PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Jacek Dehnel has written a fictionalised account of the last years of the lives of Goya, Javier and Javier’s son Mariano, working on the basis that Javier did indeed paint the Black Paintings, and it makes for a fascinating read. The book interweaves first person diary-style accounts from each of the three men; the embittered Francisco, the other-worldly and confused Javier and the scheming Mariano. As the book progresses a very credible story builds up which includes Javier beginning to paint the first few of these 14 paintings.
The relationship between the three men is deeply flawed. Francisco seems to have taken a dislike to his son from the start. Javier did not want to paint with his father and he reacted badly to Francisco’s outbursts of anger and his erratic lifestyle. Francisco writes of his son,
" He drew like a woman. For he grew more and more like a woman altogether . . . he just crept about the house with his nose eternally in a book, pale and unhealthy . . . he always sat on a mule or a horse like a sack, nor would he go to the bullfight – he avoided me, hid in corners.'
Francisco on the other hand was a riotous, philandering, boastful man who saw every woman as a potential conquest, even trying to seduce Javier’s young wife soon after Javier brought her to live in the family home. When the book opens, Francisco has achieved considerable success and the family is wealthy, living in some style. The house is full of expensive art materials, many of them toxic, and as we read the alternating voices of the Francisco and Javier we gain an impression of an artistic chaos which does nobody any good, but which provides fertile ground for a sort of tortured creativity which goes some way to explaining the choice of the themes of the Black Paintings.
The book includes black and white reproductions of the fourteen paintings with a brief “ekphrasis” of each one (I had to look up ekphrasis – apparently it is a graphic, often dramatic description of a work of art). These are done rather well.
I am not sure I would have liked Goya very much as he is portrayed here. He was given to outbursts of rage both against his family and the world in general, and was constantly unfaithful to his long-suffering wife. He never thought his son would amount to much and regularly criticised and put him down. In examining their relationship, the author builds up an atmosphere of psychological tension.
The author himself (who is Polish), apart from being a writer, is also a painter, and his intimate knowledge of the visual arts is very apparent. One very telling insight is that Goya could paint faultlessly such things as gold braid, sashes, faces, breasts under muslin and the neck of a plucked guinea fowl, but every horse he painted was “like an oversized dog”.
Credit must be given to Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is a full-time translator of Polish literature and who has produced effortless and fluent prose from what I sense is a challenging original text.
This unusual novel tells the life story of a great artist, but is at the opposite extreme to the typical vie romancée. Its polyphonic construction is as precise as the art of a watchmaker, while at the same time it feels as if the whole story emerged in a single breath, and was written with passion, or even fury.
The main body of the story is told in the form of monologues by Goya and Javier, each giving something of themselves, the expectations they had of each other and the failures. Later still the role of Goya is taken over by his grandson Mariano, arguing with his father about the fate of the house in which Javier has painted murals on the wall, compositions so grotesque as to call into question his sanity. And thus, with three generations of the family given a voice, the title is explained – the mythological Saturn, who as the Greek Cronus overthrew his father Uranus and was in turn overthrown by his son Zeus.
The end result is a fascinating book, one in which the story is filtered through three distinct personalities, with the reader left to decide how much to rely on each. We have the great artist Goya, willing to do anything to survive, feeling that he has done his best for his son but disappointed at the latter’s failure to succeed as an artist in the same mould as himself. Contrarily Javier thinks that his father has let him down, that he has been abandoned and his efforts disregarded, and he consoles himself by mocking the commercialism and pragmatism of his father. Then again we have Mariano, an arriviste to the bone, looking at everything in terms of its monetary value and how it will help him to progress in society. The interplay between the three is engaging, touching on such themes as art versus commerce, principles versus pragmatism, and as a side issue there is a gripping account of aspects of the Peninsular War, with the compromises of Goya mirrored in those made with Napoleon by his nation.
As far as identifying the artist of the Black Paintings goes, Dehnel presents no real evidence, but then again I doubt that this was his intention. His book does however work splendidly as a study of the artistic sensibility and the rivalries that exist within families, and the burden of being the child of a famous father.