Engaging with the life of a person you’ve never met can be an odd and disorienting business, and few know this better than biographers. What would push an otherwise sane adult to devote months, years, even decades to ferreting out the minutiae of someone else’s existence? And what is the strange alchemy that sometimes happens, in which the two lives seem to fuse and the writer feels taken over by the subject? Biographers tend to deal with these phenomena in one of two ways: conventionally, by crafting a more or less objective narrative and keeping their anxieties private; or by patently injecting themselves into the subject’s life history—making both the writing of the biography and that uncomfortable sense of fusion part of the story itself.
While this latter approach seems to have acquired a certain postmodern chic, it actually has a long pedigree, going at least as far back as Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, the granddad of exercises in author-subject symbiosis. Among more recent examples, A. J. A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo recounts its author’s failure to track down Frederick Rolfe; Corvo’s heir, In Search of J. D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton, retails the woes of writing about a notoriously reticent and litigious subject; Gertrude Stein’s famously misnomered The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas shows that sometimes an autobiography is a biography is an autobiography; Charles Nicholl’s Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa and Paul Hendrickson’s Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright count the ways in which biographer and biographee can mingle on the page as they never did in life.
Brigitte Benkemoun’s Finding Dora Maar shares much DNA with these precursors, though she chanced upon her subject rather than chose it. Part detective story, part fragmentary group portrait, part personal excavation, Finding Dora Maar details what happened after Benkemoun, a journalist and author, acquired a vintage datebook that still contained the former owner’s address list from 1951—a list that featured the names and phone numbers of, among others, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Balthus, Brassaï, and Leonor Fini. Intrigued by this scrawled roster of avant-garde luminaries, Benkemoun set out to discover who the owner was, soon concluding that the datebook had belonged to the painter, photographer, and legendary Picasso muse Dora Maar.
“At first, only the photographs came to mind,” she writes: “Picasso naked to the waist, Picasso in his striped swimming trunks, Picasso painting Guernica . . . And then, all those paintings he did of her, depicting her as ‘the weeping woman,’ disfigured, devastated by grief” (19). The grief, as anyone familiar with twentieth-century art tattle knows, was largely occasioned by Picasso himself, who infamously mistreated his lovers and who once “defined” women as “machines made for suffering” (140). As Benkemoun immediately noticed, Picasso himself was conspicuously absent from the address book, having by then abandoned Maar for Françoise Gilot. Nonetheless, the painter’s shadow looms large in this story, and there are few (if any) degrees of separation between him, Maar, and the people she still frequented.
Knowing little about Maar, Benkemoun set out to learn as much as she could about her and those in her contacts list; the book mainly consists of mini-portraits of the figures in Maar’s life ca. 1951, adding up to an impressionistic portrait of the woman herself. These figures include, alongside those named above, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, Maar’s childhood friend and Breton’s second wife; the surrealist poet Paul Eluard; the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, who treated Maar for nervous collapse after her break-up with Picasso; arts patron Marie-Laure de Noailles, collector Douglas Cooper, painter Nicolas de Staël, and many lesser lights. Benkemoun’s sketches of them are rendered with almost gossipy verve, aided by her eye for the telling, often deflating, detail. Of the fearsome Lacan, for instance, we learn that he was prone to “noisy belches” (108) and that he once sent the hostess of a dinner party at which he’d held court a bill for six thousand francs, in payment for her guests having “allowed [him] to offer [his] best” (112).
At many moments, in fact, Benkemoun’s anecdotes, culled from a variety of published sources as well as some first-hand research, help humanize the loftier portrayals we’re usually given of these titanic individuals: Her discussion of Jacqueline Lamba gives perspective not only to Maar’s complicated notions of friendship, but also to Lamba’s marriage to Breton. The mentions of Picasso scattered throughout—how he willfully humiliated Maar and her male escort at a dinner party (136); how he borrowed her country house so that he could bring Françoise there, leaving behind traces of their lovemaking for Dora to find (191); how he gave her a ring inscribed “Picasso and Dora,” with a sliver of metal inside meant to slice the wearer’s finger (199)—reinforce our notion of how superhumanly toxic the painter could be, though after Françoise Gilot’s 1964 memoir and Arianna Huffington’s 1988 biography, this is hardly news.
Similarly, Benkemoun’s reconstruction of Maar’s own life (she was in her mid-forties at the time of the datebook, and lived to be nearly ninety) provides images of the woman that nuance the well-known ones of her standing beside Picasso at the seashore, or weeping disfigured on his canvas. To be sure, the images are not always attractive: as she grew older, Maar became not only more reclusive, but stingy, manipulative, and in many ways just as egotistical as her former lover. A deep dive into evangelical Catholicism was accompanied by a vicious anti-Semitism. But Benkemoun also has great wells of empathy for her subject, as well as a canny understanding of human motivations. As she notes, while Maar deplored that she was “still too famous as Picasso’s mistress to be accepted as a painter”(22), she also used that fame, and her hidden stash of unknown Picassos, to help advance her career.
This empathy, while it helps flesh out the portrait and provides impetus, is also one of the main stumbling blocks of Finding Dora Maar. There is a breathless quality to the narrative that bespeaks the thrill of discovery, but that sometimes left me wondering whether I was reading about Maar or about Benkemoun. As she digs deeper into her subject, the more personal her involvement grows. All the while warning herself “to stop attributing to this woman the feelings that I might have had” (143), she often swerves (in a process no doubt familiar to all biographers) between intense protectiveness and disapproval: at times fuming at Simone de Beauvoir for an unflattering anecdote about Maar (91-2), at others admitting, “I was sick of [Dora]. The hardest part was becoming attached to a woman so different and sometimes so unlikable . . . I needed to breathe” (98). Phrases like “I imagine” (46) and “she must have” (96) give the whole enterprise a speculative cast. Occasionally the author flatly invents entire episodes, under the rubric of what “must have” happened; at one point, she even suspects Maar’s ghost of interfering with her Wi-Fi connection. Reading this account sometimes feels like being caught at a dinner party next to someone who can’t stop talking about their pet; at moments, we, too, need to breathe.
Still, while it might seem tempting to dismiss this book as an extended fan letter, or the People magazine version of Surrealism, what it does offer, vividly, is the sense of a life lived day to day. As Benkemoun notes, Maar is not always an easy companion, and sometimes she has to remind herself “of all the reasons to love this woman whom I had not chosen” (178). But the portrait also has the authenticity of real people doing real things—eating, suffering, being catty, dealing with the plumber—even as it avoids the studied pomposity that afflicts so many “monumental” biographies. Jody Gladding’s translation captures the author’s brisk tone, though she sometimes throws in French phrases when a perfectly good English one exists, and I would quibble with a few word choices: “insensible” (30) for “indifferent,” “militia” (76) for the paramilitary collaborationist Milice, and so on. These are cavils. The marvel here is that a chance encounter with a seemingly insignificant object could yield such a world of personal discovery and excitement—an excitement that Benkemoun, in the best Surrealist, and biographical, tradition, often manages to convey.
Benkemoun, Brigitte. Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life. Translated by Jody Gladding. Getty Publications, 2020.
Mark Polizzotti is the translator of numerous books from French, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Marguerite Duras, André Breton, Eric Vuillard, and Patrick Modiano. He is the author, among many other books, of Sympathy for the Traitor. A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press, 2018). He directs the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.