Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Not possible! That Jarry? I took him for a servant."

Late in Andre Gide's novel The Counterfeiters, in a chapter titled "The Argonaut's Dinner," we stumble across a familiar literary figure:

Passavant had sent for three fresh glasses, which he filled with kummel. They all four drank Olivier's health. The bottle was almost empty, and as Sarah was astonished to see the crystals remaining at the bottom, Passavant tried to dislodge them with a straw. A strange kind of clown, with a befloured face, a black beady eye, and hair plastered down on his head like a skullcap, came up.

"You won't do it," he said, munching out each one of his syllables with an effort which was obviously assumed. "Pass me the bottle. I'll smash it."

He seized it, broke it with a blow against the window ledge, and presenting the bottom of the bottle to Sarah:

"With a few of these little sharp-edged polyhedra, the charming young lady will easily induce a perforation of her gizzard."

"Who is that pierrot?" she asked Passavant, who had made her sit down and was sitting beside her.

"It's Alfred Jarry, the author of Ubu Roi. The Argonauts have dubbed him a genius because the public have just damned his play. All the same, it's the most interesting thing that's been put on the stage for a long time."

"I like Ubu Roi very much," said Sarah, "and I'm delighted to see Jarry. I had heard he was always drunk."

"I should think he must be tonight. I saw him drink two glasses of neat absinthe at dinner. He doesn't seem any the worse for it. Won't you have a cigarette? One has to smoke oneself so as not to be smothered by other people's smoke."

He bent towards her to give her a light. She crunched a few of the crystals.

"Why! It's nothing but sugar candy," she said, a little disappointed. "I was hoping it was going to be something strong."

The hijinks continue at this drunken party of the Paris avant-garde literati, as Jarry pulls out a loaded pistol and later, one poet challenges another to a duel. The recent debut of Jarry's play dates the novel's setting for us, and we know we are in 1896.


  1. Good. Jarry should be an incidental characters in more books. In most books.

  2. Gide portrays Jarry as a bundle of affectations and has him publish works in a magazine put together by and for literary hacks, but he also manages to hold Jarry somewhat apart from those hacks, who are all trying to emulate him. Anyway, I was delighted to stumble across Jarry at Gide's party. Not quite the Nabokov sightings in The Emigrants, but I like this sort of thing.

  3. Jarry was a very good friend of the travel writer Ruffiington Bousweau.. Their relationship is talked about a bit in The Manly Man's Guide to the ports of Adriatic.