In 1907, in Paris, twenty-four-year-old Georges Braque met Pablo Picasso, then twenty-five, launching a creative partnership that would revolutionize twentieth-century painting. Seven years later, their relationship dissolved. Braque went off to fight in WWI, where he sustained a serious head injury, and returned home to a career that looks lackluster only when compared to that of his onetime collaborator. The Braque-Picasso collaboration is the subject of The Cubist Infant, but it quickly becomes clear that, genrewise, this story is something other than your classic Historical Fiction. By page 2 we’ve learned that Braque has “mastered the technique of inverse ejaculation—at orgasm, his penis would inhale.”
The Cubist Infant, whose principal characters can fly or are semihollow and have supernatural sexual abilities, is an admixture of art history and mythology. Of course one of the story’s initial premises is that art history is already mythology—q.v. its opening sentence: “What grew in myth was the way in which Picasso met, devoured, digested, and excreted Braque.” Ballard’s story is the reimagining of that myth, and here the reproductive replaces the digestive as the presiding metaphorical organ system. The Cubist Infant, which locates creative zeal in Picasso’s bioemissions, is so focused on the transfer of fluids between Cubism’s fathers that it’s practically sticky.
The pantheon of modernist Paris is well represented here: we get Gertrude Stein (who claims only she knows “how best to not make sense in the way the times require”), James Joyce (name-checked, and as “Big Man Jimmy”), and assorted Futurists (five Italians prone to suddenly blurring into motion). But Ballard keeps his story from turning into a professorial in-joke—his highbrow references never overwhelm the underlying tenderness of his storytelling. Maybe more remarkably, Ballard manages to sustain a madcap energy while exploring the loneliness of the artistic endeavor.
Two artists. Picasso, who ejaculates into a hole in his own abdomen, is monolithic, inscrutable, impervious to outside influence. His impenetrable exterior makes him a great painter, but it doesn’t make him a particularly absorbing character. Instead it is Braque who is the object of fascination. Desperately seeking an artistic identity but always looking outside himself, Braque turns first to formal training, then to Picasso, and finally to the empty ideals of war. The scenes set in the trenches of WWI are particularly memorable, often as funny and haunting as the best antiwar satire.
At one point the story evinces derision for critics who “prefer description to analysis,” but it would be a shame not to mention that much of Ballard’s story is beautifully written. He’s particularly good at capturing the splendor of furious action. A scene in which Picasso, hiding out in the Pyrenees and under fire from the French and Spanish armies, gives us this image of his frenzied painting: “When the bullets started flying, Picasso would have to stand side- ways to present less of a target, bellowing curses and brandishing his brushes as though fencing with the canvas.”
The Cubist Infant is a short story published alone in an elegantly designed volume, its jacket and endpapers letterpress-printed. It is unusual to lavish this much attention on a single story, and the publisher’s efforts seem to urge readers to reciprocate. Ballard has earned it.