Portrait of Max Jacob, 1907 by Pablo Picasso

akg-images/Museum Ludwig, Cologne/© 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Max Jacob, 1907

The French poet Max Jacob united, in both his art and his life, the spirits of the ancient and sharply contrasting commedia dell’arte figures Harlequin and Pierrot. Like Harlequin, Jacob had a boisterous, anarchic wit. He was also, like Pierrot, a troubled figure, by turns romantic and saturnine. From the years before World War I until his death in 1944 at the age of sixty-seven, his divergent energies, spilling from poetry and prose poems to fiction and a second and by no means unsuccessful career as a painter, were part of the glory of bohemian Paris.

Jacob was a close friend of Picasso’s in the years when Cubism was born. His determination to disrupt narrative and grammatical norms made him a literary avant-gardist to be reckoned with. His later poetry, with its clear, pure, sensuous rhythms, signaled a return to classicism that he embraced along with another friend, Jean Cocteau. And as a Jew who made a much-discussed conversion to Catholicism, he helped define a fascination with traditional Christianity that is a strand in literary modernism. Jacob’s was often a hardscrabble life—at times it was sales of his own paintings that kept hunger from the door—and it ended in excruciating tragedy, when he was arrested by the Nazis and died of pneumonia in Drancy, the internment camp near Paris, while awaiting transfer to Auschwitz.

Rosanna Warren’s biography of Jacob is the most extensive attempt yet to grant this subtle and complex figure the recognition he has never achieved in the English-speaking world. The challenges are considerable. Although one could probably make the case that Jacob is the essential poet of the Cubist era—his verbal disassembling of reality evolved alongside Picasso’s and Braque’s visual fractures—by the time Guillaume Apollinaire died in 1918 the title was his, and so it has remained. Warren, a poet who has published some half-dozen volumes, may see her effort to bring Francophone culture to Anglophone audiences as building on the work done a generation or more ago by Roger Shattuck and Francis Steegmuller on behalf of Apollinaire, Cocteau, Erik Satie, and Alfred Jarry.

I’m not sure that our moment is especially friendly to Warren’s endeavor. When Shattuck published The Banquet Years (1955) and Steegmuller his biographies of Apollinaire (1963) and Cocteau (1970), the halcyon days of Parisian modernism were long gone but still within living memory, at least for some. There was a sense of picking up a thread that, although perhaps dropped, was not yet lost. We may want to believe that the subsequent decades have only deepened our understanding of the old avant-garde’s mingling of the comic, quotidian, sacred, and profane, but historical memory can play tricks. Postmodernism, in its many versions, has so hardened and exaggerated our sense of these values that by now the daredevil experimentalism that characterized Jacob’s writing and Picasso’s painting—they were exacting but antitheoretical when shattering and crystallizing the quotidian—may be as difficult to reclaim as some of the imaginative accomplishments of the Victorians.

The work that has long been regarded as the linchpin of Jacob’s achievement is the collection of prose poems The Dice Cup (Le cornet à dés), first published in 1917. (An expanded version appeared in 1923 and another with some additions after his death.) It remains, even a century later, a stupendously strange achievement. Jacob’s compositions—some only a few lines, others a substantial paragraph—can be plainspoken or gnomic; in certain instances they’re both simultaneously. They include a little story about a key that figures in a husband’s separation from his wife, a second key, a nun, the loss of both keys, and the reappearance of one of the keys in the Cluny Museum. Another, “The Rue Ravignan,” offers a glimpse of the street where Picasso and Jacob both lived for a time and where the poet found himself renaming their various neighbors as mythological or historical figures, with the milkman becoming Ulysses and the ragpicker Dostoevsky. Jacob savors flashes of everyday beauty and narrative clarity—occasionally he seems to be channeling the comforting conventions of nineteenth-century literature, but he does so only to confound them. If it’s well-nigh impossible to summarize the contents of The Dice Cup, that’s because uncategorizability is one of the book’s basic themes.

The prose poem is in many respects uniquely French, and Jacob’s work in the form has an honored place in that history. His preface to The Dice Cup begins with a statement that has become famous among students of modern poetry: “Everything that exists is situated.” What exactly Jacob means by this isn’t easy to say. He proceeds to make a distinction, in works of art, between style and situation. Style is what gives a work of art “the sensation of being self-enclosed.” Situation gives a work of art “the special atmosphere where it moves.” Jacob was reacting against the hell-bent, Romantic spirit that he saw in some of the work of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. He preferred to produce poems that were more self-conscious, with fractures and juxtapositions carefully weighed and calculated. He recommended that writers, if they wanted to push the prose poem into new areas of experience and expression, reject Rimbaud’s style, which he believed led to “disorder and exasperation,” and steer clear of the tendency in Baudelaire and Mallarmé to turn the prose poem into a parable or a fable.

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Much of the work in The Dice Cup was composed in the first decade of the new century, some years before the book was published, during the period when Jacob and Picasso were seeing a good deal of each other and Cubism was born. A century later, reading these poems in which the workaday world is reconfigured as an imaginary world, it’s not difficult to see parallels with the radical realignments of Picasso’s Cubist paintings. The elements in Jacob’s prose poems, rather like the objects in Picasso’s still lifes, are arranged with an idiosyncratic precision that defies naturalistic expectations and bids us recognize lucidity as another form of obscurity—or is it that obscurity becomes a new way to achieve lucidity? By situating—or isolating—words, phrases, and sentences in unexpected ways, Jacob gives a surprising weight and importance to a key, a ragpicker, a group of smiling men, three mushrooms, or a Neapolitan beggar. Perhaps the point is that everything is not so much situated as resituated.

In an extended section within The Dice Cup entitled “The Cock and the Pearl,” Jacob atomizes experiences into slivers of images, some composed of only a few words: “His white arms became my whole horizon.” “A pale blue thicket of thorns, a steeple in the moonlight” (translation by Bill Zavatsky). Often he seems to be delighted by the sounds of words as they come together, as in “Mur de briques, bibliothèque!” and “L’enfant l’éfant, l’éléphant, la grenouille et la pomme sautée.” There are many reasons why André Breton, the ringleader of the Surrealists, after first embracing Jacob’s work, eventually rejected it, but chief among them was probably his recognition that Jacob’s literary discipline left no room for the automatism that was so important to Breton. Jacob’s meticulously crafted dream fragments are a far cry from the meandering fantasies of the Surrealists. In the preface to The Dice Cup, he insists on the value of clarity and simplicity, arguing that he prefers the “joy, daring, and ease” of one of the letters of Mme de Sévigné, among the classics of seventeenth-century French prose, to any number of overstuffed novels.

For Jacob’s readers, the title The Dice Cup would have inevitably brought to mind Mallarmé’s last poem, “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.” In an essay published some years ago, Warren aimed to clarify Jacob’s relationship with this great precursor, arguing that whereas Mallarmé, in a final farewell to the mystifications of Symbolism, scrubbed poetry of the sacred, Jacob’s radical juxtapositions uncovered a new place for it. “If Mallarmé,” she wrote, “gambled on purity and human order, Max Jacob gambled on impurity and divine order.” Jacob was hardly the only writer of his time for whom words, scrupulously arranged, became a new kind of catechism. Michel Leiris, who as a young man was friends with him, pointed out in an introduction to The Dice Cup that the title itself has both a secular and a sacred aspect. Dice appear in Cubist still lifes but also sometimes as an element in Christ’s Passion, when the soldiers cast lots for his robe. Jacob’s juxtapositions encompass a near infinity of possibilities.

Warren hasn’t entirely overcome the challenges involved in foregrounding the life of a man who remains relatively obscure a century after he produced what may be his most important work. There is nothing wrong with beginning a biography at the beginning, as she does, which in Jacob’s case means in a Jewish but by no means religious family in the town of Quimper, in Brittany; the family operated two successful shops selling clothes and furniture. But given how little known Jacob remains in the Anglophone world, I think she would have been wise to open her book with some sort of prologue that established his fundamental significance.

At times Warren, who long ago earned a reputation as a poet of classical poise and elegance, seems not to have figured out how to keep the story moving along when there isn’t as much documentary evidence as one might hope for—or, for that matter, what to do when there’s more information than any biographer needs. Her account of the decade or so leading up to World War I, when Jacob was seeing a lot of Picasso and making some of his most audacious literary experiments, feels a little thin. All through the book she can’t seem to resist details about the publication of specific poems in specific publications that disrupt the narrative line and detract from a deeper and broader understanding of Jacob’s achievement. I wanted to hear more about his gifts as an author of ferocious comic fictions that can bring Gogol to mind and about the rapturous beauty of some of his later poems, among them “Vers sans art,” in which a reader finds lines such as “For a long time I thought of life as an autumn fog” and “Life is a square dance your hand in the one nearest yours” (translation by William Kulik).

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Nothing came easily to Jacob. He was an indomitable spirit but also a self-destructive one. His friends knew that his dazzling charm was hard won and could be only imperfectly sustained in the face of the difficulties that often stood in his way. It wasn’t easy to be a French Jew who had come of age in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair. As for his sexual interests, which almost exclusively involved men, Jacob’s provincial upbringing left him with none of the sense of cosmopolitan exceptionalism that may have made it relatively easy for homosexuals such as Proust and Cocteau to thrive in a world where they were not always welcome. At times Warren doesn’t know what to do with the private life of this dandified figure who, early on, had a taste for erotic assignations with policemen and later fell into hopeless infatuations with young disciples who, however much they admired him, didn’t necessarily want to go to bed with him. The book risks leaving readers feeling a little sorry for Jacob, although there’s no reason to assume that this ironic and saturnine spirit couldn’t also have known ecstatic experience. In one wonderful moment in Warren’s book he appears in Picasso’s studio after a tryst and, to Picasso’s “And so?” responds, with his eyes turned ecstatically heavenward, “Ah, what lovely buttocks my friend has!”

Jacob is not the only early-twentieth-century author whose reputation has benefited from Picasso’s boldface celebrity. For many years that was certainly also the case with Gertrude Stein. Warren may worry—and not without reason—that Jacob’s most challenging poetry, to the extent that it’s regarded at all, is now too often seen as an oddball accompaniment to the stories of his friendships with Picasso and other artists and the splendid visual record of those friendships that they produced. In a preface she writes of having “to figure out how to plot my path around giants”—Picasso among them. This may explain her reluctance to dive deeper into Jacob’s involvement with the visual arts. She has surprisingly little to say about the paintings that he produced throughout his life, especially his later landscapes, which have a geometric rigor and elegance that may suggest another side of his interest in how objects are situated in the world.

I wish Warren had said more about the wonderful group of snapshots that Cocteau took of Picasso, Jacob, Modigliani, and others palling around in Montparnasse on an August day in 1916. (The collection became something of an underground best seller when published as A Day with Picasso in the 1990s.) Modigliani, a far more considerable portraitist than sophisticated taste nowadays will credit, created striking impressions of Jacob. In the painting that graces the cover of Warren’s biography, he is the all-seeing and all-knowing man about town. An air of amusement animates his face, from the crooked mouth to the arched eyebrows. Beatrice Hastings, Modigliani’s mistress for a time, made a significant early contribution to Jacob’s reputation with a translation of “The Rue Ravignan” that she published in the London magazine The New Age.

Jacob was besotted with Picasso, the charismatic and handsome friend whose face he once described as “of ivory and of the beauty of a young Greek.” As for Picasso, who certainly expected homage from friends and lovers alike, he also had a gift for friendship that should never be underestimated. If there was a sense in which Picasso and Jacob were the prince and the vassal, they were also comrades in arms. In their early days in Montmartre, when Jacob was composing the prose poems that he gathered in The Dice Cup and Picasso was painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Ma Jolie, they were together reimagining the ancient affinity between poetry and painting that Horace had defined with a phrase that has become as famous as it is ambiguous: “ut pictura poesis”—as is painting so is poetry.

Picasso produced prints for limited editions of a number of Jacob’s books and over the years made a number of portraits of his friend. In a watercolor done in 1907, around the time that he was reimagining the human figure in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso emphasized Jacob’s penetrating, almost X-ray gaze, at once daunting and disarming. An incisive drawing, done in 1915, when Picasso was fascinated by Ingres’s neoclassical portraiture, suggests that Jacob could at times be quite levelheaded; seated, rather casually dressed, eyes cast down, hands resting on his thighs, he is the hardworking writer taking a break. Thirteen years later, when his literary reputation was considerable, Jacob was drawn by Picasso in profile, his head topped with a wreath of laurel, as if he were a conquering hero commemorated on an ancient cameo or coin.

In 1921, as Jacob was making the first of his religious retreats to Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, south of Paris, where he lived as a paying guest in the parsonage next to the basilica, Picasso drew his old friend in a monk’s garb. That same summer a monkish figure appeared in the two versions of Picasso’s The Three Musicians. Although there remains some disagreement as to whom the canvas represents, the general feeling is that the monk at right is Jacob, seated next to Picasso dressed as Harlequin. The Pierrot on Picasso’s other side would be Apollinaire. Seen in this light, the painting becomes a final farewell to the friendships of the Cubist years.

Picasso was now a wealthy man hobnobbing with the fashionable folk who supported the seasons of the Ballets Russes; Apollinaire had died three years earlier; Jacob was retreating into Catholicism. John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, believed that the painting was inspired by a poem of Jacob’s, “All Honor to the Sardana and the Tenora,” in which he recalled a visit to Catalonia with the painter. “Adieu sardana and tenora!” Jacob wrote, recalling the dance’s “blazing glimpse of splendor.” “Tomorrow,” he continued, “I’ll be far away/Tomorrow in a monastery garden.”

The version of The Three Musicians in the Museum of Modern Art is brightly colored, hard-edged, and ghostly. The figures are not so much men as masks or façades behind and beyond which there is only the black void. If Jacob, as Picasso first knew him, was both Harlequin and Pierrot, in The Three Musicians he embraces another guise: the mask of faith.

Warren steers a steady course in her last hundred or so pages, aware that understatement is the best policy when approaching Jacob’s fate at the hands of the Nazis, who might have regarded his rejection of Judaism, should they have cared to inquire, as yet another symptom of the decadent cosmopolitanism they were determined to eradicate. In 1909 Jacob, already fascinated by various mystical traditions, had had some sort of vision of Christ, who appeared to him as a handsome young man. He was baptized in 1915 and spent two long periods in his later years at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, where, with one foot still firmly planted in his literary life, he allowed himself to experience some of the consolations of monastic seclusion. The church gave Jacob, who had grown up in a Jewish home but with no sense of Judaism’s moral, ethical, or ritual authority, a faith that anchored an often chaotic life. If he sometimes saw his erotic adventures as sinful, Catholicism offered absolution. But he was far too unconventional a spirit to ever be completely at peace with Catholicism, and at times he urged Catholic friends, even ones who were unabashed anti-Semites, to take a look at the kabbalah, where he had discovered some of the mystical ideas that he believed were at the heart of the Christian experience.

It may be that Jacob’s familiarity with Catholic anti-Semitism—it was on the rise at the time of his conversion but, however deadly, was never quite a death sentence—left him somewhat complacent about the dangers that he faced during the Occupation. As the Nazi campaign against French Jews widened, Jacob seems to have imagined that he would be left alone if he remained quietly at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire and accepted that publishing his work was no longer an option. He watched as friends were rounded up; he wore the yellow star on his coat; all the while he believed that he would be protected by his powerful connections in the literary world and the not inconsiderable reputation he had achieved as a leading figure in French culture. His younger sister was already lost to the Nazis by the time he was picked up in February 1944. His fate was now in the hands of the Gestapo, and the efforts of Cocteau and others, however swift or sincere, were almost certainly bound to fail. There was no priest to perform the last rites as he lay dying in Drancy on March 5, but some Jewish converts to Catholicism were able to make his end perhaps a little easier. He had been scheduled to be sent to Auschwitz on March 7.

Picasso was among the friends who were asked for their help after Jacob was arrested, to which he is said to have responded, “Max is an angel. He can fly over the wall by himself.” For many years Picasso’s decision to distance himself was viewed as a demonstration of his callousness. More recent research has suggested that Picasso was in far more peril from the Nazis than has generally been believed, so his intervention might well have been counterproductive and further endangered his own situation. Picasso never stopped caring about Max. A dozen years later, in 1956, on what would have been Jacob’s eightieth birthday, he contributed a number of lithographs and etchings to a volume that contained a memoir by Jacob, Chronique des temps héroïques. Several are portraits of Jacob in which he is still young and attractive, with his dark eyes and prominent forehead. And one is a view of a nude man seen from behind, the back and buttocks strong and firm, a memory perhaps of Picasso’s old friend’s exultant account all those years earlier.

There’s a sobriety—a gravitas—about this salute to youthful passions. For a literary parallel to the violent beauty of some of Picasso’s erotic nudes of the Cubist years, little can match a line from The Dice Cup (translated by Bill Zavatsky) in which Jacob contemplates his own erotic life: “At the foot of the bed the armoire with its mirror is the guillotine, you can see our two sinning heads in it.”


An earlier version of this piece incorrectly attributed the phrase “ut pictura poesis” to Ovid.