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Leo Tolstoy, it’s rumored, once said of his brother, “He has all the gifts of a writer, but not the failings that make the writer.” Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy has both. In her latest work of literary nonfiction, On Bullfighting, Kennedy employs a powerfully descriptive voice and harbors enough self-doubt, depression, and neuroses to fill several Tolstoy novels.
For instance, early in the book Kennedy offers, “Too many empty hotel rooms can cause depression—if you still count a room as empty with me inside it, which, of course, I do.” This is Kennedy’s world, where nights are sleepless, Federico García Lorca is a deity, and a book ostensibly about bullfighting is actually a personal, psychological narrative.
Kennedy clearly went to the library and read up on bullfighting, but the book contains little approaching John McPhee-style reporting. She apparently interviewed no one on her two trips to observe bullfighting in Spain. Any issues she raises—such as the cruelty and plain butchery of the sport—are discussed just briefly and, inevitably, threaded back to Kennedy’s life; any anecdotes she relates—such as the rise of the famed matador Belmonte—are put in the context of her struggles. Bullfighting, it becomes clear, is just a metaphor for Kennedy’s fight with self-doubt and her search for meaning in her life.
The ambitious approach is both a virtue and a curse. To succeed, Kennedy’s writing must tread the line between touching, revealing prose and self-obsessed junk. Her writing style, with its self-deprecating humor and vivid language, nearly holds it together. But the book slips from moments of brilliance to instances of eye-rolling overdramatization.
The first chapter is the most intriguing, and, unfortunately, the book’s high point. Kennedy’s opening, in which she describes sitting on a ledge outside her Glasgow apartment, contemplating suicide, kicks down the door to her thoughts and drags you in. The sequence isn’t as grim at it sounds; Kennedy deftly keeps the scene light enough to read—after all, you’re expecting a book on bullfighting here—but dark enough to catch you off guard:
The inadequacy of my misery hasn’t escaped me, the fact that I’m literally boring myself to death. This all started with such utterly commonplace stuff, things other people can manage and that I should have managed, too: a man that I loved has died and another has hurt me, I am not in good health and don’t sleep…
For good measure, she adds, a few lines later, “I’m a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no one at all….I have nothing of value inside.” Of course, you know better, and so will Kennedy. At least you hope so, because she earns your affection quickly, with plenty of dark humor and honesty. At least at first, she passes the big test for personal narrative: She makes you care what happens to her.
Kennedy decides against jumping from the ledge when she hears the Celtic folk song “Mhairi’s Wedding” playing in the distance. She hates “Mhairi’s Wedding.” “Murdering myself to this accompaniment is more than I can bear,” she writes. “It seems that, having been fucked over by every other part of my existence, I am now being splendidly, finally fucked over by either divine intervention or simple chance.” The scene is morose and funny—in the twisted manner of a Coen Brothers film.
But its connection to bullfighting isn’t clear. Kennedy explains the relation: “[I]n attempting to control death, the toreros [matadors] and I may have a little in common. We have attempted the impossible, something which stands in the face of nature.”
Sometime after her near-death experience, Kennedy is offered the chance to write a book on bullfighting. She isn’t specific about how or why this happened, but you get the feeling she could have written about midget bowling and produced a similarly self-absorbed work.
So Kennedy zips off to Granada, Spain, to see its famed bullfighting ring and visit García Lorca’s hometown. Kennedy is obsessed with the poet not only because he was talented but also because he was killed by nationalists during the Spanish Civil War for his leftist beliefs—in other words, because his death had meaning. She also relates to him because he struggled with his gift, labored under the burden of being a writer; he was unable to quit, Kennedy says, because he was called to writing, much as she says matadors are called into the ring. Kennedy tosses in the flimsy connection that García Lorca was a bullfighting fan, but it doesn’t stick. That’s not why he’s in the book.
Kennedy tours the poet’s house in a scene dripping with soap-opera-worthy language:
But, still, I have to wait with my face turned away until the rest of the party has gone, because I am crying. I’m in the house of a man who was called to write, who did the human joyful thing which was to put words onto paper. He made himself a writer, a famous man, a target. He was hurt by his love, betrayed by his vocation…
Later, reflecting on the visit, she adds, “And I look at my own hands and remember again that I nearly said, that I nearly did say I was a writer, that I nearly did say that out loud, but then couldn’t open my mouth because I was ashamed—an apostate in the house of a martyr.”
Um, can we get to the bullfighting already?
Eventually, Kennedy weaves in an expository section on how bulls are raised and prepared for the corrida de toros, and she details the different breeds of bulls and their varying characteristics. Bulls, she writes, have poor eyesight and, because of the placement of their eyes, can’t see directly in front of themselves—part of the reason they’re drawn to the red cape, not the person.
But even the bulls aren’t left out of Kennedy’s psychoanalysis binge. She writes that the animals charge mostly out of fear—which makes bullfighting seem cruel and petty. And, of course, many would argue that it is. That impression is reinforced when Kennedy, more than halfway through the book, finally attends a bullfight. She describes the bull’s systematically losing his strength as dartlike spears are thrust into his back. The animal bleeds generously and frequently collapses, only to be propped up again so the matador can lure him into several more “passes” with the cape and then move in for the so-called heroic kill. As Kennedy observes, “This is much nearer butchery and farce than art.”
Kennedy touches only briefly on the moral objections to bullfighting, and only in the context of buying a ticket to a bullfight and considering whether it’s right for her to financially support this institution. She writes that the corrida is acceptable because it’s part of Spain’s heritage and it’s “beautiful.” She dismisses that argument as inadequate but proposes no other justification for a sport that gruesomely kills six or seven bulls in one showing.
Periodically, the book recaptures the flair of that first chapter, only to quickly lapse into overdone language overburdened with drama. For instance, of her train ride from Granada to Madrid, Kennedy writes:
I only begin to relax when the engine starts to haul, when the rhythm of lights at the window has settled itself into a scattering, easy rush. The pain isn’t good tonight, it’s scaring me again: I’ve taken too many pills and I know I won’t sleep, but I can watch the night as it passes.
That’s nice. But Kennedy reaches too far at the end of the paragraph, writing that she’s “alive and making a journey that never was, unraveling” García Lorca’s mistake of staying in Granada, where he was killed, instead of returning to Madrid.
Please. It’s just a train ride.
Gradually, the affection Kennedy earned in that first chapter dissipates. With its tension thinning, the book winds on with passages about famous matadors and their artful styles and scenes from several other bullfights, including some involving “El Juli,” Spain’s young matador sensation. Bulls repeatedly trot out to be killed, and Kennedy describes the scenes in thorough detail. This is beauty for her—people reveling in their calling. The flowery bullfighting scenes make for some painful reading:
Every time the bull falters or stalls, Ponce stays with it, closer and closer, the animal’s blood slowly painting the front of his traje [cape], no one in the world but them, no one in the world but us, because he has cited us, too, drawn us into the inexorable movement towards his goal, the kill.
Of course, bulls are unpredictable and, like life, can change directions and gore you at any moment. Kennedy paints several graphic scenes in which bulls slice matadors with their horns. She finds beauty there too, in men (or is it her?) bleeding for their vocation.
By the end, you’ve learned a fair amount about bullfighting, though it’s not all that enlightening, because Kennedy never fully addresses the major question: Is bullfighting so indispensable to Spanish culture that its abusive treatment of living things should be overlooked? Kennedy sidesteps that one. She’s more interested in her own story.
On Bulllfighting ends without much resolution. But perhaps the book itself, uneven though it is, serves as resolution enough—for Kennedy, anyway. Its existence proves that she had something inside, something meaningful that had to spill onto the page—the stuff that, as Tolstoy said, makes the writer. García Lorca called it duende—that depressed patch of the subconscious that hands up the darkest works of art. Kennedy has plenty of it, and getting it to seep through a bullfighting book is a huge task. To her credit, Kennedy nearly pulled it off. But if the work is catharsis for the writer, it’s still not great reading. CP