The Slap of Flesh

Max Porter – The Death of Francis Bacon (Faber, 2021)

John Berger once wrote of Francis Bacon that his style lacked humanity. By pummelling away at the flesh, Bacon only got further and further away from the subjective core of personhood.

His creatures, his popes; they are tortured but they feel no pain. His is a world without love.

And yet, in spite of Berger’s condemnation, I can’t help but find myself drawn back to Bacon’s paintings again and again. Perhaps for the very same reasons that Berger condemns them.

To be always mutilated but never feel pain. This is the most abject loneliness. Loneliness as absolute. As totality.

Max Porter’s latest novella, The Death of Francis Bacon, attempts to paint seven “word pictures” exploring the death and dying memories of the artist. Like Bacon’s own works, they are at times realist and at times mere blurs. They are action and brutality, and there is nothing of the saccharine.

Lying in his hospital bed in Madrid, nursed by the Handmaids of Maria, the strict Sister Mercedes specifically, he experiences the horror and humiliation of his own body decaying.

He remembers his artistic failures, his bad reviews, and his sexually violent relationship with East End criminal George Dyer.

It is not a redemptive death. It approaches transcendence, but only through the always-liberating presence of memory. The memories themselves are brutal, as is what remains of his life – as brutal as his paintings – but it is the ability of the mind to wander between brutalities that offers us some promise, some hope, even if Bacon himself rejects it.

Porter’s own writing is stripped back and percussive. He utilises the white page as negative space. Punctuation abounds. Short sentences. Broken sentences. And then gaps. The space between words itself operates as a form of visual punctuation.

The words burst through the white, like fists pummelling a carcass.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a very short book, but an evocative one. It’s hard to tell whether this is an end-point for Porter’s minimalist literary journey, or merely a stopping point on his way. Despite racking up the awards for Death is a Thing with Feathers (2015), I can’t help but suspect Max Porter is a writer with his best work still ahead of him.

Brutal. Percussive. Exhausting. Cathartic. Maybe redemptive.

Porter’s Bacon is a punch to the jaw of writing.

  • Joe Darlington

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