In the pantheon of iconic martyrs, the figure of Spanish writer Federico Garcma Lorca burns bright. Lorca was 38 years old in 1936 when he was assassinated by a fascist firing squad during the Spanish Civil War. In his short life, he composed an original and profoundly influential body of work that includes plays, poetry and essays. But what made him into an icon, tragic and disturbing, was his gruesome murder: Reportedly, Franco's troops finished him off with a gunshot to the rectum.
It's no wonder, then, that more has been written about Lorca than just about any other 20th century writer. (Probably the only author in our century who rivals him in fame is Ernest Hemingway.) The subject of plays, novels, movies, hundreds of elegies, scores of memoirs and countless academic works, Lorca was most memorably brought to life in Ian Gibson's 1989 biography "Federico Garcma Lorca: A Life." Gibson did a wonderful job of rescuing his subject from the fortress of respectability that Lorca's family and friends had built around him. Gibson's biography, coy as it was in offering substantial information about Lorca's homosexuality, was a riveting and often moving work.
But I for one impatiently awaited the day when a more revealing biography would deliver Lorca from the Hispanic heterosexist establishment that has embraced the writer but de-sexed the man. Thus Lorca's social activism has been played up in order to leave as little room as possible for the exploration of his homosexuality, which was in fact the primary cause of the aesthetic and philosophical breakthroughs in his best works.
Leslie Stainton adds much new information about Lorca and his world, and she succeeds in making Lorca leap off the pages of her biography. That, I'm sorry to report, is the best that can be said about "Lorca: A Dream of Life." Lorca is a mirage and a trap for any biographer. He was such an enchanting creature, such a dazzling and magnetic presence (painter, pianist, composer, lecturer, theater director -- a veritable renaissance man) that most writers who approach him become bedazzled by the man whom filmmaker Luis Buquel called "his own masterpiece." A great deal of Stainton's biography is concerned with mapping out the rise of Lorca's celebrity in his short life, and the book ends up reading like an extended profile in People magazine -- gossipy but lacking in substance. Which is too bad, because on a couple of occasions (her reading of "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejmas," her perceptive and original interpretation of "The Audience") Stainton demonstrates that she has a fine critical mind.
Unfortunately, she seldom uses it. Why do we still care about Lorca? What are his true achievements as a writer? Stainton is seldom interested in answering these questions. Yet the best of Lorca's revolutionary dramas ("The Audience," "Once Five Years Pass" and the stark, visionary tragedy "The House of Bernarda Alba") are ripe for new appraisal. Stainton passes over the Lorca who has much to say about the dire effects of sexual repression and who is as insightful an interpreter of the female psyche as Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and D.H. Lawrence in favor of Lorca the hyperkinetic performer, spinning in a vortex like a Nijinsky on too much caffeine. (Another much-written-about and misunderstood writer often came to mind as I read this book: Oscar Wilde, whom W.H. Auden blindly dismissed as essentially a performer, an artist always in need of an audience.) Lorca needs a homosexual biographer with more awareness and understanding of the sexual psychodrama that provides his best work with the fascination it still holds.
I am told that last year, on the occasion of Lorca's centennial, legions of admirers made pilgrimages to his birthplace, the Lorca house in Granada, and to the spot where he was killed. All manner of Lorca mementos were for sale -- Lorca mugs, Lorca photographs, Lorca postcards, Lorca T-shirts, Lorca fans, Lorca CDs, Lorca stationery, Lorca pens. Apparently even his books were for sale. Stainton's biography, though well researched and readable, is another contribution to the continuing fetishization of the poet -- one more item to be sold with all the other memorabilia.