The Pious French Poet Who Palled Around With Picasso and Apollinaire

MAX JACOB
A Life in Art and Letters
By Rosanna Warren

“Fame is a fickle food,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “Upon a shifting plate.” Max Jacob would know. A marginal figure three times over — gay, ethnically Jewish and hailing from the provinces — the French writer and painter dined at the same table as the giants of European modernism, including Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Jean Cocteau, André Derain, Modigliani, Marinetti and Picasso. Jacob himself revived the French prose poem. He remains, however, relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. In the 1950s, Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery both tried to cast his work into English but much of it remains untranslated.

“Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters,” by the American poet Rosanna Warren, sets out to restore to Jacob some measure of the literary fame she feels he has been denied. “Max Jacob was not a giant,” she declares, “but he was a larger force in the creation of modern French literature than has been recognized.” To sustain that argument, she painstakingly reconstructs the scene of an entire generation of artists and writers through Jacob’s eyes. The level of detail she marshals is impressive, if sometimes overwhelming in its granularity. Her greater achievement, however, is her portrait of the tension among art, faith and sexuality in the life of a man Gertrude Stein once said had a “poet soul.”

Born in the town of Quimper in Brittany in 1876, Jacob arrived in Montmartre when Symbolism was at its peak, initially intending to study colonial administration and law. He held a series of odd jobs, giving piano lessons and freelancing as an art critic, not to mention more imaginative side hustles. As a cousin observed, Jacob dragged “his gaiters from table to table” and “sang for his supper” by telling fortunes, an early example of his lifelong fascination with the occult. His 1901 encounter with Picasso, who was five years younger and who had arrived in Paris not speaking much French, was a turning point in his life. Jacob would later say, “I met Picasso; he told me I was a poet: It’s the most important revelation of my life except for the revelation of the existence of God.” Jacob presented the young Spaniard with a woodcut by Dürer. Too poor to afford nicer accommodations, the pair spent much of their time at 13 Rue Ravignan, a warren of rickety studios that Jacob affectionately dubbed the Bateau Lavoir, for the way it evoked the floating laundry boats on the Seine.

Jacob struggled to find a sense of belonging in a France whose institutions, moral attitudes and politics consistently excluded him. Although homosexuality had technically not been illegal since before the Napoleonic Code, the police were known to harass gay men in the name of public order. Warren intimates that Jacob sometimes found lovers among the very gendarmes who might arrest him and nursed an erotic fascination with the police. His queerness, she argues, also alienated him from the locker-room talk shared by Picasso and Apollinaire.

As if to make up for that marginal existence, Jacob sought acceptance in the arms of a less expected venue: the Catholic Church. In the fall of 1909, he told his friends that he had received a vision of Christ reflected on his apartment wall and soon after fervently embraced Catholicism. After some wrangling with a priest, he was baptized in 1915. Jacob fictionalized his spiritual vision in two experimental texts, a novel titled “Saint Matorel” as well as the confessional, quasi-diary “Tartufe’s Defense,” a clever riff on Molière’s seemingly pious Tartuffe.

Though overshadowed by his more famous friends, Jacob eventually began to find an audience in France. His 1917 poetry collection, “The Dice Cup” (a nod to Mallarmé’s “A Roll of the Dice”), was warmly received in Parisian literary circles. His prose poems — urbane, funny, hallucinatory, laced with internal rhymes and puns — are meticulously composed to create a sense of surprise and music. In their quotidian immediacy and recital of specific names and locations, some remind you of Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems”: “As I came down the Rue de Rennes, I bit my bread with so much emotion I thought it was my own heart I was tearing open.” Others are more oblique and experimental. Jacob complained bitterly that Surrealists like André Breton were taking credit for poetic methods he had pioneered: “They praise him, and I, in my corner, I become more and more obscure and despised by the youth.” In 1921, fed up with Paris, he became a lay associate at a Benedictine community in St.-Benoît-sur-Loire, where he would live on and off again on a meager income earned from selling gouaches.

There is no reason to think that Jacob’s piety was not genuine, although he was known sometimes to rush from metropolitan temptations and raucous, Champagne-filled parties to early morning Mass. Louis Émié, a young writer Jacob took under his wing, was astounded at how quickly Jacob went from smoking, joking and general “clowning” to “humble devotion in the presence of the cleric.” His worldview remained flexible enough to accommodate his longstanding interest in esoteric and mystical thought, notably astrology and the kabbalah. Warren attributes Jacob’s Catholic envy partly to growing up surrounded by the religious architecture and customs of the Breton countryside but also to the prevailing anti-Semitism of his generation. Although Jacob was mostly apolitical, he came of age at the height of the Dreyfus Affair and witnessed the publication of racist screeds that questioned the patriotism of French Jews. And at times he indulged in self-hating generalizations to defend his own conversion: “The Jews are men of intellect; I need men of heart.”

The church may have met Jacob’s spiritual needs but it did not exactly take care of his heart. Despite his guilt, he nurtured a series of infatuations and crushes, especially on younger men with artistic tendencies, using letters both to flirt and to dispense spiritual and stylistic advice. He revealed to the French anthropologist Michel Leiris that Catholicism furnished him with a “peaceful conscience” and a sense of security: “As long as you don’t sin, you’re saved. If you sin, you go to confession, you’re still saved.” In reality, he did not always feel so secure and spun his relationships with men into heterosexual love poems, a sleight of hand reminiscent of how a doting Proust is thought to have written about his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, by way of his fictional heroine Albertine.

Despite spending nearly half his life as a practicing Catholic and despite being awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1933, Jacob still found himself branded with a yellow star. He spent the Occupation reading, and urging others to read, Kafka, and his poems from this period, which I think are among his best, reveal a darker sarcasm, very different from the playful ebullience of his earlier work. He died in March 1944, of pneumonia, at Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris, days before he was scheduled to be sent to Auschwitz. Picasso, asked to sign an appeal to the German Embassy after Jacob was arrested, declined, no doubt afraid for his own skin, saying: “Max is an angel. He can fly over the wall by himself.”

Over the course of “Max Jacob,” Warren wears many hats — translator, critic, chronicler — to resuscitate a richly contradictory figure and to give him a seat at the table. But in subtler ways, Jacob already lives on. On the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in the David Geffen Wing, hangs Picasso’s Cubist masterpiece, “The Three Musicians.” A white Pierrot clown with a clarinet, a Harlequin playing a guitar and a monk singing hold court in an energetic composition of cutout boxes and sharp angles. Here you can still find Jacob — verbal acrobat, lover of men and ether, a pious magus — next to his old friends, Picasso and Apollinaire. Here he is in his habit, singing to the New World, sheet music in hand.

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