Deprived of Spain's Whitman

May 28, 1999

Capping the Lorca centennial is this new biography in English. Fourteen years in the making, Leslie Stainton's readable, sympathetic and sensitive work builds on the path-breaking studies of Ian Gibson, a wide series of interviews, unpublished material, and the edition of the complete letters, to compose the most intimate glimpse yet of the charismatic and complicated poet, whose chef d'oeuvre , said Luis Buñuel, was simply the poet himself.

The story still has the power to engage, and Stainton deftly sets forth the familiar elements, adding occasional new touches. There are the strong family ties, the childhood idyll in an Andalusian village, the frank sensuality of the juvenilia, the endless academic difficulties, early confusion and dismay about his sexuality. Then there is the Dali affair, his compassion for victims and "undesirables", the key modernist text and best-selling Gypsy Ballads , the internationally celebrated dramatist, the lover and perennial enfant terrible , and finally the execution as an "undesirable" in the early days of the Spanish civil war.

America's decisive role in the development of Lorca's personality and ideas now seems especially clear. He left the United States in 1930, Stainton reminds us, with renewed faith in his work, a better understanding of his sexuality and a new-found enthusiasm for life. He returned from Buenos Aires in 1934 a genuine celebrity, his works taught in schools, three plays running simultaneously, flamboyant about his love and brimming over with energy and plans. More than a person, as Pedro Salinas observed in an unpublished appraisal, Lorca was a climate.

Despite Spain's position on the edge of European events, the first world war deeply affected the adolescent Lorca, and Stainton does well to emphasise this. Lorca's disgust with war reverberates in much of his juvenilia, accounts for the interest in Remarque, and may help explain his attraction to The Waste Land with its motif of rats and destruction. In 1935, he began work on an anti-war play called The House of Maternity ( Flesh in the Cannon ).

Francisco Garcia Lorca has asserted that his brother had the most sensitive antennae to social problems of any Spanish writer in his generation. Many examples have been cited in Lorca's writings and statements to the press. One that deserves to be better known is the talk he gave in September 1931 in Fuente Vaqueros at the dedication of a public library in his home town. It is an eloquent statement of culture as a liberating force. "If I were hungry and destitute on the street," he begins, "I wouldn't ask for a loaf of bread; I would ask for a half a loaf of bread and a book." There is perhaps no hunger greater than the unappeased desire to read, and in woefully prophetic vein, he says that to censor books you must first kill the people that read them. The clear relation assumed between literature and societal health recalls Shelley's inability to imagine the moral condition of the world without Shakespeare, Calder"n, Milton.

Stainton pays close attention to Lorca's library. He underscored in pencil the following from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis : "Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation for the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world." This sentiment underlies the brilliant metonymies of the "Ode to Walt Whitman" in Poet in New York , with its defiant acceptance of all deviations and its desire to rescue the genuine feeling of love from society's oppressive terms for those who are different.

"When I eventually realised my preference," he recalled, "I came to understand that what I liked others thought perverse." His ability to compartmentalise grew evident, separating public and private (family and himself). Yet he turned brash and sardonic; rumours of scandalous conduct abounded, erotic stamina became the property of legend. On June 5 1936, weeks before his death, he had a vision of himself ageing gracefully in Cádiz, with a flowing white beard, a kind of a Spanish Walt Whitman. This was a dream his culture would not allow.

The plays that the author said could not be produced have successfully appeared in Spain and in France. Recently, interest has been growing in the late love poetry, sonnets and qasidas , a drift that addresses once more the texts and their remarkable language.

Friends and biographers never fail to observe the charisma modulated by a dark side, a face that would suddenly change from animation to aloofness. Stainton sketches out a more complex and believable character: a puerile need for adulation, opinionated, self-centred in his reactions, irreverent, playful. Lorca had his court and not everybody paid homage to it. Jorge Luis Borges thought him a professional Andalusian. Incredible energy added to the attraction: he could recite his poetry for two hours on the beach in Uruguay, imbibe through a long dinner and then launch into a recital of poems by Antonio Machado and Juan Ram"n Jimenez. "Many, many people must know of you," wrote his mother in 1920. An unfaithful son in many ways, in responding to this advice, he outdid himself.

The film of familiarity that obscures from us the wonder of our being was lifted by this Spaniard's imagination. Poetry, said Lorca, can be waiting for us in doorways, in the fan the wind makes of olive trees, in the trill of a fountain, in a piece of white cloth, in shoes hanging from a tree. Such exuberance for the life of metaphor, an Aristotelian learning through unforeseen relationships, is why many readers have been drawn to Lorca. His sense of language can never be reduced to his sexuality or his tragic death. Stainton, to her great credit, helps us see that.

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, California, United States.

Lorca: A Dream of Life

Author - Leslie Stainton
ISBN - 0 7475 4128 0
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £30.00
Pages - 568

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