A Dream of Life

By Leslie Stainton

Farrar Straus Giroux. 579 pp. $35

Reviewed by Gustavo Perez Firmat

The story is well-known: In 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the country's brightest literary light, the man widely known as "the poet of the people," was whisked away from a friend's house in Granada by a group of fascist thugs. Two days later, very early in the morning, he was driven out to the countryside and shot. The official death certificate, which wasn't issued until several years after the murder, states that he died of "war wounds." His grave still has not been located.

In the years after his death, Federico Garcia Lorca rapidly became the most discussed and translated modern Spanish writer, second only to Cervantes in fame and familiarity. The tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death, the prohibition of his books in Franco's Spain (it was not until the mid-'80s that a relatively full set of complete works was published), and the pervasive rumors about his homosexuality all helped to nourish the Lorca legend, which recent biographers have undertaken to substantiate and, in some instances, dismantle.

Of these, Ian Gibson, whose ground-breaking life of Lorca appeared in English in 1985, deserves the credit for most of the original research. It was he who unearthed and pieced together the details of Lorca's assassination, in the process laying to rest many wild surmises. He also confronted, openly and sensitively, the issue of Lorca's sexuality. Having the benefit of some documentation not available to Gibson, Leslie Stainton now arrives with a biography that, if it doesn't hold any great surprises, does offer a readable and reliable account of what we know about Lorca's life and major works.

Stainton is especially good at detailing the mixed reaction of Lorca's contemporaries to his poetry and plays, reactions that ranged from mindless worship to venomous denunciation. To many of his compatriots, Lorca was the savior of the Spanish stage; to a good number of others, his plays were not only incoherent but obscene. One right-wing newspaper, piqued at the playwright's celebrity, liked to render his last name as "Garcia Loca" (loca in Spanish can mean "faggot"). Borges, who had no patience for ballads about gypsies, dismissed him as a "professional Andalusian."

But Stainton's detailed attention to the reception of Lorca's work suggests the difficulty that she, as well as earlier biographers, have had to contend with: Although we have a great deal of information about Lorca's public life with its endless rounds of lectures, recitals, parties, premieres and tributes, we still know precious little about the inner man, the intimate Lorca, the one who lived closest to the wellsprings of the writer's art.

Apparently Lorca did not keep diaries or journals, and in the personal correspondence that survives, or at least in that part of it that has been made available, he is carefully reticent about his private life. Terrified that his parents would find out what most of Madrid already knew -- that he was homosexual -- even with friends he cultivated a persona that often was starkly at odds with his real life. Disembarking in Buenos Aires in 1933, he cheerily announced to the assembled press that he had come to Argentina "to make friends and meet girls." The truth seems to be that at the time Lorca was deeply in love with the young man for whom he wrote the notorious "Sonnets of Dark Love," moving poems of homosexual love not published in their entirety until the 1980s.

Having no choice but to rely for the most part on the public record, Stainton draws a portrait of Lorca that is compassionate but not very flattering. As she dutifully piles wisecrack upon wisecrack and anecdote upon anecdote, the Lorca that emerges from these pages is vain, callow, untrustworthy, often homophobic, sometimes misogynistic, opportunistic rather than genuinely political, and not embarrassed to sponge off his parents for most of his adult life. How he found the time to write all those poems and plays remains a mystery, for he appears to have spent most of his time hanging out at cafes or whooping it up with friends. Indeed, most of his writing seems to have been done on laundry slips and hotel stationery. One comes to the end of the book wondering how it was possible for such a man to write so much beautiful poetry.

This is a question that Stainton does not attempt to answer, and that is why, in spite of its considerable merits, her biography finally disappoints. A little less chitchat and a little more analysis would have made this a more interesting and original book.

Gustavo Perez Firmat teaches Spanish and Spanish-American literature at Columbia University.