Alfred Jarry is perhaps the least known among the important writers of his generation. 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 Lycee at Rennes had many excellent teachers, but one became the butt of all the boys: a rather pompous, cowardly master called Hebert, whom Jarry and his young pals nicknamed "Pere 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 appears to have been just as popular at the Lycee Henri IV crammer for the Ecole Normale Superieure, 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, charm and eccentricity. Now, however, he was among peers appreciative of Ubu when he assumed the role, which he increasingly did, doubtless to disguise his shyness.
In 1896, after publishing several books in small, independent editions, Jarry was at last able to get Ubu staged by Aurelien Lugne-Poe at the Theatre d'Oeuvre, originally created to promote symbolist works (except nobody was altogether sure what these were). 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, Mallarme and other exceptional writers and artists of his day (there is some question whether he ever knew Picasso through their mutual friend Apollinaire).
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.
-Guardian News & Media Ltd
Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical LifeBy Alastair Brotchie, MIT Press, 424 pages, £24.95