Jarry, Alfred 1873-1907
French dramatist, author of stories and short novels, essayist, critic, and poet.
Best known for his experimental dramas, especially Ubu Roi, Jarry also wrote short novels that abandoned realism and traditional literary approaches, thereby precipitating modernist trends in the early twentieth century. In much of his fiction Jarry employed perverse and biting humor, fantastic scenarios, grotesque characters, and nonlinear narratives, exalting the imagination and human potential while satirizing bourgeois mentality, technological progress, and religion. The autobiographical and historical works among his short novels are more subtle but still convey his eccentric view of life and his condemnation of society's system of values.
Jarry was born in Laval, Mayenne, near Brittany. His father was a traveling salesman for a wool factory, and his mother was the daughter of a Brittany judge. Jarry, a brilliant student though an unregenerate troublemaker, attended the Lycée at Rennes from 1888 to 1891. At school he excelled in the sciences as well as Greek and Latin, and works such as Gestes et opinions du Dr. Faustroll, pataphysicien (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician) reflect the diligence with which he kept himself informed of the latest scientific developments throughout his lifetime. In 1891, Jarry went to Paris to attend the Lycée Henri IV and to prepare for the difficult entrance exams for the Ecole Normale. While there, he studied theories of comedy and laughter with Henri Bergson and, in 1893, met Marcel Schwob, a prominent Symbolist writer and the editor of L'écho de Paris. Schwob introduced Jarry into Parisian literary circles, and Jarry's bizarre attire and studied eccentricities brought him instant notoriety in the cafés and salons of Paris. A man who was known to keep owls and chameleons, he would appear in public wearing a long black cape, a cyclist's uniform, or perhaps a paper shirt with a tie painted on, and carrying a loaded revolver that he would occasionally fire for dramatic effect; he also began to affect the mannerisms of Ubu, the protagonist in Ubu Roi, speaking in a monotone drone and walking in a jerky, robot-like fashion. Furthermore, he abandoned himself to the use of alcohol, drinking ether when he could not afford absinthe.
Jarry's poetry and prose began appearing in L'écho de Paris in 1903, and he was awarded both of that paper's literary prizes for the best work by a young author. Thus encouraged, Jarry abandoned his plan of attending the École Normale in favor of a career in letters. He began collaborating with Rémy de Gourmont on the production of an art review entitled L'ymagier, which was devoted to the presentation of popular and religious woodcuts. After quarreling with Gourmont, he continued on his own with a review of the same nature entitled Perhinderion. This elaborate publication exhausted the modest inheritance Jarry had received upon the death of his parents, and he was thereafter forced to support himself with his writings and the financial assistance of close friends. In 1903 the Revue blanche, for which Jarry had written the weekly column "Gestes," folded. With his only reliable source of income gone, Jarry gradually succumbed to malnutrition and poverty. He died in 1907 from tubercular meningitis complicated by his alcoholism.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician is Jarry's most influential work apart from his dramas about Ubu. Jarry found his inspiration for writing the novel in the stories of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. The amazing events described in Dr. Faustroll are related by Jarry with such careful attention to scientific detail that the narrative soon begins to take on a disconcerting air of reality. In this work Jarry also defined "pataphysics" for the first time. This "science of imaginary solutions," as Jarry explained it, enables Faustroll to build a time machine, to sail in a sieve, and to calculate the surface area of God. Pataphysics is Jarry's most ingenious device, and many modern writers have acknowledged the influence of Jarry's absurd "science" on their works. Another work with a pseudoscientific premise, Le surmâle (The Supermale) takes as its subject the physical limits and potential of humans. In the first part of the short novel, human is pitted against machine in a 10,000 mile race between a train and a team of men on a four-person bicycle. In the second part, a man participates in an experiment to determine the number of sexual climaxes that can be achieved by one person in a twenty-four hour period. In Les jours et les nuits (Days and Nights) Jarry uses his own experiences in the military as the basis for a story that is both a satire of army life and an account of an individual's spiritual quest. Drawn mainly from the texts of Classical historians, the events of Messaline (Messalina) portray the debauchery and moral corruption initiated by Messalina, the wife of Emperor Claudius.
When Jarry died in 1907 his place in literature was far from assured, and his name was already fading from the literary scene. He remained in obscurity until the 1920s when the dramatist Antonin Artaud acknowledged Jarry as an inspiration for many of his theories and works. In 1949 the modernist writers Boris Vian and Eugene Ionesco honored Jarry's invention of pataphysics by instituting the Collège du Pataphysique ("College of Pataphysics"), declaring that it "refused to serve any purpose, refused to save mankind, or what is even more unusual, the world." Despite such assertions, the College's official publications, such as Les Cahiers du Collège de Pataphysique (The Notebooks of the College of Pataphysics), have consistently been among the best available sources of criticism on Jarry, and its members have made many valuable contributions to Jarry scholarship. Today an increasing number of critics consider Jarry as important an author as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and the study of his writings has accelerated in recent years. As critical controversies surrounding Jarry's works are more closely examined, readers may more fully comprehend his "daring and enigmatic works," written, as Linda Klieger Stillman has pointed out, "at a critical moment in the history of man and of literature: the inauguration of what we now call the modern age."