Continuing with the five new books for February 2012, we’re pleased to publish The Subversive Poetics of Alfred Jarry: Ubusing Culture in the Almanachs du Père Ubu, by Marieke Dubbelboer. Ubu was Jarry’s catch-all surname for all that was stuffed-shirt, all that was authoritative, all that must be fondly mocked, all that must be exalted. His name is mostly familiar today from Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, but the annals of Ubu’s many lives go far beyond that. Colonel Ubu browbeats his officers out in north Africa. The astrologer Père Ubu offers a calendar of saints in his Almanach for 1899, many of them invented. An Almanac makes a perfect target for Jarry’s own form of parody, because its authority is so easy to abuse. Wickedly mad additions slip into otherwise factual lists. The astronomical part of the Almanac notes, in a dead-pan way: “Partial eclipse of Père Ubu on the 29th, the 30th and the 31st of February.” 1899 was not, of course, a leap year. And what are we to make of advertisements like this?
Shopkeepers, bistros, landlords, drunks, to really purify your wines, ask for Charles Bonnard’s odourless Blood Powder, on sale at the general laboratory in Bercy, 7 rue Soulages.
Marieke’s book teases out a number of riddles here — Charles is the brother of the painter Pierre Bonnard, and blood powder did exist. Charles was also a sort of commercial agent for Jarry in selling the book, which was propelled by a circle of intriguing figures — some of them exactly the sort of staid, middle-aged authority types Jarry was tweaking the noses of.
This is the trouble with mocking the grown-ups: if you want to do it in front of the public, you’re eventually going to need the grown-ups to give you a platform. Charlie Brooker spent years making fake Radio Times web pages, filled with stupendous bile, and hardly anyone saw them. Now he’s a Guardian columnist and a TV presenter, but I rather think he had to go cap-in-hand to some media moguls along the way. For me, the unsung hero of the Almanachs is the printer, Charles Renaudie, in spite of Jarry’s exasperation at his “lenteur typographique”. Unerringly headed for commercial failure, and more or less improvised before Renaudie’s eyes, with doodles and lists and jumbled fonts, Jarry’s books must have been a headache to publish from beginning to end.