There’s an interesting passage in Françoise Gilot & Carlton Lake’s Life With Picasso, which tells of Pablo’s strange and secretive way of corresponding with his assistant, Jaime Sabartés – a man who, we’re told, “never talked of anything in plain terms like everyone else. He would never pronounce anyone’s name in front of an outsider for fear of giving away a secret. Of course Pablo loved that.”
Here’s how Picasso & Sabartés would exchange information (or, on occasion, fail to):
“Finally I learned the secret code of the palace guard. One never mentioned a proper name. One never referred directly to an event or a situation; one spoke of it only by allusion to something else. Pablo and Sabartés wrote to each other almost every day to impart information of no value and even less interest, but to impart it in the most artfully recondite fashion imaginable. It would have taken an outsider days, weeks, to fathom one of their arcane notes. It might be something relating to Monsieur Pellequer, who handled Pablo’s business affairs. Pablo would write (since Monsieur Pellequer had a country house in Touraine) of the man in the tower (tour) of the château having suffered a wound in the groin (aine) and so on and on, playing on words, splitting them up, recombining them into unlikely and suspicious-looking neologisms, like the pirate’s torn map that must be pieced together to show the location of the treasure. He would sometimes use up three pages of writing about a spade in such a way as not to be obliged to refer to it as a spade, lest the letter fall into the hands of Inès [Sassier] or Madame Sabartés and reveal something to one or the other.”
Essentially, they were setting each other convoluted crosswords: using “allusion”, wordplay, and the splitting & recombining of words to forge a private code, a code that only an insider could crack. Though it was a code so twisted and allusive that occasionally the line of communication would break:
“He [Picasso] worked so hard at being hermetic that sometimes even Sabartés couldn’t understand and they would have to exchange several more letters to untangle the mystery.”
Much as I hate crosswords, all the sly winks and codewords, all the tangling and untangling and retangling and detangling, and all the other forms of tangling besides, I suppose that “artfully recondite” is what every crossword setter aspires to be. When they’re not just aspiring to be annoying.
Footnote: I think this passage has made me realise what I don’t like about crosswords: it’s simply that I feel shut-out by them, they’re a code I can’t/won’t crack. It’s like that playground joke: Two nuns in a bath. One nun says “Where’s the soap?” The other says “Yes, it does, doesn’t it.” Took me months to de-cipher it (or days, but it felt like months). And until I’d cracked it, I was an outsider. I was Madame Sabartés. (CS)