Max Jacob was born in 1876 to a business-owning Jewish family in Quimper, an administrative center of Brittany. He died in 1944 in a Paris internment camp. Today Jacob, a talented painter and brilliant poet, is perhaps best known as Pablo Picasso’s first and best French friend. When they met in 1901, Jacob wrote,“We clasped hands with that fire of friendship one no longer experiences after one’s twentieth year.” The two lived together for a time in Paris, pushing formal boundaries on the canvas (Picasso’s Cubism) and on the page (Jacob’s fractured, visionary prose poems). In 1909, Jacob had a vision of Christ, which led to his conversion to Catholicism (in subsequent years, he attended daily Mass and spent years living at a Benedictine monastery). He wrote about this vision for the rest of his life.
As the poet Rosanna Warren argues in her new book, Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters, Jacob’s art emerged from a series of fundamental tensions. He was Jewish and Catholic; he was a painter and a poet; he was a social creature who lived, for long stretches, in retreat from the social world; he was a gay man who saw his desire as both a torment and a mystical route to God. This multiplicity makes itself felt in the very texture of Jacob’s writing. In his prose poems, Warren has written,“meaning leaps from unit to unit; meaning is the leaping itself, the motion.” Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters shows us this leaping motion, this vital energy that is a matter of style and soul.
This interview was conducted via email.
ANTHONY DOMESTICO: In your preface, you claim, “I didn’t mean to write this book. To my French friends, I call it une biographie involontaire. It was a case of possession.” How did Jacob come to possess you?
ROSANNA WARREN: It was a spectral experience. I’d been writing since childhood: when I was seven, my father gave me an old typewriter and I taught myself to type. I created a family newspaper, the Family Racket, for which I interviewed the cat, the dog, and the rabbit, as well as my parents and my brother. I also wrote innumerable stories. One, novella-length, was published by Random House when I was ten. We lived in France the year I was twelve, and attending the lycée, I had to memorize hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lines of poetry in French, and I began writing poems in French. Throughout my adolescence, I kept writing poems, mostly in English. But I kept them private. I’d also been drawing and painting since childhood, and the discipline to which I consciously committed myself was painting. I was majoring in studio art in college, and attended serious art schools during the summers—Skowhegan, where I met my inspiring teacher, the painter Leland Bell, and the New York Studio School. It was during the New York Studio School summer program in Paris that Leland asked me to translate the studio notes of André Derain, notes which had been hidden, till then, in an old suitcase in the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet.
I spent my mornings at the studio drawing and painting, and my afternoons at the august library, translating Derain’s wine- and paint-stained pages. And among those papers I found letters from Max Jacob, because Derain had created woodcuts for one of Jacob’s earliest books, the marvelous collection of experimental poems, Les Oeuvres Burlesques et Mystiques de Frère Matorel Mort au Couvent, from 1912. I was fascinated. Jacob, like me, both wrote and painted. Like me, he was searching for the sacred. One weekend I drove down to the village of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, where Jacob had spent two seven-year periods of retreat in connection with the Benedictine monastery. I meant to draw the Romanesque capitals of the basilica, but in the little bookshop I found books by Max Jacob and was enraptured by his poems. In my sketchbook, as if a ghostly hand had seized mine, I found myself writing poems (in English) in his style, to him, about him. He kidnapped me. When I got back to college in the fall, I typed up the poems and showed them to my dean, who was also the editor of the Yale Review. “These are good,” he said, rather severely. The next thing I knew, they appeared in print, and I was encouraged to send poems to other journals, and bit by bit, my writing was no longer secret. It took several years after my graduation from university, but I found I was spending more time writing than painting, and with grief—as in recognizing a failing love affair—I came to recognize that I would not be a painter. Max Jacob had reoriented me.