone stands to crumble.
Fingertips to floor become hands pressed flat and then, breathing with the body’s need—draw in like a bulb sucking blood from an infant’s mouth, hold and expel, the lungs compressing—the arms slacken and cross, wrist to elbow laid gently on a rug trimmed to uniformity, a million dyed fibers experienced all at once. This pose requires stillness, steady breath, patience, strong circulation, and a general stubborn nature. One panicked inhalation will send you falling back, and the brain’s rational suggestions of surrender will have you stumbling over your own feet. The heart pounds, desperate to pull its blood back from the extremities. The solar plexus thrums.
The heart pounds, desperate to pull its blood back from the extremities. The solar plexus thrums.
What would it mean to follow my every impulse? I need to make water and without a second thought I follow my need, making copious water gloriously down both legs right onto the floor, something I haven’t done since a performance years ago when I was heavily pregnant and too stubborn to feel shame. This time there’s a strange freedom to it, and I watch it pool atop the rug for one arch moment before it sinks in all at once, the poor rug lying there as quiet as a lady and allowing it.
The door rattles, Elizabeth behind it entering. Crying out in surprise she hauls a quilt off the bed and throws it over me as if I am a pan on fire, adding such sudden weight that I collapse into my own mess, saying, “The sibling relationship!”
“They’re weeping over your memory downstairs,” she says, her judgment only slightly muffled by the quilt. “What are you doing under there?”
“I was just asking myself the same.” A musty warmth under the quilt contains and cultivates my own animal odor. “Feeling rather ratlike. If only you had brought a cheese.”
“The Italian is torturing himself with shame,” she says, lifting the corner of the quilt. “You should come down and speak with him. He is a sculptor and says you are one of his greatest inspirations.”
“I won’t forgive him until he replaces my dress.”
She tucks her head inside. “Everyone saw it happen and they laughed and he is ashamed.”
“And you’ll catch your death, running naked around your room.”
“Could you have my mail forwarded to this quilt? I rather like it actually.”
She crouches close as she did years ago when we were children, our hair frenzied across the blanket which served as stage and ceiling both. Our cloth dollies were dressed as we were, in salmon-colored nightgowns, and we would press them side by side to dance the pas de deux from Blomsterfesten i Genzano, the ladies’ promenade. Mine did an aggressive polka while hers, en pointe, offered the porcelain hand sewed at the tip of her rag arm and coyly drew it away. Then the solos: Elizabeth took hers by the head and twisted to wind the cloth body up before releasing it to spin underneath, the simplest execution of a tour en l’air, suggesting that the ideal form requires a freak quality of brain-based gravity anchoring gyronic limbs, overshadowing the technical perfection of my doll’s grands jetés and creating a new and unsettling standard over which we would viciously fight, the performance forgotten. On one occasion she forced me to swallow one of the porcelain hands, and we had to wait days before it could be sifted out of the pot, rinsed, and sewn back on in secret, and still mother noticed and reprimanded us in her weary way, looking around for something to punish us with and ultimately having us shell walnuts for the rest of the afternoon.
Elizabeth’s balconet nose twitches as she both smells the air and gives the appearance of smelling the air, an air of smelling, her theatrical gesture felt more than seen in the half dark. “Are you drunk?”
“I don’t feel well. I’m coming down with something.” Saying this makes it true—a weakening in the lungs.
“Fine, then. Come out when you’re ready and not a moment sooner, lest you give the impression that anyone else has the least say over your mood, and thank you very much for dragging your brother and me away for a season to prove your point.”
“Please send my deepest apologies to the Italian and dry his tears with your left tit.”
The door opens and gently closes, and it seems she has gone, until I hear her sharp sigh and then feel the pointed little toe of her shoe, which lands well into my midsection before I can tense against the attack. The door opens again and slams. Elizabeth always has her say in the end.
Rolling onto my back to splay my gut to the morning air like a sunning crab, the quilt my seaworthy shell, my mind snaps at a morseled krill of a thought: Deirdre would have taken strong exception to this nakedness, her offense brought about on a child’s boundless moral grounds—surely taught by some well-meaning nurse trying to keep her clothed in public—but sweet Patrick would have crawled in with me and played moo-cow until the bell rang for supper.
The whole cremation process came too quickly. Perhaps there was still some sense of life in them, some flickering pilot light; if we hadn’t turned them to ash, they could have had the dignity of a gradual death. They could have held hands in a marble crypt and eased themselves into the slow way of the dead, which is so foreign to young life, keeping one another’s secrets as they eased down onto the stone. I shouldn’t have agreed to burn them, Paris made me do it. If it were up to me, they would be in there with a bell to ring in case we made some kind of mistake.
I spy with my good eye a rolled stocking tucked in the springs under the bed. It contains one of the crystal sherry glasses from downstairs, as thin as a fallen leaf with winnowed glass spurs. I’ve found rye makes a better friend than sherry, brown liquor being a warming spirit and rye as warm as a rug distilled to its essence. The stocking’s patient mate behind the bed holds the pint.
A dram for the pair! Tippled to the crystal brim and raised to catch the light for a solemn oath:
Blessed be my children, LORD—
Bless’d be their hearts and the soft flesh of their hands.
Bless’d be their hands in the hands of their white-capped nurse.
Bless’d be their bathtimes.
Bless’d be their wailing times and the curls framing their tears.
Bless’d be the noses given by their fathers—one puggy, one sharp—
and the hearts given also.
Bless’d be their shits up the backs of cloth pants to make a rind
Bless’d be their spelling lessons and smocks and their books and
dolls, their traveling trunk.
Bless’d be their dimples and the pinked flesh of their mouths.
Bless’d be their mouths saying Love.
Bless’d be their Love.
Bless’d be their games made up with curtain cords.
Bless’d be their hands, their mouths, their flesh,
And bless’d be the flesh of my children, LORD—
Amelia Gray is the author of several books, including AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, THREATS, and Gutshot. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and VICE. She has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and is the winner of the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest. She lives in Los Angeles.
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