An acquaintance in Buenos Aires described Federico García Lorca in 1933 as a “conceited fool, a fat and petulant little charlatan.” In the course of an afternoon’s tour of the city, Lorca had been pedantic, vain, and egotistical, giving his companion the impression that “Spanish poetry began and ended with him.” The Spanish theater had similar origins and termination, while his unfinished play, Yerma, was heralded by its creator as “the consummation of Greek tragedy.”
If Lorca hoped this impression would endure, he has received impressive assistance from publishers in the US and Britain who have issued a substantial number of books on his life and works while neglecting the careers of contemporaries such as Miguel Hernández, the young goatherd who was his equal as a lyric poet, and Antonio Machado, who is widely regarded in Spain as the greatest poet of his generation. The Irish writer Ian Gibson has produced three books on Lorca, including a long and magisterial biography. And now Leslie Stainton presents us with another lengthy volume, which is informative and well researched on the poet’s life but marred by naive and inaccurate depictions of the cultural, historical, and political background.
Spaniards are surprised by the Anglo-American fascination with Lorca—it’s as if their publishers had produced half a shelfful of books on Byron while entirely ignoring the lives of Keats and Shelley—and it is hard to explain in purely literary terms. One reason, no doubt, is the performances abroad of some of Lorca’s plays, especially those dark rural tragedies that appeal to northerners by allegedly revealing the deeps of the Andalusian soul. Another is the circumstances of his death. Like Lorca, Machado and Hernández were republicans and victims of the Spanish Civil War. Machado died in exile, desolate and brokenhearted, at the end of the fighting, while Hernández succumbed three years later in the prison hospital at Alicante, having lingered under a death sentence before dying of tuberculosis. But by then the world had become inured to the savagery of the Civil War. Lorca was murdered at the beginning of the conflict, and his death was seen not only as the romantic tragedy of a poet in his prime but as a symbol of the Manichaean nature of the struggle. For he was held to represent the openness, the talent, the generosity, and the betrayed aspirations of the Republic, while his murderers simply epitomized the stupidity and bigotry of General Franco’s uprising. One of the executioners boasted that he had fired “two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”1
Federico García Lorca was born in the vega of Granada, the plain outside the city, in 1898. The child of a prosperous landowner, he displayed musical and literary talents which delighted and sometimes worried his parents. Unlike his brother Paco, he was a hopeless student at the university, preferring to play the piano or sit in a café with a group of young journalists and intellectuals known as El Rinconcillo. Sometimes his father, who was remarkably indulgent for an Andalusian landowner of the period, gave him money so that he could amuse himself in Madrid, and sometimes he kept him in Granada, exhorting him to complete his law degree, a feat which was finally accomplished when the poet was twenty-four.
Lorca and his friends gratified their artistic temperaments in ways that must have been annoying to other people. In Madrid he roamed the streets with the poet Alberti, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and loudly declaiming the poems of Góngora; he also joined the painter Dalí and the future film director Luis Buñuel in the “Order of Toledo,” a society whose main objective was “to adore Toledo without reservation, drink for at least an entire night, and wander aimlessly through the streets of the city.”2 Lorca’s exuberant imagination overflowed with plans for poems and plays and a traveling puppet show. In Andalusia he and the composer Manuel de Falla visited gypsy singers in an attempt to discover the authentic cante jondo (“deep song”) which they believed had been corrupted by modern flamenco.
Gypsies fascinated Lorca, who believed that “all of us Andalusians have a little gypsy inside us.”3 He collected their songs, sang them, was influenced by them—and then wrote his own. His Gypsy Ballads (1928), which is the most widely read book of poems in the literature of Spain, is a fusion of the dramatic narrative and the lyrical. He called it an “Andalusian altarpiece,” and among its panels is “San Gabriel (Sevilla)” containing a strongly sensual portrait of the archangel transformed into a gypsy.
A beautiful reed-like youth,
broad shoulders, slim waist,
the skin of a nocturnal apple,
sad mouth and big eyes,
with nerves of warm silver,
patrols the deserted street.
His patent-leather shoes
break the dahlias of the air,
with the two rhythms that sing
brief celestial dirges.
On the sea shore
there is no palm tree like him,
no crowned emperor
or walking star.
Only close friends seem to have seen beyond the charm and frivolity to his more somber side, to those growing anxieties about death and his sexuality. Lorca sometimes enjoyed dressing up to enact his death, and his drawings reveal that he shared Dalí’s fascination with severed limbs and heads. But he was petrified by the prospect of real death, especially by drowning, and his poems increasingly reflected this preoccupation. “I’m like a little glow-worm in the grass,” he once said, “terrified that someone is going to step on me.”
Neither his family nor many of his friends discussed or even admitted that he was homosexual: his brother’s posthumously published memoir4 contains no hint of his sexuality and does not mention The Public, the play Lorca decided not to publish because of its explicit content. The poet himself was worried that his parents would find out, and elsewhere he was anxious lest people might think he was a marica, a “pansy” or effeminate homosexual. Forced to lead a tormented double life, he masked his true nature—in his published and performed works—and channeled his feelings into the characters of his persecuted heroines. Such an existence surely explains the most powerful and consistent theme of his plays: the frustration of love through denial of instinct and the obligation to conform.
Ian Gibson pursued Lorca’s sex life with vigor and grumbled when people refused to talk to him about it. Leslie Stainton is more reticent, recognizing its significance while finding it unnecessary to go into great detail. Both recognize the importance of his passion for Dalí and the two men’s obsession with the figure of Saint Sebastian, his arrows and his “exquisite agony.” But whereas Gibson quotes Dalí’s very precise explanation why the relationship was not consummated (among other reasons, “it hurt”), Stainton believes that the surrealist ogre was lying. From the misogynist and homo-erotic contents of his paintings, she argues (not altogether convincingly) that “in all likelihood he and Lorca engaged in a short-lived physical affair.”
At the age of thirty-one the poet spent a year in New York and Cuba. He loved Manhattan, though his lack of application prevented him from learning English, while in Havana he basked in the sensuality of the ambience and the adoration conferred on the most famous poet of the Spanish world. Both places, as friends noticed when he returned home, encouraged him to be more relaxed about his homosexuality. As Stainton points out, “If New York had nudged Lorca toward an acceptance of his sexuality, Cuba allowed him to celebrate it.” A visit to Argentina three years later proved to be an equally liberating experience and allowed him to indulge his enthusiasm for sailors.
Yet although these transatlantic escapes proved beneficial for Lorca, they barely affected the content of his work. His poetic inspiration remained deeply Andalusian—Granada, cante jondo, olive trees and poplar groves, the rivers of the vega, the plight of rural women, even the sacrificial rites of the bullfight. With his terror of bloodshed and his lack of interest in anything athletic, one might have expected Lorca to scorn the bullring; he was certainly too timid to contemplate amateur participation, and he would never have agreed with the Sevillian poet Miguel Machado, who said he would rather have been a good banderillero than a bad poet. Yet he was fascinated—and confused—by the mythology of bullfighting, the pagan origins, the formal ritual, what at times he regarded as “the victory of human virtue over bestial instinct,” and at others as an “authentic religious drama where, as in the Mass, a god is adored and sacrificed.” One of his finest poems, rightly regarded by Stainton as “the culmination of Lorca’s trajectory as an elegiac poet,” is the Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, which was written on the death of a close friend, the bullfighter and aspiring writer who came out of retirement at the age of forty-two and was fatally gored in the bullring at Manzanares.
The poet had been unable to witness the end but, hearing how the dying man had shaken the bed so violently that it moved around the room, wrote:
A coffin with wheels is his bed
at five in the afternoon.
Bones and flutes resound in his ears
at five in the afternoon.5
After describing the event with its somber refrain, Lorca saluted his friend’s greatness and accepted his extinction:
The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree,
nor horses, nor the ants on your floors.
The child does not know you, nor the evening,
because your death is forever.
Only the poet can petrify the memory:
I sing his elegance with words that moan
and remember a sad breeze in the olive groves.
Lorca applauded the advent of the Republic in 1931 and rapidly became one of its icons. But his was a cultural and spiritual identification with the new regime rather than a political one. He wanted the Republic to set up libraries and better schools; he wanted people to be able to read books and see plays without leaving their villages. He became director of La Barraca, a traveling theater company sponsored by the government to perform the great plays of the past in front of rural audiences. Exhilarated by the project, he even gave up writing poetry. Yet this was also the major period of his playwriting life, the years of his great Andalusian dramas: Blood Wedding, Yerma, Doña Rosita, The House of Bernarda Alba.
Abandoning the somewhat Romantic style of earlier works such as Mariana Pineda, he returned to his poetic combination of the dramatic and the lyrical (though in varying ratios) to create his rural tragedies of the south. “The day we stop resisting our instincts,” he said in 1933, “we’ll have learned how to live.”6 The chief theme of these plays is the repression of those instincts (especially erotic ones), a theme which enables him to demonstrate both his compassion and his remarkable empathy with desperate women, the aging spinster, the childless wife, the girl forced to marry a man she cannot love. His women are real, not sultry Carmens of the traditional Andalusian stereotype. One of the best is Doña Rosita, whose loneliness and desperation is recorded with a powerful sympathy. “Each year that passed,” she said, “was like an intimate piece of clothing torn from my body.”
And today one friend gets married, and another and another, and tomorrow she has a son, and he grows up and comes to show me his examination marks, and they build new houses and make new songs, and I stay the same, with the same trembling as always; there I am, the same as before, cutting the same carnation, watching the same clouds; and one day I’m out walking, and I realize I don’t know anyone. Girls and boys leave me behind because I can’t keep up, and one says, “There’s the old maid.” And another one, a handsome boy with curly hair, says, “No one would cast an eye at her any more.” And I hear it, and I can’t cry out, but go on, with a mouth full of poison and an overpowering desire to flee, to take off my shoes, to rest and never, never move from my corner again.
Lorca hoped to grow old in Cádiz, to become “a Spanish Walt Whitman” with “a white beard, supported by a cane, enormously popular and loved by the people of Cádiz.” Instead he was murdered at the age of thirty-eight by the people of his own city. Terrified by the violent atmosphere of the capital in July 1936, he left for Granada a few days before Franco’s revolt. It was an unlucky choice, for while Madrid was held by the government, the Andalusian town was quickly captured by the rebels. Yet naively he believed himself to be safe and remained in his family’s home; only after three visits from squads of armed Falangists did he take refuge in the house of friends who supported the insurrection. The transfer failed to save him. A few days afterward he was arrested by a right-wing former deputy who, when asked what crime Lorca had committed, replied, “He’s done more damage with a pen than others have with a pistol.” Two days later, he and a lame schoolteacher were driven to a hillside outside Granada and shot.
Leslie Stainton gives a rather brief account of the poet’s execution and does not speculate on who gave the order or why it was given. Perhaps she felt that Gibson, who has written an entire book (as well as parts of several others) on the episode, has exhausted the subject. But since her book is presumably aimed at people who haven’t read Gibson or find him inadequate, this seems a curious decision.
The rest of the life, however, is chronicled with detail and thoroughness. Ms. Stainton has done a great deal of research, she has unearthed a fair amount of new material, and she writes perceptively of the poet’s relationships with his family and friends. One of the book’s strengths is her commentary on the works and her skillful incorporation of this into the text. Her handling of the Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, for instance, is exemplary. She takes us through the bullfighter’s death, Lorca’s reaction to it, the composition of the poem, and the work’s structure, without disturbing the rhythm of the narrative. And in her account of the Gypsy Ballads, she deals admirably with his romantic view of gypsies, the “truest and purest thing in Andalusia” (although he resented being mistaken for one), his knowledge of their world, and the contrast with other poets, especially Antonio Machado, who found their emblems of Spain among the peasantry and austere landscapes of Old Castile.
The author likes and admires her subject, yet her portrait of him is not uncritical. Lorca was charming, generous, vivacious, charismatic, enthusiastic, and brilliant. Yet, as his biographer shows, he was also vain and affected, a fibber, a poseur, a boaster, a self-promoting narcissist who demanded attention and sulked when it was given to someone else. His egotism and self-absorption were astonishing. “You have no idea,” he wrote after composing some verses, “how I suffer to see myself portrayed in the poems. I imagine myself to be an immense violet-colored dragonfly over the backwaters of emotion….” 7
Lorca indulged his vanity in extraordinarily childish ways. At the age of thirty he pretended to be twenty-nine; the following year he acquired a passport which made him two years younger than he really was. Sometimes he tried to impress people in a restaurant by “spontaneously” composing a poem he had in fact written long before. And in Madrid he acquired the habit, ingrained in the city’s café intellectuals, of talking knowledgeably about books he hadn’t read. Evidently he had absorbed what the novelist Galdós had pointed out to a previous generation, that men with “great assimilatory powers,” who sit listening in the capital’s cafés, “can reveal a considerable wealth of knowledge without ever having opened a book….”8
Stainton has spent fourteen years on this work, and her subject has benefited from the diligence. But it is a pity that she didn’t do a little more reading on the background before writing about such complicated matters as Moorish Granada, the intellectuals of the “Generation of ’98,” or the politics of the Second Republic. Our confidence in her historical knowledge is dented in the second chapter when she offers us a gushing paragraph on Granada which blends the clichés of a tourist brochure with the simplicities of an out-of-date school primer. In a few disastrous lines we are told about “the fabled kingdom of al-Andalus” (a fable indeed—the “kingdom” never existed) before learning that the Christian Reconquest was “a militant holy war” (how many militant holy wars include two centuries of peace between its penultimate and ultimate great offensives?), that “a fledgling Spanish nation-state” was formed in 1469 (in fact the ruling families of Castile and Aragon merely contracted a dynastic union in that year; a unitary state was not established until 1714), and that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Granada enjoyed a level of “artistic and scientific brilliance unmatched elsewhere in Europe.” Among the achievements singled out are the prosperity of poetry, music, and architecture.
This last claim appears to have been inspired by a remark made by Lorca in an interview in the year of his death. But what may be pardonable in unprepared speech—especially with a poet so prone to hyperbole as Lorca—is a very different matter for a writer sitting at her desk with plenty of time to read and ponder. “Unmatched elsewhere in Europe”! Had she done some elementary homework, she surely could not have written a passage which suggests that Granada in the fourteenth century possessed a poet whom Dante could not rival, that a hundred years later it produced a sculptor whom Donatello could not match, or that in the first half of the fifteenth century (after most of the Alhambra had been built) a Moorish architect outshone Brunelleschi.
Unfortunately Ms. Stainton becomes no less naive and inaccurate when she reaches Lorca’s own era. While Gibson’s biography almost doubles as a cultural history of the period, this one treads with painful innocence among the literary figures of the early part of the century. In her list of the “Generation of ’98,” a group of writers agonizing over the question “Whither Spain?” after the last colonies had been extracted by the US, she correctly includes “the essayists Azorín and Ramiro de Maeztu.” But she then observes that “all were politically and intellectually progressive” without telling us that Azorín ended up as a conservative while Maeztu became a fascist, an admirer of Mussolini, and ambassador to Argentina during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. It is as if a future historian of our time described “the essayists Paul Johnson and Norman Podhoretz” as “politically and intellectually progressive” without revealing anything of their careers after they had discarded their progressiveness.
More seriously, Stainton has only the haziest sense of the political events that framed the climax of Lorca’s career and ultimately caused his death. Several scholarly works on the Republic are listed in the bibliography, but they do not appear to have been studied. Heaven knows where she found her “facts” about the “resignations” of the republican leader Manuel Azaña—once, allegedly, in 1934 (when in fact he was arrested; he couldn’t have resigned in any case because he was in opposition), and again in 1936 when, as president, he and the prime minister apparently resigned and appointed a successor to fill both roles (a constitutional impossibility that did not take place; Azaña remained in office until 1939).
The political parties and movements are also a source of confusion for the author. She neglects the role of the anarchists, exaggerates the role of the Communists, and has a peculiar problem with the word “liberal.” Sometimes she writes about liberals as if they formed a political group (they didn’t), sometimes she seems to suggest they are synonymous with the left (they weren’t), and once she describes Catalonia as “a region long known for its liberal politics”—a curious way of describing a place where, for nearly all of Lorca’s life, politics had been dominated by the conflict between the conservative regional-ists of the Lliga and the anarcho-syndicalists of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo.
A good rule for this book is to read everything in it about Lorca and to ignore the background passages. Ms. Stainton’s treatment of Granada exemplifies the strange nature of this work, for she writes perceptively of its influence on the poet and on his strong but ambivalent feelings for the city. He loved the Moorish town, the buildings that were still there and the spirit of those that had gone, a place of gardens, water, and privacy, of small houses with enclosed courtyards, of music, “whitewash, myrtle and fountain.” Like the writer Angel Ganivet, who died in the year of Lorca’s birth, he loved the scale of Granada. Its “true aesthetic,” he once wrote, “is the aesthetic of the diminutive, of tiny things, and her true creations are the little chamber, the mirador of lovely, small proportions, the small garden or statue.”9 Similarly, he loved the ancient forces of the vega, the rivers, the traditions, the old songs of the gypsies. The author writes well about Lorca’s sense of duende, a kind of spirit that dictionaries find hard to define but which in Andalusia at least is regarded as a demon, attracted to death and genius, that animates the greatest bullfighters and flamenco singers.
Yet Lorca was only too familiar with the dark sides of town and country, the greed and philistinism of Granada, the claustrophobia and repression of rural life. He might sometimes claim to be “delirious” about the city, but more often he admitted that he found it boring, suffocating, horrible, and even odious. Nor did he bother to hide his feelings. In 1928 he founded the magazine gallo, which baited the local middle classes for their meanness and avarice. He particularly condemned those responsible for the modern development that was destroying Granada’s character, the “street-widening epidemic” Ganivet deplored a hundred years ago—a disease which continued to ravage the place long after Lorca’s death and has turned the lower city (below the Alhambra and the Albaicín) into one of the horrors of modern Spain.
Granada’s conservatives did not like what he said, especially when in a published interview he compared the “admirable civilization” of the Moors to the “impoverished, cowed city” of his day, a “miser’s paradise” where the “worst bourgeoisie in Spain” held sway. The interview was published a few weeks before the uprising and, still fresh in the minds of Franco’s supporters, may well have contributed to his arrest and execution. Forgiveness was never a virtue claimed by the rebels, and Lorca was everything they most hated—poet, homosexual, and republican.
To judge by the content of Francoist propaganda, which claimed that a crusade had been launched to save the “true Spain” from Communists, separatists, atheists, and the mysterious “Judeo-Masonic conspiracy,” Lorca could not have been regarded as an enemy who deserved to be killed. He was not a Jew, an atheist, or a Freemason, he neither studied nor understood Marxism, and he did not support separatist movements in Catalonia or the Basque provinces. He may well have been the most politically naive writer in the whole of Spain. And yet he was a more subtle enemy of the rebel cause than any of the Marxist intellectuals. In 1936 the Communist Party, with sixteen deputies in a parliament of 473, represented no genuine threat, a fact of which Franco was well aware because he did not bother to mention communism when he issued his manifesto at the beginning of the rebellion. Yet it was easier to unite his supporters, just as later, in the 1950s, it was easier to portray himself as an indispensable ally of the US, if he said he was fighting the Communists instead of telling the truth, which is that he was fighting liberalism, the historic enemy of “true Spain” since the time of the French Revolution.
Lorca represented as well as anyone the liberalism of the Republic in its apolitical sense, its concern for education and the popular diffusion of culture, its desire for greater toleration, its struggle against what the philosopher Unamuno described as “the marriage of the barracks mentality with that of the sacristy.” He was a passionate and articulate opponent of Spanish obscurantism, and for that reason he was killed. As the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a year after Lorca’s death, “If one had searched diligently, scouring every corner of the land for someone to sacrifice, to sacrifice as a symbol, one could not have found in anyone or in anything, to the degree it existed in this man who was chosen, the essence of Spain, its vitality and its profundity.”
November 4, 1999
Ian Gibson, Federico García Lorca: A Life (Pantheon, 1989), p. 468. ↩
Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, translated by Abigail Israel (Knopf, 1983), pp. 77-78. ↩
C. Brian Morris, Son of Andalusia: The Lyrical Landscapes of Federico García Lorca (Vanderbilt University Press, 1997), p. 47. ↩
Francisco García Lorca, In the Green Morning: Memories of Federico (New Directions, 1986). ↩
Morris, Son of Andalusia, p. 408. ↩
Gibson, Federico García Lorca, p. 438. ↩
Federico García Lorca, A Season in Granada: Uncollected Poems and Prose, translated by Christopher Maurer (London: Anvil Press, 1998), p. 55. ↩
Benito Pérez Galdós, Fortunata and Jacinta, translated by Agnes Moncy Gullón (University of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 440. ↩
Lorca, A Season in Granada, p. 64. ↩