Reviewed by Annabel
Max Porter emerged on the British literary scene in the mid-2010s as an author to be watched. His debut 2015 novella Grief is the Thing With Feathers established him as a young author not afraid of experimentation, winning him the Sunday Times PFD Young Writer of the Year Award and Dylan Thomas Prize and other long and short listings. The novella blended poetry and prose styles in his exploration of the grief of a father who is a Ted Hughes scholar, and his sons, the grief being personified by Hughes’ ‘crow’. His second longer novel, Lanny, about those living in a village, alive and dead, and Dead Papa Toothwort awoken in the woods, was told in even more voices combined with a variety of type forms and fonts. Both are lovely books and, despite their literariness, very accessible—you don’t need to be familiar with Hughes’s work to enjoy Grief… for instance; indeed it sent me off to re-read Crow.
The Death of Francis Bacon is rather different. A small hardback of around 75 pages, many of which are blank, Porter imagines the last days of the Dublin-born British artist in seven word paintings. In a recent article for The Guardian, Porter describes its style:
It is designed to slip in and out of different registers, which is likely to enrage some readers, but I hope this gets it slightly closer to looking than reading. As all art lovers know, deeper satisfaction is gained from longer looking, but also different types of looking, swivelling between bombardment, glance, immersion, way back, close up, from a room away, from a decade ago.
At first, I read no further than the first couple of pages, an introductory ‘Preparatory Sketch’ and the beginning of ‘One’ before putting the book down and scurrying off to read up about Bacon and remind myself of some of his extraordinary paintings. Bacon’s work is undeniably magnetic, but I’ve never liked it, finding his paintings rather troubling and dark. Desmond Morris in his rather excellent book on The Lives of the Surrealists says: ‘Critics have spoken grandly of Bacon’s depiction of the spiritual isolation of modern man and described his paintings as ‘profound reflections on the century’s trauma’ but the truth is that they are almost totally personal and sexual in meaning.’
Bacon died of a heart attack in April 1992, having been taken ill while on holiday with kidney and chronic breathing problems; for six days he was tended by Sister Mercedes. Porter fills in the gaps. Each of the seven paintings begins and ends the same way: We’re invited to join him at his bedside,‘Take a seat why don’t you,’ then at the end of each piece, the sister says ‘Intenta descansar’—‘Get some rest.’
More often than not, Bacon addresses himself ‘Piggy’. Bacon rambles on in between wheezes. He worries about the state of his hair, he remembers the great loves of his life and the violence associated with some of those relationships, he recalls other motifs from his colourful life, his nurse’s chewing gum smell recalls the perfume of an old friend. He also extemporises about historical characters such as Edward the Martyr, Julius Caesar and Brutus, inserting himself into their narratives.
He is also very critical of himself—he famously destroyed many times more paintings in his career than those that survive. Sometimes Sister Mercedes reads to him about other’s views about his work from a large book. Whether these imaginary scathing reviews are in Bacon’s mind or on the pages as his nurse reads isn’t always obvious:
He is fundamentally a colourist, in the childish sense. He draws his simple pictures and he colours them in. At his most sophisticated he has been granted stickers:
Wounds, cricket pads, little bits of lonely nonsense architecture.
He has fun sticking these flat gimmicks on his fake figures, or behind them.
Sometimes he sets aside his juvenile addictions long enough to look hard at a face or ponder patiently a colour field, and these are cheap trick successes, related to Heal’s, Habitat, Home Interiors Magazine more than to the great painters he slavishly imitates.
Sister, you’re giving me a terrible desire to punch something.
Allusions to some of Bacon’s paintings such as his triptychs and the series of Screaming Popes can be picked up by those with a passing familiarity with his work. But Porter is a self-admitted Bacon obsessive, and there are surely more references to the less famous works in this little book. Does that matter? Not really, I was relieved to discover that detailed knowledge is a nice to have rather than a necessity. I was reminded of Will Eaves’ experimental novel, Murmur, about Alan Turing which also benefits the reader with prior knowledge of the life being examined.
Not in question however, is Porter’s ability with verbal gymnastics and his turn of phrase; his Bacon speaks in colourful prose very much as you’d imagine from the shy man who performs for his friends. In the final chapter, just before Bacon’s end, it is really a case of his life flashing before his eyes in quick glimpses of people, things and even smells. This was a rather moving section and an apt coda to this little book.
While, due to the subject, it is unlikely that this book will achieve the huge success of his previous novels, it does continue to mark Porter as an author to watch. He is not afraid to experiment. In The Death of Francis Bacon, he is primarily writing for himself, but allowing the reader in to experience Bacon’s influence on his unique world view–a fascinating short read.
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors. She still doesn’t like Bacon’s paintings but is beginning to understand them more.
Max Porter, The Death of Francis Bacon (Faber, 2021). 978-0571366514, 80pp., hardback.
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