Federico García Lorca in The New York Times
Federico García Lorca in The New York Times

Federico García Lorca in The New York Times

On 19 August 1936, at the age of 38, internationally revered poet, musician, dramatist, and all-round artistic renaissance man Federico García Lorca was assassinated before sunrise in Granada by anti-republican rebels (mostly falangists and fascists) during the Spanish Civil War.

Lorca's remains, as Michigander Leslie Stainton explains in the "Epilogue" to her meticulously researched and beautifully organised biography, Lorca:  A Dream of Life, "have never been found . . . For decades, the precise spot near Vísnar, where [Lorca] and hundreds of others were shot and buried in shallow graves, remained an official secret, a pockmarked landscape few dared to visit, much less inspect, for fear of arrest by the Civil Guard . . . In 1986, eleven years after Franco's death and the restitution of democracy to Spain, the socialist government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez constructed a monument on the site of Lorca's execution."

Last year, on the centenary of Lorca's birth, thousands of fans trekked about the Spanish countryside inspecting Lorca's hometown haunts at Fuente Vaqueros or scrutinising the Huerta de San Vicente, his Granadian home (now a musuem showcasing the artist's original manuscripts and sketches) before making the pilgrimage to the Vísnar monument or having lunch at Chikito's Restaurant, Lorca's preferred watering hole during his heyday.

A true giant whose oeuvre rivals that of Cohen, Wilde, Layton, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, or Dylan Thomas, Lorca hit his stride at the height of the modernist movement and was, no doubt, profoundly influenced by its reaction to "the putrefaction" of art and culture which included "anything outmoded, sacred, or anachronistic — anything, in short, that blocked the onset of modernity."

The firstborn of a well-heeled Andalusian couple who bankrolled his literary and theatrical debuts, Lorca possessed a vigorous sense of self-respect and an almost holy reverence for the intermingling mysteries of life, death, art, and sex. A powerhouse, he devoted much of his time and energy attempting to revitalise Andalusian culture through his plays, essays, puppet shows, and lectures. Over the span of two decades, nine poetry collections (including Gypsy Ballads) and 13 plays — Blood Wedding the most successful of same — bore his name (and the stamp of his genius). His astonishing prolificity is further evidenced by the fact that, upon his death, a trio of plays had yet to be produced (among them his best, The House of Bernarda Alba) and no fewer than three poetry collections readied for publication (including the monumentally breathtaking Poet in New York).

Among the luminous circle of close friends — Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, Margarita Xirgu, Juan Ramón Jimenéz, Manuel de Falla — and family (particularly his mother, Vicenta Lorca) Stainton brings to life, few loom larger than volatile surrealist Salvador Dali (whom, hints Stainton, did indeed dally with Lorca) as well as filmmaker Luis Buñuel who "was appalled by Dali's attachment to Lorca. Perhaps because he resented Lorca's refusal to collaborate with him on a film the previous year, or more probably because he detected Lorca's homosexuality and objected to it, Buñuel had come to loathe what he described as Lorca's 'extreme narcissism' and 'terrible aestheticism.'"

As for his "passion," the love of his life? "Lorca," surmises Stainton, "seems to have written his sonnets of dark love with one person in mind: Rafael Rodríguez Rapún," a capricious sort the biographer characterises as something of an opportunistic rounder:  "Their involvement, like the affair chronicled in the sonnets, was to Lorca both gratifying and fraught with disappointment. And yet he could not imagine forsaking it. More so than any other poetry sequence or play, his sonnets of dark love reveal Lorca in the grip of passion:  greedy, blind, obsessive, a man so consumed by desire that he will forgive his companion almost anything, even pain, so long as their love endures."

Stainton's biography draws upon a wealth of material she unearthed and collated during 14 years of researching her subject. She writes clearly and well, generously contextualising both events and movements relevant to Lorca's exploits, pursuits, and dreams, often relying on first-hand reports to explain such phenomena as Lorca's "presence" which Pérez Guerra renders thusly:  "Wherever he went, Lorca took command of the space around him, and everything else became audience . . . [His] presence transcended his art. He was somehow 'phosphorescent.' He glowed from within."

For her part, Stainton provides readers with a competent and engaging chronological assessment of the quintessential artist of contradictions but, unlike either Ian Gibson's 1989 biography, Federico García Lorca:  A Life or Paul Binding's 1985 analysis, Lorca:  The Gay Imagination, her work fails to adequately illuminate the utterly essential connection between Lorca's homosexuality and his aesthetic vision, a feature most tellingly revealed in the fact that she refrains from including the well-known description (among Lorca aficionados) of the way in which the bullet which felled the giant entered his body:

Franco's firing-squad, so the story goes, wrought its "poetic justice" by ending the queer's brief life with a shot to the rectum.

"Leslie Stainton's Lorca:  A Dream of Life" originally appeared 13 November 1999 in The Globe and Mail. © 1999-2008 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail. All Rights Reserved.

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