Companions of the Road: A curated account.
By RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN.
IN THE SUMMER of 1935, Edmond Jabès and his wife Arlette travel to Paris on their honeymoon. They spend two months in the capital, staying at the Hotel Gallia, an elegant establishment in the 8th arrondissement near the Champs-Élysées. There is a certain symmetry in choosing France as their post-wedding destination since it was on a sea voyage from France to Egypt that they had first met, six years earlier.
Honeymooning is not their only concern in Paris. The year before, the discovery of the great French poet Max Jacob had thrust Edmond from juvenile romanticism into the realm of modern twentieth-century poetry. Jacob had acceded to Edmond’s request that he provide a brief introduction to Les Pieds en l’air, Edmond’s third poetry collection, published in Cairo in an edition of 373 copies. “My dear poet,” Jacob’s tribute began, “I am deeply touched by your affective words and I read your manuscript with emotion. I am thoroughly persuaded that you will go very far on the road of Art and wish you all possible success and happiness. A warm embrace, dear poet, Max Jacob.”
As soon as he can after his and Arlette’s arrival in Paris Edmond goes to see Jacob, who is living with a friend in a seventh-floor, two-room apartment in Montparnasse. Edmond brings with him the 150-page poetry manuscript he has been working on for the past two years. The older poet, whose bald head and big deep-set eyes have graced multiple portraits by Picasso, receives the younger one warmly, enquiring about his new wife, whom he looks forward to meeting, expressing curiosity about Edmond’s life in Cairo. Leafing through the manuscript, Jacob, a monocle in his right eye, reads a few of the poems, singling out a phrase here and there for praise.
“Leave it with me and come back tomorrow morning when I have had a chance to read it more closely,” he says in an attitude of seeming generosity to the young writer.
The next day, Edmond returns to 17 rue Saint Romain, to the man dressed in a vivid red dressing gown surrounded by a tapestry of gouaches, posters, books and astrological charts. He wonders if this is what the rooms looked like where Jacob had lived when he and Picasso and Apollinaire were turning the world of art and poetry upside-down thirty years ago.
“Maître,” says the 23-year-old Egyptian poet in greeting upon entering the apartment.
“Don’t call me that. Call me ‘friend.’ Call me ‘Max Jacob,’” replies the 59-year-old French poet and warns him of what is about to come. But first, Jacob asks again about Arlette. He wants to know her date of birth (he already has Edmond’s) in order to make a double astrological chart for them. Drawing on astrology and other arcane bodies of knowledge, Max has developed an elaborate system for classifying people by personality type, identifying some 36 different categories. For him astrology is far more than a hobby or diversion. Once he has noted Arlette’s data, he gets down to the other business at hand.
“I have read your manuscript carefully,” he announces. “Unlike dear Apollinaire, I don’t judge a poem by its first line!”
Edmond watches Max expectantly, hoping that his greatest desire will be satisfied, that Max Jacob will proclaim him a genius, a great poet, his rightful heir. For all his naïvete, he knows this is probably not what will happen, that life rarely delivers all of one’s wishes. It is enough, he tells himself, that he is here, in Paris, with Max Jacob, that Jacob has apparently read his manuscript. Maybe it’s not the greatest poem in the history of French literature, but there are some well-done passages, certainly, some clever puns, smart allusions, startling metaphors. He was thinking about Max while writing nearly every page, imagining how happy he would be to see his protégé developing so quickly. No doubt, Max would suggest a publisher for him — maybe he wouldn’t even have to ask. He dares a slight smile.
“There is much that I have to say to you,” Jacob continues. “I don’t want your book to get in the way, so I propose that I tear it up and throw it away.”
Edmond quickly recalibrates his expression, and his entire understanding of existence. The shock is great, but he has boundless faith in Max, in his judgment. He has no alternative but to accept the destruction, the immediate destruction, of his oeuvre.
A minute or two later, the torn-up manuscript is in a wastebasket and a lesson on the art of poetry has commenced.
“A poem is a piece of clockwork, passion is not the goal, it is a means! The more passion is contained, the more it animates the poem,” Jacob explains.
Edmond thinks about the effusive, romantic lines he has been so proud of writing and resolves to produce no more of them.
“A dog that scratches on a welcome mat doesn’t create a painting with the dust he raises. Disorder only signifies disorder,” says the older poet.
Maybe the Surrealism that pervaded the studios of the Maison des Artistes, those crazy séances of Art et Liberté, weren’t what he really needed, Edmond thinks.
“Study Apollinaire, our only great poet, on the subject of vowels, consonants and diphthongs,” advises the bald poet.
Words with weight like stones, not scattering in the winds of Futurist libertà. Could he achieve that?
“You won’t be a young man full of imagination and vitality all of your life. Be difficult with yourself.”
Edmond felt his first skin, the skin of the precocious prodigy, slipping away.
“What my friends and I wanted was a harmony, a new harmony,” said Max, almost in a whisper, sharing a secret from the days when he, Reverdy, Salmon and Apollinaire were inventing modern poetry. “Be deep and not bizarre.”
Yes, this was what he wanted as well, already recoiling from the extremes of avant-garde irrationality. He noticed how deep the lines were on Max’s forehead, and around his big eyes.
“The best words are the concrete ones: table, chair, knife. Alas, there isn’t a single one in your 150 pages. Work with objects on your desk: a T square, old keys, tools.”
Ouch. How could he have been so blind? Should he take the side of things? Maybe. If not old keys and tools, perhaps some stones.
“Have something to say, that is, a new image, a rhythm, a poetic idea, etc. Every poem should have ‘something to say’ otherwise it’s just another page filled with words!”
He had written plenty of those pages filled with words, thinking he was doing just like Max.
“We are in a time of great artistic change and I believe that one can’t continue with exasperation, brilliance and the irrational association of ideas and images,” said Max, his voice rising.
In other words, the 1920s were far away and the heyday of Marinetti and of Breton was over. He should have known this on his own.
“The only good literature is the literature that is not literature, except by its excellence of style, images, etc.”
He wasn’t sure, yet, what this meant: “literature that is not literature.” He still needed his poems to look like poems. Maybe one day he could dare something different, a work of “not literature.”
Seeing that his listener is at his limit, that his mind is brimming over, that he may even be near to tears, Max abruptly concludes: “Advice is useless. I have my aesthetic. You have yours.”
Not casting even a glance at the torn pages in the wastebasket, Edmond staggers out of Max’s apartment, overwhelmed at the intensity of the lesson, at the magnitude of the task before him.
“What happened?” Arlette asks when she sees him back at the Gallia. “How did it go? What did he say?”
He recounts the meeting to his wife, the torn-up manuscript, the fusillade of advice.
“Are you upset, chérie, sad?”
“Not at all, my love. Max gave me the most wonderful gift.”
THE DISCARDED MANUSCIPT is never seen again and Edmond realizes that he has barely begun to be a poet. Throughout their stay in Paris, he and Arlette spend as much time as possible with Max. One day, as a gesture of affection, they send him some flowers. When they pay a visit the next morning, he politely explains, “Did you know that hydrangeas bring me bad luck? Please, don’t send me any more.”
But maybe it’s not the type of flower that is the problem, maybe it’s that Max doesn’t like receiving gifts. On another occasion, after he has returned to Egypt, Edmond sends Max a cigarette holder made of amber. “Yes, we like each other, but don’t give me any presents,” Max replies in a letter, “I beg you. I beseech you to not give me presents. Your heart is enough, and I wish to live frugally.”
When Edmond writes enthusiastically to Max about Cairo’s artistic avant-garde, Max advises him to not become distracted by the Montparnasse-like scene in Cairo, nor by Montparnasse itself. “There is no Egypt, there is no Paris. There is ‘you’ [vous] who is a bit more than a hope and even more than a bit (to develop).”
In June 1936, having left Paris for the town of Saint Benoît-sur-Loire some 100 miles to the south, Max replies testily to Edmond who has asked him for help in publishing his poetry. “You cruelly offend me [the words “cruelly offend” are underlined three times] in taking me for a bureau of recommendations. I am a searcher like you. You only remember me when you need me. O naked cynicism!! ‘The others’ have gotten me used to the most adroit hearts. And I thought you more refined. Disappointment!”
Edmond’s genuine admiration for Max, indeed, his love for him, is intertwined with his literary ambition and deep need to establish connections with the Parisian literary world. Fate may have landed him in Cairo, but that needn’t prevent him from becoming an important French writer. Like any young man from the provinces, he wants to conquer the capital, all the more so because he is so far away. Yet he knows that his destiny will be lived out in Egypt not in France; all of his life and family and history is in Egypt, from the ancient synagogue that is his family’s responsibility to the circles of writers and artists he frequents to the desert into which he loves to slip away when he can no longer tolerate the strictures of upper-class Cairene society, the stuffy milieu of haute juiverie.
The attraction of Saint-Benoît for Max is its abbey, where he can live in the parish house and pursue his ardent Catholicism. Christ had appeared to him in 1909 on the wall of his room at the Bateau-Lavoir, then again in 1914, when the Savior emerged on a movie screen at the Cinema Pathé in Montmartre. He was baptized in 1915, during the war. Picasso, who had warned him to stay away from men and to give up art for poetry, agreed to be his godfather. Max first went to live in Saint-Benoît in 1921, but Paris continually pulled him back, as his desire for young boys and his taste for drugs snatched him away from the new life he envisioned for himself as a mystical, ascetic poet withdrawn forever from the world. The year of his departure, Picasso, who had painted and drawn him so often before, portrayed him as a singing monk in Three Musicians.
One morning, Max surprises Edmond and Arlette at their hotel. Previously, Edmond has told Max of his failure to find a single copy of Cornet à Des, Max’s famous collection of prose poems, in any Paris bookstore. He also explains that the book was never distributed in Egypt.
“Come with me,” Max says, making his way to the hotel’s public telephone. He puts a call through the bookstore of his main publisher Gallimard/NRF. Adopting a heavy foreign accent, he begins berating the employee who answers.
“How is it that you French don’t appreciate your most important living poet! Do you know who is responsible for this state of things? Do you? No? Well, I will tell you: the directors of Gallimard/NRF! They should be ashamed of themselves. What, you don’t know who I am talking about? You don’t know who is the greatest poet of our time?”
Silence at the other end of the line.
“Max Jacob, of course! All of his out-of-print books must be reprinted as soon as possible. What are you waiting for? And as for those still in print, Gallimard must do a better job of distributing those, especially outside of France. Lovers of poetry throughout the world are starving. Do you have any idea how many French-speaking readers there are in Egypt? I am Egyptian, sir, and it does no honor to the greatest French publisher to forget the greatest French poet.”
He ends the phone call by ascertaining that the bookstore has, apparently hidden away, a copy of the limited edition of Cornet à Des, which he reserves. Edmond picks it up an hour later.
“You look a lot like the painter Juan Gris,” Max one day tells Edmond. “Since I am an astrologer, I predict for April 16, your date of birth, a great good fortune and powerful protection. Your birthday puts you with Moréas, Baudelaire, Tristan Tzara, Verlaine, Leon Dierx, Saint Teresa of Avila, Rostand, Gambetta, Goya, Léon Blum, Laurent Tailhade, Flandrin, Hitler and Aloysius Bertrand. You have the ability to be precise, you are a verbal spirit with an aptitude for science, languages, climbing mountains, exploration, debating, litigating, fighting. You are made for simple and comfortable luxury, a nature enthusiast, cunning and stoic, excellent friend, terrible enemy, much loved by your gang, much admired and feared.”
ON ANOTHER OCCASION during the 1935 visit Edmond and Max are walking together around the Left Bank. In his hands Max holds the first volume of his 1923 book Le Terrain Bouchaballe, of which Edmond has just acquired a copy. Max reads as he walks, periodically stopping to exclaim “Oh! How well I wrote then.” He had started the book in 1903. It took him decades to finish. There are actually two books with the same name, one a novel, the other a play, both set in Quimper. The scene of the action is the Theatre Couchouren and its gardens; the subject of the book is a scandal surrounding the theater’s construction circa 1900.
It’s in these same gardens of the Theatre Couchouren that in December 1942 Max’s older brother Gaston will be arrested by the Gestapo. Deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on February 11, 1943, Gaston dies in the gas chambers shortly after his arrival. The same fate befalls Max’s three other brothers and one of his two sisters; his other sister, Delphine, died, it is said, of despair at these losses. Seventy-four years later, in July of 2017, the municipality of Quimper decides to hold its annual commemoration of the roundup of the Vel d’Hiver in the theater gardens rather than the nearby Place Saint-Mathieu. At the request of former combatants and Quimper’s Jewish community a small plaque is installed in the garden dedicated to the memory “the victims of racist and anti-Semitic crimes of the French state and in homage to the ‘Just’ of France who rescued protected and defended, at the risk of their own life and without any compensation people threatened by genocide 1940-1944.”
On May 10, 1943, Max’s name is added to the list of Jewish writers whose books are to be withdrawn from sale. The only surprising thing about this is that he wasn’t on any of the previous lists, but as early as 1940 he had already been informed that, as a Jew, he no longer had any authorial rights, and would receive no royalties. His 30 years as a Catholic are of no significance.
One person’s last memory of Max Jacob is of seeing the poet walking along the banks of the Odet River on his way to pray at the Quimper Cathedral, dressed in a black overcoat and a black hat, sporting the yellow star embroidered with the word “Juif” he was obliged to wear, crying desperately for his sister who had already been interned by the Germans.
When Max dies, March 24, 1944, the collaborationist newspaper Je suis partout publishes the following obituary:
Max Jacob is dead. Jew by race, Breton by birth, Catholic by religion, sodomite by his morals, this personage embodied the most characteristic Parisian figure imaginable, the Paris of rot and decadence whose most publicized disciple, Jean Cocteau, remains the equally symbolic example. Because, alas, after Jacob they didn’t pull up the ladder.”
In 1945, an edition of Max’s letters to Edmond is published in Alexandria, in an edition of 300 copies. Today the letters themselves are in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France as part of the collection of Jabès correspondence donated to the BNF in 2013 (101 years after his birth) by his daughters Viviane Jabès-Crasson et Nimet Frascaria-Jabès.
Only one of Edmond’s letters to Max is known to have survived. In it, Edmond mentions a photograph of Max, given to him by the poet. To the end of his life, Edmond keeps this photograph on his writing table.
Like Walter Benjamin’s last manuscript that went missing when he died in Port Bou, or the 20,000 volumes looted from the Grand Synagogue of Rome, or Bruno Schulz’s The Messiah or the long poems Saint-John Perse lost when the Gestapo looted his Paris apartment in 1940, the letters Edmond wrote to Max vanished in the long night of the Second World War. But it’s never entirely impossible that any or all of these documents might one day reappear. Such is the elusive nature of writing. The same isn’t true of the buildings in which writers live. Once they are gone, they are gone. Definitive destruction.
The Hotel Gallia no longer exists. The Artistic-Cinéma Pathé no longer exists. The Bateau Lavoir no longer exists. The apartment building at 17 Rue Saint Romain still stands, as do the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Benoît and the Quimper Cathedral, as do the Librarie Gallimard and the Theatre Couchouren, which today bears the name Theatre Max Jacob. In 1959 a fire destroyed part of the Vel d’Hiver and the rest of the structure had to be demolished. What remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau is the subject of careful preservation.
Max’s last letter to Edmond, on May 1, 1939, reads: “My very dear Edmond, I am outside of the world. I can do no more than submit to martyrdom. I wrote a book on the Holy Scriptures where I clarify the biblical role of the Jews. This book will be published by NRF. That is my role and my duty. I don’t know any other. I thank you for not condemning me and I am your friend.”
Jacob dies on March 5, 1944, of pneumonia, at Drancy, five days after being arrested by the Gestapo, 30 hours before his scheduled transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A letter to him that Edmond sends via the Vatican is returned a month or two later marked “deceased.”
Toward the end of his own life, Edmond writes of himself and Max: “We were brothers of origin, companions of the road, and of life and death.”
Raphael Rubinstein is a New York-based writer and art critic whose previous books include The Miraculous (Paper Monument/N+1 Books, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). Since 2007, he has been Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art. His previous essay for The Fortnightly, “Castaways in Cairo”, is taken from his work-in-progress Libraries of Sand, a biography-novel-bibliomemoir inspired by the life and work of Egyptian-French writer Edmond Jabès (1912-1991). This anecdotal account is based on letters between Jacob and Jabès, and on Edmond’s accounts of their encounters; Edmond’s thoughts, of course, are conjectural, as is his brief exchange with Arlette.