Book Review: 'Aurelia, Aurélia,' Kathryn Davis | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Book Review: 'Aurelia, Aurélia,' Kathryn Davis

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Published June 8, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Aurelia, Aurélia by Kathryn Davis. Graywolf Press, 128 pages. $15. | - Kathryn Davis - COURTESY OF ANNE DAVIS
  • Courtesy Of Anne Davis
  • Aurelia, Aurélia by Kathryn Davis. Graywolf Press, 128 pages. $15. |Kathryn Davis

Readers of Kathryn Davis' books have learned that, for her, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is slippery.

There are passages in Davis' lavishly imaginative novels that read like first-person autobiography. And there are parts of her new Aurelia, Aurélia, identified on its cover as a memoir, that are ingenious fabrications, including two chapters, "Ghost Story One" and "Ghost Story Two," that employ the wacky logic of dreams.

Davis is a maestro of atmosphere and mood, but she is mischievous when it comes to providing an orderly story line. The plots of her novels are sinuous, and her rendering of time is labyrinthine. What anchors the writing is her precision: an ability to find words to summon in a reader's mind her characters' weird specificities and the minutiae of physical locations.

In Aurelia, Aurélia, she applies those gifts to a very specific person — her husband, Eric Zencey, who died of cancer in 2019 — and to the qualities of places they knew and loved together, including Montpelier's Hubbard Park.

Davis, whose home is in Montpelier, is the author of eight novels, most recently The Silk Road. She spends January to March of each year at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is the Hurst Senior Writer in Residence. Among her honors are the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize from the Susan B. Anthony Institute at the University of Rochester and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award and the Katherine Anne Porter Award, both from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her late husband was also a writer, the author of four books, including the superb historical thriller Panama and a collection of essays, Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture. The Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, where he was a fellow, has established an award in his name, the Eric Zencey Prize in Ecological Economics.

The title of Davis' new book exemplifies her entanglement of the expository and the fanciful, the plain and the fantastic. Aurelia was the name of a ship that brought her to Europe for a student exchange; Aurélia is the name of a novella by 19th-century French writer Gérard de Nerval that Davis calls "romantic obsession taken to the point of madness."

Aurelia, Aurélia. There's a kind of transit that occurs between the place in your mind where memory resides, as firmly planted as the house you grew up in, and the operative tool of thought, designed to transport you and your memory elsewhere, as if across the ocean in a boat.

This memoir's narrative route is peripatetic, mimicking how in our lives (and in our minds, remembering) we wander among happenstances.

Davis moves forward and backward among recollections, elucidating an absence that's become a different form of presence. She says she's seeking "an abstraction ... but close up, particular, a vision of the particular self at a particular moment, requisite to memory's need for a host to carry it as far away from memory lane as possible."

Surely by "memory lane" she means the wishful versions many of us succumb to when reminiscing. By contrast, Davis' view of the past is tough and exact.

Writing of childhood, she portrays herself as a girl mostly separate from the commotion around her — and always reading. Her literary loves have been lasting: Edgar Allan Poe, Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and, to a powerful degree, the bizarre tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Also stirred into this memoir's bouillabaisse of associations are the flotsam and jetsam of an era: Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, the musical Brigadoon, illustrated Golden Books, James Bond and Dr. No's metal hands, the comic strip "Mark Trail," Barbie dolls, Jell-O, Vicks VapoRub, and Lipton's Noodle Soup.

Davis doesn't chronologically sequence her scenes of childhood, of her reading and writing life, of her romantic adventures, or of her husband's terrible illness. The end of his life comes not at the end of the book but in the middle:

It's different washing the body after the person has died. Running a damp washcloth over the forehead, the brow, the eyelids — the eyeballs motionless. The wish to inflict no harm is still there, elevated by the absence of response to something resembling desire. The pale-blue washcloth swimming in the pan of warm sudsy water. If emancipation has occurred, the body will not smell. The body will glow.

Is this an expression of shock and grief? Not in the usual manner. But countering that passage's lift into metaphysics is an extremely tactile depiction of preparing a body: the soberness of a mourner doing what's needed before the cadaver goes to a crematorium's furnace.

In the byways and cul-de-sacs of Davis' prose, readers can follow the narrator's search for confirmation that what she believes she remembers was actually real, still echoing with meaning. At times she seems to long to be haunted, and she wonders whether Lucy, the family dog she and Eric walked together in Hubbard Park, might still see him:

That flash of something unseen from the corner of your eye — it didn't need to manifest itself to let you know that where you are isn't any place you've been before, the world's surface a mess like it's been from the beginning, tree roots and stones underfoot — until, all at once, a blade of sun! ice-melt dripping from an overhanging tree onto deadfall, and up ahead a dark shape like a stone perched on a picnic table, slightly hunched and unrecognizable, Lucy on the ground at its feet.

This isn't grief as primal scream but elegy with an uncannily light touch. The effect might even be called comic in the Shakespearean way of enfolding sorrow within enchantment. Memory opens and reopens and keeps leading back to the fact of a beloved's death; the outcome, however, isn't just loss but transformation. As in the fairy tales Davis loved as a child, which gave her "that shiver of ecstasy that is an unmistakable symptom of the creative act":

Your tenure on this earth, where you might choose to stay (despite its perils, the perverse machinery of cause and effect embodied in snuffbox goblins and gumdrop poodles), would be infinite, yet once you died you'd have no choice but to go on forever and ever. You had only to imagine a door, the door through which you couldn't step, and the next thing you knew that door would be opening and behind it would be ... another door! And another!

Beyond death, Eric continues to appear in the story — for example, in a description of his helping plan his own memorial gathering. In remembered scenes from before and after, he both was and is.

While this memoir's sequence is disorderly — some might say deranged — a reader paying close attention will find many handholds such as recurring words, developing questions. The book's brevity makes it possible to keep all of the parts in mind.

In effect, this book is all transitions, never arriving or settling comfortably into place. Recalling a pianist friend playing Ludwig van Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 126, "the last music for piano he wrote before he died," Davis considers how this music juxtaposes "the sublime and the antic."

On the face of it the contrasts are so wild you'd think the overall effect would be unconsonant, chaotic even, yet — as Lois plays it for me — the music seems to inhabit both realms equally, almost as if simultaneously, the sweetness made more sweet by its leap into disharmony, the disharmony more jarring for its embrace of sweetness.

Craftily defending her own juxtapositions of smooth and abrupt, continuous and disjunctive, Davis writes, "A transition — the moment of transition — when achieved as perfectly as Beethoven did in his bagatelles and the late quartets, is able to perform this sleight of hand, the moment-between, the ghost-moment, inhabited by both parts."

Excerpt from Aurelia, Aurélia

When it comes to life with a dying person it is difficult to tell the difference between the futile and the impossible. No matter how tedious the demands — organizing a compartmented pill tray around a week's worth of thirty-four different kinds of pills totaling 420 pills in all, separated according to time of day (morning, noon, evening, bedtime), not to mention tracking down things that are vital to what's left of the dying person's happiness, that maple creemee in a wafer cone and not in a fucking dish for instance, that least favorite but crucial Nero Wolfe paperback (Homicide Trinity) that had to be physically applied to the upper chest totemically, like a mustard plaster, to ward off the shocking pain of shingles — that path was the one I cleaved to. "Rise up! Rise up, Eric!" I should have said that. I told myself what I was following was the path of goodness but I knew goodness wasn't going to do a bit of good.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Longing to Be Haunted"