“I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works” – just one of Oscar Wilde’s pithy sayings familiar to pretty much anyone who’s ever had a desk calendar. However few are aware that he first applied it to French playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry rather than himself.
Jarry has few equals in the field of literary eccentrics. The bizarre, grotesque lead character of his play Ubu Roi was not just his most revolutionary creation, it was the inspiration for his own persona. The diminutive writer terrorised fin-de-siècle Paris with his bicycle (still a novelty then), half-crazed with absinthe and other intoxicants, often teaming truncated trousers with an absurdly tall top hat.
Jarry’s strangeness was not an outer garment to be discarded once he got home; his living space, too, reflected his extraordinary personality. His first Paris residence, a room at the end of a narrow pathway off a busy boulevard, was known as “Dead Man’s Calvary”. There the walls were decorated with Catholic paraphernalia and his beloved pet owls flew free. After an inheritance afforded him a rare spell of financial security, he lived for a time on the Boulevard Saint-Germain where he put on marionette shows for friends.
Most remarkable was the apartment where Jarry spent the last 10 years of his life. It was on floor “2 and a half” of a building in the 6th arrondissement; the unscrupulous landlord sought to double his income by sub-dividing each floor laterally so that few but Jarry could stand without crouching. (This domestic scenario will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Being John Malkovich, which features a company of indeterminate function located on floor “7 and a half” of an office block. Along with the film’s general air of Ubu-esque absurdity, it’s worth noting that John Cusack’s character is, like Jarry, a puppeteer.)
Critic and writer André Salmon records a visit to this ridiculous lair, its broken windows stuffed with old journals, a dust-veiled pyramid of books reaching up to the (admittedly not terribly high) ceiling and a centrepiece in the form of an enormous stone phallus, a gift from the Belgian illustrator Félicien Rops. Jarry himself called his domain “Our Grand Chasublerie”, referring both to the ecclesiastical cassock makers in the same building as well as the iconography which had followed him from Calvary.
Towards the end Jarry was barely able to leave his exotic mezzanine. He had once proclaimed that “the use, and even more the abuse, of fermented beverages is what distinguishes men from beasts,” and like Joseph Roth’s Holy Drinker he had stalked the streets of Paris doggedly pursuing a programme of self-destruction. Paralysed, penniless and almost starved, he was found and taken to hospital by loyal friends, but it was too late. Born just 34 years previously, on the feast day commemorating the birth of the Holy Virgin, the holy terror of French letters gave up the ghost on All Souls Day in 1907.