Alfred Jarry was the most radical writer of the Belle Époque. Seeing the paths of Naturalism and Decadence before him, he spurned both and headed off instead into the undergrowth. And set fire to it.
Alastair Brotchie’s authoritative book Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, published last year, is an essential aid for English-language readers wishing to understand Jarry’s bizarre life and influential work. Here Brotchie sets the scene around the time that the 17-year-old Alfred moved to Paris, just as the intoxication of the 1890s was taking effect:
Depending on one’s tastes, inclinations, and social situation, the 1890s were either the Belle Époque, a virile culmination of French culture promising a yet more glorious future; or the fin-de-siècle, the last gasp of an enfeebled civilization on the verge of extinction.
The French capital was not only a political and cultural hothouse, it was also the European capital of pleasure. The toleration of lifestyles considered deviant elsewhere in Europe attracted rich dissolutes, along with penurious artists and writers who here perfected the bohemian life, that precarious combination of poverty and excess. Tiny hands were frozen, in the sentimental versions of this existence immortalized by Murger and Puccini, but its romantic assumptions could also prove fatal. Artists and poets were indeed starving in garrets. For every Mallarmé or Huysmans, a teacher and civil servant respectively, there were others following an existence decreed by bohemian tradition. Most abandoned the struggle; but others were destroyed by it.
Jarry was very much of the latter category. But he had to rise to fall, and it was at the famous Tuesday salon of Alfred Villette and his wife, novelist Rachilde, that Jarry’s ascent began. Nothing better illustrates the fantastically aberrant undercurrents of the Belle Époque than the fact that one so singular as Jarry could become a figure of respect, even an object of imitation:
Jarry came to monopolize the Tuesdays. His sheer manic ebullience, restless intelligence, and bizarrely inventive conversation soon dominated the room – but without arousing resentment. Jarry, at least at this period, knew when to stop; he would do so suddenly, conceding the floor with a disconcerting grin which was almost immediately extinguished, as if with the flick of a switch. “He was at his most brilliant in Rachilde’s salon, his roguish energy, his hard and toneless voice, his nasal accent, all combined to add to his appeal. In fact le parler Ubu soon became a craze among the habitués. “It was the best period of Jarry’s life,” wrote André Gide, who regarded him with a bemused circumspection. “You could not invent such a character, I also met him at Marcel Schwob’s and elsewhere, and always with tremendous enjoyment [...] he exercised a sort of extraordinary fascination over the Mercure at that time. Everyone, or almost everyone, attempted, some more successfully than others, to imitate and adopt his humor; and above all, his outlandish and relentless manner of speech, without nuance or inflection and with an equal emphasis upon ever syllable, including the silent ones. A nutcracker, if it could speak, would sound no different. He expressed himself without the least reticence, and with utter disdain for decency or decorum.” Jarry was indeed allowed to exceed the normal etiquette of the company. The rapidity of his speech, his wit and his aberrant charm, allowed him unusual liberties, and a cascade of paradoxes might be abruptly terminated by bluntness. Albert Mortier recalled the subject literary “taste” becoming the topic of debate: “Taste,” pronounced Jarry, “we shit on it.”
Jarry infused his greatest creation, Père Ubu, with this same crude, caustic disdain, but its flipside was the unexampled gift for self-destruction which would drive him to the ground. In this testimony by Rachilde, who had become Jarry’s greatest supporter, Paris has left its mortal traces and Jarry has less than a year to live:
Jarry spent another winter in the squalor of the rue Cassette. Barely eating any more, he still drank. Every Tuesday, he would get up to come to my evenings, and once there he would talk as if he were the ghost of himself. He was white as a sheet, with dark and deeply sunken eyes. He had taken a strong aversion to all his old friends, and could only just about put up with going to see a docturd, having declared that they were the kind of jesters that had given him drugs in order to carry out shameful examinations: “You must realize Ma-da-me, they’re very interest in being allowed to dissect a character of our distinctive mold and fiber. It gives them the opportunity to discover something new.” Every now and again, thinking more clearly, he would remember his enormous debts and this would worry him for a while, but then he would add, with a diabolical laugh, “Even if we lived to be a hundred, we’d never be able to repay them!” Before he actually entered the room, it was obvious that he was deeply steeped in either, and although his reason had been finally overcome by this addiction, he existed in a state of persistent hallucination which fortunately shielded him from awareness of his own degradation.
Alfred Jarry died in 1907, aged just 34.