:: Article

Finding Alfred Jarry

By Karl Whitney.


Alastair Brotchie, Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, MIT Press, 2011.

In many accounts of Alfred Jarry’s life, he exists as an eccentric myth: Jarry brandishing a pistol towards a passerby; Jarry living in a cramped apartment squeezed between two storeys of a Paris apartment block; Jarry the obsessive cyclist; Jarry the inventor of a strange mock science, Pataphysics. Taken together, these elements weave a powerful legend, one that challenges a biographer to unpick its tangled strands.

As it turns out, Jarry was that rare thing: a legend in his own lifetime. His biographer Alastair Brotchie, the founder of Atlas Press and a member of the College of Pataphysics, ably tracks the development of this image of Jarry amongst his contemporaries, and amongst the younger generation of poets and artists that included Apollinaire and Picasso. In no small part this legend was due to Jarry’s undeniably peculiar behaviour: for example, those who met him remarked frequently on his unusually mechanical mode of speech. For some time he lived in a small, dark apartment down an alleyway next to Paris’s Val de Grâce hospital, which he shared with a coterie of owls who had flown in from the nearby hospital gardens; the entrance to his apartment was marked with a series of bloody handprints that led up the wall. (He later occupied another apartment, squeezed between two storeys on rue Cassette.) Yet many of Jarry’s supposed eccentricities one must now judge to be the direct result of his poverty – his behaviour was swiftly and cruelly poeticised by those who wished to view him as the prototype outsider artist.

Arguably Jarry’s greatest literary creation, and certainly his best known, was the character of Père Ubu, the corpulent and vulgar ‘King of Poland’ who emerged, swearing forcefully, in Ubu Roi (performed onstage in 1896, but printed versions predate the theatrical performances). The first performances of the play caused a stir. Partly, this was because of the shock of the new – as Brotchie points out: ‘it was 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 acclimatized the audience to its conventions.’ On the other hand, many of Jarry’s friends in the avant-garde weren’t leaving anything to chance: they turned up with mischief in mind, and caused – or at least contributed to – an uproar in the theatre. At one point the poet Fernand Gregh shouted out his opinion: ‘“It’s as beautiful as Shakespeare,” to which his own brother shot back from the balcony: “You’ve never even read Shakespeare, you imbecile!”’

Brotchie’s attention to detail is remarkable: one illustration shows the biographer’s reconstruction of the backdrop for the first production of the play, an arresting collection of dreamlike images that bleed into one another: a bedroom, a snow-covered landscape, a desert scene and a fireplace, with bats, an owl, an elephant and a skeleton hanging from a gibbet. Brotchie argues that the bringing together of contradictory images in this backdrop embodies Jarry’s conception of Pataphysics, the ‘science of imaginary solutions’. Later, Brotchie discerns two differing versions of Pataphysics in Jarry: the early version was ‘a call for the intensification of reality’, while he later conceived it as ‘an analytical method [that] allowed the adoption of an hauteur equivalent to aristocratic disdain, but associated instead with the scientists’ objectivity.’

Brotchie is also excellent when describing the Parisian literary milieu surrounding Jarry during the last years of the nineteenth century. Far from portraying the writer as a solitary literary genius, he maps the links between Jarry and journals such as the Revue Blanche, edited by the cryptic and intriguing Félix Fénéon, and the Mercure de France, edited by Alfred Valette and his wife Rachilde, who both became close friends of Jarry. Jarry also met Oscar Wilde on at least one occasion, and moved in both Symbolist and Anarchist circles, even though his politics are difficult to pin down.

Brotchie also attempts a reading of Jarry’s sexuality, a difficult task when his correspondence is mostly tight-lipped on the subject. At school in the Lycée Henri IV, Jarry formed an intense friendship with Léon-Paul Fargue, of which Fargue’s family disapproved. Although Brotchie asserts that ‘during his late adolescence and early twenties Jarry undoubtedly considered himself homosexual’, the biographer is forced to draw on depictions of sexuality in Jarry’s later fictional writing in order to discern a turn towards heterosexuality – but Brotchie notes that this shift towards convention in his fiction may have simply been an attempt to sell more books, ‘it is perhaps possible to attribute commercial motives to this realignment, although it would be uncharacteristic for Jarry to alter such a major aspect of his work for such motives alone.’ Nevertheless, the biography reveals Jarry’s extreme misogyny, itself tempered by what seems a close friendship with Rachilde. The contradictions of Pataphysics were no doubt shaped in Jarry’s own image.

Improbably, a question raised by a character in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman proves relevant to Brotchie’s biography: ‘Is it about a bicycle?’ Jarry proved himself a keen cyclist during his brief life (he died aged 34 in 1907), and bicycles were to affect his life in multiple ways. The unpaid bill for an expensive bike bought from a shop in his hometown of Laval was to pursue Jarry beyond the grave: his debts were inherited by his sister, and ultimately ruined her. Jarry’s death from meningeal tuberculosis was the result of a cold brought on ‘by his habit of cycling in cold weather’. However, there’s no disputing Jarry’s love for cycling, and the place it held in his imagination: while living in a shack by the river Seine in Le Coudray, he often cycled to Paris – a forty-mile ride – and frequently made the return journey in a single day. The centrepiece of his novel The Supermale is ‘a contest between a locomotive and a five-man bicycle over a distance of ten thousand miles’, which sounds far-fetched until you realise that Jarry used to race the Paris train for seven miles between Corbeil and Juvisy, ‘where the track ran close enough to the road for this to be possible’. In a fascinating piece of deduction based on a photo of Jarry on his bicycle, Brotchie utilises a mathematical equation to try and discern the bike’s gearing ratio: it turns out that it was 36/9, ‘comparable to the top gears of modern racing bikes’. (This is the kind of obsessive and illuminating digression I wish more biographers would engage in.) Undoubtedly, Jarry’s bike was custom-built for speed. His emphasis on the unity of man and machine would later be reflected in the work of the Futurist Filippo Marinetti, who also met Jarry while in Paris.

This book fills a big gap: there was a need for a full-length English language biography of Alfred Jarry. It achieves a lot more, though: in drawing on newly unearthed correspondence and archival material, the book gives as full a portrait of Jarry as we can hope for. The author skilfully moves between providing a relatively straightforward and sympathetic account of the writer’s life and critically sorting through the narratives that have sustained and shaped the long-standing image of Jarry. Brotchie draws together the life and work of Jarry, subjecting both aspects to intelligent scrutiny. In the process, this book reveals an artist truly ahead of his time, but doesn’t flinch from showing the poverty and pain of Jarry’s brief life. Brotchie’s refusal to mythologise stands as the book’s greatest strength, and as a fitting testament to the manifold complexity of Alfred Jarry.


Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Paris. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 17th, 2012.