Jeffrey Meyers

Sad Clown, Depraved Saint

Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters,
Rosanna Warren, Norton, 712pp, 2020, £32.40 (hardback)

Before the Great War a brilliant group of Jewish artists were drawn to Paris. Amedeo Modigliani (called Modi) was born in Italy; Moise Kisling, Jules Pascin, Jacques Lipschitz, Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and Sonia Delaunay came from Eastern Europe. The Jewish painter and poet Max Jacob (1876-1944), born in Quimper, Brittany, was the only Frenchman connected to this group.

Rosanna Warren falsely claims that Jacob and Modi were ‘never close friends,’ and that Jacob actually disliked him. Both young men were talented, unrecognised, desperately poor yet generous. Jacob admired Modi’s excellent French and extraordinary understanding of French poetry. He encouraged him to take drugs for inspiration and to write his own poetry. He said Modi’s ‘laugh was lively, clear and quick. His face and body were beautiful and very dark. He had the bearing of a gentleman in rags and longed for crystalline purity. His life of simple grandeur was lived by an aristocrat, and we loved him.’ Modi painted three portraits of Max, who was short and bald, with large dark eyes and pudgy cheeks. He portrayed him with great dignity, and gave him a ruddy complexion, an aquiline blade of a nose, a sly evasive expression and a charming, dandified air.

Warren also fails to discuss Jacob’s important friendship, in Quimper in the early 1930s, with Jean Moulin, the future Resistance hero who took the code name of ‘Max’ Moulin. A government official in a nearby town, he called Jacob a rake and repentant sinner but an impressive creative spirit and patron of the arts.

Jacob’s character is more interesting than his art. The art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler said that Jacob’s strange, piercing, ‘admirable eyes, with their extraordinarily tender quality, seemed to contain all the sadness of Israel.’ Jacob dressed as a bohemian with a peaked cap, fashionable jacket, red socks and monocle. To amuse his companions he would roll up his trousers, expose his hairy legs and do an animated dance, accompanied by an absurd song and a mean-spirited remark. But he acted the clown with the eyes of a man in despair.

He carried his poems and paintings to hawk in cafes, earned a few francs by composing horoscopes and was suffused with self-pity. When impoverished he was reduced to the family trade of tailoring and wore trousers too tattered to pawn. His shabby rooms were crammed with bric-a-brac and magic amulets, and smelled of paraffin, incense and the ether he loved to infuse. He wanted to please, to display his talents, to pretend to be respectable and to endure the grind of sordid pleasure. The visionary, artist, lover, sinner, and hypocrite confessed his inner conflicts: ‘I don’t agree with myself: I struggle against myself, against my heart, against everything.’ Despite his obvious faults, he was a kind and lovable man.

A tormented homosexual, Jacob was unable to find a steady lover and was sometimes arrested by the police for cruising. He composed poems of romantic longing: ‘I did not yet know the clear sky of your eyes / the snowy kingdom of your limbs in summer / nor the perfumed hell in your thick hair,’ and rushed to give men the ‘kiss of peace’ before they could leap out of his grasp. He believed from painful experience that sex makes people mean, and seemed to enjoy being tormented by men who brought more anguish than pleasure. In addition to poverty and misery he was, as passenger and pedestrian, crippled in three car crashes.

Few American readers are familiar with Jacob’s poetry. But Warren, inflating his achievement to justify her book, calls him a ‘ground-breaking’ poet and ‘modern master’ who ‘helped reinvent French poetry.’ She also concedes that his verse is a clumsy mish-mash of flotsam and jetsam, clichés and slang, pastiche and clowning. She offers full-page analyses of a few feeble lines, and reveals an unfortunate contradiction between her fulsome praise and his playful and rather foolish poems. She solemnly states, ‘his prodigal emotions crystallise momentarily around one homely object’ and ‘the frolic of syllables fractures logic, releasing new vision,’ then admires execrable lines such as: ‘Marie Guiziou! Marie Guiziou! My life is like the heath and you are for me like the Eckmühl Lighthouse.’

Warren’s intelligent and thoroughly researched book is perceptive about the effects of World War I, Jacob’s conversion, the virulent anti-Semitism in France and the German Occupation in World War II. But her mechanical month-by-month account contains many trivial details and tedious lists of obscure people, mentions every frequent change of address and every trip back to Quimper. The book could comfortably be cut in half.

Jacob earned more from his gouaches than from his poems. Warren describes his Breton scenes and views of Parisian streets as crudely concocted with ‘coffee stains and dust as much as with pigment.’ He needed distraction and painted ‘while listening to his friends’ jokes and launching his own, all the time licking his brush, dabbing spit across the paper to lighten the colour, thickening the shadow here and there with cigarette ash, and stepping back to adjust his monocle and consider the effect.’

Picasso was the great emotional attachment of his life. When Picasso arrived in Paris in 1901 Jacob was the first writer to meet him. He taught the Spaniard the French language and introduced him to French culture. He recognised Picasso’s genius when he was selling drawings for ten sous, encouraged him during his long years of poverty, and shared a room with him in the decrepit Bateau Lavoir, ‘an icebox in winter, a steam bath in summer.’ Picasso painted Jacob in a monk’s robe and stringy Arab-African beard in Three Musicians (1921). Picasso’s spectacular fame and bourgeois marriage to a possessive and snobbish Russian ballerina divided the friends. When that marriage broke up and Picasso asked Jacob to live with him, he was unwilling to submit to Picasso’s overwhelming influence.

The greatest event in Jacob’s life occurred in September 1909 when a vision of Christ seemed to turn up on the wall of his room. A second vision appeared incongruously on a movie screen while Jacob watched a thriller in November 1914. His eminent friends—Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau—had good looks, talent, fame, wealth and devoted lovers, but only Jacob was vouchsafed a self-aggrandising vision. His ether-induced hallucination, which Warren takes seriously, was surely more attitude than beatitude. But it gave Jacob a privileged entrée when he converted to Catholicism in 1915. Picasso, his skeptical godfather, jokingly presented him with a copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. Jacob had great difficulty combining his beliefs in magic and mysticism, fetishes and cabbalistic signs, astrology and palmistry, divination and clairvoyance with his new faith.

Jacob sometimes failed to take his religion seriously. To amuse friends he portrayed the Passion of Christ as a music hall routine, exclaimed ‘I adore the pope!’ and thought Lourdes was a tacky town selling religious trinkets. He joked that he’d also seen the Holy Virgin, who looked ‘not so bad, for her age,’ and even admitted that he had ‘tricked God.’ As he wrote in ‘Le laboratoire central,’ ‘You thought you saw an angel, / It was your mirror only.’ Most tragically, Jacob’s inability to resolve the conflict between his religious beliefs and his homosexuality and drug addiction deepened his misery and intensified his sense of sin. Kisling said, ‘He’s turned Catholic, but look how he acts, the swine.’ He moved uneasily from abject confession to his next sordid adventure, but if he really believed in Hell he wouldn’t have risked damnation for sinful sex.

From 1921 to 1928 and from 1936 to 1944 Jacob, to solidify his faith, lived in the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, 25 miles east of Orleans. His holy companions were two priests attached to the parish and the basilica, a site for pilgrims. He slept in a monk’s cell, ate meals at the local hotel and had Sunday dinner with the priests. In 1944 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and the Gestapo came to his room in a private house, but he felt protected by friends in high places and refused to hide or escape. His last grim photo shows a stooped, shabby and self-effacing figure, holding his hat, tilting his head and wearing a yellow star. Even in peril, he surprised visitors by fooling around and telling old jokes.

Jacob’s Jewish identity emerged at the end of his life. He read Heinrich Heine and Franz Kafka, and emphasised that Christ, the Virgin and the Evangelists were Jews. He believed that the Jews ‘invented the religion of suffering’ and urged them ‘to suffer with the grandeur implicit in the high destiny of our people.’ On February 4, 1944 Jacob was arrested. Warren does not explain how the Nazis discovered him (was he betrayed?), why they sought him out, why his Catholic religion failed to protect him and why the monks didn’t hide him. Neither his reputation as a poet and artist, his Legion d’honneur nor his influential friends could save him. He was sent to Drancy, an internment camp six miles northeast of Paris, where Jews were confined before deportation to Auschwitz.

When Picasso was asked to sign a petition to release Jacob, he refused and mercilessly remarked, ‘Max is an angel. He can fly over the wall by himself.’ Warren excuses Picasso by calling this a ‘wisecrack in the cruel lingua franca of the Bateau Lavoir,’ though Jacob’s friends did not find it funny. She also exonerates Picasso by claiming that he was vulnerable and ‘to be deported to Franco’s Spain would have been catastrophic.’ But by remaining in Paris during the German Occupation Picasso became a valuable cultural asset to the Nazis, who would not have sent him to Spain for signing a plea for mercy. Picasso’s motives were fear and self-protection. He believed that Jacob was doomed, and did not want to associate publicly with a Jew and notorious homosexual with whom he’d once shared a room. Ultimately, he cared more about his own reputation than about the life of his old comrade.

Jacob died of pneumonia, at Drancy on March 5, before he could be sent to certain death in the gas chambers of Poland. Five months later the Nazis abandoned the camp before the advancing Allied armies. Willing to sacrifice himself, Jacob died as both Jew and Christian.


Jeffrey Meyers has recently published Robert Lowell in Love and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy.

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