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Days and Nights.

When the major modernist writers are listed, Alfred Jarry is often excluded, forgotten about, and yet what a tremendous impact on modernism he had. Dadaism, surrealism, and absurdism were all derived from his work. In addition to this, much of his writing is very enjoyable and stimulating to read. Maybe that's part of the trouble: not enough people read him, a major reason being that his books are very difficult to find. Congratulations, then, are in order to Atlas for publishing so much of it recently.

Many historians and critics seem to underrate Jarry as a technician and intellect. In his twenties he was already pretty well-read in several areas including science, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary politics. As a very young man he'd already been a coeditor with Remy de Gourmont of L'Ymaginiev, "which published and analyzed ... medieval and popular prints, usually of a religious nature," according to Alastair Brotchie's helpful introduction.

The play Caesar Antichrist, Jarry's second book (1895), was illustrated as well as written by him. In it there is a good deal of theoretical information about the discipline or quasi-discipline he created, pataphysics. Opposites and their tendency to neutralize each other, thus, in his opinion, eventually amounting to the same thing, get considerable attention here. Caesar Antichrist claims, "I and the Christ are Janus." In the midst of abstract dialogues involving Christ, Caesar Antichrist, and Saint Peter, Jarry inserts a condensation of his humorous, earthy Ubu Roi play, which was to be performed in 1896 (it had been done with marionettes as early as 1888). This is done not only to shock, but to set up a contrast between it and other sections of the play, in accordance with Jarry's theory of opposites.

Days and Nights, Jarry's first novel, appeared in 1897. An autobiographical work, it deals with his thirteen months in the army (he was drafted) and his method of securing a medical discharge so that he did not have to serve his entire three-year stretch. Jarry (he calls himself Sengle here) had a friend who showed him various ways to deceive doctors into thinking he was sicker than he was, such as sticking a thermometer under his armpit to make his temperature appear unusually high. Part of his novel is devoted to criticizing the army and military medicine; a lot of this is funny. Other chapters are devoted to his dreams and hallucinations; Jarry got high a lot on alcohol and drugs, so they are pretty vivid.

Jarry comes across as a likeable character, a lot less weird than some accounts of him would lead you to believe. For one thing, his beefs about the military are pretty much like other soldiers' and can easily be identified with. His methods of getting out of work and goofing off have plenty in common with Sergeant Bilko's; that's a definite plus.

Alastair Brotchie, whose introductions and notes in both books are quite astute and useful, implies that Jarry influenced James Joyce, an interesting observation. On one hand, Joyce's work can be accounted for without Jarry; he was influenced by French symbolist poetry (as was Jarry) and the pre-1900 stream-of-consciousness work of Eduard Dujardin and George Moore, plus Moore's post-1900 "melodic line" style. But Jarry at least anticipated Joyce in several ways: both employed complex symbolism, both devoted a great deal of attention to interior states, such as dreams, both used sentence fragments and free association of ideas, and both employed wordplay, including neologisms.

In any event, very few writers marked twentieth-century literature as strongly as Jarry. His work should be taught in universities along with Joyce's, Eliot's and Pound's, and it should be realized that there is more to his oeuvre than the Ubu plays, as the innovative prose writing in Days and Nights, The Supermale, and Dr. Faustroll make abundantly clear.
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Author:Pekar, Harvey
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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