I’m not a happy poet

John Butt

  • Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton
    Bloomsbury, 568 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 7475 4128 0

In Argentina in 1933, so Leslie Stainton tells us, Lorca ‘began wearing a white linen suit, and frequently a white cotton sailor’s shirt with a V-shaped neck and a dark sash. He took childlike delight in donning the shirt and going to the beach to “awaken” the seashells by calling out to them.’ He was obviously someone to be taken only in tiny doses. It is also clear that this poet and playwright, talented pianist, cartoonist and painter, raconteur and wit, noted reciter of verse, theatrical director, mimic, sporadic literary theorist, occasional conjuror and luminary of Madrid’s cafés, presents a classic case of the life’s work threatened with eclipse by the life itself.

In fact, this golden boy is something of a menace to the everyday trade of the Hispanist. He was not only an unforgettable, and for an impressive number of people, a lovable character. His other unfair advantages include his excellence in the one genre in which modern Hispanic literature is dismally weak: drama. His closest rival, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, puts himself out of the international contest by concentrating his interests either on local politics or on a medieval fantasy world, and also by being linguistically peculiar and thus untranslatable. Other Spanish playwrights of the first half of the 20th century, such as Benavente, Unamuno or Alberti, remain unknown, as playwrights, north of the Pyrenees; and no Spanish dramatist since the Civil War has produced anything even remotely comparable to El público (‘The Audience’ or ‘The Public’), Once Five Years Pass, Don Perlimplín, Doña Rosita the Spinster, Blood Wedding, Yerma or The House of Bernarda Alba.

Lorca was also a great poet, perhaps a better poet than dramatist, although this was not his own opinion. Poetry in Castilian enjoyed a second Golden Age between 1900 and 1936, but its successes have never been truly appreciated abroad, in part no doubt because of Lorca’s dismaying brilliance. Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads) is the most famous book of Castilian verse of all time. Poet in New York is probably one of the few radically avant-garde collections with a wide international readership. By comparison, his contemporaries among the Castilian poets laboured under diverse handicaps. Juan Ramón Jiménez’s vast output of mystical symbolist verse is often obscure and/or emotionally soppy. Antonio Machado’s poetry is old-fashioned and inclined to be repetitive. Unamuno’s poetry is obsessed with a religious problem that nowadays excites few readers. Rafael Alberti occasionally matched his rival Lorca’s metaphoric brilliance, but his work lacks an important ingredient: thought. The same could be said of the shepherd-poet Miguel Hernández, admired in Spain but ignored elsewhere. Lorca’s some-time lover Luis Cernuda could have mounted a serious poetic challenge, but he suddenly rejected Modernism, and his poetry, always lugubrious, became prosaic and discursive. Jorge Guillén, who knew Lorca well, was a fine poet, but his verse combines academic language, uncomplicated heterosexuality, a lack of interest in politics and maddening optimism in a way that makes him quite unfashionable.

Lorca’s secret was that he perfected aspects of Castilian Modernism never fully realised in the work of his fellow poets. He made the language of Modernism uniquely and brilliantly his own. Despite his intimate experience of the avant-garde he never cut his imaginative links with traditional Spanish song, poetry and music. He was also identifiably left-wing and tackled such subjects as the condition of Spanish women, sexual repression and gay love that excited audiences in his day and guarantee his interest for modern-day theorists.

Nature favoured Lorca’s later reputation in other ways. He was endowed with a flirtatious, rather attractive homosexuality which, considering the time and the place, he asserted with vigour and panache in affairs that gained him notoriety and showed him to be an entertaining and affectionate lover, however promiscuous.

It is not merely prurience that makes one curious about his sexual escapades. Intimate revelations about the way Lorca related to his men could tell us much about his emotional and imaginative life, but Spaniards of his generation are cagey about such things and Stainton, like Ian Gibson before her, has obviously had to move mountains to get at what few facts are known. Her book contains some details missing from Gibson’s Federico García Lorca (1985). She reports a titbit from one quidnunc who caught Lorca in his underpants with a naked Luis Cernuda in 1931: ‘we were doing tumbling exercises,’ he explained. We wish we knew more, since Cernuda’s heart was devastatingly broken around this time and this in turn influenced his repudiation of Modernism – he was also an acerbic and penetrating judge of character.

Lorca’s serious amours were, in chronological order, Salvador Dalí, a minor sculptor called Emilio Aladrín, and a student and minor poet called Rafael Rodríguez Rapún. Besides sleek looks and artistic temperaments, these three men had in common their bisexuality – Dalí was probably heterosexual at heart, assuming he had a heart at all – and all three eventually deserted Lorca for women. In this respect Lorca was no doubt a victim of his own ironic dislike, mentioned several times by Stainton, of ‘effeminate’ homosexuals, a prejudice which might well have drawn him fatally to the closet heterosexuals among his gay friends. His ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’ in Poet in New York celebrates Whitman’s virile homosexuality, his ‘beard full of butterflies and shoulders of moon-worn corduroy’ against ‘fairies’, ‘pansies’, ‘poofs’ and other ‘queers of the cities’ (‘maricas de las ciudades’).

The affair with Dalí was unlike the others in having a deep impact on his work. Stainton is rather prim when it comes to details (she says their involvement was ‘conceivably physical’): the earthier Gibson tells us that it was due to Dalí’s fastidiousness, and not Lorca’s want of trying, that it was never consummated with penetration (this, at least, was Dalí’s story, for what it is worth). Compared with the bogus self-promotion of his later years, Dalí’s posturing in those early days, though often offensive, could still be excused as a sort of advanced anti-bourgeois rebelliousness, but one is still hard put to understand why Lorca was so besotted with him, unless one concludes, as his admirers are sometimes reluctant to do, that they were birds of a feather. Dalí was no doubt the better-educated of the two, but one would like to know whether they talked anything but spectacular nonsense in their private hours. Lorca’s poetry had already been rescued from the pastel-tinted sentimentality of Spanish modernismo (the Castilian version of symbolism) by his exposure to avant-garde art and literature during his stay at the Madrid Residencia de Estudiantes, which stunningly enriched and sharpened the imagery of his verse. The influence of Dalí, whom he met a few years later, fully unlocked his imagination and pushed him towards Surrealism: a work as impossibly daring as El público would have been inconceivable without the earlier example of Dalí’s artistic radicalism. But Dalí got bored with the relationship and distanced himself, which in a sense was convenient since it allowed Lorca to take stock and integrate what he had learned into his own artistic personality.

One suspicion that Stainton does not banish is that Lorca was shallow as an artist and as a person, and this despite the fact that her biography aims to allay such doubts. It may seem odd to ask whether a poet whose mind was an inexhaustible source of sparkling similes and metaphors had a rich inner life; but Stainton evidently has her misgivings about Lorca’s natural frivolity. She takes more note than Gibson of his disastrous academic record, of his ‘petulance and immaturity, his incessant and puerile need for adulation’, of his mendaciousness, of his hysterical streak, of the absence of books in his rooms and his habitual preference for partying over reading, and of his dislike of serious intellectual discussions, during which he tended to slope off to the piano. His manuscripts were mis-spelt and badly punctuated. He never learned any language well enough to speak it, and it is not clear that his French was sufficiently competent to allow him to appreciate difficult texts. He left dozens of artistic projects unfinished and was late in delivering most of the others. And when fame came in 1927, he seems to have squandered vast amounts of time among ‘la beautiful people’, as the Spanish call their jet-set, delighting in their attention and charming them with his performances and cheerfulness, and no doubt with his legendary generosity. ‘I don’t like to think of you as ... serious or formal [the Spanish word also means ‘reliable’] ... because you’re not like that,’ his friend Adolfo Salazar said to him. ‘You’re the bad Residencia student full of sunshine and brimming with songs.’

He adored his wealthy and indulgent father (‘so funny, such an Andalusian, such a poet, so wonderful!’), on whom he was financially and emotionally dependent for much of his short life. He adduced fidelity to his gentle and loving mother as a rather obvious explanation for his own homosexuality, and he was devoted to his siblings and nephews and nieces. Both parents, and his brother and his two sisters outlived him. His innumerable friends revered him, and some, like the Chilean Morla Lynch, let him take over their homes and lives. He may well have brought joy to his main lovers, but his feelings for them were never so deep as to preclude adventures with other men. Emilio Aladrén overlapped Dalí. Several Cuban youths eased any pangs he may have felt for Aladrén, who was in Spain. And if he pined for his great love Rapún while he was in Argentina in 1933, at least two major ‘infatuations’ in Buenos Aires consoled him.

Lorca sometimes felt the need to excuse his good spirits and to reassure listeners that he really had tragic depths: ‘contrary to what people think, I’m not a happy poet but a sad one.’ The misperception is understandable, and it clearly embarrassed him. If we set aside his grief over broken love affairs, and particularly over Rapún, we are left with the impression of a man who enjoyed a relatively easy emotional life and had few, and rather conventional, intellectual preoccupations. He had a morbid but unoriginal fear of death, about which he could produce chilling images but few profound thoughts; and he entertained banally conventional religious ideas and a collection of popular superstititions. He attended Mass quite often, being aesthetically attracted by ‘the aroma of ancient pomp’, and at least once he joined the crocodile of hooded penitents in the Granada Holy Week procession, walking bare-foot and carrying a cross. He actually enrolled in the local religious Confraternity.

His political ideas were never much clearer than a genuine but diffuse sympathy for the underdog. He was not well-informed about politics, and he joined no party, despite associating himself with several radical manifestos and movements, including the Association of Friends of the Soviet Union. Stainton does not include the story of Lorca’s friendship with José Antonio, the founder of the Spanish Falange or Fascist Party, a story which Gibson also chose to omit from his biography. But as a story it is revealing, even if it does Lorca little credit. The left-wing Basque poet Gabriel Celaya announced in 1966, and repeated to Gibson in 1979, that Lorca had appalled him by disclosing in March 1936 that he dined secretly with José Antonio ‘every Friday’. Gibson knew about this before he published his biography in 1985, since in a hatchet-job on José Antonio published in Spanish in 1980 (En busca de José Antonio) he rejects the story as ‘inconceivable’ and as ‘one more invention of the fantasising Andalusian poet’. But if it really was, as seems incredible, one of the more senseless and childish of Lorca’s numerous cock-and-bull stories, it is a terrible indictment of his peculiar style of lying. If he was an intimate of the Fascist, who was an apostle of violence not devoid of upper-class charm and apparently fond of Lorca’s poetry, it says much – and much that is plausible – about Lorca’s political superficiality. Yet there is no denying that Lorca was a man of the left in a reactive sort of way, and was identified as such by the Spanish Right, who were only too well-informed about his proclivities, sexual and political. Lorca was shot by Fascists just outside Granada on 18 August 1936, but José Antonio could hardly have interceded in his favour, having been arrested three weeks earlier by Republicans. He suffered the same fate as Lorca on 20 November.

Stainton suggests that Lorca’s personal tragedy, obliquely expressed in many of his works, was his homosexuality, which denied him children of his own, to whom he would surely have been a marvellous father. The image of lives denied their natural dénouement is central to his poetry and plays, and it is at this point that his work, which is rarely explicit about its author’s experiences and feelings, connects with his life, which, for all its dazzling satisfactions, seems to have left him unfulfilled.

Stainton’s book complements Gibson’s and she acknowledges the latter’s graceful assistance, but she does nothing for her own cause by maintaining such a total silence about him that she never makes clear what is new in her version or in need of correction in his. Gibson had the advantage of deep roots in Spanish life and a good knowledge of its intellectual and cultural movements, so his biography is strong, sometimes digressively strong, on institutions and personalities. He also has a better understanding of Spanish literature and of Lorca’s texts: Stainton’s accounts of Lorca’s plays and poems are rather thin and her general remarks about Spanish literature derivative. Her biography sticks close to the ascertainable facts of Lorca’s life and it is as strong on detail as it is reluctant to speculate, which makes for a solid and worthy account rather than a provocative new one – this despite her publisher’s claim that she had access to much new material. The first few chapters contain no surprises and the prose is not free of cliché: ‘quintessentially romantic, his writings were filled with an adolescent thirst for spiritual purity’ etc. But a sea-change takes place with Lorca’s visit to New York, at which point she seems to acquire the confidence of her own judgments and is emboldened to find some of Poet in New York ‘pretentious’ and its ideas about Afro-Americans ‘romantic’, ‘naive’ and ‘patronising’. This makes one sit up – in vain, since Stainton doesn’t elaborate. But from that point on the pace of her text quickens, and she manages to present Lorca’s murder by Franco supporters as the predictable outcome of a sustained and provocative challenge against just about every aspect of traditional Spanish life. The Fascists were right, in their own depraved terms, to shoot him: he symbolised everything they feared and hated – creativity, imagination, joie de vivre and nonconformism. As the Falangist Ruiz Alonso said in justification of Lorca’s arrest: ‘He’s done more damage with his pen than others have with a pistol.’

Borges couldn’t stand Lorca, whom he found infantile; but Borges was bookish, inhibited and cerebral. Many others have thought him a tiresome exhibitionist, a spoilt Peter Pan dining out on a poster version of Andalusian culture. I initially thought that Stainton’s book might endorse this idea of Lorca as a cheap success, blessed with untutored gifts in all the arts, shining too effortlessly in the dim firmament of the semi-educated arty set of what was still in the Thirties an isolated and illiterate country. But in the end I was seduced by the image she creates of Lorca’s exuberance, by his laughter, his crazy vitality, good nature, sense of fun and vast generosity. And her terse and economical description of his murder conveys an overwhelming sense of the destruction of an original and benign genius at the hands of mediocrity.

Lorca was no great thinker, but he was a magnificent poet and playwright, afflicted or blessed with an inarticulacy born either of a lack of education or a need for self-concealment that forced him to express all he felt and thought obliquely, in imagery. The obliqueness and obscurity of his texts means that biographies are of no use when it comes to understanding his poems and plays, while also explaining why his work is so amenable to the speculations of modern theorists. But biographies like Stainton’s go a long way towards explaining the spectacular energy and love of life that fuelled his writing, while at the same time inciting curiosity about his work. Stainton says that ‘more often than not, he viewed life as an empty stage in need of costumes, props, actors and poetry. He could bring anything to life, a friend recalled: “a glass, a pencil-holder, a newspaper, a napkin, a hat, an umbrella.” ’ What this description suggests is not an idiot savant with an adventitious gift for unexpected metaphors, but an adult writer who reflected intensely if not very systematically about Modernism in the arts, and moved in sophisticated avant-garde circles without ever losing a child’s capacity for wonder. Without him, the full possibilities of a Modernist poetic language would never have been revealed, pace Pound, Eliot Pessoa, Neruda, Aragon and the rest.