Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí: Forbidden Pleasure and Connected Lives, By Gwynne Edwards

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The Independent Culture

This is the story of three young friends in Spain who went on to become major artists, each forging international reputations; as doomed poet and gay icon, provocative and influential film-maker, and wealth-obsessed, self-proclaimed "genius" painter. It is also a story of betrayal and revenge, supporting the adage that two is company, three's a crowd.

First, Lorca and Dalí became close friends (and probably lovers), then Dalí teamed up with Buñuel, while Lorca was in America, and made a film in which the male lead might well have been a loose parody of Lorca. As Lorca commented, "Buñuel has made a little film... it's called Un chien andalou and I'm the dog."

From 1929, the three had very little to do with each other, and barely even met. Buñuel showed only contempt for Dalí's embracing of fascism and ultimate return to Catholicism. Dalí, on hearing of Lorca's murder in 1936, allegedly shouted a celebratory "Olé!".

Dalí is undoubtedly the villain of the book, as well as the one with whom the author is least at home. Although Gwynne Edwards, an accomplished translator of the plays, is far more comfortable in Lorca territory, he has little to say about the poetry, touching only briefly on Gypsy Ballads and Poet in New York, and less about Dalí 's art world in Paris. There are descriptions of the famous paintings, but no illustrations. Much of the writing on Buñuel is distilled from the film-maker's memoir, My Last Breath, and the anecdotal summary of Dalí's miserable decline, his toxic lifestyle and the sordid, acrimonious breakdown of his marriage can be savoured in far greater detail in Ian Gibson's Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí.

There are too many examples of vagueness and inaccuracy in the book, mostly indicative of poor editing. Figueres, Dalí's home town – for which Edwards insists on using the obsolete, Castilian spelling – is a "coastal town" on page 1 but by page 17 has correctly moved "some 25 kilometres inland". Franco disliked the left "for personal reasons" – but we never learn what those reasons were. An unfinished Lorca play apparently conveyed the message that "the real purpose of theatre should be to make people feel that people are 'in the middle of the street'". And there are baffling non-sequiturs.

Far more irritating is the cod-psychological analysis meted out to all three men, often touching depths of banality: "Dalí's psychological make-up was in many respects very different from Buñuel's, but both possessed a strongly rebellious streak"; "it is quite possible that beneath Buñuel's tough exterior there was a gentler side that responded to Lorca's reading of poetry".

We learn that Buñuel was a bullying husband through his long married life; that Dalí as an adolescent was "constantly preoccupied by the small size of his penis" and Lorca, whose life was tragically curtailed in 1936, probably seduced Dalí when they were students and Dalí (who may well have responded but was terrified – and obsessed – by the act of sodomy) spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was not gay. Only Lorca comes out of this study with integrity intact.

For anyone familiar with the lives of the three, none of this is new. The writing is not informed by new research and the photographs are familiar. Edwards attempts to draw out the parallels between the artists, pointing to similarities of experience and disposition, but in most cases these threads would be common to any sensitive child growing up in a privileged, middle-class family in early 20th-century Spain, and educated by priests who thought that sexual pleasure was the work of the devil.

This is not to say that Lorca, Buñuel, Dali is a bad book; Edwards tells the story concisely, condensing the early lives into manageable chunks. It provides an introduction to an extraordinary period of Spanish history through three exceptional individuals. But much of this territory has been covered elsewhere, and it is the framing of his argument that marks out Edwards's study, rather than its content.

Richard Gwyn's novel 'Deep Hanging Out' is published by Snowbooks