For a book like this to have a visceral punch, it needs to be self-reliant, not crying out for its own exhibition notes. There are moments when Porter succeeds in capturing the terrifying charge of the art, such as when Bacon stares at some stained plaster and hallucinates a waxy baby dripping off the ceiling and coming to suck at his nipples. But for much of the book, we see Porter reflected in the glass. The modern artist, Bacon said, must “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently”, otherwise art is simply “a game by which man distracts himself”.
The Death of Francis Bacon is a little masterpiece; a slim volume that packs a mean Peter Lacy-style punch. It is as though Porter had bit down on shot, taking the most adventurous passages from his two previous novels and letting rip – painting in words the “deeply ordered chaos” Bacon saw all about him.
Porter, the author of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny, has called it ‘my attempt to write as painting, not about it’. In this he brilliantly succeeds. The writing is matted and clotted and thickly impastoed. Each page has the ridge and texture of paint; the paper is like scabby canvas, the words are like drying oil. There is a sticky, tacky quality, as if the author has only just stopped and stood back to look at his work. The book feels unfinished and that seems right.
What kind of a book this is is an otiose question to ask. It’s a Max Porter book. It’s not a novel, although it has an arc, a clearly defined central character, development and revelation. It is also situated in a specific and true time and space – covering the last days of Bacon’s life in the hospital of the Handmaids of Maria in Madrid, tended to by one Sister Mercedes, which is irony enough given his pitiless and determinedly horrible versions of the crucifixion.
Porter’s previous books casually mixed prose and verse, but were always effortlessly readable. The prose-poetry here, however, is disorientating and allusive, prickly, like its subject. It owes a debt to the dwindling deathbed gabble of Beckett’s The Unnamable. Sometimes it becomes a playscript for a line or two: “Francis (Broncoespasmo) Wheeze.” These snatches of dialogue could be the only words we are meant to take as actually spoken; without speech-marks, everything else is filtered through an untrustworthy, shape-shifting narrative voice.
In his first book, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, a meditation on Ted Hughes and loss, Porter explored a similar kind of biographical obsession at greater length, but you didn’t need to know much of Hughes to recognise the associative power of Porter’s language and imagery. Here, getting any foothold in the shifting scree of Porter’s prose depends on a fairly intimate prior knowledge of Bacon’s life and work. As a result, the book reads like brilliant notes towards a very private communion with the painter, which sometimes forgets that there might also be a reader listening in.