Overview

Elizabeth, the daughter of a professor of history living in Cairo in the 1950s, tells how she came to be an anatomist of mummies, as she opens up to us the sensations and aromas of ancient times, and explains how the city of Cairo itself gives her power - and wisdom - and takes away from her the part of the self that is necessary for love.

When her mother leaves her father to "walk" the streets of Cairo, and her father forgets himself in games of chess and war, thirteen-year-old...

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Gazelle

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Overview

Elizabeth, the daughter of a professor of history living in Cairo in the 1950s, tells how she came to be an anatomist of mummies, as she opens up to us the sensations and aromas of ancient times, and explains how the city of Cairo itself gives her power - and wisdom - and takes away from her the part of the self that is necessary for love.

When her mother leaves her father to "walk" the streets of Cairo, and her father forgets himself in games of chess and war, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth ponders Scheherazade's words, "It is good for a girl to be with a man," and finds comfort at the shop of Ramses Ragab, a master perfumer dedicated to resurrecting the lost fragrances of the past (the Susinum prized by Roman women; the nardinon loved by Pliny, the hekenou of the Pharaohs).

Under the tutelage of the perfumer, Elizabeth reads ancient esoteric texts and learns the mysteries of fragrance. Ramses Ragab is a sensitive and brilliant man, and Elizabeth's burst of love for him has a child's intensity and a young woman's passion. When her father hires a magician to bring back his wife, Elizabeth discovers just how precious she herself is - and how worthless - as a girl and soon to be beautiful woman, in this ancient land of stone, sand, and darkness.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Gazelle is a sensuous book. A mix of smells pervades its pages, from orange blossoms, perfumes, mint, almonds, limes, roses, jasmine, and long-simmered delicacies to animal dung, vinegar, urine, and long-buried mummies. Great stand-alone sentences are enough to make one's mouth water: "We shall eat lamb with our fingers in the light of a single sequin blinking in the navel of a belly dancer" -- or as in this description of a lunch with "the birds stuffed to indecency and poised like swimmers on a swell of spiced lentils." — Evelyn Small
The New York Times
Narrated by the adult Elizabeth, now a lovelorn ''surgical anatomist,'' Gazelle is full of nostalgia for Cairo and the affectations of its citizens -- especially those of Ramses Ragab, a gifted perfumer. In retrospect, Elizabeth takes the measure not only of her stunningly inept parents but of herself as a lonely girl. — Alan Michael Parker
Publishers Weekly
Sepia-toned like the tea-steeped ivory chess pieces commissioned at its start, this evocative if overripe brief novel by Ducornet (The Fan-Maker's Inquisition, etc.) tells the story of a young American girl's awakening one summer in 1950s Cairo. Thirteen-year old Elizabeth is the daughter of tragically mismatched parents. Her father is a soft-spoken, intellectual scholar of war ("his Egyptian students called him His Airship"), her mother a careless, vivacious Icelandic beauty ("a noisemaker"). When her mother moves into the Hotel-Pension Viennoise, the better to carry on her affairs, her father is heartbroken, losing himself in chess and the history of war. Introverted Elizabeth takes after her father and tends anxiously to him, while feuding with her mother and finding solace in her obsession with her father's best friend, Ramses Ragab, a handsome and gentle perfume maker. His seductive lessons in the art of hieroglyphics and the chemistry of exotic scents foreshadow the novel's plunge into the occult when Elizabeth's father hires a magician to try and lure his wife back. The troubled relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully depicted, and Ducornet deftly evokes a steamy, sophisticated mid-century Cairo, casting a veil of legend and arcane detail over the city's erotic stirrings. Luminous writing is left to take up the slack left by a slow and dreamy plot, but the hothouse atmosphere is artfully contrived. (July 29) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
A young girl is living in Cairo in the 1950s when her American mother leaves her Egyptian father to have affairs with one lover after another. Elizabeth at 13 is just realizing her own womanhood and is fascinated by a friend of her father, a perfume maker who visits their house frequently and is in love with all of them, in different ways. The story reads almost as a myth or fable, but is touched by the sorrow of a young girl who has lost her mother and finds her father just out of reach. Filled with sensual metaphors of fragrance, sight and sound, this is a story of the burgeoning desire of youth and the frantic desire of those who are afraid of what they might have lost. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Anchor, 189p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Ducornet (Fountains of Neptune; Phosphor in Dreamland) here weaves a coming-of-age story about a woman who, like Ducornet herself, spent a year in Cairo, Egypt, when she was a teenager. Now in her forties, Elizabeth looks back at this pivotal time in her life, when her lovely, wayward mother openly caroused through Cairo, picking up strange men, and her eccentric professor father deflected his sadness by obsessively playing chess and war games. She also recalls her own sexual wakening, which began when she was attracted to her father's war game companion, Rames Ragab, a perfumer who bestowed upon her his knowledge of exotic plants and scents. Ducornet effectively draws a portrait of a young girl who, privy to her father's deepening despair, starts to resent her mother intensely while discovering her own sexuality (reading a provocative translation of Arabian Nights further stimulates her fantasies). This dreamy story blends the mysteries of an unusual culture with the mysteries of sex, attraction, the body, death, and the natural world. Intellectual ponderings about the preservation of mummified bodies and of esoteric texts (e.g., the work of a 17th-century alchemist who theorized about Egyptian hieroglyphs) further enhance the narrative's appeal. Recommended for large libraries collecting literary fiction.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Muted characterization and action and a voluptuous superabundance of arcane hocus-pocus: such are the keynotes of this febrile eighth novel from the writer-painter whose earlier, much similar fiction includes The Complete Butcher's Tales (1994) and Phosphor in Dreamland (1995). The story's narrated in retrospect by Elizabeth, a trained anatomist who specializes in examining mummified bodies, 20 years after she had lived in Cairo with her "Professor" father (bankrolled by a Fulbright grant) and epically promiscuous Icelandic mother. "Mother," a sexual force of nature devoid of moral scruples, ran through multiple lovers, seeking her ideal Egyptian man: "the gazelle type." The Professor, an expert in the mechanics of poisoning (whose book The Ethics of War had attracted CIA interest), and a hitherto strictly "rational" man, drowned his grief in chess games reimagined as historic battles with master parfumier Ramses Ragab. As always, Ducornet conjures up fragrant excerpts from texts both real (The Arabian Nights) and imaginary (the "licentious" Garden of Semblance and Lies, the writings of alchemist Athanasius Kirchner, who studied Egyptian hieroglyphics in hopes of creating an encyclopedic summa of human experience). Rather late in the game, things do begin to happen, as the Professor summons a magician to bring back his vagrant wife (she does return, after mumbling incantations replete with dark cosmic clichés-but she stays only for breakfast). Meanwhile, Elizabeth's awakened sexuality leads her to intimacy with secrets possessed and conjured by Ramses Ragab, independence from both her mother's destructive sexuality and her father's abdication from reality, and-on shipboard, as she and theProfessor, having abandoned all hope, return to America-the "gazelle man" who makes her a woman ("my heart thrashed like an eel under the net of his eyes"). Ducornet's aphoristic élan makes all this nonsense agreeably smooth, if insubstantial and arbitrary. To quote the Professor: "Time is a clutter . . . and it needs to be sorted out." So is, so does Gazelle.
From the Publisher
“Like a cross between Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. . . . Enthralling.” --The New York Times Book Review

Gazelle is a sensuous book . . . a smart book, intense, full of myths and magic.”
--The Washington Post Book World

“Everything about this Cairo-set novel is polished to perfection: the limning of the characters, the splendid evocation of Cairo’s atmosphere and the prose itself–faceted and brilliant as a fine jewel.”--The Seattle Times

“Ducornet’s Cairo is a cyclone of personalities, faces, small spats, bizarre animals, crowded marketplaces and quiet stalls rich in carefully crafted curios, each with its own story. Gazelle is a sensitively imagined journey into a young girl’s ripening soul .”–San Francisco Chronicle

“[Ducornet’s] magical, sensuous prose [is] redolent of street vendors’ herbs, the perfumer’s ambergris, the orange blossoms and rose petals of hidden gardens. This is storytelling that enchants the senses while not neglecting to engage the more critical faculties.”–The Boston Globe

Gazelle, Rikki Ducornet’s seventh novel, is another of her bold, sumptuous narratives examining what one might call the Varieties of Desire. There is a great deal here that is beautiful and graceful; a great deal that is wonderfully comic and inventive.” --Rocky Mountain News

“Gorgeous. . . . metaphors so stuffed onto the pages they drop into your lap like overripe plums.” —Detroit Free Press

“Ducornet affirms her critical reputation as a gifted fabulist with a flair for the erotic in this enchanting tale of sexual allure, survival, and the dream of immorality. Lushly detailed yet swiftly paced, this mythic coming-of-age novel archly traces the plexus of sensuality, intelligence, and imagination that defines the human soul.” —Booklist

“Surreal. . . . Follow[s] in the stylistic footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges.” —Contra Costa Times

“The troubled relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully depicted, and Ducornet deftly evokes a steamy, sophisticated mid-century Cairo, casting a veil of legend and arcane detail over the city’s erotic stirrings.” --Publishers Weekly

“Ducornet is a writer of extraordinary power, in whose books ‘rigor and imagination’ (her watchwords) perform with the grace and daring of high-wire acrobats.” --Bomb

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307426000
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/18/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 905,334
  • File size: 502 KB

Meet the Author

Rikki Ducornet is the author of two short-story collections, five books of poetry, and seven novels, including The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition and The Jade Cabinet. She is also a painter whose work has been exhibited widely. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado.
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Read an Excerpt


ONE

The Chess Set of Ivory

Chess appealed to my father's delight in quietude, his repressed rage, his trust in institutions, models, and measured behavior. Chess justi?ed what Father liked best: thinking about thinking. He called it: battling mind.

Father dwelled in a space of such disembodied quietness his Egyptian students called him His Airship, I believe with affection. Chess allowed Father to make decisions that would in no way in?uence the greater world--beyond his grasp anyway--and to engage in con?ict without doing violence to others or to himself. (Father's fear of thuggery suggested clairvoyance when in a later decade he would ?nd himself undone by a handful of classroom Maoists who called him Gasbag to his face. If clearly they intended to hurt him, they were, admittedly, responding to that disembodied quality of his already evident in Egypt, and to his pedantry--a quality rooted in timidity.)

Father was a closet warrior, a mild man and an intellectual, a dreamer of reason in a world he feared was chronically, terminally unreasonable. And he was a parsimonious conversationalist. His favorite quote was from Wittgenstein: "What we cannot speak of we must be silent about." When Father did speak, he spoke so softly that even those who knew him well had to ask him to repeat himself. Once, during his Fulbright year in Egypt, when several of his students had discovered a crate of brass hearing trumpets for sale in the bazaar, they had carried these to class to--at a prearranged signal--lift them simultaneously to their ears. (Yet, in sleep, Father ground his teeth so loudly my mother nightly dreamed of industry: gravel pits, cement factories, brickworks.)

I could add that Father was fastidious, sometimes changing his clothes two or three times a day. He ate little and dressed soberly--if with a speci?c, outdated ?air: on formal occasions he wore a cummerbund. I took after him, played quietly by myself behind closed doors. And if Mother--and she was a big, beautiful Icelander--was a noisemaker, she made her noise out in the world--the Of?cers Club, for example.

Father once admitted to me that chess saved him from losing his mind--and this was said after he had lost his heart. When he played he became disembodied--a mind on a stalk in a chair, invisible--and if he could keep ahead of his adversary, impalpable, too. In life as in chess, Father did not want to be touched, to be moved, to be seized; he was unwilling to be pinned down or cornered. He jumped from one discourse to another, embracing peculiar and obscure concepts and ideologies about which no one else knew anything; meaningful conversation with him proved an impossibility. In those years chess became the sole vehicle by which he could be reached, or rather, engaged--for he could never be reached--the navigable airspace in which he functioned was invariably at the absolute altitude of his choosing. When he embraced the cryptic vocabulary of Coptic Gnosticism, he lost his few remaining friends because it was impossible to follow the direction of his thoughts, and that was exactly what he wanted.

In Cairo Father played chess blindfolded and invariably he won. The positions of the pieces on the board were sharper in his mind's eye than the furniture of his own living room (where he was constantly scraping his shins and knocking over chairs).

But I keep digressing. What I wish to write about is a brief period of time in Egypt, one year, and above all, one summer that seems to stretch to in?nity, a time of disquiet and loneliness. That year, and that summer, were a paradox--both intensely felt and numbing. The world passed before my eyes like an animated stage--distant, colorful, unattainable--and I, in my own chair, looked on, watchful and amazed, frightened, enchanted, and disembodied, too.

In Egypt, Father had taken to wearing a fez to wander as unobtrusively as possible. He looked Egyptian--we both did--so that Cairo embraced us unquestioningly, my father's limited but convincing Arabic suf?cing during brief encounters with beggars and merchants and dragomen; and he spoke French.

One winter's day on an excursion to the Mouski, we passed the window of an ivory carver's shop that contained any number of charming miniatures: gazelles, tigers, monkeys, elephants, and the like. As he gazed at the animals--and I supposed he might elect to buy me one--Father began to cough and hum in a familiar way that meant he was about to make a brilliant move, or was excited by an idea. At that instant a small boy invited us into the shop, and offered us two little chairs on which to sit. The carver appeared then, beaming, and sent the boy off to fetch coffee. The tray set before us, the mystery of Father's excitement was revealed: If Father provided the drawings, could the carver make for him a chess set in which the goddesses and gods of the Egyptians and the Romans met face-to-face? Isis and Osiris, Horus and Amon Ra battling Juno and Jupiter and Neptune and Mars? Might sacred bulls confront elephants? He imagined the Egyptian pawns as ibises and the Roman pawns as archers.

This conversation took place in a boil of English, Arabic, and French; already the coffee tray was cluttered with sketches and ivory elephants--examples of sizes and styles. As the ivory carver and my father discussed the set's price and the time necessary for its completion, I sipped sherbet and explored the shadows. I found a stack of tusks as tall as myself and two pails: one contained ivory bracelets soaking to scarlet in henna and the other ivory animals soaking to the color of wild honey in black tea. As I looked the boy came over and with a ?at stick stirred the carvings gently, all the while gazing at me with curiosity.

The shop was very old and smelled unlike any place I had ever been; I suppose it was the ivory dust on the air--all that old bone--the henna, the coffee, and the tea. It was a wonderful smell and soothing, so that for several instants I closed my eyes and slept.

When I awoke, the boy had vanished, leaving ajar a little door that opened onto the back alley. The alley led to a quarter entirely devoted to leather slippers stained green, and farther down an antiques seller's where I had seen a ?gure of hawk--headed Horus, the god of the rising sun, made of Egyptian paste and the size of a thumb. It had come from a tomb near Luxor.

The little ?gure had spoken to me with such urgency that, for the ?rst time in my life, I had dared ask my father that he buy it. He did not take my request seriously. How could a thirteen-year-old possibly fathom the value of such a thing? Not that it was impossibly expensive--for in those days such pieces were still to be found easily enough on the market. But it was three thousand years old, and Father imagined a troubling eccentricity of character: my request seemed excessive. Had I inherited an immodest desire for luxury from my mother, who at that moment was having the hair removed from her armpits with hot caramel? (His own delight in luxury he did not question because compared to hers it was so tame: a collection of chess sets, a few articles of elegant clothing.)

Mother's extravagance and acute blondness were striking anywhere, but above all in Egypt. When in gold lamé she arrived late at a reception at the University Club, a hush descended upon the room. She preferred of?cers and had befriended a number of the Egyptian brass (including the young Nasser)--handsome men ?ourishing thick mustaches.

I was learning Arabic. To my delight I discovered if I said egg'ga I got an omelet, and salata, a salad. Father owned a charming little pocket dictionary with words in French, English, and Arabic, and incongruous illustrations of disparate objects. One page showed a Victorian piano, a British bobby, a sarcophagus, two sorts of cannon, a hula dancer, a radio singer, a caged tiger, a man singing in black-face, an airplane, a hand holding a pen, a pearl necklace, a salted ham, a taxicab, a star, a cobra, and a hat.

Each week my father and I returned to the ivory carver's shop, where the ?nished pieces accumulated. The Roman castles were Pompeian elephants decked out exactly as in an old print Father had hunted down in the university library; the print was based on a bas-relief uncovered in Pompeii. The little elephants had tusks that ended in spheres the size of small peas. These might be gilded and if they were: Should Isis wear a gold necklace and Amon Ra a gold sun? No. Father was after simplicity. The Egyptians should be soaked in tea to darken them and this was all.

As he spoke my father ?ngered an Osiris four inches tall and completed that morning. He had the lithe body of a young, athletic man and the noble head of a falcon. In the guise of a crown he wore the solar disc encircled by a serpent, and in his hand he carried the Key of Life. Father said to me: "When Osiris was torn to pieces and his body tossed to the four winds, Isis, his beloved, searched the world until she found every part but the phallus, because it had been swallowed by a ?sh. She made him another--of precious wood or alabaster, no one knows. Then she laid his broken body on a perfumed bed and embraced him until he was whole again. And here he is!"

Smiling, Father raised the little ?gure to the sun that in its passage across the sky had suddenly ?lled the shop with light. Then, under his breath, he said with a bitterness so unique, so unexpected, that I was profoundly startled: A thing that would not have occurred to your mother.

Alone on my balcony in the afternoon, I would gaze out over the courtyard below, where Bedouins often camped. I could smell baking bread and hear the children singing. I loved to see the women suckle their little ones, and when the girls danced fearlessly I danced too, for in that quiet air the sound of their ?utes and drums readily reached me.

They came because of the public water fountain and an ancient sycamore tree that kept the courtyard shady and cool. At its roots the Bedouins had nested their goallah or water pots, and I thought the word wonderful because it contained their word for God. I found a picture of a goall in the Dracoman, in a series including the sugarloaf-shaped hat of a dervish and a head of lettuce.

I would also gaze at the beautiful balconies across the courtyard, all pierced with patterns of stars. Sometimes a wood panel slid back and the small face of a child might appear, or that of a woman unveiled, her face impossibly pale, her eyes like the eyes of a caged animal, her throat and wrists circled in silver.

I had left all my toys behind but for a small box of glass and porcelain animals, and a green cloth I pretended was a vast meadow. But I was swiftly outgrowing these things. They paled beside the demands of my own slight body, awakening--I did not know to what, except that when each night I found pleasure beneath my small ?ngers, pleasure detonating like some sudden star, I imagined a blue man beside me, a blue man with the beautiful face of a bird of prey.

Today when we arrive to see the ?nished Osiris, the ivory carver is full of news. Just this morning in Alley of Old Time, a dervish sliced his belly open and revealed his entrails. A large number of people had gathered beside the carver's shop to throw coins at the dervish's feet and cry: Allah is great! Praise Allah! But even more extraordinary, the dervish had spontaneously taken his guts in both his hands and lifted them as though for the carver's inspection, before asking for a needle and thread to sew himself up again. After, he had limped away to die or to recover--"God," the carver says, "alone knows." The blood--and there was very little of it--was not washed away because the spot was considered by some to be holy ground. The ivory carver is eager to show us the blood, but Father at his most imperious says: "L'extase ne m'interesse point."

The next hour is characterized by silence, Father examining the new piece with extreme attention, the carver bent over his work--Jupiter--with exemplary intensity. Later on, as we are making our way back to Sharia el-Geish to hail a cab, we turn off too soon and, wandering in an unfamiliar maze of streets, ?nd ourselves among the butchers' stalls, where Father bumps into a table piled high with several dozen skinned heads of sheep, shining with oil and ready for roasting.

Suddenly I see my father's fez rolling along the street and then Father bent in two and vomiting, spattering the knees of his white linen suit with ?lth. He vomits violently, in spasms, as little boys looking solemn gather in droves and one stunning man in a white turban offers my father a handkerchief moistened with orange-blossom water. Panting, Father grabs this to mop his face, and I see a wild look in his eyes, the look of the woman at the window of stars. Then, somehow, we are in a taxi speeding home, the generous man whom we will never see again diminishing like a genie behind us.

Throughout the ride Father's face remains plunged in the scented handkerchief. When we arrive at our building's gate, Father raises his eyes and I see that he is still terri?ed. He needs help counting change. For a moment he opens his mouth as if to apologize but says nothing, as though speaking demands too great an effort. To this day I cannot smell orange-blossom water without thinking of a cobbled street, a spoiled fez, my father's stained knees.

Father was ill for two months. A fever pinned him down so that he could barely move. When he was delirious, he raved that the head of gravity lay upon his heart and that it was made of oiled lead. He imagined that the Colossi of Memni had fallen onto his bed and were crushing him, that his own temple was ?lling with sand. In the fall we had seen stray dogs worrying the corpse of a camel. Father believed he was that camel.

He said he was being pulverized by Time--he spoke as if Time and Gravity were divine beings who despised him because he was merely mortal and made of frangible clay; those were his words: frangible clay. Finally--and this happened in May--his fever broke, his mind cleared, his mood lightened. Father began to mend. Within days we were able to walk to his chamber's balcony, which overlooked the street, to stand together cracking melon seeds between our teeth and tossing sweets to the organ grinder's monkey, who, when the music was over, pulled a tin plate from his pants, and a fork.

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