Alfred Jarry: a Cyclist
on the Wild Side
by Jim McGurn
Bound by rods to their
machines, the crew of a five man bicycle hurtle across Europe and Asia in a
grotesquely dehumanised race against an express train. The riders, who are paced
by jet cars and flying machines, reach speeds of 300 kilometres an hour thanks
to their diet of Perpetual Motion Food, a volatile mixture
of alcohol and strychnine. One of the riders dies in the saddle, an event hardly
noticed in the farcical pandemonium of technology in which the race ends after
ten thousand miles. The race is a key episode in 'The Supermale', a French novel
written in Paris in 1902, which speculates on how our minds and bodies may be
overwhelmed by technology. The author, Alfred Jarry, was fascinated by bicycles,
and they often appeared in his barbed and often shocking writings. He was also
notorious for his wild eccentricity and his outrageously unconventional cycling.
First, the scene needs to be set, since neither Jarry the writer nor Jarry the
cycling subversive make much sense away from their context.
In the thirty year period before the First World War, Paris seemed to have lost (or found) itself in an extravaganza of public display, frivolity and self-indulgence. They were heady days, at least for the many leisured property owners of Paris. Whether in a theatre box or on a bicycle it was important to be seen, to perform and to sparkle. Society life revolved around cafe talk, banquets, cabaret, duels, circuses and new technological marvels, such as the cinematograph, the electric bulb and the new chain-driven safety bicycle. Jarry himself revelled in this new technology. For instance his 'How to build a Time Machine' contains plausible technical details which slip, almost unnoticeably, into pure fantasy.
The bicycle was in. Everyone who was anyone took to the pedals in a cycling boom. Sarah Bernhardt, the actress, rode front wheel drive velocipedes in her youth and safety bicycles in middle age; Renoir, the impressionist painter, was frustrated in mid-career by a fall from a bicycle which resulted in a broken right arm. Toulouse-Lautrec, too crippled to cycle himself, turned his talent to the designing of posters advertising bicycles. And there was, of course, Alfred Jarry, who brought his love of cycling into the world of literature.
Jarry's bicycle was basic to his lifestyle and his art. He cycled day in day out through the chaos of Paris traffic. Other more genteel cyclists congregated in the Bois de Boulogne, a fashionable wooded park. They would have their bicycles transported to the Bois by coach and then cycle up and down the shaded lanes and rendezvous with friends on cafe terraces. One cycled to be seen. "On a recent ride in the Bois, Sarah Bernhardt was wearing a long brown skirt with matching loose jacket" ran an 1897 newspaper report. Such interest in cyclists' clothing was sent up beautifully by Jarry: he took to wearing at all times the tight shirt and loose trousers of a racing cyclist. This looked odd enough in the literary offices of Paris, but an even greater stir was caused when Jarry wore it at the funeral of the revered poet Mallarmé, after having followed the cortege on his bicycle. He also wore a pair of bright yellow ladies' shoes, borrowed for the occasion. Jarry did make one concession at the funeral of his friend, Marcel Schwob. As a mark of respect he pulled his trouser bottoms from out of his socks.
Jarry was no Bois de Boulogne buff. He belonged to the avant-garde community of writers and artists. For these people cycling was more than just a pleasure, and a cycle ride could be just as beautiful or radical as a poem or a painting. They were often passionate cyclists, undaunted by Paris traffic, and many of them enjoyed the sweaty pleasures of strenuous long distance riding. They saw the bicycle as a liberator, a machine to extend the potentialities of the human being. Jarry described it as an 'external skeleton' which allows mankind to outstrip the process of biological evolution. Fernarnd Léger, a Paris artist, saw the act of cycling as an aesthetic fusion of body and machine: "A bicycle operates in the realm of light. It takes control of legs, arms and body, which move on it, by it and under it. Rounded thighs become pistons, which rise or fall, fast or slow." ('The Circus')
Such attitudes and ideas were in the air when Alfred Jarry first arrived in Paris, from Rennes, in 1891 at the age of 17. He left behind him a school which had never been able to cope well with his academic excellence combined with his demonic gift for making trouble. He had led his school friends in mock sabre attacks on strangers, in impersonating monks and in reckless chemistry experiments. His love of cycling had also developed early. He was particularly fond of cycling to Mont-Saint-Michel, 30 miles away, returning at dusk. The intensity of Jarry's personality quickly made it mark on Paris. The literary world was both amused and confused by the disconcerting writing style, rich staccato speech and outrageous behaviour of this pale, five foot tall, bandy-legged student. He had already dedicated his life to the pursuit of the irrational and the squalid, with a single-mindedness which led to his early death at the age of 34 as a result of poverty, overwork and alcohol abuse.
Jarry soon became notorious. He took, for example, to riding around Paris with two revolvers tucked in his belt and a carbine across his shoulder. Some say that Jarry fired off a revolver to warn people of his approach. But it is known for certain that at one point he fixed a large bell from a tramcar onto his bicycle. All the same, Jarry was an athletic, no-nonsense cyclist and enjoyed tearing around the countryside. He criticised those who "thinking themselves poets, slow down en route to contemplate the view".
Jarry is now best known for his play, 'Ubu Roi', which has been described as a grotesque farce of epic grandeur. It caused a riot in the theatre when first performed in 1896. The character of Ubu was based on sketches Jarry had written as a schoolboy, about his gloriously inept science teacher. In the play the character has evolved into a whimsical, destructive, obscene king of a fanciful Poland. His sinister buffoonery is a prophetic satire of modern dictators. By abandoning normal ethics and standards Jarry constructed an artificial personality for himself based on the Ubu character he had created, and his behaviour, on and off his bicycle, became increasingly absurd. He gestured regally, used the royal 'We' and adopted a grandiose form of speed. A bird became "that which cheeps" and a bicycle "that which rolls". Jarry/Ubu also developed his own form of pseudo-science, called 'Pataphysicks', in which a mechanism is described in such credible detail that the underlying absurdity of what is being said can be lost from view. Despite his eccentricities and extreme behaviour, he was very well received and we have many accounts of his constant intellectual brilliance, panache and underlying good nature. He knew and influenced important writers and artists, including Picasso.
No such testimonial would have been given by the tradesman from whom Jarry acquired a top quality racing bike in 1896. It was a Clément Luxe track machine, selling at the then remarkably high price of 525 francs. Jarry signed a payment order and took charge of his "that which rolls,", returning to the shop a few weeks later for a pair of wooden rims. Although he was usually quite good at paying bills, he never actually paid for his bicycle and spent a great deal of time and effort in the remaining ten years of his life writing ornate apology letters to the shopkeeper and his bailiff. he also lampooned the unlucky shopkeeper in one of his novels.
In 1897 Jarry and his bicycle moved into some most unusual lodgings. The landlord, feeling that high ceilings were a waste of lettable space, had put in extra floors, dividing each existing floor into two. Being only 5 foot tall Jarry did not scrape his head on the ceiling, unless, perhaps, he had swapped his flat cycling shoes for the ladies' style high-heeled boots which he sometimes wore. Here he lived with his scaled-down furniture, his mountains of books, his owls and his chameleons. A visiting friend remarked on the bicycle which Jarry kept near his bed. "I use it for getting around the room," said Jarry, and he promptly leaped on the saddle and gave a skilled demonstration.
About this time he was regularly invited by literary friends to join them at their summer houses outside Paris, where he indulged in his passion for cycling and also fishing. (Jarry was, often by necessity, an uncannily successful fisherman.) When not charging round at top speed on his track bike, Jarry liked to pull along a friend who would sit in a large wheeled trailer attached by ropes to the anti-hero's bicycle. Madame Rachilde, close friend of Jarry and the wife of his publisher, was once being charioted along in this fashion when, suddenly, disaster loomed. The adventurers found themselves speeding down a steep hill with a hairpin turn at the bottom and a viaduct wall on the outside curve. Each time Jarry braked the trailer overtook the bicycle. After scolding his passenger for speeding ahead of him, he took out a knife and tried to cut the ropes, which were preventing him from controlling his bicycle. Madame Rachilde closed her eyes, resigned to her fate. Then, laughing fiendishly, Jarry threw away the knife and leaped off his saddle, letting himself be dragged along the ground until the trailer came to a halt. "Well, Madame," he intoned in his usual staccato manner, "We believe We were a little frightened... and never have We wanted so desperately to take leave of a woman." Madame Rachilde considers the incident as typical of Jarry: half criminal and half noble.
Four years before his death Jarry wrote 'The Supermale', the macabre, futuristic novel which contains the bike versus train race episode. This is not the place to describe the whole book, which concerns the search for extremes in physical performance. The ten thousand mile race chapter is self-contained and gives some interesting insights on Jarry and his times. The ten general fascination for novel traveling machines of all kinds is reflected in the number of ornately fantasised vehicles in the passage. Races between trains and multi-rider bicycles were, however, quite common in Jarry's day. A prophetic aspect of the passage is the depiction of the race as debased and dehumanised by technological and commercial pressures. the event is called 'The Perpetual Motion Race' and it is Perpetual Motion Food which propels the cyclists and, in doing so, kills one of them. Even after his death, described in wretched anti-heroic detail, financial considerations remain at the fore:
Jewey Jacobs was under contract to be fourth man in the great and honourable Perpetual Motion Race; he had signed a contract involving a penalty of twenty-five thousand dollars, payable on his future races. If he were dead he could no longer race, and would be unable to pay. So he had to race, then, alive or dead. You can go to sleep on a bicycle, so why should anyone object if you die on a bicycle? And besides, this was the Perpetual Motion Race...
Some see Jarry's race as
a warning that individualism in sport was about to be smothered by commercial
or nation state interests. Hitler's misuse of the Berlin Olympic Games can be
cited, as can the Eastern Bloc's mechanistic, state-nurtured sports teams. Although
different in many ways, Moser's Hour Record a few years back has some uncanny
similarities to Jarry's race described 86 years ago. Moser, too, rode a bizarre
product of high technology on a specially laid down track; his performance,
too, was supported by scientifically regulated preparation and diet; and his
event, too, was sponsored by a sports energy food producer.
Jarry, the misfit midget, creator of the monster Ubu and the android cyclists, died in abject poverty. His last request was for a toothpick. When he finally had one in his fingers it seemed, his doctor, writes, "as if he were suddenly filled with a great joy as on the days he went off fishing or on a canoe or a bicycle trip. I barely stepped aside to talk to the nurse when he signalled me to turn around. He was drawing his last breath."
'The Supermale', translated from the French by Barbara Wright, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1968. 'The Selected Works of Alfred Jarry (not including 'The Supermale'), edited by Shattuck and Watson-Taylor, was published by Methuen in 1965. 'The Banquet Years', by Roger Shattuck, is a very readable description of Jarry, his fellow artists and Parisian life. Faber and Faber, 1958
© Jim McGurn
New Cyclist, Spring 1989
other stories by J. McGurn
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