A Pataphysical Life
424 pp., 7 x 9 in, 156 b&w illus.
- Published: August 21, 2015
- Published: September 16, 2011
This long-awaited biography of Alfred Jarry reconstructs a life both "ubuesque" and pataphysical.
When Alfred Jarry died in 1907 at the age of thirty-four, he was a legendary figure in Paris—but this had more to do with his bohemian lifestyle and scandalous behavior than his literary achievements. A century later, Jarry is firmly established as one of the leading figures of the artistic avant-garde.
Even so, most people today tend to think of Alfred Jarry only as the author of the play Ubu Roi, and of his life as a string of outlandish “ubuesque” anecdotes, often recounted with wild inaccuracy. In this first full-length critical biography of Jarry in English, Alastair Brotchie reconstructs the life of a man intent on inventing (and destroying) himself, not to mention his world, and the “philosophy” that defined their relation.
Brotchie alternates chapters of biographical narrative with chapters that connect themes, obsessions, and undercurrents that relate to the life. The anecdotes remain, and are even augmented: Jarry's assumption of the “ubuesque,” his inversions of everyday behavior (such as eating backward, from cheese to soup), his exploits with gun and bicycle, and his herculean feats of drinking. But Brotchie distinguishes between Jarry's purposely playing the fool and deeper nonconformities that appear essential to his writing and his thought, both of which remain a vital subterranean influence to this day.
Who was Alfred Jarry really? And how did this angry young man from the provinces come to invent pataphysics and to write the revolutionary drama Ubu Roi? In this, the first full-length biography of Jarry in English, Alastair Brotchie, himself a central figure in the 'Collège de 'Pataphysique' and scholar of the avant-garde, gives us a richly documented, beautifully illustrated, and intimate portrait of the complex personality behind the Ubu masks. I found it a real page-turner.
Marjorie Perloff, author of The Futurist Moment and Unoriginal Genius
Alastair Brotchie has achieved something very rare. In giving us the first detailed account of Jarry's life, he shares a lot of discoveries and unknown documents but avoids reducing the life to a collection of biographical or archival facts. Indeed, he makes us feel, think, act, see, and almost speak in connivance with this delicate and strange monster, Alfred Jarry.
Thieri Foulc, cofounder of the Oupeinpo and Provéditeur-Éditeur Général of the Collège de 'Pataphysique
Aficionados of Alfred Jarry's writings will welcome this urgently necessary life of the inventor of 'Pataphysics, that mad and minor science of imaginary solutions. Alastair Brotchie's biography fills an enormous gap in our understanding not only of Jarry's complex life but of the tangled sociocultural networks of tastes and antipathies that constructed the Banquet Years. Impeccably researched, masterfully written, and profusely illustrated, Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life is guaranteed to broaden and deepen Anglophone interest in Jarry (whom Cyril Connolly dubbed the Santa Claus of the atomic age) and 'Pataphysics alike.
Steve McCaffery, David Gray Chair Professor of Poetry and Letters, University at Buffalo, coeditor of Imagining Language: An Anthology
Alfred Jarry provides many new facts, some pertinent analyses, and a clutch of outrageously amusing yarns.
Alastair Brotchie brilliantly evokes the avant-garde artistic movements of fin-de-siecle Paris in all their glittering grubbiness.
Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie is a superb chronicle of the life and times of the fin-de-siècle French writer.
Times Literary Supplement — (Book of the Year 2011)
An enthralling, scrupulously researched, and elegantly written biography.
The New York Review of Books
[Brotchie] gives us an unmatched and vivid picture of the belle epoque's avant-garde, of which Jarry was an important, original part.
...[Brotchie's] tone is clear and informed, rooted in a familiarity with Jarry that has something quite personal about it, which is all for the good.
Brotchie's archival work and translations are meticulous…Highly recommended.—M. Gaddis Rose
[Brotchie] skilfully moves between providing a relatively straightforward and sympathetic account of the writer's life and critically sorting through the narratives that have sustained and shaped the long-standing image of Jarry... Brotchie's refusal to mythologise stands as the book's greatest strength, and as a fitting testament to the manifold complexity of Alfred Jarry.
How a schoolboy caricature evolved into Jarry's best-known creation, his monstrous 'every-man', Père Ubu, is a fascinating story which Brotchie tells with impressive scholarship, sympathy and wit.
Brotchie's painstaking and drily funny biography is now the most ample account of Jarry and his importance that is available in our language; it is unlikely ever to be bettered.
The Literary Review
That Jarry comes across as both more and less than we might expect from his reputation and his writings is a result of Brotchie so resolutely and expertly keeping his eye on the available facts and not allowing himself to wander into speculation and hero-worship.