Penning Portrait Of Artist’s Demise
Max Porter has spent a long time thinking about death. “I would say I’m a death-obsessed, or a mortality-preoccupied, person,” he said recently in a video interview from his home in Bath, England.
His 2015 debut, “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” follows the passing of an unnamed mother survived by her husband, a college professor, and two young sons. As the family mourns, an enormous crow moves into the family home to guide and antagonize them. In “Lanny,” his Booker Prize-listed second book, a child goes missing in England, setting off a paranoid manhunt.
For his latest novel, “The Death of Francis Bacon,” Mr. Porter examines an artist who shared his morbid fascination.
Bacon’s artwork is characterized by images of screaming faces, contorted bodies and the crucifixion. One of his most famous works, “Triptych May-June 1973,” depicts a recently deceased lover, George Dyer, dying on the toilet.
Mr. Porter explained that the dark themes of his writing were also influenced by tragedy. “I would locate that probably in my childhood,” he said, “with the death of a parent.” Mr. Porter’s father died when Porter was 6, he added.
In his teenage years, Mr. Porter said, he was drawn to bleak subjects — “death, the bomb, the body and the Holocaust” — and it is little wonder he was attracted to Bacon’s paintings, as well. At 17, he said, he painted several Bacon “knockoffs” for a high school art class.
The book Mr. Porter has produced, 20 years later, is not an art history lesson. Instead, “The Death of Francis Bacon” is a reimagining of the short period before the painter’s death in Madrid in 1992.
The novel is split into seven chapters. In each of them, he envisions Bacon’s thoughts as he lies on his deathbed, haunted by his legacy as his mind fragments.
In April 1992, Bacon traveled to Spain from London, at age 82 and having asthma. He wanted to renew a relationship with his estranged lover José Capelo, a banker whom he had painted several times.
Shortly after arriving, Bacon was hospitalized at a clinic run by nuns. Mr. Porter blends invented dialogue between Bacon and his nurse, with a stream-of-consciousness monologue from Bacon.
Amid the book’s gloom, Mr. Porter found some room for levity, breaking up the mood with playful turns of phrase: Bacon refers to himself as “piggy” throughout, and has a “little linen hill belly”; someone’s chin is “stuck on like a dumpling.”
While writing “The Death of Francis Bacon,” he said, he “never wanted to take myself, or it, too seriously.” Just because something’s bleak, he added, it doesn’t have to be depressing. “The absurdity of modern life is worth laughing at,” he said, “because what else are we going to do?”