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Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life

Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life

by Alastair Brotchie
The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2011
424 pp., illus. 156 b/w.  Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01619-3.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY


Reading Alastair Brotchie’s new biography of Alfred Jarry is something other than “pataphysical,” a term that Jarry coined early on to counterpose the prevailing scientism he faced with a kind of wit, pastiche, and farce we would do well to take note of––this capacity for “imaginary solutions” to any number of issues, from quotidian needs to abstract speculation, that every now and then compels us to sit up on the edges of our seats and breathe deeply, no longer encumbered by givens and the traditions that claim them.

So, no, I am not an objective reference for Jarry. Ever since encountering his plays, as foundational to modern theater as Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, and his novels, I have ever sought him out, among some very few others, when disentangling myself from set opinions and easy solutions.

Laughter enters here, as it should, the kind that slaps us in the face because it is just so bracing. But then that is Jarry, and why in his milieu in Paris at the far end of the 19th century he commanded such allegiance from poets, writers, and artists we esteem: Mallarmé, Remy de Gourmont, Oscar Wilde, Henri Rousseau, Lautrec, Bonnard, to name a few.

There is Jarry, all of 23, premiering his play, King Ubu, in 1896 at the 900-seat Nouveau Theatre, with its now mythic scandal propelled by the opening “Merrrrrrdrrrrre…” There is Jarry, quickly using up his inheritance to found a lavish avant-garde journal L’Ymagier, with its list of leading lights. There is Jarry, cyclist extraordinaire when the technology, finally become affordable, was just gaining in popularity. There is Jarry, cultural journalist, librettist, poet, and ever the outsider at elite cultural gatherings, sweaty and mud soaked from his 20-mile cycle into Paris from his shack on the Seine.

There is Jarry, with just enough money from his writing for a bare existence, relying on his fishing for food, his charm for society, his drinking for continuity and his black humor, or umor, as he called it, to sustain him – the latter enriching Dada and Surrealist sensibilities a decade or two later that used it if only to keep the wolves at bay in their way, as Jarry did in his.

And for us, has so much changed as our illusions about personal wealth and security fade in and out of the firing line of daily struggles and corporate theft? More simply, where would we be without our capacity, schooled in part by Jarry, to eviscerate our misery, seemingly never to be done with it, but certainly not to have it do us in?

The book, thus, chronicles a gifted writer whose extraordinary entrance onto the cultural stage and whose terrible exit from meningeal tuberculosis seems of a stamp –– as if the one parodied the other.  The creator of Pere Ubu – a glutinous and grotesque character, blind to the source of his power yet using it to crush his enemies with his “debraining” machine – is done in by a disease that attacks the base of the brain. That none of his doctors recognized or treated it, however clinically adept they thought they were, a clandestine autopsy unmasking their ignorance is par for the course.

Add Dr. Faustroll, and what the Faust-Troll dyad meant for Jarry, along with his other central characters, and we have someone still vivant: the lascivious Messalina in the novel of the same name; the four-man bicycle team of le surmale, off on a 10,000 mile race with its captivating experiment to determine en route and on saddle the greatest number of sexual climaxes a man can have in 24 hours; the ever curious Visits of Love, or his Days and Nights and, of course, the Ubu plays: Ubu the King, Ubu Cuckolded, and Ubu Enchained.

Of Alastair Brotchie, biographer, his tone is clear and informed, rooted in a familiarity with Jarry that has something quite personal about it, which is all for the good. For now we know something more about Jarry, his friends, the period in which he wrote and caroused, his works and how they played for their audience, successes and failures both (by whatever values you measure such things), and his errant slide into death, age 34. Threaded throughout are wonderful archival photos that capture a history in Paris and its environs that you can still find, here and there, if you search for it.

And perhaps you will with this echo in mind: “Merrrrrrdrrrrre…”

Last Updated 3 March 2012

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