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.