“My life is a tango, my heart a Grand Guignol,” declared Max Jacob in his poem “Romantic Allusions to Mardi-Gras.” He could have listed many other such contradictions. Born in Brittany in 1876 to a secular Jewish shopkeeping family, Jacob was a convert to Roman Catholicism, a gay man who feared he would go to hell for his loves, a bohemian who spent 14 years as a lay associate of a Benedictine monastery, a provincial who hobnobbed with the Parisian elite. Picasso’s first French friend and guide to French life, Jacob helped to revolutionize the art of poetry as Picasso was reinventing painting. And although Jacob is known primarily as a writer—the author of Le Cornet à dés (The Dice Cup), a collection of radical prose poems from 1917, the equally inventive verse poems of Le Laboratoire central (The Central Laboratory) in 1921, and the experimental fiction of Cinématoma in 1920—he painted for most of his life, and it was his art that paid the bills.
Two huge facts color any account of Jacob’s life. One is the intense friendship with Picasso, which lasted, with ups and downs, from their meeting in 1901 until Jacob’s death on March 5, 1944, in the Nazi transit camp of Drancy. The circumstances of that death constitute the second massive fact. Jacob died as a Jewish victim of the Nazis and the Vichy collaboration, spared the trip to Auschwitz only by the pneumonia that carried him off two days before his scheduled transport. But he didn’t live as a victim. His life, in its whimsy and passion, mysticism and worldliness, deserves to be seen in its own light.
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