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Most people know Alfred Jarry, if they know him at all, as the author of Ubu Roi. But he also wrote novels and once made a guest appearance in a novel written by somebody else.
Instead of pretending that I know more about him than anyone can read on Wikipedia, I will limit myself to a few facts that stick in my mind. He was very short, even by the standards of a nation whose leaders, from Napoleon to Sarkozy, have all been short and who don’t see anything funny in that. (De Gaulle was an exception. When he said, ‘La France, c’est moi’, he might well have been referring to their similarity in size. His great height, a sine qua non for political success in Britain or America, was something that, as a Frenchman, gave him no advantage whatsoever. The length of his nose, on the other hand was a source of cultural kudos.) But Jarry was very, very short. When he did his military service, he was excused parades because he looked so silly in a uniform that was several sizes too big for him. He died of TB in 1907 at the age of 34.
Ubu started life as a character in a puppet play made up by Jarry and some friends while they were still at school. Père Ubu was originally Père Heb, a fat physics teacher whom they all hated. The strictness of French schools and the concomitant rebelliousness of their students probably goes a long way to explaining the emergence of modernism in late nineteenth century France. Schoolboy pranks, like putting a urinal in the art room or painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, were raised to the level of cultural iconoclasm. Zéro de Conduite, Jean Vigo’s 1931 film set in a boarding school, is an absurdist satire with a cast of characters not unlike Jarry’s, including a midget headmaster played by a small boy. The English love their boarding schools, the French hate them. Our intellectuals have their corners rubbed off at school, theirs have them sharpened. There could never have been a British Cocteau and there is no satisfactory English translation of the phrase enfants terribles. Samuel Beckett and Peter Brook followed James Joyce to Paris, where there were words for the things they wanted to say.
When I found out that Jarry wrote novels as well as plays and that the novels were not readily available in translation, I read one of them, Surmâle, in the original French. (My French was not really up to it, but I persevered.) Jarry’s superman turned out to be as French as the others were German or American. The acts of masculine heroism depicted in Jarry’s novel have nothing to do with the death of God or saving the world, but with bicycle racing and sex.
The story begins with a dinner party at which a wager is made. The plot involves a beautiful American heiress and a race between a team of cyclists and a steam train. To make things more equal, the cyclists’ ankles are coupled together like rods and pistons. Their victory is all the more remarkable when it is discovered that one of them died halfway through the race but his partner didn’t notice and went on pedalling, moving the dead man’s foot as well as his own. The novel reaches its climax with twenty-four hours of continuous sexual intercourse, the ultimate feat of human endurance.
Jarry’s novel, like de Gaulle’s nose, embodies the French characteristics of national pride and individual panache. Jarry is as French as it’s possible to be. Cinquante nuances de gris? Bof! Like Jean Vigo, he died young. Both might have done more. Both did enough, being quintessentially French, for their compatriots to keep pedalling as if they were still alive. Their successors are legion.
It was Gide who put Jarry in a novel. He turns up in Les Faux Monnayeurs at a party for the launch of a new literary magazine, drunk as usual, waving a loaded pistol in the air and nearly kills one of the other (fictional) characters. The post-modernists continue to make use of that particular form of literary panache. Michel Houellebec appears as a character in one of his own novels, La Carte et le Territoire, and is murdered by another character in a particularly gruesome manner. In effect, the author kills himself. Suicide by literature.
“Nos morituri,” he might say to Jarry, as the Roman gladiators used to say when they entered the arena and lined up to face the emperor, “te salutamus.”