“Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters”
W.W. Norton & Co.
The European Jewish artists, writers and thinkers of Max Jacob’s generation tended to kill their fathers, some with greater enthusiasm than others.
Intense social, professional and political pressures, from Jews as well as non-Jews, induced those whose fathers had been rabbis and professionals to renounce the world that each had created; the first as stultifyingly provincial, the second as rapaciously acquisitive. Their new religion, in many cases, became the literary and artistic canon of the country in which they happened to live.
In Jacob’s case, this was France.
He arrived in Paris in 1894, just a few months before the Dreyfus affair, as a devotee of France’s liberal and literary tradition. By 1900, he was an employee of a particularly vicious anti-Semitic newspaper. In 1915, Jacob, openly gay, converted to Catholicism, and would spend a few years shuttling between Paris and a monastery. In 1944, he died a Jew in Drancy, an internment camp in the suburbs of Paris.
The story of Max Jacob, groundbreaking poet of “The Dice Cup,” friend of Picasso and many other artistic luminaries of his age, has been set down by Rosanna Warren, a poet and literary critic whose long-nursed love for the work of Jacob led her to take her first crack at a biography.
What Warren has produced is most certainly a poet’s biography of a poet — chronologically jumpy, and a little lighter on details than you might like, but illuminatingly perceptive as a reading of the subject’s life and work. Jacob, a long-dead figure whose relative obscurity and complexity could’ve made for a ponderous trudge, is instead brought alive by Warren’s hand in “Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters.”
Part of what makes a biography of Jacob such a difficult proposition is that, as Warren notes, he was an inveterate fabulist when it came to the details of his own life. His journal entries contradict reality and, sometimes, each other. But the falsehoods and misremembrances that Warren piles up help create a portrait by omission, whereby what Jacob was becomes more clear as you see what he was not, or could not, be.
Why did the comfortable Jewish boy from Quimper claim a saintly Christian grandmother from Avignon, and five years honorably served in the navy? Why did Jacob, a close friend of Picasso’s, seek to exaggerate the artistic influence of his former roommate?
He writes and he writes, for newspapers, for children, for magazines, for poetry journals. His books, most notably “The Dice Cup,” make waves. He does more than rub shoulders with the likes of Picasso, Cocteau, Chagall, Apollinaire and Modigliani. He is a close friend and even a subject of their work. If you happen to mosey into Gallery 267 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art any time soon, you can see him represented in a Picasso as a monk.
Warren states early on that she sought to keep Jacob from being trampled by all these giants in the accounting of his own life, and she succeeds at this. He appears not as Gump or Zelig, but like a more obscure Zweig, another committed Europeanist and friend of giants who did what he could to annihilate his Judaism, until it contributed to his own annihilation.
“The Jews are men of intellect; I need men of heart,” said Jacob, the intellectual, echoing the desire of many of his coreligionist intellectuals of the era. I wanted to grab this beautiful poet by the shoulders and tell him that he’ll be wearing a yellow star soon, regardless.
“The mystery is in this life, the reality in the other,” Jacob wrote in “The Dice Cup.” “If you love me, if you love me, I will show you the reality.” JN
Jesse Bernstein is a staff writer for Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated paper.