Book Review – The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When I bought this book, I knew that it would be a useful thing to have around. Almost every week, I tend to be rushing to finish a book in time to write my Wednesday review. At only 80 pages long, Max Porter’s new book would be ideal for finishing in a rush. I knew that it was going to be a lifesaver before too long. What I didn’t expect was that it would come to my rescue so soon. The book was published on 7th January and I’ve had it for about a week. Unfortunately, I’ve not been getting enough reading in each day and there was no way I was going to get my current read finished in time. So, I read this on my lunch break. Meaning I didn’t have to resort to some awful stream of consciousness book post about whatever I could think of. Instead, it’s going to be fairly stream of consciousness book review of a book that’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

Max Porter is a writer who likes experimenting with format and genre. He is known for walking that fine line between poetry and prose, so we’ve come to expect a lot from his work. His latest book is a step further than he’s gone before. It’s a literary experiment like no other and I was excited to read it. The book is set in the final days of the painter, Francis Bacon’s life. Having taken an ill-advised trip to Spain, the painter finds himself in the Handmaids of Maria being cared for by Sister Mercedes. He stayed in her care for 6 days before his death. Bacon, who didn’t speak Spanish, barely spoke and received no visitors. It certainly wasn’t the kind of end that you’d have expected from a man such as him.

In The Death of Francis Bacon, Max Porter attempts to give Bacon the voice that he lacked in those final days. The book is fragmentary and short in order to encapsulate the circumstances of his death. The silence of his hospital room is filled with the thoughts racing through his head. The semi-poetic style is an attempt to bring the act of painting to life using only words. The writing tries to mimic the texture on Bacon’s canvases. The text is jerky at times but smooth and flowing in others. Encapsulating the movements of the brush and the painter’s hand. The chaotic styling also alludes to his turbulent personal life. We see the ups and downs of his life played out before us as the painter falls further into his memories.

The book is split into 7 sections with each one focusing on a different piece of work. At the start of every part, Bacon invites his only companion, the Spanish nun, to sit beside his bedside. We then witness his mind racing off in all sorts of directions as his past comes flooding back to haunt him. In his addled state, he imagines the loved ones from his past sitting in the chair occupied by the Sister. We are taken through his past relationships and though his career. We experience the pain, suffering and violence that he has experienced. This is an insight into the painter’s life but like not biography you’ll ever have read before.

Instead, this is a very personal project for Porter. Partway through the book, the writer turns up to explain his reasons for writing it. “It’s an attempt to express my feelings about a painter I have had a long unfashionable fixation with.” We have seen Porter exploring this kind of obsession before in Grief is the Thing With Feathers but this feels different. This book gets to the heart of the figure and lets you see beyond the context. As Porter also says, “it’s an attempt to get art history out of the way and let the paintings speak. It’s an attempt to hold catastrophe still so you can get a proper sniff at it.”

There is something sinister and grotesque to the imagery here but it remains so lyrical and beautiful. The writing in this books is vivid and the sensory language allows you to experience the scene. Meaning that there is a definite intimacy here. We are getting a moving and in-depth look at the painter and the mark that he left on the world. It is also a very intimate look at a writer who idolises the man at the heart of this book. The Death of Francis Bacon tells us as much about Max Porter as it does about the painter. It shows the impact of art and the type of person who creates it. That their brilliance coincides with their flaws. With Porter’s help, we are able to see the man behind the curtain without becoming disillusioned by the human being in front of us. It’s the kind of book that demands at least one rereading but you certainly won’t be sorry at the prospect of going back.

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