Staying at home

Ronald Fraser

  • Federico Garcia Lorca by Ian Gibson
    Faber, 542 pp, £17.50, July 1989, ISBN 0 571 14815 8

In 1973 Ian Gibson published The Death of Lorca, his outstanding investigation into the circumstances, silenced for forty years by the Franco regime, of the poet’s assassination at the insurgent military’s hands in the first month of the Civil War. It is highly fitting, therefore, that Gibson should have now written the life of Lorca, as close to a definitive biography as we are likely to get.

In the Anglo-Saxon world it is often thought that Lorca’s fame came posthumously, in part perhaps because of his tragic death at the age of 38. In fact, Lorca was the most famous poet and playwright of his generation in the Hispanic world, a generation which, as Neruda later recalled, was ‘such a splendid and generous rebirth of Spanish creative life that I never again saw anything that could approach it’. It included Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel and, among its poets, Vicente Aleixandre, later a Nobel Prize-winner, Rafael Alberti, Damaso Alonso, Luis Cernuda, Jorge Guillen, Pedro Salinas ... This outpouring of creative energy took place at a time when one-third of the Spanish population was officially illiterate and probably the same proportion again could barely read. In effect, a cultural revolution, it was brought about by an exiguous minority of mainly middle-class origin born around the turn of the century, and it preceded and coincided with the political attempt to modernise Spain under the Republic of 1931-1936. Its extinction by the Civil War victors marked the triumph of authoritarian obscurantism.

Gibson has scoured every possible documentary and oral source available to him – in Spain, the US, Cuba and Argentina – in his pursuit of Lorca, a master (when it came to himself) of candour and hermeticism. The loss of important private papers (in one case burnt by a naively zealous American friend of the poet), the non-appearance of correspondence (Lorca’s letters to Dali, for example), as well as the fact that the poet seems to have kept no intimate journal, made the task especially difficult. Lorca’s prodigious literary output is therefore Gibson’s major source for attempting to get beneath the effulgent public persona; poems (though not plays) are selected for their biographical interest and this, allied to a strictly chronological approach, causes a number of problems. I shall consider these first and then turn to the biography’s particular merits. Before going further, it may be helpful if I make clear my own starting-point – that of someone who is neither a Lorca expert, a biographer nor a literary critic. My concern, as a historian and writer, has for long been with the interaction of the social and the subjective. Bear this in mind, if you will, in what is to come.

The major problem of the poetry’s selection lies in the selection itself. Gibson, it seems, is determined to prove (in an unspoken polemic, perhaps, against Lorca’s last biographer, Marcelle Auclair, and other specialists) that the poet was a continually anguished man. So he most probably was, but at certain important moments this univocal dimension restricts our understanding of Lorca’s response to particular situations. The example of his time in New York comes most readily to mind. Aged 31 and already a famous poet in Spain, Lorca was in a state of sufficient depression for his father to agree to fund his trip to the US, where he spent nine months. It was his first escape from his family, his first experience of living abroad.

While Gibson writes of Lorca’s ferocious poetic attacks on the oppression and injustice of American society; of his ‘anti-capitalism’ being reinforced by the Crash; of the fascination exercised on him by blacks, whom in their oppression and music he likened to the Gypsies, he cites only a few lines of poetry on these themes. The bulk go to poems – most of them very moving – which express Lorca’s solitude, anguish, childhood grief. The biographer may tell us that these express the ‘dehumanisation of contemporary industrial society, the terror and loneliness of modern man’ typical of Lorca’s New York cycle of poems, but we are not permitted to sample the full range of his response to living in this ‘Senegal with Machines’. Paradigmatically Poet in New York is, for chronological reasons, not mentioned in the chapter on the US. The same problem is apparent, though more diffused, in his prior pursuit of Lorca’s anguish. The selection of early poems (1920-1925) results in a litany of the poet’s obsessive themes: frustrated erotic love, death, sterility, an underlying sense of doom and foreboding, despair. Christology is also significantly present. All these are no doubt there: but without a balanced overview of his work at the time, it’s hard to rest confident that they are necessarily the only themes of his poetic development worth exploring.

There is a specific reason for Gibson’s insistence on the theme of frustrated love. Lorca, as is widely acknowledged, was homosexual, although if his friends and acquaintances were aware of it they kept it (and still keep it) a secret. Lorca himself kept it publicly so, and his remaining letters are hermetically discreet. Gibson would clearly like to prove Lorca’s homosexuality beyond a shadow of doubt, in flagrante delicto. Apart from Dali’s crude statement (‘He was a pederast, as is well-known, and madly in love with me. He tried on two occasions to ... me’), there is no documentary proof. But is all this necessary? For, as Gibson himself writes, Lorca’s plays, The Public and The Dream of Life – ‘unstageable’, he knew, in his lifetime – and a number of poems, ‘Adam’ and Ode to Walt Whitman among them, address the theme of homosexual love. Lorca also expressed his admiration for the courage of Cernuda, one of the other outstanding poets of his generation, in giving poetic form to his predicament as a homosexual. Would it not have been more rewarding to accept Lorca’s sexuality as a given, and allow us to see his development as a gay poet, rather than using his work to ‘prove’ what we already accept? To concentrate on him as living – deeply torn between a religious sense of guilt and desire, between ‘God and Dionysus’, as Gibson writes – the anguish that so many homosexuals who cannot declare themselves have had to experience? To try to locate why, within a machista society, one poet could and the other couldn’t confront his predicament? Here it must be said that Lorca’s last biographer, Marcelle Auclair, whose Enfances et Mort de Garcia Lorca (1968) combined a chronological and thematic approach, dealt more satisfactorily in a few pages with his homosexuality, though her actual analysis of it has a markedly empirical ring.

I suspect that this biography’s problem lies in its author’s concept of his primary readership. Written in Spanish, like Gibson’s four previous books, and published in Spain in two volumes in 1985 and 1987, the biography is directed in the first instance at a Spanish public. (Lorca’s works are listed here only in their Spanish editions.) For an English reader, it may be helpful to remember that Lorca remains a mythical figure in Spain, and it would no doubt be a biographer’s coup to offer definitive proof of his sexuality. Moreover, as Gibson (himself now a Spanish citizen) acknowledges, there is no tradition of biography in Spain. In consequence, we must not expect of this work, re-composed by the author into an English that is no longer his dominant literary language, the felicities of style, the ironic detachment and sheer pleasure of reading, provided by, say, Richard Ellmann in his works on Joyce and Wilde. Here it is Lorca’s words alone that vibrate on the page.

Despite all his biographer’s efforts, the private man remains an absent presence. A fine pianist, collector (and passionate singer) of folk songs, gifted at drawing, a sparkling conversationalist – that was the visible man. Beneath the exterior, a timid man, ill at ease with his body. ‘I’m like a little glow-worm in the grass, terrified that someone is going to step on me,’ he once ventured in explanation of his obsession with death. Certainly some noticed the sadness of his eyes and the way, when a conversation turned to death, his face became transfigured: ‘the gaze turned inwards and he seemed to sink into himself.’ (‘In Spain,’ the poet wrote, ‘a dead man is more alive as a dead man than anywhere else in the world: his profile cuts like the edge of a barber’s razor.’) But of his dramones (big dramas), as he called them, when he sank deep into his psychic depths, Lorca regrettably left no known account.

No preguntarme nada. He visto que las cosas cuando buscan su pulso encuentran su vacio. (Don’t ask me anything. I’ve seen that things when they search for their pulse find only their emptiness.)

The lines are from ‘1910 (Interlude)’ written in New York in 1929.

For a biographer so concerned with his subject’s inner anguish, it is curious that Gibson has not given us a closer account of the family and its internal dynamics. This, we are left to pick up as best we can in scattered references at the dictates of chronology up to the last few pages. Stitching together the pieces, we have a newly-wealthy landowning and benevolent patriarch for a father; a former village schoolteacher and practising Catholic from a humble background for mother – an apparently dominant, perhaps stifling mother whom, Lorca said once, ‘I belong to’. In her only quoted letter she is encouraging his literary ambitions: ‘as a woman and moreover as your mother, I’m more interested in all these things than anyone else ... I pray to the Virgin that everything will work out very well for you.’ Close to the end of the biography Lorca is cited as having once told a friend that his relationship with her made it impossible for him to feel ‘heterosexual passion’.

Since the biographer makes no attempt to deal thematically with this evidence, it would be foolhardy to attempt to do so here. But one thing is clear: Lorca was never able to find emotional independence from his politically liberal but domestically traditionalist parents who wanted their oldest son, Federico del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus (born 1898), to have a solid middle-class career. Unlike his younger brother, he failed them and they made sure he knew it by insisting throughout his twenties and his early thirties, with two important exceptions, that he stay at home. Financially dependent on them, he obeyed, caught, I’d suggest, in a double-bind which the traditional Spanish family was (and still can be) exceedingly adept at: in the name of our love, love your dependence on us. The exceptions were his year at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where he met Dali and Buñuel among others, which opened for him a new world – a time that Gibson portrays very well; and his New York stay, followed by three months in Cuba.

The most striking example of his continuing dependence comes when, aged 35, he finally achieved economic independence and fame as a playwright with Blood Wedding. At that moment he gave up the Madrid flat he shared with his career-minded younger brother and moved in with his parents who had come to live in the capital. A sort of ‘emotional suicide’ Gibson suggests. Or perhaps the deep acceptance of those internalised familial and social codes which, in his biographer’s reading, form the tragic flaw of Lorca’s major heroines (Yerma, Blood Wedding, Doña Rosita the Spinster): they have succumbed to social, familial pressures instead of following their instincts to love. But why this line of sexually thwarted women through so many of his plays? Is the answer so obvious that it needs no elucidation?

In general, the biography moves much more confidently through the origins of Lorca’s poetry and drama than in its search for the inner man. His early years in Fuente Vaqueros, a township on the fertile plain near Granada, among an extended family that included 40 cousins, are presented as a ‘constant present, seemingly impervious to the action of the time’. On various occasions, the poet himself recognised this:

I love the countryside. I feel myself linked to it in all my emotions – That is why there is at the heart of my life what psychoanalysts would call an ‘agrarian complex’ ... I have a huge storehouse of childhood recollections in which I can hear the people speaking. This is poetic memory, and I trust it implicitly.

It was a complex, as Gibson shows, sublimated in two distinct ways: the creation of a mythical Andalusia and of a highly original imagery to describe it. His Andalusia (or more accurately Granada) is a palimpsest of Roman, Arab, Jewish, Gypsy and Spanish cultures. His imagery stems not from ‘daring improvisations of my own, a poet’s audacities’, as the poet himself said, but from listening to the people in his childhood (a cousin, for example, who could, without a thought, say: ‘put the eggs in when the water begins to laugh’). Much as the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s early novels is the transmuted reality of his childhood, so Lorca could genuinely claim that much of his imagery was based on ‘authentic details’ gathered in his early years. At the age of 19 he enunciated an artistic maxim which he never renounced: ‘The true artist works by intuition, not by rule.’ Three years before his death he was to say something similar: ‘The day we stop resisting our instincts, we’ll have learnt how to live.’ Despite the varied influences on his poetry which Gibson examines carefully – in particular, the extraordinary impact of Dali – Lorca remained passionately, even obsessively, true to himself.

Gibson is also good on the later years: Lorca’s attempt to revolutionise the theatre (‘I would rip out the stalls and bring the gods downstairs ... We’ve got to get ordinary working people into the theatre’), his meticulous direction of some of his own works, and his enthusiastic dedication to the Barraca, the venture initiated under the Republic to take travelling theatre to the countryside. Despite the biographer’s erroneous statement that education and culture was the main problem confronting the new Republic (if anything, it was agrarian reform), he nonetheless demonstrates through the Barraca’s example the energies that went into cultural endeavours.

Destroying a myth, Gibson also shows that Lorca was far from apolitical. He was opposed to all forms of totalitarianism, from the authoritarian Spanish ‘alliance of the sword and cross’ to Hitler and Mussolini. He signed manifestos, and strongly supported the Spanish Popular Front Government in 1936. True, he never joined a political party, and was hostile to politically-inspired poetry. But he vigorously opposed the idea of art for art’s sake, believing that ‘at this dramatic moment in time, the artist should laugh and cry with the people.’ In this world, he declared, ‘I am and always will be on the side of the poor.’

From his time with the Barraca and even more from the staging of Yerma at the end of 1934, the Right – Fascist or Catholic – saw him as their enemy. He counter-attacked: the Catholic conquest of Moorish Granada in 1492 had been ‘a disastrous event’ and Granada now had ‘the worst middle-class in Spain’.

A month before the outbreak of the Civil War he completed The House of Bernarda Alba, a drama of despotism and rebellion. The instinctual ‘good life’ Lorca had so long proclaimed – and perhaps never believed he had been able to live – is doomed by social forces it cannot overcome. Adela, his only tragic heroine to fight to live out the truth of her own sexuality, is killed by a lie – her tyrannical mother’s – in defence of the code of honour she has been struggling against. Within two months of finishing Bernarda, as Gibson writes, Lorca was assassinated by ‘people with a mentality akin to that of his tyrant’, those who like her believed in the eternal, authoritarian and Catholic values of the ‘true’ Spain. He was but one of the tens of thousands of anonymous workers, farmhands, teachers, doctors and others who suffered the same fate in the Franquista rearguard.

There is a final and terrible irony here. Had Lorca, in his panic of the days leading up to the Civil War, chosen to go almost anywhere but home to his parents in Granada, where the hatred against him was the greatest – had he stayed in Madrid, as some friends advised, or gone to Mexico, where he was awaited – he would certainly have lived.