Susanna Sonnenberg
March 14, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

In 1917, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven could be found chatting up Marcel Duchamp at a Manhattan society party as her homemade taillight bustle flashed on and off. In Holy Skirts, novelist René Steinke reimagines Elsa — the oft-married German chorine-turned-model who struggled as an avant-garde poet on the fringes of dadaism — in a lost New York ”with its cheerful coarseness, its banks dressed up as cathedrals, and the shininess and speed of streets built for millionaires.” Although Skirts’ chronological structure is oddly conventional considering its flamboyant protagonist, Steinke’s graceful prose adds intimate texture to a woman so cutting-edge that Duchamp called her ”the future.”

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