Although his works are not widely read in English, Alfred-Henri Jarry (zhah-ree) is a significant figure in absurdist literature. His father, Anselme Jarry, a traveling merchant, married Caroline Quernest, a judge’s daughter with noble lineage. Jarry was born in Laval, France, in 1873, during the Feast of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin. Soon after his son’s birth, Anselme Jarry became an alcoholic. Caroline Jarry, an eccentric woman, often affected pretentious airs and draped herself in outlandish apparel. She was separated from her husband and moved to Saint-Brieuc while her son was still young.
Jarry was indifferent to his bourgeois father but devoted to his mother, whose eccentricities he would later imitate. His novel L’Amour absolu (absolute love) is a treatment of motherly love that wavers between incest and adulation. A brilliant student, Jarry won prizes in foreign languages and science at Saint-Brieuc and later at Rennes. Short, stocky, and bowlegged, Jarry compensated for his appearance with his caustic wit and rebellious behavior. Aside from the classics, Jarry was influenced by François Rabelais, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, and William Shakespeare. With his schoolmates, Jarry staged bawdy lampoons of his incompetent and physically repulsive physics teacher, Félix Hébert. An early puppet show, “Les Polonais” (the Poles), depicted Père Hébé as a parody of Macbeth. This character would obsess Jarry for the rest of his life and would lead directly to his most famous work, Ubu Roi. While attending the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, Jarry became familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and attended Henri Bergson’s lectures on comedy. After his mother’s death in 1893, he abandoned his education for a literary career.
With his bizarre attire and affected mannerisms, he soon attracted attention at the literary gatherings of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and formed a lifelong friendship with Alfred Vallette, editor of the famous literary journal Mercure de France. “Guignol” (puppet show), his first work published in...
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