Among the manifold eccentricities of Alfred Jarry (born on this day in 1873) was his passion for cycling at a time when it was still a freakish, and frequently dangerous, novelty. In Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, Alastair Brotchie describes the French writer’s freewheeling style (I’ve added some notes for clarification):
Jarry’s magnificent Clément Luxe (1), being a racetrack model (2), was stripped of nonessentials. No luxuries such as mud or chain guards, and no brakes either. The complicated mechanisms required to brake the rear wheel were yet to be perfected, and front brakes simply sent the rider over the handlebars (3). Instead it had a fixed wheel, and braking was accomplished either by standing on the pedals or by holding one’s foot against one of the tyres. Not particularly effective, as Jarry had discovered at La Frette (4). Variable gears likewise remained clumsy and inefficient, and were shunned by professionals. Thus Jarry’s bicycle had only a single gear (5). Rather more than a simple vehicle, the writing machine was powered by human musculature and fueled by alcohols (6). Once launched into duration – Jarry informs us that “Space around us is fixed, and to explore it we travel in the vehicle of Duration” (7) – it functioned very much like the stomach of an ostrich (8).
1. A model whose inspiration lives on.
3. A fact I momentarily forgot a few weeks ago when I was cycling downhill in the Hasenheide and applied the front brakes to avoid a rollerblader. There’s nothing like picking bits of gravel out of bloodied hand flesh to remind you of the importance of rear-wheel braking.
4. La Frette is a town on the Seine outside Paris where Jarry spent much of the summer of 1899. The incident in question occurred when Jarry tore downhill on his bike towing the writer Rachilde in a cart. As the pair careened out of control, Jarry threw himself off the bike and eventually brought them to a stop, with predictably painful results.
5. Over a century later the “fixie” is enjoying a renaissance (“Why do hipsters like fixed gear bikes?“).
6. No shit. Rachilde describes Jarry’s typical daily consumption: “Jarry began his day by sinking two litres of white wine. Three absinthes marked the hours between ten o’clock and midday, and then at lunchtime he washed down his fish, or his steak, with red or white wine alternating with further absinthes. In the afternoon, a few cups of coffee laced with brandy or other spirits whose names I have forgotten. With his dinner, and of course afterward, further apéritifs, and he could still consume at least two bottles of some vintage or other, good or bad.”