As if to make up for that marginal existence, Jacob sought acceptance in the arms of a less expected venue: the Catholic Church. In the fall of 1909, he told his friends that he had received a vision of Christ reflected on his apartment wall and soon after fervently embraced Catholicism. After some wrangling with a priest, he was baptized in 1915. Jacob fictionalized his spiritual vision in two experimental texts, a novel titled “Saint Matorel” as well as the confessional, quasi-diary “Tartufe’s Defense,” a clever riff on Molière’s seemingly pious Tartuffe.
Though overshadowed by his more famous friends, Jacob eventually began to find an audience in France. His 1917 poetry collection, “The Dice Cup” (a nod to Mallarmé’s “A Roll of the Dice”), was warmly received in Parisian literary circles. His prose poems — urbane, funny, hallucinatory, laced with internal rhymes and puns — are meticulously composed to create a sense of surprise and music. In their quotidian immediacy and recital of specific names and locations, some remind you of Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems”: “As I came down the Rue de Rennes, I bit my bread with so much emotion I thought it was my own heart I was tearing open.” Others are more oblique and experimental. Jacob complained bitterly that Surrealists like André Breton were taking credit for poetic methods he had pioneered: “They praise him, and I, in my corner, I become more and more obscure and despised by the youth.” In 1921, fed up with Paris, he became a lay associate at a Benedictine community in St.-Benoît-sur-Loire, where he would live on and off again on a meager income earned from selling gouaches.
There is no reason to think that Jacob’s piety was not genuine, although he was known sometimes to rush from metropolitan temptations and raucous, Champagne-filled parties to early morning Mass. Louis Émié, a young writer Jacob took under his wing, was astounded at how quickly Jacob went from smoking, joking and general “clowning” to “humble devotion in the presence of the cleric.” His worldview remained flexible enough to accommodate his longstanding interest in esoteric and mystical thought, notably astrology and the kabbalah. Warren attributes Jacob’s Catholic envy partly to growing up surrounded by the religious architecture and customs of the Breton countryside but also to the prevailing anti-Semitism of his generation. Although Jacob was mostly apolitical, he came of age at the height of the Dreyfus Affair and witnessed the publication of racist screeds that questioned the patriotism of French Jews. And at times he indulged in self-hating generalizations to defend his own conversion: “The Jews are men of intellect; I need men of heart.”
The church may have met Jacob’s spiritual needs but it did not exactly take care of his heart. Despite his guilt, he nurtured a series of infatuations and crushes, especially on younger men with artistic tendencies, using letters both to flirt and to dispense spiritual and stylistic advice. He revealed to the French anthropologist Michel Leiris that Catholicism furnished him with a “peaceful conscience” and a sense of security: “As long as you don’t sin, you’re saved. If you sin, you go to confession, you’re still saved.” In reality, he did not always feel so secure and spun his relationships with men into heterosexual love poems, a sleight of hand reminiscent of how a doting Proust is thought to have written about his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, by way of his fictional heroine Albertine.
Despite spending nearly half his life as a practicing Catholic and despite being awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1933, Jacob still found himself branded with a yellow star. He spent the Occupation reading, and urging others to read, Kafka, and his poems from this period, which I think are among his best, reveal a darker sarcasm, very different from the playful ebullience of his earlier work. He died in March 1944, of pneumonia, at Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris, days before he was scheduled to be sent to Auschwitz. Picasso, asked to sign an appeal to the German Embassy after Jacob was arrested, declined, no doubt afraid for his own skin, saying: “Max is an angel. He can fly over the wall by himself.”