“If you want to convey fact, this can only ever be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is called appearance into image,” the English painter Francis Bacon said in an interview. Bacon was famous in his lifetime for his large canvases featuring distorted human bodies, from the 1944 “Three Studies for the Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” to his portraits of screaming popes, to his triptychs featuring his lover George Dyer, who overdosed on a toilet in a Paris hotel room in 1972. Over several decades, Bacon’s paintings embraced cubistic abstraction while remaining stubbornly figurative, focused fixedly on the suffering human form.
Bacon, an atheist, died alone in a hospital room in Madrid in 1992, attended by a nun named Mercedes. From this premise and a deep knowledge of the painter’s life and art, the writer Max Porter has fashioned The Death of Francis Bacon, an attempt to render Bacon’s dying thoughts through a series of seven word “paintings.” Like Porter’s earlier work, these short segments are experimental in form, existing somewhere between verse and prose, between poetry and fiction.
From his hospital bed, “pinned down by sickness,” Porter’s Bacon returns always to the visual, imagining how he might render the present moment with his brush. He imagines painting the face of Sister Mercedes: “She turns and that suddenly is a handsome prospect, twisted neck, thick line of brown shadow.” He also muses on how he might paint his own suffering, his own moment of crucifixion: “the martyr Francis tilts his rubber jaw to heaven and dies, spurts the viewer with cum and vermilion.” Reality, memory, and hallucination blur into a stream of consciousness effect, as a parade of former lovers, friends, and art critics appear at his side. At times, Bacon’s perspective seems to double with that of the author: “It’s an attempt to express my feelings about a painter I have had a long unfashionable fixation with.” Each short chapter ends with the nun’s refrain, a kind of benediction: “Intenta descansar,” try to rest.
I think of myself as a reader willing to do my homework, but as someone only glancingly familiar with Bacon’s painting, the thick web of allusions to people from Bacon’s life left me spending as much time typing into Google as engaging directly with this demanding text. Bacon’s thoughts swirl and coalesce into interesting images, but there is no real narrative here, no forward drive, beyond of course the inevitability of death, a given of the work’s title.
I greatly admired Porter’s second novel, Lanny, a novel about, among other things, the friendship between a young boy and an older, jaded painter in a small English town that is also inhabited by an impish spirit known as Dead Papa Toothwort. In Porter’s first novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, when a scholar working on an essay about the poet Ted Hughes is suddenly widowed, he and his two sons are aided in their bereavement by the magical appearance of Crow. Both of these novels are experimental in form, walking the line between poetry and prose, and both use a sort of postmodern playfulness to arrive at ultimately rather warm and humanistic conclusions about their characters’ interdependency. Bacon’s art seems much more genuinely despairing than Porter’s, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why The Death of Francis Bacon falls short of the success of those earlier works. Porter may feel a deep affiliation with Bacon’s painting, but the two artists’ work ultimately seems very different. While Porter’s earlier projects were both novels, albeit experimental ones, The Death of Francis Bacon seems to be trapped somewhere between a poetic tribute to the real-life artist and a work of fiction capable of standing on its own. I found myself wanting a little more artifice here, a little more fictional distortion. Based on the strength and originality of Porter’s earlier work, I still look forward to his next project, but The Death of Francis Bacon may be best appreciated by those who are already admirers of its central figure.
The Death of Francis Bacon
By Max Porter
Published September 14, 2021