The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter

Published by Faber & Faber

A portrait of the artist as a dying man

IF you’ve never visited Francis Bacon’s studio in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, you’ve missed out. After securing the donation of the studio in its entirety from Bacon’s estate in 1998, it took a team of archaeologists to pack up and catalogue everything from the artist’s studio in London to perfectly reconstruct it in a purpose-built space in the gallery.

And when I say everything, I mean everything; they even took the dust. It’s an extraordinary permanent exhibition, consisting of over 7,000 items, and according to the museum, has changed the shape and focus of Francis Bacon’s work ever since opening, in 2001.

It’s viewed through panels; you can walk around the perimeter and peer in from different angles; taking in the chaos; it’s an amazing insight into the artist’s process. Studios, or studies and desks, sometimes even more so than bedrooms, can be very intimate things to behold, and can tell a lot about a person; who they are and how they tick.

Visionary writer Max Porter has taken the insight even further, with his third experimental novel, The Death of Francis Bacon. A conceptualisation of the artist Francis Bacon’s last few days on Earth, Porter imaginatively takes puts Bacon’s delirium dreams and streams of consciousness to paper, with each of the eight short chapters concerned with one of the artist’s paintings.

It pays to be pretty familiar with the work; the works aren’t referenced directly, but described in fits and starts, interspersed with reminisces about past lovers and critics as well as more lucid interactions with Bacon’s nurse.

It’s also pivotal, when reading from a certain point of view, to know a bit about Francis Bacon the man, particularly the circumstances of his death. In 1992, against his doctor’s advice, he holidayed to Madrid where he fell ill and was hospitalised, attended to by a nun called Sister Mercedes. He received no visitors during his stay, and died of a heart attack on April 28.

At only 43 pages long, this book may appear to be a good one to start the new year with, particularly if you’ve challenged yourself to read more this year. But despite its brevity it’s a challenging read, poetic and experimental prose being in no short order.

It also calls into question what a novel is; although there is a semblance of a beginning, middle and end, there is no linear story as such, but a fragmented and feverish narrative that changes track and flits between perspective as quickly as one can imagine one’s own thoughts scattering and reforming slightly differently when under stress while trying to get some rest.

Intenta descansar. Try to rest. Probably the only constant in the book is the repeated phrase of Sister Mercedes as she sits by the dying man’s bedside. Their relationship is fond, albeit brief and hampered by a language barrier, but she’s a reassuring anchor as the artist bustles around his mind in his final days.

Other characters he invokes are detractors, and curiously, seemingly the author himself, inserting himself into the dream-like narrative, possibly as a play on past and future legacies, and what the artist’s purpose and subsequent critical analysis means for art.

Without knowing much, or anything at all, about Francis Bacon’s work or life, the novel could be approached quite differently. The muddled and maybe delusional thoughts and dreams of a man, an artist, on his deathbed holds a certain fascination, for who can know for sure anyone’s inner thoughts?

Will the artist be thinking of his work, or his life? Will the focus be on failures or successes? When thinking about what he’s leaving behind, will it be positive or regret filled? Or, when it comes down to it, will the thoughts have little meaning at all. Did you know, for instance, that Walt Disney’s last words were supposedly “Kurt Russell”?

There’s little rhythm to the prose, but still a cadency forms when reading, an unexpected flow that could lend itself well to a spoken-word adaptation. Because this isn’t just a novel, but a piece of art, something that too can be interpreted however way a passive consumer or an inspired fellow creator likes. A voyerustic little volume, The Death of Francis Bacon is a wonder.

First Published in The Tuam Herald on 13 01 21

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