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.

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