Silent vision

Old Man Goya

Julia Blackburn <em>Jonathan Cape, 260pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0224062794

In his recent exploration of the art of biography, Works on Paper, Michael Holroyd points out: "The biographer wants the best of both worlds - the artistic freedom to invent and the reliance on the authenticated fact." Perhaps it's the impulse, conscious or unconscious, in many biographers to refute this charge that has led to biographies putting on so much weight in recent years. The fatter the better seems to be the thinking of both biographers and publishers. The factier the better. A biography of fewer than 400 pages is extremely rare today.

So even before one has opened this portrait of Francisco de Goya, Julia Blackburn is to be congratulated, simply for having produced a book that can be comfortably read anywhere. Blackburn has approached her subject with humility and curiosity, and her exquisite portrayal of Goya's life and work reads like an extended love letter, full of intimacy and tenderness.

Halfway through a long and eventful life, at the age of 47, Goya contracted a serious illness that very nearly killed him, and left him stone deaf. Unlike Beethoven, who could still hear sounds if he clenched a stick between his teeth and rested the other end directly on the piano top, Goya could hear nothing at all. The inner ear had been destroyed. It is not clear what caused this illness. It may have been a form of Meniere's disease, or lead poisoning from the white base-paint he used - but in any case, it led to a dramatic and irreversible exclusion from the world of sound that lasted until his death 35 years later.

Blackburn is fascinated by the impact of Goya's deafness on his work as an artist, and she makes a persuasive case that it was integral to the flourishing of Goya's visual genius: "Before his illness, he had said how much he longed to have quiet, to be left alone, free to get on with the work that pleased him. And now his wish had been granted with a terrible precision." Blackburn interweaves descriptions of Goya's prodigious output of etchings (many of which are powerfully reproduced here), paintings and drawings with her retelling of his life, so that each continually illuminates the other.

Old Man Goya is not a conventional biography, but it is certainly a successful marriage of "artistic freedom" and "authenticated fact". Blackburn writes with a novelist's eye, not as a historian. She is far less interested in plotting exact chronologies than in entering imaginatively into Goya's experience of deafness and intense sight, which she does with great skill. She shows him waking from a nightmare and realising that he's been screaming because his throat is sore. She describes him easily startled by the way people "erupt into view as if they've dropped from the sky". She imagines him almost killed by a passing cart that he hasn't heard coming. At the same time, she applies layer after layer of dense visual detail to overwhelm the silence.

Blackburn's evocation of the brutality of the fighting that raged between France and Spain from 1807 to 1812, which inspired Goya's series of etchings The Disasters of War, is deeply shocking (and a sharp reminder that modern warfare in all its awfulness is not so very modern). "This was a war that went on long enough for soldiers to fight in fields where the ground was already covered with human bones from an earlier battle. For them to try to dig pits to bury their dead, only to find the earth already full of corpses. The soldiers raped the women and girls they found hiding in the houses, and then killed them afterwards to wipe out the memory of what had been done."

Ordinary street life fascinated Goya, too, and Blackburn's narrative is full of quirkiness, comedy and absurdity. She leaves us in no doubt about Goya's insatiable appetite for humanity, in all its grotesquery. At 78, living in Bordeaux with his mistress Leocadia and his illegitimate ten-year-old daughter, he was still "taking a lively interest in circus animals, acrobats and monsters".

Leocadia, 42 years younger than Goya, lived as his common-law wife for more than 15 years, and tended him through his final illness. The despicable way in which she was treated after his death by Javier, Goya's son from his first marriage, is yet another engaging story in Blackburn's elegant and moving narrative.

Rebecca Abrams's most recent book is Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush (Cassell)