Alfred Jarry, the Uninvited Guest, Achras & Ubu

Jill Fell

Death and love would thereafter be linked themes in Jarry’s fictitious texts. His first book, Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial, which contains by far the majority of his whole poetic output, can be interpreted as a memorial to his early youth, the section of his life now ended by the death of his mother. The powerful closing poem of the collection, Le Sablier, in which a draining hourglass stands in for a bleeding heart, is one of lament, although the subject of the lament is not overtly named.

The role of Jarry’s mother as a source of inspiration in his work is occluded but should not be overlooked. Keith Beaumont believed he never recovered from her death. He points to the ‘grandiose memorial service’ celebrated at the church of Saint-Jacques du Haut Pas in Paris on 11 May 1894, which, though paid for by his father, must have been at Jarry’s initiative, so that his mother’s memory would be honoured in the capital city itself and possibly at the church where she had worshipped. Used as she was to the music of the massive organ at Saint-Brieuc Cathedral, its fellow at Saint-Jacques du Haut Pas would have naturally drawn her. The receipt for the cost of this service was found carefully preserved among Jarry’s papers.


Whether or not written from his sickbed, the poems and prose pieces that Jarry produced during the first half of 1893 won five literary prizes between February and August of that year. Together with Fargue, he was a popular guest at the apartment of the erudite writer, Marcel Schwob (1867–1905), whose monthly Écho de Paris competition he had won with a triple contribution under the title Guignol. Part prose, part dramatic dialogue, Guignol represented Jarry’s first attempt to launch the schoolboy comedy, Les Polonais, into the arena of adult literature. This experimental piece, L’Autoclète, in which Monsieur Ubu forces himself and his henchmen, the robotic Palotins, on the hospitality of the scientist Achras and then murders him, would be incorporated in the later Ubu Cocu. Ubu confounds his scientist host by introducing himself as ‘a great pataphysician’. In the face of his bewilderment, Ubu simply announces that he has invented pataphysics, since it was a science whose lack was generally felt. Jarry intended Ubu’s remark to be funny. In this early piece the notion of pataphysics is unencumbered by the complex definitions that he later felt under pressure to provide.


Jarry dedicated Ubu Roi to Schwob. His visits and his readings from Ubu Roi did much to cheer the writer, suffering as he was with a form of syphilis that finally killed him in 1905. His companion, the actress Marguerite Moreno, relates how the announcement of certain visitors would cause his face to darken, but that Jarry’s elegant conversation charmed him, and that his performance of Ubu Roi reduced him to helpless tears of laughter. Schwob shared his literary enthusiasms with Jarry, who in turn relished hearing his friend read in English, whether from Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Nights, or the adventure stories of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson. Ill though he was, he undertook the long sea voyage to visit Stevenson in Samoa, arriving only after the writer’s death. It was probably at Schwob’s instigation that Jarry translated Stevenson’s short story, Olalla.

The person whom Jarry made particular efforts to charm and to persuade of his literary talent, was, however, a very different character from either Rachilde or Schwob. Erudite bibliophile, critic and the descendant of a long line of master printers, Remy de Gourmont, a founder member of the Mercure de France, could make or break a new writer entering the literary mêlée. Jarry swiftly embraced Gourmont’s various passions, whether for medieval woodcuts, Latin literature or old ballads. It was Gourmont who had discovered the manuscript of Le Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror in the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he worked and published an article on them. Jarry had no difficulty in absorbing Lautréamont’s violent writing style and filled his play Haldernablou with Maldororisms. He dedicated the play to Gourmont, perhaps in the hope of appearing to be a successor to this strange poet.

Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial is an eclectic selection of pieces of very variable mood and quality. Jarry was writing in the final phase of the Symbolist era and his writing style of 1893–6 was marked by the hermeticism of that movement. His ideal and intended readership had had its responses sharpened by Mallarmé, whose well-known dictum was that to name an object in a poem removed three-quarters of its enjoyment. From the first Jarry set out to infuse his writing with maximum suggestive power and ambiguity. Words, for him, were not bound to a dictionary definition dictated by their orthography, but should be allowed multiple meanings. Echoing Mallarmé, he wrote that it was important to ‘Suggest instead of stating; create a crossroads where all words can come together in the great highway of sentences.’

In his preface to Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial Jarry sets out his contract with his future readers, instructing them in the way they should approach all his future texts. It is an exhortation to use not only their eyes but also their ears in the business of interpreting the words that they read. He tells them to think of their ears as the pans of a jeweller’s scales and to weigh words in them as carefully as if they were diamonds. His preface is not a welcome to the reader but a warning.

(DILEMMA) By reason of the fact that one has written the work oneself, one has the advantage of active superiority over the passive listener. Every meaning that the reader will find has been foreseen, and he will never find all of them; the author can play Blind Man’s Buff with his poor brain, suggesting unexpected, posterior and contradictory ones.

In the face of this challenge Jarry’s Linteau (Lintel), the title of his preface, does not seem a doorway through which the reader would step without misgivings. The author is standing like Cerberus in front of the door to his work, daring the reader to enter. Four difficult novels would follow Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial. It was not until Jarry began to write regular articles for La Revue blanche nearly a decade after the publication of his first book that he realized the benefits of writing concisely and clearly for the amusement of the general reader.

‘Le Sablier’ (The Hourglass), the well-named poem that closes Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial, refers obliquely to the landscape of sand and marshes that Jarry has left behind with his childhood. The adjacent illustration, which shows a schematic heart bleeding into the base of a broken bottle, connotative of drunken brawls, is an extraordinarily modern juxtaposition, stripping the theme of romance. Neither the poem nor the illustration gives any hint as to whether it is a particular person whose loss has caused the heart of the poet to be drained, and in whose memory the sand of his personal hourglass now spills out. Narcissistically, it spills into its own reflection, but the reflection lies on the surface of a marsh pool. The poem contains a suppressed anguish unmatched in the rest of Jarry’s work and draws a line under the period of his childhood and adolescence.

SOURCE: Fell, Jill. Alfred Jarry (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2010), pp. 33-37, 38-39. Endnote numbers (17-26) and illustrations omitted.

Note: This is the first appearance of Ubu, who intrudes with pataphysics and violence upon Achras fussing with his polyhedra. See also:

Jarry, Alfred. “Black Minutes of Memorial Sand” [Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial], translated, introduced and annotated by Paul Edwards; in Adventures in ’Pataphysics, edited by Alastair Brotchie & Paul Edwards, translated by Paul Edwards & Antony Melville (London: Atlas Press, 2001), pp. 9-98; notes, 271-297. (Atlas Anti-classic; 8. Collected Works of Alfred Jarry; I) Contents of volume.

Achras: a private joke, the name being derived from that of Jarry’s mathematics teacher at the Rennes Lycée, Monsieur Perrier, which sounds like poirier, a pear tree, which in Greek is aχpaç, i.e. “achras”. He pronounces “que” as “qué”, thus signifying that he has a pronounced (stage) accent, and repeatedly says “voyez-vous bien’’, indicating the “senility” mentioned in the third paragraph. Achras’s age and accent were emphasised in the extract from L’Auctoclète broadcast during the radio programme Bonjour Monsieur Jarry (1951) and in Joël Bluteau’s production of Ubu Cocu (Nanterre, 2000). [p. 275]

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