Life of David Hockney: A Novel
by Catherine Cusset
Translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
In Life of David Hockney, French author Catherine Cusset straddles the line between biography and novel with engaging yet informative results. Cusset delves deeply into the life of one of the twentieth century’s most prolific modern artists, illustrating the life of a prominent gay figure while paying great tribute to the body of work that brought him to international fame. Hockney was a vanguard figurative artist who excelled throughout a modern movement in which the figurative was unfashionable. A child of WWII, his background was of Britain’s working class, but his formative artistic talents provided him with an education and much early success. Writing in the guise of a fictional narrative, this beautifully researched piece is able to provide a much closer look at the inner life of the artist.
Much of the earlier half of Hockney’s life seems charmed, but it’s deeply touched by tragedy when AIDS comes to the fore in the eighties. Not only does Hockney worry constantly about his own exposure, he begins to lose countless close friends to the plague. Cusset provides us with a vivid look at the fear and uncertainty that at the height of the plague affected so many men of her subject’s generation. It was a time of much loss for the artist——he lost many close friends——some tragically through AIDS, cancer, or even suicide, and some, like author Christopher Isherwood, due to old age. But loss is loss, and these mounting losses took their toll on Hockney, but they also inspired some of his most meaningful and interesting work.
This brilliant piece reads multiple ways. Is it a novel or biography? That’s not important. What it does effectively is provide a rich and balanced look at the life of an artist. There’s a real love of his body of work in these pages and it was surprising that Cusset’s education isn’t in the art world; she really gets what drives an artist in their work, be it tragedy…or triumph.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.