Alfred Jarry is perhaps the least known among the important writers of his generation. Both Burroughs and Ballard were inspired by him, he had a profound influence on the British authors associated with New Worlds magazine, and was admired by artists from Duchamp to Paolozzi as well as any number of playwrights, including Artaud, Beckett and Ionesco. His posthumous Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, Pataphysician has been cited several of today’s most innovative authors. This fine biography, written with loving honesty by Alastair Brotchie, is the best to date.
Relying on a considerable amount of original research, Brotchie refuses to speculate except in specifics, and will then indicate where Jarry himself, say, has not been clear. He gives us an unmatched and vivid picture of the belle epoque’s avant-garde, of which Jarry was an important, original part. At a time when we are beginning to re-examine and even redefine modernism, Jarry is seen increasingly as a major influence on contemporary writing as well as the most important precursor of the dadaists, the surrealists and the British pop art movement.
Born in 1873 to a somewhat impoverished Breton bourgeois family, the precocious Jarry nonetheless received a first-class education in Rennes and became as familiar with advanced physics as he was with Greek and Latin. Kelvin was among the theoretical physicists whom he read. Although a little bookish, writing poetry and fiction from the age of 12, Jarry enjoyed fishing, fencing and cycling, sports to which he remained attached all his short life.
The Lycée at Rennes had many excellent teachers, but one became the butt of all the boys: a rather pompous, cowardly master called Hébert, whom Jarry and his young pals nicknamed “Père Ubu”. Over time, Ubu became his own terrible creature, no longer a mockery of one individual. The bombastic, scatological sayings and doings of this increasingly fantastic grotesque were probably mostly written by Jarry. When he left the school his friends were perfectly happy to let him take Ubu, too. Jarry went to Paris to study for his bac, and Ubu, his creation, went with him.
Jarry was a conscientious student, soft-spoken and courteous, fey and tiny (he sometimes wore women’s shoes). He appears to have been just as popular at the Lycée Henri IV crammer for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, perhaps because he found it hard to check his wit when addressing masters and lecturers, one of whom was the philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson, who was for a while a strong influence. Soon he was impressing other students with his talent, his charm and his eccentricity. Now, however, he was among peers appreciative of Ubu when he assumed the role, which he increasingly did, doubtless to disguise his shyness or, perhaps, his homosexuality. At this time he formed a close friendship with Léon-Paul Fargue, who would become a well-known poet. Fargue introduced him to the work of the symbolists, then France’s acknowledged avant garde.
For a while Lautréamont was Jarry’s chief literary inspiration. I agree with Brotchie who thinks the influence malign, but the innovations in Les Chants de Maldoror impressed Jarry and encouraged him to continue with his own writing. Gradually he and Fargue found themselves moving in bohemian society. Jarry’s first work appeared anonymously in L’Echo de Paris. Soon he was writing regularly for some of the most interesting journals in Paris, the majority of which held regular gatherings of contributors. Here Jarry, often adopting the Ubu persona so that friends began to call him “Pa Ubu”, began to meet other ambitious writers.
In 1896, after publishing several books in small, independent editions, Jarry was at last able to get Ubu staged by Aurélien Lugné-Poë at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, originally created to promote symbolist works (except nobody was altogether sure what these were). Earlier productions of Maeterlinck and Ibsen had their philistine detractors but none were as violent as Ubu’s audiences.
Ubu was uncompromising. Indeed with its opening neologism spouted by the vulgar, obscene grotesque Père Ubu – “Merdre!!!!” – it immediately announced its intentions. “It was,” says Brotchie, “as though a modernist play from the middle of the next century had been dropped on the stage without all the intervening theatrical developments that might have acclimatised the audience to its conventions.” Since Jarry had been in the thick of the riot, encouraging the response, he clearly wasn’t disappointed. He had a very good eye for publicity and laboured hard behind the scenes to get it.
Jarry regularly published in journals such as Mercure de France, and he quickly joined their inner circles. For a few years he enjoyed a relatively regular, if small, income from the Mercure and a few others, spending much of his time in the company of Gide, Lautrec, Rousseau, Gourmont, Mallarmé and other exceptional writers and artists of his day (there is some question whether he ever knew Picasso through their mutual friend Apollinaire).
In 1899 Mercure serialised HG Wells’s The Time Machine. This gave Jarry the idea of writing a pseudo-scientific paper on the machine, as if one really existed, an idea perfectly in keeping with his notions of “pataphysics”, in part a sardonic combination of metaphysics and theoretical physics as described in some of his earliest work. At the beginning of his piece Jarry refers to the difference between physical time and duration. His description of the machine is not surprising, since both authors were enthusiastic cyclists. The last section of the piece, “Time as Seen from the Machine”, offers a new definition of duration: “The Becoming of Memory”. This connects, Brotchie points out, what is an apparently theoretical text with notions of nostalgia and the erotic in Jarry’s short novel Days and Nightsand suggests, convincingly, that it was probably the first time scientific and technical language had been used entirely to produce a work of fiction. “On the Construction of a Time-Exploring Machine” was a straight-faced piece of exposition so well done that it had a number of eminent British scientists almost convinced. Wells himself would have been a bit puzzled by pataphysics. As Jarry had Ubu explain elsewhere: “Pataphysics is a science which we have invented and for which a crying need is generally expressed.” As usual, he was at least half a century ahead of his time.
Jarry’s life became increasingly difficult as his health failed, the magazines folded and he was pursued by creditors. While the avant garde journals existed, he was able to scrape a small living. He fished for most of his food. He had his bicycle for transport, his revolver for security and ultimately his own little house, built on land he bought beside the Seine. He lived for and by his art, caring very little for material things. Over the years he learned to discard most comforts except alcohol. He died in 1907, aged 32, inspiring a cycle of myth almost as rich as that surrounding his own monstrous Pa Ubu. Subsequent biographies were all informed by these myths, the most prevalent being that Ubu, the fiction, destroyed Jarry, the man, and that he “became” Ubu, incapable of distinguishing between himself and his horrible invention.
Perhaps the greatest single thing Brotchie has done in his biography is to dispel those myths. He shows how Jarry was perfectly capable of telling truth from reality. He did not die “of drink” but of complications from undiagnosed TB affecting his brain. He was a genius, certainly, but a rather sweet-natured, obstinate and luckless genius, who charmed not only his friends but occasionally the entire populations of small towns.
Quasi-romantics, actually sensationalists and sentimentalists, prefer to turn a talented person into a simplified fiction. A real romantic such as Jarry had to fight or drug himself in order to rein in his imagination and control his invention. Brotchie has done his subject and us a considerable service in presenting this exhaustive, realistic picture of a man still not properly recognised as one of the most influential writers of modern times.
• Michael Moorcock’s Modem Times 2.0 is published by PM Press.