“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.