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How far can a biography stray from the truth? ‘Life of David Hockney’ pushes that boundary

Book jacket for ‘Life of David Hockney’ by Catherine Cusset
Book jacket for ‘Life of David Hockney’ by Catherine Cusset
(Other Press)

Over a decade ago, I gave my friend Jane a copy of Catherine Cusset’s novel “The Story of Jane,” mostly because of the title, and she liked it. Recently, Jane heard a feature on NPR about Cusset’s new project on the artist David Hockney and, knowing that he’s one of my favorites, she shared the piece with me. Hockney’s relationship to Los Angeles was love at first sight, as was mine. He loved the light, the textures and colors, and the beautiful people. Especially the men. Many of his best-known works conjure quintessential Los Angeles: palm trees, swimming pools, Modernist architecture. Hockney’s paintings are evocative; they don’t so much capture a place or a person so much as they convey an essence and a vision. Cusset attempts to render Hockney in that way.

The backstory of her book has been a bit sensationalized: the heterosexual, female, French novelist becomes obsessed with gay, male, English artist and writes a novel about a living person. “Life of David Hockney” is a formal experiment: a biography as novel. Since my own work focuses on one of Hockney’s close friends, the Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood, who also loved L.A. at first sight, I’m intrigued by what Cusset sets out to accomplish. She told NPR that she wanted to “understand Hockney from the inside,” adding that “the book is very factual. I read everything. It’s as accurate as it can be. ... He’s alive. ... I cannot invent his life. But what interested me is really the emotional truth.” The book’s inside flap calls it a “meticulously researched novel.” But is it? There are factual errors, and she provides a bibliography that could hardly be called exhaustive.

Cusset’s assertions about accuracy and invention call to mind two literary antecedents. First, Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War book (novel? memoir? short story collection?), “The Things They Carried,” in which the author and/or the narrator distinguishes between “happening-truth” and “story-truth.” Happening-truth is what “really” occurred, whereas story-truth is more of the resonance, the implication of the factual. In other words, story-truth is fictional, kind of.

The other antecedent is in Isherwood’s diary, in 1953, a few months after the 49-year-old author became seriously involved with 19-year-old Don Bachardy. They met at Will Rogers State Beach and a few months later began a relationship that would last the rest of Isherwood’s life. Experiencing writer’s block and frustrated with the novel he’d been working at for more than three years, Isherwood realized he had a “lack of inclination to cope with a constructed, invented plot.” He even considered rejecting fiction: “Why not write what one experiences from day to day? ... Why invent — when Life is so prodigious?” This is close, I think, to what Cusset had in mind for her Hockney “life.” Bachardy, who would become a very accomplished painter in his own right, met Hockney at the same time Isherwood did, and the three men formed a close, enduring bond. Isherwood and Bachardy each appear in Cusset’s book, as they do throughout Hockney’s work. The author describes, in great detail, the creation of the double portrait, in which the two men are seated side-by-side in rattan chairs in their Santa Monica living room.

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Isherwood and Bachardy, Cusset writes, “were the first long-term gay couple [David] had met. … He wouldn’t be painting their portrait; rather, he would be painting his dream.” She describes the work as “intimate and monumental. ... It is both a still life and a portrait, a classic and very contemporary painting which reveals Christopher’s feelings for Don and the depth of their relationship.” There are other ways to interpret the image and the relationship between the figures: as separated, as distant, their feelings about each other more ambiguous.

This rather florid passage encapsulates Cusset’s book: It contains good attention to detail and to the painter’s technique. Hers is, after all, a portrait of the artist, or perhaps more accurately, it’s a portrayal. The excerpt also exemplifies the “novelistic” within the biographical sketch. Hockney’s aspirations, as a gay man and as an artist, come through in the descriptive prose, though readers may wonder whether those are his emotions or Cusset’s story-truth — her imagination of his feelings, a version that fits her narrative. And therein lies the problem.

Catherine Cusset, author of ‘Life of David Hockney’.
Catherine Cusset, author of ‘Life of David Hockney’.
(Francesca Mantovani / Editions Gallimard)

Cusset’s challenge in such an undertaking is to find the nuance in the details: What are the keys to Hockney’s life and work? To his talent, even his genius? What she has written feels like an overview or, worse, a summary, which is a shortcoming of her formal experiment: Cusset doesn’t get to the interior narrative of Hockney. Her earlier novels, some of which are experiments in autofiction, or what used to be called autobiographical fiction, were sometimes criticized for being too personal. The obverse is the situation here: Where is Cusset in this Hockney narrative? Clearly, she identifies with him as a fellow artist, one who wants to be an original. Ultimately, the reader can’t really discern what, if anything, is Hockney.

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One hopes Cusset’s presence isn’t lurking in her description of Hockney’s reaction to a bad review he once received: “It was always the same old argument — serious versus pleasure — clothed in well-turned phrases. He cut out the review and stuck it on the wall of his studio — a little reminder of the stupidity of critics and the abyss that separated them from creators.” This sort of comment seems like a preemptive strike.

“Life of David Hockney” is pleasant enough, at turns moving, amusing and engaging. The novel is a breezy read, easily enjoyed on a chaise beside a Hockney swimming pool. One gets little more from this book than one could glean from, say, watching one of the four documentaries Cusset cites in her “Selected Bibliography” and reading his Wikipedia entry.

I don’t want to be the reviewer who asks an author to write a book that she didn’t want to write, though maybe her editor should have pushed her to do more. There could be a very fine book in this material. Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in ‘Middlemarch’ ” comes to mind: part memoir, part biography of George Eliot, and part critical analysis of that classic Victorian novel. Something like “My Year with Hockney” might have been fascinating.

Does it matter, by the way, that Cusset gets the year that Isherwood met Bachardy wrong? Or that her Isherwood had pancreatic cancer? (It was prostate cancer.) Is this prosaic license? Can facts be wrong in a novel, especially in a “meticulously researched” one? On the question of novel/biography, “Life of Hockney” is not both/and; it is a novel posing as a biography.

One more thing: I don’t know whether my friend Jane liked “The Story of Jane,” but I needed her to, for my story-truth.

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Life of David Hockney

Catherine Cusset, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

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Other Press: 192 pp., $16

Chris Freeman teaches English and gender studies at USC. He is co-editor, with James Berg, of “Isherwood in Transit,” forthcoming next year from the University of Minnesota Press.


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