Too many books are forgotten as soon as they're published—that doesn't mean they're not worth reading, writing, or talking about. My reading list is generated by interest, whim, and chance—and by what's available at the Brooklyn Public Library.
When writing my reviews, I don’t Google anything about the book or author. To draw my impressions, I rely only on the book itself.
What can you say about a legend? That he was human? A monster? That he wore baggy underpants?
In the kind of biography memoir sketches, what starts to emerge is not only a portrait of the subject, but of the biographer. The best start off not with something to say, but with an openness to discovering something unexpected. Biases exist, in all of us; it’s an awareness and acknowledgement of them that allows us to move beyond them. Before sitting down to write Picasso, My Grandfather, Marina Picasso should’ve been frisked. This woman has an ax to grind.
In this slim memoir, Marina expresses her vendetta against her grandfather for the “Picasso virus” to which her family “fell victim”: the foreshortened career of her grandmother, the dancer Olga Khokhlova; the indentured servitude of her father, Pablo, Picasso’s slave; the suicide of her brother, Pablo (Pablito); and the fawning aspirations of her mother, Émilienne (Mienne), who, despite living with her children estranged from her husband in crippling poverty, was obsessed her whole life with the Picasso name.
The book opens with adult Marina having a panic attack while driving her children. She enters analysis—“[f]ourteen years of uncontrollable tears, blackouts and screams”—and traces the root of her suffering to her grandfather: “we were the stillborn descendants of Picasso, trapped in a spiral of mocked hopes.”
Marina grows up poor with a crazy mother, an absent father, and a ludicrously rich and famous grandfather who only reluctantly contributes a pittance to her family’s survival. It’s only four days after Picasso dies that Marina’s brother “the plaything of my grandfather’s sadism and indifference, committed suicide at age twenty-four by drinking a lethal dose of bleach.” Marina is the one who discovers him. He doesn’t die right away; his agony is a slow decline over the course of several weeks.
There are scores of books written by the unhappy children of famous people, but by grandchildren? The impact is a little muffled. After all, a generation stood between Picasso and Marina, and the few times she saw her grandfather (whom she was instructed to call Picasso), she was always accompanied by her father, whom Picasso hated and humiliated by employing as a kind of servant. When they visit Picasso as children, Marina and her brother are “allowed to touch the brushes, draw on his notebooks, and smear paint on our faces. It amuses him.” Yet when he makes a little paper animal or flower and asks if they like it, “we’re not allowed [to take it home]. It is the work of Picasso.”
Their mother was left at home, and after the visits, would press the children for details, craving acknowledgement. “Everything revolved around [Picasso]; he colored all her thoughts; he was her only subject of conversation—with shopkeepers, with friends, and even people she met in the street whom she didn’t know. Being Picasso’s daughter-in-law was her trophy, a special permit, an excuse for any eccentricity.”
Mienne would punish the children for Picasso’s rejection of her, lambast their father who couldn’t support them, and ultimately wind up neglecting them in favor of the attentions of her packs of young lovers, whom Marina and Pablito secretly call her “hoods.”
The story is broken into several sections and none of the chapters is more than a few pages long. There are powerful scenes. Despite their detail, they must all be fabrications. There’s dialogue no six-year-old could remember. What kind of words is she putting in these people’s mouths?
This is not a ruminative book. I have a feeling Marina doesn’t think of herself as a writer. Part of her legacy seems to be a shrinking, a modesty. Her name’s on the book, and her photo appears a few times, both as a child and an adult, but it’s always with a sad smile and large haunted eyes.
Yet I somehow suspect she is sincere. I can picture a professional writer sitting in a room with her, goading, asking questions, writing down what she says, then shaping the offhand responses into the little quirks the book excels in. Marina describes her childhood home as a place “that had all the features typical of early childhood memories—a whistling kettle, a kitchen table covered with oilcloth, a drippy faucet, a wobbly chair that you were not supposed to sit on, a vase of dry flowers, and the cocoonlike blue bedroom where Pablito and I could isolate ourselves.” The images are strong and the economy of the language has a kind of poetry to it.
Who is the writer here? Is it Marina? Her collaborator, Louis Valentin? Or is this a tilt of the pen of the translator, Catherine Temerson? It’s hard to parse out whom to credit with the ideas, and how they’re expressed. To a native English reader, the language sounds wonderfully fresh. The sentence structure is clipped. The words have unexpected sizzles, like the hiss of a sparkler.
Where I would have liked to have seen Marina get more help is with the structure of the book. There’s no arc. Everything is shaded too heavily. The characters are either villains (Picasso, his wife Jacqueline); or saints (Pablito).
It might have been helpful to have a sense of how Marina felt about Picasso before her analysis. Everything is seen through the lens of “after” as if she’s been brainwashed to view things only one way. A compassionate understanding never develops. Her view never changes. She doesn’t become more, or less than what she thought she was. And in fact, after she receives her inheritance from Picasso—a sizable sum of money, paintings, and his estate, La Californie, “with those gates that had kept us out and its oppressive rooms that smelled of the forbidden”—it seems as if she withdraws from the world. Picasso’s money gives Marina freedom, but she continues to live in a constricted way.
There’s little here that we learn about Picasso that even the most casual fan wouldn’t have already known, or that someone couldn’t have guessed just from looking at his picture and seeing the intense look in his eyes. There’s a mischievous gleam, and more than a hint of something sexual. Marina writes of a time Picasso “welcomes us in his underpants, loose cotton underpants, his loose overflowing attributes visible—an affront to me, as an eight-year-old girl, or later as a seventeen-year-old, whom he will receive in the same way at the end of his life.” There is something priggish in the tone, as if it wasn’t a disclosure of trauma, but a scolding.
Only occasionally does a little intimacy break through the familiar waves of what history has elsewhere recorded. Marina writes of how Pablito liked to draw as a child, but because their “mother has so harped on the fact that he has his grandfather’s talent…she has turned him off. He has put his crayons away.”
Elsewhere she writes of enjoying swimming, and of how it “made me feel free from my mother and father and—small revenge—Picasso, who was afraid when he couldn’t touch bottom.” I think the word “small” is important in a way she didn’t intend. It speaks to a pettiness this book can’t escape.
At a certain point in the writing, Marina attempts an about-face. You know what, she says? I take it all back. Her grandfather, she decides, “was stolen from us.” “In all of [his work], there was not a single sketch of us, his direct heirs.” Now the blame is put on “the irresponsibility of father, mother and possessive wife.”
It’s an awkward attempt at resolution. It doesn’t work. Without her rancor, the story runs out of steam. For the rest of the book, it’s almost like she’s mumbling. About meeting a man, falling in love, bearing two children, then adopting two more. And even then, she won’t talk about the children’s father. She goes on quite a bit about the work she does raising funds for Vietnamese orphanages. It’s like she’s totally changed the subject. She declares as much when she says, “I will deliberately skip over a whole part of my life.”
When she does reveal them, even her feelings don’t seem personal. They seem calculated: at times to hurt Picasso, then later to protect her children. It’s like she’s invited the reader in only to watch her sit around looking sanctimonious. She won’t even speak up to define herself in her own terms even though she has the chance and the reader’s full attention. Marina hasn’t broken the Picasso curse; she has perpetuated it. It may as well be etched on her tombstone: “I don’t have an identity of my own. I am and always will be ‘Picasso’s granddaughter.’”
Picasso, My Grandfather, Marina Picasso in collaboration with Louis Valentin; translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, Riverhead Books, 198 pp.