WHAT A CURIOSITY, Alfred Jarry.
During much of his life his behavior was at least as strange as his art. He carried a loaded revolver along the streets of Paris, pretended to be the incarnately corrupt hero of his fin-de-siede play Ubu Rof (1896), and passionately expoused bicycling, fishing, and Rosicrucianism. Jarry was a facile student of mathematics and philosophy (under Henri Bergson) but tried unsuccessfully for four years, while already an established avant-garde writer, to gain entry to the Ecole Normale. He yearned for knowledge as if it were the source of sanity.
Jarry shared quarters with Gauguin, drank with Van Gogh, and pursued oblivion in the company of symbolists Stephane Mallarine and Remy de Gourmont. He wasted the small fortune his parents left him, avoided eating and lived the last ten years of his life in a squalid room that was barely high enough (he was just over five feet tall) to stand in. He became addicted to absinthe but switched to either because it was cheaper. He died at the age of 34 in 1907. His last request was for a toothpick.
Jarry felt summoned by the powers of science to some higher level of thought and once considered a career as a scientist. He wanted to $99;[WORD ILLEGIBLE] the unknowable, to decorate the possible. In his novel Favstroll, he described a mock-serious philosophy called Pataphysics as "the science of the realm beyond metaphysics . . . the science of imaginary solutions . . . the science of the particular, of laws governing exceptions."
The Supermale is a pataphysician's Garden of Eden. It's also a gorgeous literary relic and an ancestor of the contemporary novel. Jarry had no reverence. No discretion. He was writing black humor before it was invented.
Published in 1902, The Supermale is placed in the year 1920, when everything has gone beyond the imaginable, a pataphysically logical proposition. (For example, the United States has proclaimed that the only hygienic beverage is pure alcohol and newly militant temperance societies are stamping out the drinking of water.) Jarry's hero, a mysteriously ageless and muscle-bound French aristocrat named Andre Marcueil, strives for monumental sexual excellence, and soon finds himself in a tower filled with French whores. More important, Marcueil makes contact with a nubile American in Paris, a pre-Feminist named Ellen. Marcueil and Ellen nearly fornicate to death. In the process, analytical Marcueil "discovers" woman and learns that "assiduous lovemaking leaves no time to experience love." Too late. An electrical contraption is plugged to his brain to restore Marcueil's vital functions after his erotic collapse. The machine falls in love with him. Rejected, it thrusts him to a rosy crucifixion on a fence of ironwork. Marcueil's tears turn to molten glass.
Too much sex drive can drive you crazy, the priest used to tell the kids in the parochial grade school I attended. Jarry extends the thesis into a fabulous story not to be believed, but to be mined. A continuous delight, The Supermale is a work of the imagination stoned on satire. Only Jarry could say what else.
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE said that happiness is like a butterfly that evades you if you chase it and may light on you if you sit down. The Sunday of Life is a novel about a man whom happiness follows like Hawthorne's butterfly. The report of how this marvel occurs is so droll that one could read it as a 180-page smile - which would miss the larger wonder of how playfulness turns serious, which we often call art.
It's the work of the owlish French poet-novelist-historian Raymond Queneau, who died last October at the age of 73. One of the 10 members of the Academia Goncourt, he wrote around two dozen books. But like some of the better French wines, his fiction doesn't travel well. It has an ambiguous philosophic cast that doesn't square with conventional Anglo-Saxon morality.
Furthermore, Queneau doesn't really write stories. He writes points of view. He illustrates ideas, most of which come from Queneau's romance with Hegel. The essence of spirit is freedom. War defines mankind. We cannot reach truth without passing through contradictions. Some of this Queneau believes. Some he spoofs. Some he throws in to make sure we're paying attention.
Queneau's young hero, Pvt. Valentine Bru, glides through life as though demonstrating Freud's principle that pleasure is the absence of pain. Absurdity is visited on him without effect. Queneau has Bru look at life in odd pieces that bear no apparent relationship - new prime ministers and statues in a park, heavy necking in a tunnel of love and business failures. Yet the pieces must be integrated into a perception of the whole, regardless of how boring, undramatic, and perhaps pointless the whole may be. Such considerations plunge Bru "into an abyss of stupe-faction."
But Queneau knows about hope. Pvt. Bru, analyzing life through parallels with battles and wars, can weather anything, including his wife's disabling stroke, his brother-in-law's sudden fame as a maker of rifle butts, and his own mobilization for the phony war of 1940.
Queneau's novel is about all the things it appears to be about: being nobody lost in history, but content; clouds of gloom with comic linings; the tranquilizer imagination; the struggle of doing good (the recalled Pvt. Bru tries sainthood and gets captured); and how time becomes the money of our lives. And it's about stretching the limits of the novel form. The Sunday of Life refracts philosophy into fiction. It bends ideas into jokes and characters that form a comic reconstruction of the philosophy. Valentine Bru is Charlie Chaplin posing as Hegel in a state of innocence. And the book leaves open other possibilities as well. After all, Queneau's favorite character in fiction was Dostoyevsky's Idiot.