Jacob, Max

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JACOB, MAX (1876–1944), French poet and novelist. Born in Quimper, Brittany, Jacob was the son of a tailor and descended from German Jews who immigrated to France in 1816. After an unhappy childhood, he made the first of three suicide attempts at the age of 17. For several years, he worked in a variety of occupations, including carpentry, as a lawyer's clerk, commerce, and even astrology. A gifted linguist and draftsman, Jacob eventually became an art critic in Paris, where he joined the circle of Apollinaire, Picasso, and André Salmon, centered in the Left Bank cabaret Le Lapin agile. At this time he evolved his basic aesthetic principles: the establishment of a "new harmony" to free men from everything which prevented them from seeing the true colors of reality (cf. his children's tales Le Roi Kaboul et le Marmiton Gauvin and Le Géant du soleil, 1904). Taking up arms against convention and prejudice, Jacob made irony his favorite device, thus providing himself with "distance" from the object and with the "patience and submission" indispensable to creativity. In 1909 he had his first vision of Jesus and wrote the mystère entitled Saint Matorel (1911) and La Côte, poems which later appeared in Breton. A melancholy anti-romantic, Jacob became known for his mordant humor and "surrealistic" speech: lake became suburb, valley changed to movie theater, Ibsen became Rimbaud, and Byron, Freud. The poet's yearning for love and his suffering and disillusionment combined with a second vision led to his conversion to Catholicism in 1915. The spiritual comfort which this brought him inspired a series of works characterized by a mingling of sarcasm and lyricism: Les Oeuvres burlesques et mystiques du frère Matorel… (1912); Le Cornet à dés (1917); Le Phanérogame (1918), a novel; La Défense de Tartuffe, subtitled Extase, remords, visions, prières, poèmes et méditations d'un Juif converti (1919); and Le Laboratoire central (1921). After 1921, Jacob retired to the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, where he wrote Le Cabinet noir (1922), a novel, Le Terrain Bouchaballe (1923), the mystical Visions infernales (1924), and L'Homme de chair et l'homme reflet (1925). During the years 1928–36, he achieved some standing as a painter in Paris, then retired once more to Saint-Beno-ît, where he wrote a book of prose poems, Ballades (1938). After the Nazi occupation in 1940, Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo and died in the Drancy concentration camp. Some books of verse and two volumes of correspondence appeared posthumously after World War ii.


A. Billy, Max Jacob (Fr., 1946); J. Rousselot, Max Jacob au sérieux (1958); M. Raymond, De Baudelaire au Surréalisme (1933), 253–62; J. Mesnil, in: E.J. Finbert (ed.), Aspects du Génie d' Israël (1950), 300–6; C. Lehrmann, L'Elément juif dans la littérature française, 2 (1961), 142–3.

[Max Bilen]