Introducing Catherine Cusset’s ‘Life Of David Hockney’

This month, we’re reading a novelistic biography of a famed artist that is equal parts joyous and tragic.
The book cover of Life of David Hockney by Catherine Cusset

Happy August! This month, we’re reading Catherine Cusset’s Life of David Hockney, which is an odd type of book that exists between biography and fiction. It tells the story of David Hockney, a still-living artist who’s been a staple of the art world for decades. In less than 200 pages, it takes you from Hockney’s childhood as an art-loving student to the near-present, where he is still working at a quick pace to make more and more art. For those less familiar with his work, it’s worth looking through it to provide visual aides to the story.

We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!

The Book

There is a moment toward the end of Life of David Hockney that describes a piece of art Hockney wanted to create. At this late point in his career, he was famous for his use of vibrant colors — his most famous paintings are his California works featuring brilliantly blue pools — so he wanted to challenge himself. He decided to use charcoal to create a black-and-white depiction of the coming of spring; a celebration of the most colorful time of the year without actually using color. This idea of using outlines to create complex beauty is similar to the book itself.

The book is an odd mixture of fiction and nonfiction. At the very beginning of the book, Cusset writes, “This is a novel. All facts are true, but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue.” It is a strange thought exercise to take the facts of someone’s life and then build a novel around them, but Cusset’s book makes a strong case for its merits. The book closely follows Hockney’s torrid relationships, artistic inspirations and the grim realities of the AIDS crisis (which Hockney mostly avoided, but many of his friends did not).

The Author

Catherine Cusset is a French author, who has been publishing novels since 1990. She grew up in Paris and holds a Ph.D. from both Paris Diderot University and Yale University, primarily studying French literature. She’s lived in the United States for most of her career, but continues writing in French.

While Life of David Hockney is her first biography-novel, she has written in the lines between truth and fiction before, notably in her autofiction (a popular mode of writing about yourself while still fictionalizing certain aspects). She also has a number of successful more classical novels, exploring themes of love and familial relationships.

The Translator

Teresa Lavender Fagan is a freelance translator who has worked on a number of French-to-English book publications, including Hold Fast Your Crown by Yannick Haenel, Incidents by Roland Barthes, and A Long Saturday: Conversations by George Steiner and Laure Adler. She started her career planning to teach French and attended the Middlebury College one-year Master’s program in Paris. After she completed the course, however, she decided against teaching and instead fell in love with translating works.

The Language

In the world of English book publishing, French is the ruler, as it makes up the majority of books in translation. Perhaps not coincidentally then, the Babbel Book Club has done a number of French books already, and thus there’s not much new to say about it this time around. It is notable that Life of David Hockney is about a British man who moved to the United States, and who never spoke French. Yet that’s no stranger than any English book about people who never spoke English. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you familiar with David Hockney’s work? What do you think of it?
  2. What drove David Hockney to create his works?
  3. Did you feel the book did a good job of exploring the emotional side of Hockney, or did it feel more like a list of facts about his life?
  4. Which part of the book gripped you most? Were there parts you wished were longer when you were reading them?
  5. Did you struggle with the book being about a visual artist but not portraying the visual medium at all?
  6. Does it matter to you that this is a “novel” rather than a straight biography? Did you think about that while reading?
  7. All biographies of living people are by their nature incomplete. Do you think it’s possible to evaluate someone who’s still alive?

Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the French language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.

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