THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE

Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper

By John Richardson

Knopf. 306 pp. $26.95

Are there differences between American and British memoirs? It sometimes seems that our writers aim principally to harrow readers with tent-revival tales of their lurid dysfunctional families, rampant with alcoholism, violence and drug abuse, not to mention a little incest and weekend Satanism. Moreover, American authors tend to boast about their scars; they provide invaluable badges of authenticity: I have traversed the abyss. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. What does not destroy me makes me stronger.

They order these matters differently in England. If we instinctively lean toward confession, penance and redemption, on the other side of the Atlantic our cousins aim for after-dinner entertainment. For instance, critic Auberon Waugh (in Will This Do?) turns being accidentally machine-gunned into Keystone comedy; in his autobiography Anthony Burgess glories in all-round Rabelaisian excess -- too much drink, sex at every opportunity, dozens of novels and genial hackwork by the yard; and even the late Jeffrey Bernard -- long a weekly columnist for the Spectator -- treated the debilities of age and illness as a source for witty grousing about what Alexander Pope once called "this long disease, my life."

John Richardson (b. 1924), an expert on modern art best known for his ongoing multi-volume biography of Picasso, reveals a similarly compulsive need, and talent, to amuse. His meandering reminiscences of his youth -- roughly up to the age of 36 -- seldom probe much, let alone deeply. Instead Richardson gossips about collectors and artists, their mistresses and boyfriends; about the imperious ways of Picasso and the self-mastery of Braque; above all, about living in a dilapidated chateau in Provence with the wealthy Douglas Cooper, once the world's leading collector of Cubism. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is, in short, as pleasingly enjoyable as the Dukas tone poem that gives the book its title. Those expecting the equivalent of a late Beethoven string quartet, soulful and brooding, will need to go elsewhere.

At his best Richardson suavely sums up his own reactions to the various notables who wave briefly to us from these pages. For instance, early in his 12-year relationship with Cooper, the handsome apprentice develops a mysterious fever. "Douglas claimed to have a doctor friend who could cure psychosomatic ailments, Jacques Lacan. This man had yet to become a celebrated intellectual guru. If Douglas had faith in his powers, it was because Picasso had entrusted Dora Maar to his care after her crack-up five years earlier. When this dandified guru materialized in our room in the Hotel des Saints-Peres, my temperature shot up even higher. `En lever votre pyjama,' Lacan said, and peered at my sweating torso with distaste. He took a large Lanvin handkerchief from his breast pocket, laid it over my chest as doctors used to do before the invention of the stethoscope and listened from a safe distance, nodding sagaciously as he did so. This diagnostic charade ended with Lacan tearing a page from his Hermes diary and, after a pensive pause, writing down the address of another doctor. I subsequently saw Lacan a few times, but was never able to take this brilliant man as seriously as intellectual fashion dictated. The contrivance was such that he seemed like an actor playing himself."

Such vignettes turn The Sorcerer's Apprentice into a collage of anecdote and pen portrait. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, we learn that Douglas Cooper cheered for only one of the royal guests: Queen Salte of Tonga, "who was as tall as a ballplayer; her ancestors had eaten Captain Cook, she had told the Queen, hence British blood flowed in her veins." A Colonel Bailey, the grim father of the very campy James Bailey, once bought some land from "the famously epicene Stephen Tennant" and returned home, holding the deed with a pair of tongs. " `The closing took place in the feller's bedroom,' Colonel Bailey fumed. `The document stinks of Chanel Number Five.' " James made things worse by correcting him: "Nonsense, Papa. Arpege." Painter Fernand Leger's wife, a "frizzled, peroxided old lush," had once been a "heroic Montparnasse beauty -- famous in World War I for disguising herself as a poilu and, at the risk of being arrested as a spy or shot by a sniper, making her way to Verdun to have sex with Leger in the trenches."

Other characters who make brief appearances in these pages include poet James Schuyler, man of letters Cyril Connolly ("who loathed art"), travel legend Bruce Chatwin, cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubenstein (who would sell the prints off her walls for rolls of crisp $20 bills) and treasonous art historian Anthony Blunt, "compassionate, humorous, affectionate, altruistic, albeit supremely Machiavellian." Once Cooper and Richardson are even invited to dine with the aged Winston Churchill -- but refuse because they have a previous luncheon appointment with Picasso.

Picasso, portrayed here as a psychic vampire, gaining creative energy from the emotional distress or devoted fealty of others, turns out to have loved presents as much as any child at Christmas. Notes Richardson:

"When I gave him a roll of lavatory paper printed to look like dollar bills, he was delighted. `I have often wanted,' he said, `to have some printed with Pascal's more boring Pensees.' Picasso would behave like a savage seeing new objects for the first time. Things would be tried on, tasted, jammed in vases (`No need to put flowers in water,' he said. `They are just going to die anyway') or carefully put aside to become part of the enormous accumulation that made magpie nests of his studios. He seldom threw anything away, even old envelopes, so his hoard was constantly growing and threatening to engulf room after room in house after house. Many of the things were valueless, but for Picasso they were talismans . . . I remember an unopened bottle of Guerlain cologne inscribed `Bonne Annee, 1937'; a framed letter from Victor Hugo to a mistress; masks of all kinds, from eighteenth century Venetian ones to modern monstrosities in rubber; a Daumier bronze; a model of Barcelona's Christopher Columbus monument in marzipan; a set of Hepplewhite chairs bought by Picasso's father from an English wine merchant in Malaga, . . . hats by the hundred, and piles of letters, many of them marked with a cabalistic sign, the word ojo (Spanish for "eye") drawn like two eyes and a nose, meaning `Attention.' "

Nowadays, Richardson's mentor and companion, Douglas Cooper(1911-1984), may be scarcely remembered even among scholars. The heir to Australian millions, Cooper possessed an "evil queen ferocity," as well as a "penetrating intelligence" and an ability "to storm, rant and browbeat" almost anyone, whether a German prisoner of war, an upstart rival in the art world, or a dull-witted museum director. In the 1930s he started buying the four major Cubists -- Braque, Picasso, Leger and Gris -- and in the 1950s installed his peerless collection in the Chateau de Castille in Provence. From this fastness he sent out poisoned letters, snide attacks on his enemies, occasional scholarly articles and scathing book reviews. Thirty years ago I read some of Cooper's diatribes and realized that John Simon and Auberon Waugh had met their match in bilious savagery.

"The trouble was," adds Richardson, "he regarded scholarship as a means of aggression rather than of enlightenment, just as he regardedvirtually all other scholars who dared to write about `his' artists (not just the cubists, but most French painters of the nineteenth and twentiethcenturies) as frauds and interlopers. . . . Negativism is its own reward, which is why this former scourge of the art world has been virtually forgotten."

In 1958 Richardson visited New York City and found himself regenerated by the city's almost visceral charge. He was in his mid-thirties by now; still a handsome young man, but also an increasingly respected art scholar. His apprenticeship was over. By 1960 he and Cooper were estranged, with the expected consequences: His former guide and protector turned on him, refusing to give Richardson back his own possessions, bad-mouthing him to possible employers. During his sad last years Cooper was badly knifed by a stranger he picked up, sold his chateau after it was robbed by thieves, grew increasingly obstreperous and mean-minded. He died in 1984 on April Fool's Day. His collection went to his adopted "son," a likeable interior decorator, who sold many of the paintings to support a lavish lifestyle in the "Swish Alps"section of Los Angeles until he succumbed to AIDS.

In this memoir John Richardson writes without resentment or rancor -- unlike, say, Robert Gathorne-Hardy in Recollections of Logan Pearsall Smith, that classic if far more sour account of a similar apprenticeship to a wealthy man of letters. Personally, I would have welcomed more detail about Cooper's scholarship -- how, for instance, is his catalogue The Cubist Epoch now regarded? -- and some quoted examples of his colorful writing. "This hugely gifted, hugely flawed old buffo" doesn't quite come fully to life here. Nevertheless, even as it stands The Sorcerer's Apprentice remains thoroughly diverting, a gossipy, easy-going family album about the post-war art scene in England and France.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.