Amelia Gray. Matt Chamberlain
Amelia Gray. (Matt Chamberlain)

The Sorrow of Isadora Duncan

The Sorrow of Isadora Duncan

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Fun fact: Isadora Duncan and Jack London were contemporaries. Both were born in San Francisco, in 1877 and 1876, respectively. Both experienced poverty-stricken childhoods in Oakland and went on to make definitive marks on their art forms -- London in fiction, Duncan in dance. Both lived dramatic lives full of travel, alcohol, and socialist politics.

And both died young -- London in 1916 at age 40, from kidney failure; Duncan in 1927 at age 49, famously in a car accident. The long red scarf she was wearing tangled in the hubcap of a moving car. Her neck was broken.

We live in a time where the lives of famous artists can attract more interest than the art itself. Sometimes this is a shame, and sometimes it’s a sign that the artist’s persona has outlived her art. Duncan’s work, while important to the history of modern dance, might look a little silly to modern eyes. Her life, however, remains fascinating, and thus, a dancer who intended to leave behind an artistic legacy is now a character in other people’s art. Last year, Lily-Rose Depp, Johnny Depp’s daughter, played Duncan in a movie called The Dancer. This month, there’s a novel, Isadora, by Amelia Gray.

'Isadora,' by Amelia Gray.
'Isadora,' by Amelia Gray.

Gray’s novel isn’t the stuff of a Netflix series, however. It’s a serious meditation on grief in the life of an artist. The story starts with the death of Duncan’s children, who drowned when the car they were in accidentally drove into the Seine. The novel stays so mercilessly focused on this tragic event, diving deeper into the effects of grief, that it plunges the reader into an atmosphere suffocated by the presence of loss. “A keening scream spread swiftly from my body to reach the walls and the floor,” Isadora says. “It made a residence of sound [that] 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.” She is shattered, and Gray is too ruthless a writer to look away or soften her pain.

Told in short chapters, the novel alternates four different voices: Isadora; the father of her son, Paris Singer; her sister, Elizabeth; and her lover, Max. The story moves slowly, inching through the funeral, Isadora's travels in Europe, and her return to the dance school. There are long, lingering sections about her illness and mundane descriptions of waiting or eating or drinking. There’s an entire chapter where Paris studies the figures in the painting The Coronation of Napoleon. This focus on details dissipates the intensity of action -- it’s fairly boring to read about funeral arrangements -- but does humanize and intensify Duncan’s grief.


“Without the dull details fogging things up,” Isadora says, “we can exist forever as in a museum diorama, standing forever in a perfect state of admiration and anticipation.” Certainly, Gray is not interested in a diorama of her famous subject. Her Duncan is a woman rooted deeply in her body. She’s unpleasant, wry, complex, and verging on madness -- she pees on the floor, bites people, and eats her children’s ashes. There is her slow, arduous return from the sea of grief to her art, which she also wields with almost careless power. “You don’t have a bit of philosophy you didn’t scrape off the shoes of greater man, and there is no greater man than me,” she says to Max. “You have failed to see how each planet in my orbit is lashed to me with diamond thread.”

Fictionalizing a real person is difficult, especially when dealing with personal tragedy. As I read, I found myself wondering about the real Isadora Duncan, and what in the text is fictionalized and what is true. I was perplexed that there weren’t more details of her life before the accident, but maybe that would have been too predictable. (This led to me looking Duncan up online, and remembering the similarities to Jack London. Also, the Duncan siblings used to climb the fence of Gertrude Stein’s house in Oakland and steal apples from her orchard.)

But perhaps factoids are best left to biographers. Isadora explores themes of art and genius, history and personal grief, and the specific sorrows of the female body. It’s not an entirely successful book, nor a happy one, but it does transcend the entertainment value and repurposed gossip of most biographical novels to stand apart as a depiction of an artist’s life.

Amelia Gray reads at The Booksmith in San Francisco on June 26; details here.