I was hooked from the very beginning. The first time I read Salvador Dali‘s The Secret Life of Salvador Dali—several decades ago—I smiled at his opening salvo of assorted bravados, applauded his deafening brio, and decided not only to forgive but actually to admire his volcanic but cleansing ego. “At the age of six," writes Dali, at the outset of his Prologue to the book, “I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” I loved this stuff.
I always found it ruefully amusing that even when I lectured to students as presumably sophisticated as fourth year architecture students at the University of Waterloo, they would invariably ask me—often during a lecture on Courbet or Cezanne—if we were going to be getting soon to the paintings of Salvador Dali? I would assure them we would be, and would then put it off for as long as I could.
I always felt Dali had been a pretty fascinating painter up until about 1946--when everything in him began to melt (like the limp watches of his justly famous The Persistence of Memory from 1931) under the blowtorch force of his runaway fame and an overwhelming, accelerating hunger for wealth (a few years earlier, Surrealist leader, Andre Breton, had contemptuously rearranged the letters of Dali’s name so the resulting anagram now read “Avida Dollars”—avid for dollars).
But in 1942, when he published the Secret Life, Dali had not yet become the baroque, full-bodied sellout that would provide a great deal of dispiriting fodder for many dyspeptic books about the Catalan master that would come later—books like Mark Rogerson’s The Dali Scandal: An Investigation (1989) and Ian Gibson’s weighty but hostile biography, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali (1997).
And anyhow, as I say, what I really admire about Dali is his writing. I don’t think nearly enough attention has been paid to it—to what a skilful, forceful, inventive, acerbic, funny and absolutely memorable writer he really was.
I always loved the unflinching accuracy of his hair-raising bouts of self-analysis (or, if they weren’t strictly accurate, biographically speaking, then let’s call them spates of brilliant self-mythologizing).
This, for example, is from page 116 of the Secret Life: “My continual and ferocious need to feel myself ‘different’ made me weep with rage if some coincidence should bring me even fortuitously into the same category as others. Before all and at whatever cost: myself—myself alone! Myself alone! Myself alone!”
“And in truth,” he continues, “in the shadow of the invisible flag on which these two words were ideally inscribed my adolescence constructed walls of anguish and systems of spiritual fortifications which for long years seemed to me impregnable and capable until my old age of protecting the sacred security of my solitude’s bloody frontiers.”
“My solitude’s bloody frontiers.” This is writing.
Dali the man is, admittedly, sometimes hard to take. He was a political nightmare (a royalist, a nascent-fascist, a supporter of Franco), and a heartless betrayer of his boyhood friends, the great poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and filmmaker Luis Bunuel, with whom he made the brilliant, infamous 1929 film, Un Chien Andalou and for whom he provided much of the scenario for L’Age d’Or (1930).
His long marriage to the famous Gala—the mysterious Russian-born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, whom he famously stole from French poet Paul Eluard and whom he set up as his lifelong muse—was mostly a lucrative business arrangement (Gala was even better than Dali himself at promotion and deal-making and was much more avid for dollars than even her husband). Their sex life seems to have had more to do with masturbation and voyeurism—a way around Dali’s chronic impotence and vaguely sketched homo-eroticism—than with anything more carnally direct and intimate.
But if Gala made money for her husband, Dali turned Gala into content. He once wrote of her: "I name my wife: Gala, Galushka, Gradiva; Oliva, for the oval shape of her face and the colour of her skin; Oliveta, diminutive for Olive; and its delirious derivatives Oliueta, Oriueta, Buribeta, Buriueteta, Suliueta, Solibubuleta, Oliburibuleta, Ciueta, Liueta. I also call her Lionette, because when she gets angry she roars like the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion."
But the fascinating Gala notwithstanding, it is the superb Secret Life that compels our attention here—this exquisite book.
Every page is a writerly delight. On p.145, Dali notes, fur example, that in defining love, that he was “quite aware that love is receiving the arrow, not shooting it; and I tried out upon her flesh [the flesh of a lover prior to Gala] that Saint Sebastian whom I bore in a latent state in my own skin, which I should have liked to shuffle off as a serpent does.”
On p.218, the young Dali has an endearingly peculiar vision of a great love to come (Gala of course): “All of a sudden I cast a quick glance at the tips of my finger-nails, with the sudden terror of seeing a white cat-hair growing out of them. I had a vague presentiment, which grew and became increasingly precise, that all these signs were the visceral portents of love—I was going to know love this summer! And my hands explored upon the body of the terribly precise moon of Cadaques [site of his home in Spain] the absence of a feminine face which from afar was already coming toward me.”
Sacred monster though he undeniably was (but one wishes to underscore “sacred” here), you have to love a man who, in a series of scintillating interviews with French novelist and poet, Alain Bosquet—collected as Conversations With Dali (Dutton, 1969)—suggests to Bosquet that, in the course of their discourses, they ought to make every effort to “truffle our conversations with true facts.” Truffle as a verb. Bravo!