THE RABBIT AND THE MAGPIE
This is a novel. All facts are true, but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue. I used intuition and deduction rather than actual invention. I sought coherence and connected pieces of Hockney’s life puzzle from what I found in many sources—autobiographies, biographies, interviews, essays, films, and articles. This portrait reflects my vision of David Hockney, even if it was he, his work, his words that inspired me. I hope the artist will consider this an homage.
Why Hockney? It may seem odd to take hold of the life of someone alive and create a novel. But it is he who took hold of me. When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character in a novel. We had in common a double life between Europe and the United States. His freedom fascinated me. I felt like transforming all the documentary material into a narrative that would shed light on his journey from the inside by focusing on the links between love, creation, life, and death.
I met him for the first time in May 2018, in New York, four months after sending him a copy of my novel in French. At lunch I mentioned how a visit to Holland Park in London had made me understand the turning point in his painting in 2002.
“Yes,” David said. “That was the first spring I saw in twenty years.”
I knew that, I had read about it.
He continued: “One day, as I sat on a bench, smoking a cigarette, I saw a black rabbit. Then a magpie landed next to him. I was watching the rabbit and the black-and-white bird when these three girls jogging through the park passed by me. One of them brought her hand to her lips, gesturing, No! She was thinking, What a horrible old man, smoking in the park! These girls didn’t see the rabbit and the magpie. They didn’t look at the park. They only cared about their bodies.”
“That’s a great story,” I said. “I wish I had put it in my novel!”
So here it is, as a bonus for my American readers.
A TALL BLOND MAN IN A WHITE SUIT
His father was a pacifist. He had seen what World War I had done to his older brother, who had been gassed and returned home destroyed, a ghost. In ’39 he protested against the new war. He lost his job, any government assistance, earned many enemies, and was shunned by his neighbors. “Children, don’t be concerned with what the neighbors think.” This was the big life lesson he taught his four sons and one daughter.
Ken didn’t have much money, but was very resourceful. He would retrieve old, broken prams that had been discarded and would repair, paint, and sell them as new. After the war he did the same with bicycles. When he was little, David found nothing more beautiful than the moment when the paintbrush in his father’s hand made contact with the frame of a bicycle. The rusty metal became bright red, in just a second, like magic. The world had changed color. David was proud of his father. A true artist, his mother would say, frowning. Ken was so clever that he dressed elegantly without spending a penny. He would attach to his collars or ties paper that he decorated with dots and stripes in bright colors. David admired his creativity. After restoring a bike, Ken would put an ad in the local newspaper with the number of the phone in the booth next to their house, carry an armchair into the street, and settle down comfortably with his newspaper, holding an umbrella when it rained: that was his shop. The day he decided to redecorate the house, he nailed boards onto the doors and painted sunsets on them. The young boy never tired of looking at them.
David had a vague memory of planes flying above their heads and of the day when he had been evacuated from their home with his two brothers, his older sister, and his mother, who was nine months’ pregnant, but not of the terror of his older brother, who gripped their mother’s hand, almost crushing it, during the bombings—“please, Mum, pray for us”—nor of the bomb that had destroyed several houses on their street and shattered the windows of all those that had remained standing, except theirs. His childhood was filled with games played outside with his brothers and sister, with hiking in the woods, riding bikes on the country roads, Sunday school—spent drawing what they had learned that day at services: Jesus walking on the water, Jesus resuscitating the dead—and Boy Scout camps where he kept the logbook by illustrating their activities. On Saturdays, his father would take them to the movies to see Superman, Charlie Chaplin, or Laurel and Hardy. Ken bought seats for sixpence, the cheapest, those in the first three rows, and the screen was so close that David felt he was actually in the film. For Christmas they would go to the Alhambra, where the pantomimes made them cry laughing. On Sunday they could invite their friends over for tea, which his mother prepared. A delicious odor of cake that had just come out of the oven filled the house, the table was covered with brioches, mini-sandwiches, and jams, and the kitchen was filled with the sound of children laughing, allowed to help themselves to as much as they wanted, four, five, or six slices of cake.
David didn’t even know they were poor. His greatest pleasure didn’t cost a thing: to board a bus (free), climb the stairs to the upper level, and find a seat in the front next to a man who blew cigarette smoke into his face, or an old lady whose shopping bag he asked her to move, excusing himself politely. He watched out of the huge window as the street and the landscape in the distance passed by. When he was a teenager he felt the same pleasure when he pushed his bike to the top of Garrowby Hill on the country road near the farm where he worked for two summers in a row: from atop the hill he could see the entire York Valley, a panorama of 360 degrees without an obstacle. What could be more beautiful?
He wanted for nothing, except paper. For a boy who loved to draw as much as he did, the scarcity of paper after the war was a problem. He filled the margins of anything he could find: books, school notebooks, newspapers, comic strips. Sometimes one of his brothers would shout at him, furious: “You’ve scribbled in the speech bubble again! Now we can’t read what it says!” Could one spend one’s life drawing? Yes, if one was an artist. What was an artist? Someone who created Christmas cards or movie posters. There were forty movie theaters in their city and posters everywhere. David studied attentively the man leaning over a woman with a sunset in the background: he thought he could do as well, if not better. And in the evenings, or on a Sunday after church, he could draw what he wanted, just for himself. After paying the bills, with a bit of luck, he would still have enough money to buy some paper. It would be a nice life.
Little David dreamed.
He was not just a dreamer, but also a good student. He received a scholarship to go to the best school in the city. He was well liked at school because he was funny and everyone loved his drawings. When his friends asked him for a poster for their club, David never said no. Those works were displayed on a board at the school entrance, which had become his own private exhibition space. They were often stolen, which didn’t bother him. In class, he drew instead of taking notes. The day when his English teacher asked him to read his essay out loud and he responded that he hadn’t written it, but had “done this,” showing an elaborate collage, a self-portrait that he had spent the hour making, there was a moment of dramatic suspense in the class before the teacher said, “But that’s marvelous, David!”
His was a happy childhood. Of course, he fought with his brothers, argued with his friends, and was occasionally unjustly punished. But any resentment never lasted. Up to the age of fourteen he never knew how ignorant the world could be.
He was almost fourteen when the headmaster of his school wrote to his parents recommending that they send their son to an art school. Even if David was perfectly capable of studying the humanities in a regular high school, it was clear that drawing was his passion and his talent. He was incredibly grateful to the headmaster who had understood him so well, and to his parents who loved him enough to agree to his transfer to a professional, thus less prestigious, school. They arranged an interview at the Bradford School of Art, he showed his drawings, and he was accepted. Since he was a scholarship student, he just had to obtain the approval of the city’s department of education to complete his enrollment. The response came a month later: “After careful consideration the Committee has concluded that your son’s best interests would be served by completion of his course of general education before specializing in art.”
There was no getting around it. David had to go to the high school he had been assigned, and for two years study math, English, history, geography, French, and chemistry from morning to night. No art courses, of course. His parents tried to console him: two years will go by quickly, they said. David had never felt such rage. For the bureaucrat who had signed that letter, two years were nothing more than the two seconds it had taken for him to scrawl his signature. What gave that man whom he had never met the right to decide his life? He would show that fascist what he was capable of. He stopped working. His grades plummeted, he was repeatedly warned. He didn’t care. He would be expelled and would lose his scholarship. A terrible waste, his teachers said. Great. But an angel was watching over him. His mother, who didn’t try to reason with him, quietly intervened. She went out and knocked on the door of one of their neighbors, who taught at the Bradford School of Art, and asked him if he might give free lessons to their son. The boy was gifted, and the teacher agreed. The weekly evening classes provided the oxygen David needed to breathe, and his grades improved.
In the afternoons, he sometimes went to the movies instead of doing his homework. He had found a way of getting in for free. He would stand outside next to the exit door and, as soon as someone opened the door, he would walk inside backward, making it look as if he was coming out. One afternoon, when he was absorbed in an American film noir with Humphrey Bogart, he didn’t notice the individual who sat down next to him in the almost empty theater. In the dark, a hand took his and placed it on something warm, hard, and hairy. David’s heart was beating incredibly fast. He was afraid, but didn’t resist. The hand that covered his moved it up and down faster and faster until the man groaned softly. He left the theater before the end of the film. When David went out, his cheeks were on fire, his fingers were sticky, he couldn’t stop thinking of what had just happened. So fear wasn’t incompatible with pleasure? It had been the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him, and he couldn’t say anything about it to his mother. Could something that made you feel so good be bad? His friends were always talking about girls. He’d never experienced such a thrill with any girl.
He turned sixteen and was done with high school. None of his older brothers or his sister had gone to university. His brother Paul, who also liked to draw, would have liked to study graphic art, but when he graduated, he had to take a job as a clerk in an office. So it would have been unfair for his younger sibling to go to the School of Art. “Why don’t you look for a job in a commercial art company in Leeds?” his mother asked him. David put together a portfolio of his drawings, got on his bike, and went off to show it to possible employers whose responses he was happy to bring back home: “You must begin by learning the basics, my boy.” The day when one of them offered him an unpaid internship during which he would be trained, and which guaranteed him a job at the end, David answered that he would think about it. He didn’t tell his mother.
She ended up giving in. She wrote to the Bradford department of education on his behalf, and it granted him a scholarship of thirty-five pounds. It wasn’t much, but his brother was earning scarcely twice that at a job where he was dying of boredom. David spent the summer on a farm tying together and storing ears of corn, and had a deep tan when he started at the Bradford School of Art in September, in the new outfit he had bought at the thrift store with his father. With his long red scarf, his striped suit with trousers that were too short, and a round hat on his black hair, he looked like a Russian peasant. His friends nicknamed him Boris.
They could tease him and call him what they liked, and he was ready to laugh along. Nothing bothered him. After waiting for two years, he was finally free to indulge his passion from morning to night. The school had two departments, painting and graphic art. When the director asked him to choose between the two, he immediately said: “I want to be an artist.” “Do you have private income, David?” the director asked him, visibly surprised. Not understanding what he meant, David couldn’t answer. “You’ll go into the graphic art department, my friend,” the man concluded, believing he was doing him a favor. That was the commercial branch of the school, and it guaranteed that students would earn a decent living following the completion of their studies. After two weeks, David asked to be transferred. “Then you should be trained to teach,” he was told. Whatever they wanted, as long as they let him paint.