A fictionalised biography of David Hockney
Life of David Hockney: A Novel. By Catherine Cusset. Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Other Press; 192 pages; $15.99 and £12.99
READING “LIFE OF DAVID HOCKNEY” somehow mimics the experience of looking at a painting by the artist. Famous for his bright, flat compositions, Mr Hockney re-energised figurative painting at a time when most of his contemporaries considered it “anti-modern”. Catherine Cusset’s writing, translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, echoes that vivid style. The author moves swiftly through Mr Hockney’s life, painting a fictional portrait of his adolescence in working-class Yorkshire through to his globe-trotting adulthood as one of Britain’s most famous living artists. The result is a compelling picture of a man who himself changed portraiture.
Writing an imagined biography of a living artist is a risky move, and perhaps a strange one (novels about dead figures are more common). In her introduction to the English edition, Ms Cusset explains simply that Mr Hockney’s life took hold of her. “When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character.” In her writing, the character of Hockney comes fully to life, too. The flesh-and-blood painter agreed to have lunch with Ms Cusset after reading the book, and though she doesn’t include Mr Hockney’s verdict in her introduction, the lunch sounds pleasant enough to indicate that he liked the novel, or, at the very least, appreciated its artifice.
After all, Mr Hockney himself is a master of reconstructing the real. Early in the novel, Hockney has a revelation: “Nature and artifice were thus not at odds, any more than were the figurative and abstraction, poetry and graffiti, quotes and originality, playing and reality.” This idea frees him to paint what he wants: California swimming pools, gay couples and naked men, all in bright hues. It also seems to free Ms Cusset to combine the facts of Mr Hockney’s life with her own imagination.
In her telling, Hockney is an eternal innocent, almost a Peter Pan figure. He devotes his life in equal measure to art and to the dream of “free love, without ties, without jealousy, without guilt. Just pleasure to give and receive.” Ms Cusset never romanticises this dream. Instead, she traces its progression from idealism to selfishness. By middle age, her Hockney has forgotten how love works, refusing to feel guilt and refusing to take responsibility. It takes a teenager to remind him, with “the clarity of childhood”, that he has to treat others as people, not as subjects.
Ms Cusset writes with a nearly childish clarity, too, and the result is both unsettling and effective. For much of the novel, she describes Hockney’s emotions with unusual baldness, flattening his inner life. Like Mr Hockney, she mixes lush visuals with pervasive melancholy, and as her subject reaches belated maturity, her prose grows increasingly nuanced. By the book’s end, the great painter feels fragile and accessible, both a legend and a fallible man. This trajectory mirrors Mr Hockney’s artistic process.
Ms Cusset sees Hockney as using portraiture as a way of coming to terms with his life. With “Portrait of an Artist”, he grapples with the failure of his first relationship by painting his ex-boyfriend “as an artist, not as a lover”. In “My Parents”, he allows himself to show the elder Hockneys “chained together, but separated, each enclosed in his or her solitude”. These are emotional, exposed paintings: looking at them feels intimate, sometimes to an unsettling degree. The same could be said of Ms Cusset’s novel.