A man loses his Hermès diary and learns that the exact refillable leather cover is no longer in production; when the matching replacement he orders on eBay for 70 euros arrives, his wife, Brigitte Benkemoun, discovers an address book from 1951 still inside: Balthus, Jean Cocteau, Alice B. Toklas. After an obsessive search, she confirms that the address book belonged to Dora Maar, Surrealist artist and longtime lover to Picasso. Benkemoun writes that she’ll never fault her husband for losing something again.
What follows is the result of Benkemoun’s investigations into the names in the book, and their connections to Maar. “We have so many epistolary novels,” she writes, “why not a relational biography?” Some she’s able to interview directly. For others, she relies on previously published biographies and letters. This gives us young Dora, stretched out in a white bathing suit; Dora in her eighties, asking a gallerist to promise that he wasn’t Jewish before she would sell him prints; Dora speeding on her moped, “a scarf in place of a helmet,” to pray at Notre-Dame-de-Lumières; Dora, age 20, enjoying les années folles with Jacqueline Lamba; Dora eyeing Picasso as she slammed a knife into a wooden table, sometimes not quite missing her own fingers. Benkemoun leaves no stone unturned, analyzing Dora’s spelling and what it means when she writes one name rather than the other of a couple with whom she’s equally friendly. “What would she have said if she learned that I was Jewish, and worse, a nonbeliever!” Benkemoun writes. “Is it possible to write about someone you don’t like?”