The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
You know when you that feeling when you are really, and I mean, REALLY, looking forward to reading a book. And then you pick it up, and start reading it. A few pages in, you start to shuffle in your seat, but you press on, get through a few more pages. Then it hits you. That sinking feeling of disappointment. Unfortunately, this was The Death of Francis Bacon for me.
I first came across Max Porter with Grief is the Thing with Feathers, and it was such an emotional and immersive read for me that I raved about it, even tried to persuade my reluctant book club to give it a go (reader, they were not so persuaded). Then came Lanny and it was a work of brilliance, so much so, that I almost didn’t know how to review it (despite this, I have reviewed that book on Goodreads).
So when I saw that Max Porter had gifted us with a new literary offering, I didn’t even stop to consider what it might be about. I bought it.
First of all, the very title led to a misunderstanding that plagued my reading of the early pages of the book. I assumed that the Francis Bacon of the title was the Elizabethan lawyer and essayist, Sir Francis Bacon. But instead, as I soon discovered, it was instead the figurative painter of the twentieth century. So my assumption that we were in the 1600s led to some confusion.
Next, I know nothing about Francis Bacon, the twentieth century painter. And as much as I would like to think that this would make no difference to my enjoyment of the novel, it really did. I had to do a quick Google about Francis Bacon the painter to ensure that I had some understanding of what was going on. And what was going on, other than the death of the painter in question, was neither clear not clever.
It is a series of thoughts on a deathbed, ostensibly told through seven paintings. To Porter’s credit, the writing is powerful, visceral, at times profane, and raw. But… I found myself just not caring or investing in the premise.
Another issue with the book, is the reliance on Spanish for some of the more emotive moments in the book. The frequent invocation of “intenta descansar” loses its charge when you have to resort to Google translate (it equates to try and have a rest). I also went to a Spanish speaking friend to understand the import of another Spanish phrase which, my friend informed me was part of a prayer: ‘May the lord who saves you from sin rescue you and resuscitate you’. I have to be honest, it was a blessed relief when the guy finally died.
A short read, it lacked the sharpness to make it an outstanding novella, and, as sorry as I am to have to say it, it was a nonsensical, underwhelming book. I was utterly gutted at just how uninvested I was in the writing, from start to finish. I suspect if it had not been Porter, it would never have been published, and I will be exercising caution before I jump in and buy a book simply because it has his name on it.
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