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Pere Gimferrer: Fortuny (Fortuny)

Pere Gimferrer is primarily known as a poet but he did write two novels, one of which, this one, was translated into English. It is a novel but it is very much a poet’s novel. There is no plot and most of the characters are historical people. The key players are the eponymous Fortunys: father, a major painter in his day Marià Fortuny but also (confusingly, as we shall see ) known as Mariano Fortuny, his wife, Cecilia de Madrazo (link in Spanish), whose father was a painter and who was a model for her husband, and their son, the designer Mariano Fortuny, but also known as Marià Fortuny.

The novel is divided into small chapters, each one about one or more historical persons or works of art. The translator of the English text, Adrian Nathan West, has very helpfully provided a visual key to the work so you can see pictures of the key people and works of each chapter. The basis of each chapter, which goes backwards and forwards in time, is that each event and/or person has some association with a Fortuny, generally because a Fortuny painted then, photographed them, was painted by them or had an item of clothing designed by Mariano Fortuny. Much (though certainly not all of) the action takes place in Venice, where Mariano Fortuny lived and set up his very successful fashion design business.

Gimferrer writes about these people and works of art, commenting on them but also describing them in what can best be described as a sensuous, lavish style. As you can see from the visual key, we start off with a Fortuny Senior painting of a man in turban though, as Gimferrer points out, you can barely see the man himself. But he also shows us Fortuny himself and his wife and describes other works such as Fòrtuny painted by his father-in-law and another portrait of a man in a turban, namely Mariano Fortuny, which you can see in the visual key.

We move on to two gentlemen talking English in Venice, namely Henry James and John Singer Sargent, with reference to the collector Jeffrey Aspern, who is, of course, a fictitious person, from James’ book The Aspern Papers. However, Mariano Fortuny and his mother are nearby, and near to the place where Robert Browning died.

We are then off to another visitor to Venice, Richard Wagner, with his wife Cosima, and her father Franz Liszt, sumptuously dressed, with flower maidens painted by Mariano Fortuny. A host of other famous people appear in these pages. There is Eleanora Duse, the actress who is desired by Charlie Chaplin. We will see Chaplin later with Enrico Caruso. The colourful Gabriele D’Annunzio makes more than one appearance, including in a brothel (a high-class, well-decorated one, of course).

The high-class courtesan Émilienne d’Alençon is another woman who wears a Fortuny dress. She appears in À la recherche du temps perdu and Proust himself appears a couple of times, including with the (fictitious) Albertine.

Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon all appear and all are condemned. Napoleon, apparently, had small testicles. However, we move on to more modern times with both Julie Christie and Mary McCarthy. Gimferrer enjoys a bit of gossip and the murky affair of Dolores del Rio and Orson Welles is recounted, not least because Mariano Fortuny apparently deigned the costume for Welles’ film of Othello. As it is Welles, we even get Martians invading New York, from Welles’ radio drama.

I have not covered everyone who appears but this gives an idea of Gimferrer’s approach. It is great fun, written in a poet’s style and a great tribute to the Fortuny family, who are relatively little known nowadays in the English-speaking world.

First published by Planeta in 1983
First English translation by Verba Mundi in 2015