Books: An Andalusian god more than kin

A wit, a romantic, a rebel - but a great poet? Tobias Jones spurns the Lorca centenary cult
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The Independent Culture
Lorca: a dream of life

by Leslie Stainton

Bloomsbury, pounds 30, 546pp

Federico Garca Lorca's short life has become so iconic that, especially this year, the centenary of his birth, it has taken on mythical proportions. Like Wilde - whose De Profundis he avidly annotated - Lorca's life has become a lyrical metaphor: for the martyrdom of war, and for the gay aesthete crushed by intolerance (he was executed in 1936 by Spain's Fascists, the Falange). The journey to Viznar to search for his grave, by the likes of Gerald Brenan and Ian Gibson, has become a regular act of scholarly pilgrimage.

Endlessly preoccupied with posterity, Lorca himself was happy to lay the foundations for this cult with little embellishments about his background and age. His panache for self- invention was evident as early as 1918, when he told a friend: "in a century of zeppelins and stupid deaths I sob before my piano, dreaming in a Handelian mist". This theatrical posturing - a Spanish combination of pride, audacity and defiance - was forgiven because it was so endearing. Asked why he insisted on reading his poems aloud, he slapped his hand on his heart and declared "to defend them".

At the end of a public reading, Lorca would sometimes roll up a napkin, dab his forehead, and then let it drop down his face like a curtain or shroud. Another anecdote has Lorca and a friend, having fobbed off a painting to a foreign couple, hiring two taxis back to their lodgings. They both sat in the front taxi, the empty car behind being simply a taxi de respeto (a taxi of respect).

Leslie Stainton's new biography - the first full treatment in English since Ian Gibson's almost 10 years ago - is less obsessed with the tragic arc of Lorca's life, and so able to unpick some of the mythology. The Lorca who emerges is still, like Wilde, the salon man par excellence, but more human - a fantasist and dissembler, and an egotist so romantic that his ambition often overreached his talent.

Lorca was born in the vega, the plain, of Granada in June 1898. The year was one of nemesis for Spain, which lost its colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. But Lorca's father, a landowner, benefited: there was now more demand for his home-grown sugarbeet, a source of wealth that Lorca would tap throughout his life. Indolent at school, he was, however, a brilliant pianist. He compared the instrument to "a woman who is always asleep, and in order to wake her one must be filled with harmonies and grief".

That strain of melancholia was a prominent part of Lorca's make-up. With his younger brother, Luis, dying before his second birthday, and influenza sweeping the country in 1918, death became a recurrent theme. The Cante Jondo (the "deep songs" of gypsy origin) probably appealed to him because they, like his poetry, were wistful meditations on mortality and betrayal.

His own Gypsy Ballads are rightfully admired as some of his finest writing because they evoke what Lorca called pena: "not anguish because with pena one can smile... it is a longing without object, a keen love for nothing, with the certainty that death (the eternal preoccupation of Andalusia) is breathing behind the door." At other times, he talked of Spanish duende, "the hidden spirit of disconsolate pain".

As with other prodigies, Lorca could be childish and playful, and he enjoyed practical jokes. He coined clever nicknames in school, and later got his room-mates to sign copies of his books under his name. He surprised people with bawdy performances on the piano, and tried to reawaken interest in Spanish puppetry and the art of farce. One friend wrote of his "frank, luminous laughter". He relished the company of children, and lectured on Spanish lullabies, something he called "the marrow of a country".

On Lorca's sexuality, Stainton is particularly sensitive: he had once written that he wanted "to be a flower... and to enjoy the reproductive act in a spiritual way". Reading Wilde, he added marginalia suggesting love as "the only possible explanation for the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world." It was only on meeting Dali that he began to share whimsical references to the wounding of San Sebastian, and later still began to use Corydon, the Arcadian shepherd, euphemistically in letters.

That sexuality is knitted into the narrative so seamlessly that it comes to seem an extension of Lorca's sensitivity. He was capable of exquisite gestures, like scattering flowers on the grave of a friend, Rafael Barradas, in Montevideo, each stem bearing a small card with the names of Barradas's friends in Spain. He would take the pregnant wife of a friend to the park "to look at pretty things so that your baby will notice them too". He called himself an "anarchic Catholic", his mother having taught him to love the church as a thing of beauty, independent of its theological function.

Annoyingly, the book is almost entirely bereft of the Spanish originals, and Lorca always seems denuded without the assonance of Andalusian vowels. Where Gibson (who, astonishingly, does not receive one mention in the text) interviewed many surviving protagonists of Lorca's story, Stainton relies much more on archival material. But her literary analyses are sensitive, and the account of Lorca's arrest in August 1936 is beautifully crafted.

It's only a shame that in this year of Lorca mania, critics (even mild sceptics like Stainton) are so fond of the anecdotes that the dubious quality of much of the writing is glossed over. At times, the poems can seem like the dilettante jottings of a mandon, a spoilt child.

It would be so much more exciting to read a book which echoes the views of Adolfo Salazar, normally one of Lorca's gentler critics: he writes poetry, said Salazar, "as one heaves a deep, emotional sigh. It's charming, of course, but it frightens me because I don't think it's enough to make him into a real artist."