An Evasive Elegance

Intern Frederick reviews Pere Gimferrer's Fortuny

Fortuny, by Pere Gimferrer, translated by Adrian Nathan West, introduction by Octavio Paz, 978-1-56792-550-0, $17.95

“Of all the indoor and outdoor gowns that Mme. de Guermantes wore, those which seemed most to respond to a definite intention, to be endowed with a special significance, were the garments made by Fortuny….Is it their historical character or the fact that each one is unique that gives them so special a significance…?”—Marcel Proust

While its meaning has changed, the term vignette (“little vine”) originally referred to a small, borderless embellishment, often a vine, drawn on the page around some image or text. In this way, a vignette served more as an indistinct frame than an image or text itself—lending significance, but only by distinguishing something else.

Fortuny is a book of vignettes—in both senses of the word. In one way, populated by such figures as Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Charlie Chaplin, it is a work of the historical flâneur, a collection of fleeting impressions that arise in idle passing. Through these opulent images, though, Pere Gimferrer gives a borderless definition to Mariano Fortuny, framing his life and times without presuming to contain them, only once inserting dialogue when Fortuny recognizes himself in his father’s painting with the words “it’s me.”

While trying to convey Fortuny’s double character, others have compared it to a rich cloth, more significant in its weave than a larger structure; I, however, imagine it as a dress, revealing and concealing the body, but beautiful, shapely, and shifting nonetheless.

When glancing at the folds of this dress, much like Proust, I struggle to elucidate its special significance. True, it evokes a historical character, capturing a sense of saudade for the figures of the Belle Époque, a time that, by its very name, is forever tied to this feeling. True, it is unique, and the translation by Adrian Nathan West is exquisite, conveying much more than the book’s literal meaning and seamlessly imitating the poetic effects of Gimferrer, as with the voluptuous alliterative Vs in the section on Valentino. There is, though, something more that arises from all this, something elusive, something that sates our saudade and makes concrete what we desire from that different time. What this is I cannot say, perhaps it is the book’s evasive elegance, but it clings to Fortuny like a trailing vine or soft muslin, serving not to obfuscate the present, but to lend it with a hazy, salubrious glow.

Wit and Language are the Thread

Intern Olivia reviews Jeremy M. Davies' The Knack of Doing

The Knack of Doing: Stories by Jeremy M. Davies, 978-1-57423-227-1, $18.95 softcover with flaps.

Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing. With his inventive short stories, Davies is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, and in the most delightful way. Each story features a uniquely eccentric character, yet somehow the thirteen fit seamlessly together as a whole.

Each story has a plot completely distinct from the rest: “Forkhead Box” tells of an executioner who breeds mice in his spare time. “Sad White People” gives us Chris and Chris, who are in love but meet a tragic end. “The Sinces” simply and perfectly captures the aftermath of an ended relationship. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” in a very meta fashion, takes aim at Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction writing advice and asks what exactly it means to write fiction. Davies’s work examines many aspects of human life and work, prompting a reader to look a little more closely at themselves and their own day-to-day life—that which may seem ordinary or mundane may not be at all.

Not only is his subject matter intriguing, Davies continues to surprise with the distinct structure of his stories. While many are typical—as much as one could label Davies’s work as typical—prose, many take on a more interesting form: that of a list, a letter, or some other kind of internal monologue. “Ten Letters” is formatted as of a father writing to his children. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is one long sentence that was once offered up for a book jacket blurb. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” is formatted, as the title would suggest, in a series of answered riddles to chronicle a day in the life of May, who works as a dominatrix. All different, and all compelling.

What really ties Davies’s stories together is his unwavering quick wit and careful mastery of language. Throughout The Knack of Doing the pace is measured and the tone is comfortably light even when the content gets a little dismal. Davies does not take himself too seriously, and that’s the key to why his writing is so effective. The stories in The Knack of Doing are a little bit strange, but that is what makes them so captivating: they’re all believable, and it’s as if as if I’m reading about the quirky neighbor across the hall. Davies’s fiction manages to blur the line between real and imaginary.

Davies writes to capture human consciousness and does so beautifully. He has created snapshots of the serious and the lighthearted, asked questions both mundane and profound, and left us with a work of art to endure.

 

 

 

 

The Knack of Doing – A Review

By Danielle Schwertner

Our wonderful intern of last semester, Danielle Schwertner, took some time out of her busy schedule to review one of our new book releases: The Knack of Doing, by Jeremy Davies, which is a collection of short stories. You can read his interview with The Paris Review here, and you can read an excerpt from The Knack of Doing in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, here. And now, her review:

 

Short stories are tough to conquer. Authors have the daunting tasks of capturing their readers’ attentions quickly while simultaneously instigating emotions . . . all in the span of twenty pages or less. Short stories are tough to conquer.

Jeremy Davies is a conqueror.

The Knack of Doing is thirteen stories that made me laugh, contemplate everything I’ve ever thought, and remember why I fell in love with short fiction so many years ago. Davies’s ability to create and deconstruct characters through riddles and sentences that only begin with “since” is nothing short of inspiring—perfect examples of a truly talented writer.

The entirety of The Knack of Doing is a testament to Davies’s story-telling. No matter how carefully his stories are read, one might never really (without question, hesitation, or further evaluation) be sure of what Davies is doing. And that’s what makes his writing wonderful. What fun is a story if you’re given all the answers? What fun is a story if you’re not allowed to wo(a)nder? Davies sends his readers on an adventure . . . a strange, sometimes grotesque, always intriguing adventure. An adventure into a world where spiders, sheets of glass, and sentences become characters just as important as the humans who live amongst them.

Every one of Davies’s stories is admirable and thrilling to read, but there are two that, in my case at least, evoke multiple hushed gasps, widened eyes, and creased eyebrows. “Henrietta the Spider” and “Sad White People” give an intimate view into the dirtier and more complicated aspects of human lives—aspects we see in the mirror everyday and maybe even feel in our hearts. Though we may recognize these aspects, reading them in words that are not our own, but which echo so clearly what we can’t say, is what brings them to life and to our attention. Through Davies’s words we are better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves at last.

Most of us do not deal so warmly with spiders, date people with the same name as our own, execute or track people for a living, or inspect so acutely the advice of Kurt Vonnegut as do those The Knack of Doing introduces. And yet, amid Davies’s stories about these fascinatingly obscure subjects, we might just find ourselves better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves a bit better.

Throughout thirteen stories, Davies invites us, his dutiful readers, into a world of weird that, at once, seems both peculiarly unfamiliar and delightfully cozy. He invites us into a world of reality coated lightly in fiction. He invites us, in a sense, home.