Sunday, October 9, 2016

letting travesty take it into the realms of the absurd - Max Jacob taps into the police fund

Max Jacob was one of the great French weirdos of his time, a cubist poet in the sense that he was pals with Cubist painters.  Eventual Cubist painters, since Jacob somehow knew everyone – Picasso and so on – before they were famous.  He was a painter of some interest himself, but the paintings I feature here are portraits by Amedeo Modigliani, both from 1916, just before the publication of Le cornet à dés (1917), or The Dice Cup, all prose poems, whatever those are.  Those are these.

So, I stifled sobs of humiliation and wrote this page, letting travesty take it into the realms of the absurd.  (from “In Hill Country,” 67)

That is pretty close to a description of the work.

I read the translation by Christopher Pilling and David Kennedy (Atlas Press, 2000), which is just the first part of The Dice Cup.  They clearly had great fun.

The violator, vile rapist, took the rap: elated, the violated lady is in raptures! (from “The Pitiless Laugh of the Boa Constrictor,” 61)

“Pathetic!” my mother cut in, “this boy’s got a pathetic predisposition to parasitism, that’s to say paralysis.” (from “Paralysis-Parasitism,” 43)

Was the child scarred for life?  I don’t know, but he bellowed biblically enough when the cutlet was cut.  (from “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” 66)

These are all last lines of paragraphs that are not written this way, so they are almost like the punchlines of shaggy dog stories, except that there is no story. Or usually not.  “Adventure Story” is coherent:

So it’s true!  Here I am like Philoctetes!  abandoned by the boat on an unknown rock, because my foot hurts.  My misfortune is that my trousers were ripped off by the sea!  Having made enquiries, where else should I be but on the shores of modest England.  “I won’t be long finding a policeman!” and that’s just what happened: a policeman appeared, and one who spoke French: “You won’t recognize me,” he said in that language, “I’m the husband of your English maid!”  There was a reason why I didn’t recognize him: it’s because I’ve never had an English maid.  He led me to the neighboring town, hiding my nakedness with foliage as well as he could and, once there, found me a tailor.  And, as I wanted to pay: “No need,” he told me, “secret police funds” or “fun,” I didn’t quite catch the word.  (61)

I love that ending.  The other extreme, though, is more like a French Tender Buttons, where I have no idea how Jacob moves from sentence to sentence, or from word to word.

I hereby declare that I am world-wide, oviparous, a giraffe, parched, sinophobic and hemispherical.  I quench my thirst at the well-springs of the atmosphere which laughs concentrically and farts at my uncertainty.  (from “The Cock and the Pearl,” 28)

The first poem begins by asking “Doesn’t lightning have the same shape all over the world?” and ends with the poet “under police surveillance” (“1914,” 17).  The logic of the move from beginning to end is unclear, but the mood – the war, the threat – is clear.  Nonsense pierced with original images, wordplay that means nothing until suddenly it does, randomness as a principle of art, at least.

I will have to read more Max Jacob.


  1. When I visit your postings, I always learn something, but I always have plenty of questions. Here is today's question, which is a variation on a previously asked question: What leads you to some of these obscure writers? I ask because I'm so often surprised by your postings about writers whose names and works mean nothing to me. I thought I was decently educated. Then I read one of your postings. And then I begin wondering about everything. In this case, I ask the question because I am sincerely interested.

  2. In the context of early 20th century French poetry and art, Jacob is not obscure. Maybe not quite a major poet, but a name that shows up frequently when I read about the art and poetry if the period. The Dadaists loved him, no surprise from these excerpts.

    Jacob also has the sad fame of a sad death. He was a Jewish convert to Catholicism - at the point he wrote The Dice Cup he was Catholic - but the Gestapo did not care.

    So, I guess the answer is that my interest in French poetry and art led me to Jacob.