Hurrah, Arse-Horns, Long Live Pere Ubu!

Alfred Jarry, Jill Fell (219pp, 10.95, Reaktion Books Critical Lives)

'Pschitt!' or 'Shittr!' (depending on which translation you read) is the first word of French dramatist, novelist, and poet Alfred Jarry's best-known work, the play Ubu Roi. Ubu Roi can be read as a parody of classical and Shakespearean tragedy which involves, among other things, a plot to kill the King of Poland and a lot of toilet humour. But the play's subject could just as easily be its own language of ludicrous exclamations and insults ('By my green candle!', 'pox-riddled spout') and delight in disregarding theatrical conventions. There are ridiculously frequent entrances and exits and Ubu remarks after a lengthy soliloquy 'Hmm! what a pretty speech, a pity no one was listening. Right, back to business!' In the words of one of Jarry's leading critics and enthusiasts, Roger Shattuck, 'Life is, of course, absurd, and it is ludicrous to take it seriously. Only the comic is serious.' Jarry (1873-1907) is often identified as a precursor of Surrealism, Dada, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Richard Kostelanetz's Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1993) argues that there is a 'divide within avant-garde consciousness [...] separating those who treasure Jarry from those who worship Artaud.' The Oulipo Compendium finds Jarry worthy of note for his invention of 'Pataphysics and his rescuing of the notion of the clinamen from classical obscurity. Jarry described 'Pataphysics at various times as a science of exceptions; an embracing of paradoxes; and a philosophy of imaginary exceptions, bizarre equivalences, and imperturbability. The comparison with Artaud perhaps underlines that Jarry did not make a mythic, ritualistic practice out of his own psychopathology--although many contemporaries report that he increasingly blurred the distinction between himself and his most famous creation.

At the same time, Jarry's writings on the theatre do reveal genuine insight into the necessity of innovation and the phenomenon of what we would now call generational shifts or perhaps even period codes. Writing in the late 1890s, Jarry heralded the birth of 'an ABSTRACT theatre, and at last we can enjoy something which may be as eternally tragic as Ben Jonson, Marlowe, [or] Shakespeare'. This new theatre expressed the 'new feelings' of modern life and could only be fully realised, Jarry argued, with masks, one-note vocalisation, different accents or speaking styles for each character, stylised gestures and notional or anti-realistic sets and props such as scene-setting placards and cardboard horses. In 'Questions de thetre', Jarry called Ubu Roi
an 'exaggerating mirror' which revealed what his friend Catulle Mends called 'eternal human imbecility'. At the same time, he recognised that his own generation would one day

     become solemn, fat, and Ubu-like and shall publish extremely
     classical books which will probably lead to our becoming mayors
     of small towns where, when we become academicians, the
     blockheads constituting the local intelligentsia will present us with
     Svres vases, while they present their moustaches on velvet cushions
     to our children. And another lot of young people will appear, and
     consider us to be completely out of date, and they will write
     ballads to express their loathing of us, and that is just the way things
     should always be.

Innovation, then, is cyclical and perhaps as closely connected with youth protest as with avant garde 'art as life praxis'. Unsurprising to learn, in this context, that Pre Ubu was based on a hated physics teacher from Jarry's schooldays at the lycee in Rennes, a M. Hebert who--Barbara Wright's introduction to her 1951 translation tells us--was 'physically grotesque, flabby and piglike, lacked all dignity and authority' and was known as le Pre be. And, of course, the imbecilic is the other side of the horrible as a range of characters from Tweedledum and Tweedledee through Swelter the cook in Titus Groan
to some of The League of Gentlemen's grotesques remind us.

Jarry's writings on the theatre show that he was always looking forward and Jill Fell's excellent new biography reveals that he always located himself at the leading edge of whatever he was doing and whatever scene he was involved in. Drawing on a huge range of sources, including memoirs and reminiscences by artistic and literary contemporaries and biographical notes by Jarry's elder sister Charlotte, Fell gives us a detailed picture of Jarry's upbringing and family life, his education and military service, his daily life, and his literary career. Jarry might seem like a minor figure now, a cafe society writer associated with one succs du scandale
, but Fell's book reveals the huge range of his activities. These include involvement with the art world surrounding Gauguin and the Pont-Aven painters; work as a woodcut artist associated with the revival of the form; innovative book and magazine design; influential art and literary reviewing; and journalistic articles taking a defamiliarising view of new aspects of modern life that sound remarkably like Barthes's essays in Mythologies. These articles even dabbled in futurology and imagined moving pavements and cordless phones. Fell also gives lively accounts of Jarry's important friendships with, for example, the painter Henri Rousseau, the novelist Rachilde, and the composer Claude Terrasse. And Jarry does seem to have known everyone of note including Apollinaire, Beardsley, Remy de Gourmont, Mallarme, Marinetti, and the exiled Oscar Wilde as well as a host of minor, largely forgotten, writers such as Marcel Schwob and douard Dujardin. Fell makes good use of the surviving portraits and photographs of Jarry and paints a slightly surprising picture of him as a keen cyclist and fisherman.

As one would expect from a 'critical life', Fell gives clear summaries and thoughtful assessments of all the major works including Ubu Roi
, Les Jours et les Nuits, Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll (which introduced 'pataphysics to the world), Messaline (an erotic tale of ancient Rome), and Le surmle. Le surmle (The Supermale) is set in the near future (1920) and can be broadly described as a work of science fiction. Jarry constructs a kind of double narrative: in the first, a five-man cycle team, powered by Perpetual Motion Food, take part in a Ten-Thousand-Mile-Race against an express train; and the second involves an attempt to prove and better a story in both Pliny and Theophrastus that, with the aid of a secret herb, an Indian had been able to orgasm more than seventy times in succession. The supermale of the title, Andre Marceuil, appears as a secret racer who keeps pace with the five-man team and the train; and as a masked sexual athlete. Track down Barbara Wright's excellent translation, issued as a lovely little Cape paperback in the 1970s, and marvel at Jarry's descriptive zest and depraved wit.

Returning from Mallarme's funeral in September 1898--which Jarry also attended--Rodin remarked 'Combien de temps faudra-t-il nature pour refaire un cerveau pareil?' ('How much time will nature need to create such a brain again?') His words might be an equally apt epitaph for Jarry. Jill Fell's book is an excellent introduction to the life and work of a writer whose alter ego Docteur Faustroll calculated the surface of God to be '~ -- 0 -- a + a + 0 = ~' and therefore the tangent point of zero and infinity. Jarry revival, anyone?

      David Kennedy, 2010