“Admirable more than enjoyable” – The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter

IMG_20Dec2021at002651I’m aware Max Porter isn’t known for his doorstoppers, but still, this new one is SHORT. Like, seventy-four pages short. So, on one level, you’ll zip through it within the hour. But, on another, this is Max Porter: he’s not dealing in conventional narratives, and it takes a while to parse this one. By which I mean: this is a deliberate puzzle of a book.

If Grief is the Thing with Feathers riffed off Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson, and Lanny was a folk-horror chorus of dislocation and fear, The Death of Francis Bacon is Porter’s foray into fine art. It’s an eight-part portrait, or an eight-portrait series, of – yes – the final days of the eponymous painter. Bacon’s not voiceless out in the real world, of course – there’s archive footage a-plenty, so it’s not a case of giving voice to the dead once silenced in life; rather, Porter is, I think, attempting a prose translation of Bacon’s particular style: brutal and tender, domesticated and savage, tailored, decaying, familiar and horrifying. And in that sense, it’s not all that different from Lanny and Grief: as a writer, Porter is still exploring the uncanny, the darkness behind the façade, death in life. What Bacon offers him is a way to contextualise his own interests in terms of an already-existing artistic canon: while we read these declamations from ‘Bacon’, we’re recalling his actual paintings, while remaining aware that the eight sections here (one ‘preparatory sketch’ and seven subsequent numerically ordered works, complete with material descriptions – ‘Oil on canvas, 60 x 461/2 in.’) don’t correlate to existing artworks. In each one, Bacon is addressing his nurse and himself, mulling over art and illness and his past and its people; the pieces work partly like a Beckettian two-hander (the exchange with the nurse offers a nice comic touch – maybe he’s more Romeo & Juliet than Godot) and partly like an erudite, snarky, foul-mouthed and apprehensive stream of consciousness.

For all its brevity, and for all the concept is a good one, it’s not an easy book. I’m not sure anyone without a pretty solid awareness of Bacon’s biography and circumstances would be able to make much of it; even with that foundation, it’s fairly opaque. But that opacity is part of the point: why would anybody on their death bed, ill, drugged up, in a foreign land and recalling their life’s work and loves, do so in terms that were immediately accessible to any old Johnny-come-lately? And Porter, as you’d expect if you’ve read Lanny, is a hell of a ventriloquist: this is a convincing account of a medicated dying artist ranting his last days away. So you have to work at this text, and that’s no bad thing. It reads like script and poetry more than it does prose – it’s fragmentary and obscure and captivating as a result. But it’s hard, at times frustrating, and demands more than one read. Because it’s very short, that’s kind of okay, but if you’re after something more immediately rewarding (back to Lanny), then there’s a non-trivial chance you’ll have a tricky relationship with this book. It’s got all the ingredients that made the others great, but they’re put to work in a way that’s all about the difficulties in getting inside somebody else’s head – which means that the book itself feels at times very resistant to its readers.

Any Cop?: Admirable more than enjoyable. One for Porter completists and Bacon fans.

Valerie O’Riordan

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