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Dreaming and imagining is not research
on 18 August 2014
I really wanted this novel to work; partly because its subject, Goya, 1746-1828, is a painter that I should understand better and partly because I could not see how the author, daughter of the artist Rosalie de Meric, 1916-1999, could balance the requirements of biography and fiction. Blackburn makes it even more difficult for herself by additionally weaving in a travelogue describing her responses to the locations in Spain and France where the artist lived and worked.
This is a very personal book stimulated by a book of Goya’s etchings that Blackburn took from her mother’s studio and it also intertwines the deaths of Goya and her mother. It contains 23 photographs of plates of Goya’s etchings, see below. She first visits the artist’s birthplace and vividly describes a religious festival, which demonstrates her ability to engage the reader, but then imagines Goya’s response to seeing the same processions and people. However, it is really only with the onset of the artist’s deafness, in 1792, that the story begins.
Whilst Blackburn cites relevant literature, primarily in English since her Spanish is limited [‘I can speak a sort of fluent pidgin Spanish, which means that I can talk to people at length if they are patient with me, but even with the help of a big dictionary I can only struggle through a few pages of written Spanish.’], she seems to base a great deal of her story on imagining what Goya did, saw, ate and drank - largely on the basis of visiting places associated with his life - even when all the relevant buildings have long disappeared. This is taken to lextreme degrees – as when she imagines one of his friends, Braulino Poc, visiting Goya on his deathbed ‘I imagine him with a bushy moustache and smelling of strong tobacco, even though I have never seen a picture of him, only a reproduction of his twirling and confident signature.’
There is a huge amount of information presented but I was unsure what was fact and what imagined. Before I reached the end of this book I was frustrated with Blackburn’s meanderings into dreams and fancies, following 'I see Goya...', 'I would have Goya....’ or ‘what Goya must have seen...’. At one point she writes ‘I don't know what Goya saw or did not see on his journey to Madrid, but I have taken a few images from travel books of the time, and these I scatter around him...’. To get closer to Goya, Blackburn obtains and wears a grotesque carnival mask, and buys ear plugs to better appreciate the artist’s deafness.
She describes Goya’s etching technique in detail and provides a chilling account of the Peninsula and other wars that Goya lived through. Fact or fiction? The various Spanish royal families are portrayed, as is the Duchess of Alba, Goya’s wife, his only child to reach adulthood and his mistress and her children. However, how much was true? She imagines Goya journeying from Madrid to Bourdeaux at the age of 78 on the basis of following his route almost two centuries later. At one stage she imagines the artist watching the 1930s film ‘Freaks’ with its cast of human oddities related to those appearing in Goya’s etchings.
Blackburn might have written a very compelling novel about the artist or an interesting biography, although limited by her inability to consult primary documentation in the original language. She could certainly have written a travel book ‘In the Steps of Goya’. However, what becomes increasingly evident is that the task she has set herself is beyond her and what she, and the reader, end up with is a dissatisfying hybrid.
The illustrations in the book are frequently unclear and not related to the text. Equally, Blackburn sometimes writes in detail about works that are not illustrated and both put a barrier between the artist, his works and the reader. Although the 23 plates are listed at the end of the book, their titles are in Spanish and individual illustrations, positioned sporadically throughout the book, are not numbered. Such lack of attention is surprising from an experienced publisher.
Having taken us up to Goya’s final stay in Bordeaux Blackburn describes his death and its aftermath much too quickly and, because of her previous treatment of fact and fiction, the reader is left wondering about Goya’s legitimate and illegitimate children, and of his various paintings, drawings and etchings represent fact or imagination.
This is ultimately very unsettling, a biography penned by a medium. I am not sure that I understand this complex and very influential artist any better now than when I began this book. Blackburn is a capable writer but, here, she fails to deliver, 5/10.