Fed up with newspapers? Buy Père Ubu’s almanac!

Almanach Ubu

Thinking about this post I realised how long I hadn’t written anything about Alfred Jarry. I have been preoccupied with my new project and every since my book on Jarry was published in 2012 (yes, shameless plug) I have unfortunately neglected him a bit. I lived with Jarry for more years than I care to remember (he was the topic of my MA dissertation and my PhD thesis), but I still find myself revisiting his work every now and then. Not always for research related reasons. Whenever I am in need of some humour and creativity to counter the self-important earnestness of certain corners of academia, I turn to the infinite wisdom of Père Ubu and his almanacs. Many copies of the Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, the first one  published in 1899 and the second almanac  in 1901, remained unsold at the time. However, I’d like to think that Jarry would have appreciated that at least one person would be carrying them around religiously more than a century later. That one person being me.

File 14-05-2015 15 00 30What possessed Jarry to create these two Almanacs? Well, almanacs were one of the earliest periodical publications in print history, but they were still being published and widely read around 1900 even though this period was in many ways the golden age of the newspaper. Popular newspapers like Le Petit Parisien issued almanacs every year. Some of these, such as the one below, you can find here on Gallica. They provided an overview of the year, practical information, a calendar, illustrations to the year’s main events. Like the weekly illustrated supplements the almanac was something readers might want to keep and preserve unlike the throwaway daily paper. They were also used as a promotional tool to lure subscribers to the paper. 

Almanach illustré du Peti

Promotion was no doubt one of the reasons Alfred Jarry came up with the idea of creating an Almanach du Père Ubu. After the tumultuous premiere of his play Ubu Roi in 1896 Jarry felt it was probably a good idea to capitalise on the notoriety he and his character Ubu had acquired. Despite the fact that the play had garnered lots of (negative) publicity and controversy, Jarry’s books still didn’t sell well. Jarry was still not a household name, but Ubu’s name was. The tourist guide Paris-Parisien (1899) even mentions Père Ubu among a list of important literary figure visitors to Paris should definitely be familiar with. So Jarry asked two of his friends, the visual artist Pierre Bonnard and composer Claude Terrasse to work with him on the first almanac. They must have thought that the name of Ubu alone would be able to carry such a publication as their own names are not mentioned as authors. They even saw opportunities for a periodical, because the original intention was to publish an Ubu almanac every three months. This never happened. The two publications, like all of Jarry’s work, never became a commercial success. Or a critical success for that matter. They were too absurd, too avant-garde, too marginal, too obscene. Or too bad? Who knows. Who cares. I like them.

In true 1890’s avant-garde style both almanacs are a self-aware mix of literature, art, self-promotion, and a satirical take on news and newspapers. Both almanacs have their own calendar, full of real, obscene and imaginary saints as well as fake advertising or holidays invented by Ubu. Ubu treats us to his enlightened views on current issues such as the Dreyfus Affair, discusses events that haven’t happened yet, presents inventions that already exist, goes on imaginary journeys through the city of Paris, misbehaves himself in the colonies and awards well-known personalities with honorary titles in his own version of the Légion d’honneur. The almanac are absurd, irreverent, obscene, childish and created in the spirit of one Jarry’s heroes, Rabelais. Pierre Bonnard and Claude Terrasse not only contributed illustrations and musical scores, but also texts and ideas. It’s a shame I think that these works are not more widely known, but thanks to digitalisation they are at least available. The second one can be found online here on Gallica and the first almanac can be downloaded here as a pdf from the website of the Société des Amis d’Alfred Jarry. Even if you don’t read French, you can still enjoy the illustrations.

Ubu calendar

Detail from the calendar with real and imaginary Saints – Almanach illustré du Père Ubu pour 1901.

The first almanac was a tiny, pocket-size publication whereas the second one came in a more standard booklet format. The Société des amis d’Alfred Jarry has published a facsimile of the first almanac whereas the second almanac has also been republished by independent publisher Le Castor Astral. Here is a picture of the copies I own of those reproductions just to show  how they differ in size. The first one really is small. It literally fits in one hand.

Almanachs

The first Almanac was written in a short period of time, probably at Claude Terrasse’s house in Montmartre in late 1898. We know for sure that the second one was written in a few days in December 1900 in the basement of the art gallery of Ambroise Vollard, the well-known art dealer. It was Vollard who also published the second one, a much more upscale edition as you can see from the picture above. The paper was of a higher quality, it had colour, larger illustrations and the price was higher too. Vollard was a clever businessman so he added the words ‘second edition’ en ‘for sale everywhere’ to the cover of the 1901 Almanac, even though this was clearly not the case. Vollard’s marketing trick failed. Just like the first one, the second almanac didn’t sell either. Most bookshops even refused to take any copies. But Ubu’s almanac did have admirers in artistic circles, such as Picasso and Apollinaire who both owned copies. Jarry’s work, his self-invented philosophy of ‘pataphysics, have inspired many artists, writers and thinkers to this day, evidenced by the various ‘pataphysical ‘clubs’ around the world. The original one, the Collège de Pataphysique, is also still going strong.

Much of the text of the Almanacs is not easy to comprehend today. A lot of the satire of current events is lost without any knowledge of said events or of how contemporary newspapers reported on them.  Yet there is a lot of political satire in the two works even though Ubu’s language, full of puns, self-invented words and references to other artistic works, can be a challenge. The way Jarry ‘ubused‘ (as I called it in my book, probably thinking back then I was being very clever) the world around him and incorporated it in his  work was nothing if not unique. There are still plenty of insider jokes, cultural and personal references to Jarry, his circle of friends that neither I or anyone else familiar with Jarry’s work have managed to figure out. But don’t be put off by that. Most of Pierre Bonnard’s illustrations are less ambiguous, whether it is Ubu riding in his ‘Omnubu’ through the city of Paris, Ubu standing in front of a kiosk or a praying penis with an aureola doodled in the margins of the calendar above. They speak for themselves. And both Almanacs can be enjoyed even without in-depth knowledge of the cultural-historical context. They certainly made me smile when I was revisiting them again this week.

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Ubu and his companion, Monsieur Fourneau, drive the ‘Omnubu’ through the streets of Paris – Almanach du Père Ubu 1899, illustré

Fig3.1

Père Ubu and his companion in front of a kiosk  – Almanach du Père Ubu 1899, illustré.

Both almanacs, apart from being a collaborative artistic project and promoting the Ubu works, satirise politics, the news and the way events were reported in newspapers. Among the avant-garde and cabaret culture of Montmartre in the late nineteenth century, parody and satire were en vogue. Mock news and satirical newspapers were a big part of this counter-culture and the humour of the Almanach du Père Ubu is very much indebted to that world. Jarry, Bonnard and Terrasse created their own alternative periodical as a creative, funny and highly necessary antidote to newspapers. This is how Père Ubu sells it anyway in his editorial to the first Almanac of 1899:

Princesses and princes, townsmen, villagers, soldiers, all ye faithful subscribers and buyers of our astrological Almanac, our beloved subjects, men and women, you won’t have to read any newspapers this winter. (…)So buy our Almanac. Our knowledge  (…) renders tomorrow’s newspapers useless in advance.’

And there you have it. Fed up with newspapers? Then simply buy Père Ubu’s Almanac. Better yet, you can just download it for free these days using the sites I mentioned above. I wonder what Jarry would have thought about that? Well at least someone might read them now.

Further reading

If you want to know more about Jarry’s life I highly recommend the brilliant biography in English by Alastair Brotchie, Alfred Jarry: a pataphysical life (MIT Press, 2011). You can also find a nice taster on the wonderful Strange Flowers blog here. A good introduction to ‘pataphysics is Andrew Hugill’s book with the appropriate title Pataphysics: A Useless Guide (MIT Press, 2012).

If you want to learn more about the Almanacs, and yes, I am again embracing Jarry’s spirit of shameless self-promotion:

Dubbelboer, Marieke. The Subversive Poetics of Alfred Jarry. Ubusing Culture in the Almanachs du Père Ubu, Oxford, Legenda, 2012. http://www.legendabooks.com/titles/isbn/9781907747984.html

Cover

Béhar, Henri., Dubbelboer, Marieke & Morel, Jean-Paul (Eds.). Commentaires pour servir à la lecture de l’Almanach du Père Ubu illustré 1899, SAAJ & Du Lérot, 2009. ISBN: 9782355480225.

And for a great illustrated introduction to Montmartre’s counter-culture:

Cate, Philip Dennis & Mary Shaw, (Eds.). The Spirit of Montmartre. Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

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A Portrait of Colette as a Journalist

Colette in 1932

Colette in 1932, press photograph. Source: Gallica BnF

Shoddy journalistic stuff. That’s how Colette herself described the newspaper columns she wrote for Le Matin during the First World War. She was being a bit harsh. Perhaps because she preferred to be known for her literary work. Perhaps because she always had a tendency to downplay anything she wrote. But the fact was that she was a journalist. And she was good at it. Whether she liked it or not. I have been wanting to do a post on Colette and journalism for a while now. And since an academic article I wrote on her and the Belle Époque press was published last week this seemed like a good time for it. Somewhere in between her other writing, her theatre career and just living her life, Colette found the time to write an overwhelming amount of journalism. She tackled all sorts of subjects: war, crime, boxing, fashion, film, theatre, dieting. Her journalistic career spanned nearly half a century, starting in the early 1900’s and lasting almost up until her death in 1954. Her articles were published everywhere, cultural and literary periodicals, women’s magazines, fashion magazines, popular daily newspapers. Yet strangely enough very little has been said or written about her journalism.  Shortly before the First World War Colette’s journalistic career received a real boost when she started to work for one of the biggest players in the French newspaper world, Le Matin. By 1913 Le Matin had become the second largest paper in France after Le Petit Parisien, selling almost a million copies a day. Colette was asked to write a weekly column entitled ‘Le journal de Colette.’ Colette’s name is hardly ever mentioned among the names of journalists who documented the war. Yet her articles on the First World War were deemed interesting enough at the time to be published. They appeared in a collection entitled Les Heures longues in 1917. The collection received good reviews, even though Colette herself called it ‘shoddy journalistic stuff.’ [1] During the war she travelled to Verdun, visiting her then husband who was in the army and witnessed the devastation first-hand. It wasn’t her style to write about the strategies or politics of war. Partly because it didn’t fit her writing, partly because it wasn’t very easy for any woman journalist to write about ‘hard news’ to begin with. But Colette wrote about the human cost of war, or the effects it had on those who stayed behind, women, children. Such as in the piece below from January 1915 titled ‘children among the ruins.’

Le Journal de Colette

‘Les enfants dans les ruines’ (Children among the ruins), Le Journal de Colette, Le Matin, 6 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF.

In 1914 Colette had said about her employment as a journalist for Le Matin: ‘il faut vivre’ (one has to make a living).[2]  It’s true that she needed the regular income but Colette enjoyed the journalistic world, a world she would often reminisce about in her novels and stories. She loved how she had been one of the very first women to work as a court reporter for example. In 1933, when explaining her recent return to journalism, Colette gave a vivid description of her first impressions of the newspaper world in the 1890’s:

Where does this urge of mine come from. From way back when, when I was in my twenties. From my silent years, when I sat quietly observing Fouquier, Mendès, Courteline and Sarcey. From the former Écho de Paris, the Cocarde, the old Intransigeant…From the Rue du Croissant, the dirty editorial offices, where the gas made it impossible to breath. From the smell of ink, of men, of tobacco, damp mud and beer…[3]

If you would like to read more about Colette in the wider context of the Belle Époque press – and don’t mind academic writing too much- you can find my article in French Cultural Studies here. If you don’t have library access not to worry. A draft uncorrected version of that article can also be found on my Academia page. Follow the link in the About section above.

Better yet, if you want to read Colette’s original articles in Le Matin (provided you can read French), you can search for them here on Gallica. Luckily, digitalisation of newspapers and periodicals means that Colette’s journalistic writing is becoming more easily available. Let’s hope that will also spark a renewed interest in her journalistic work.

Le Matin

The front page of Le Matin on 6 January 1915. Colette’s column can be found on page 4, the last page. Most newspapers only had 4 pages at the time. Source: Gallica/BnF

NOTES

[1]‘pauvres choses journalistiques’ (letter to Francis Carco, July 1918) [2]Letter to Christiane Mendelys, 20 August 1914, cited in: Colette, Lettres de la vagabonde. Paris, Flammarion,1961, 107. [3]  D’ou me vient cette tentation? De très loin, de ma vingtième année. D’un temps silencieux ou, silencieuse, je contemplai. De l’ancien Écho de Paris, de la Cocarde, du vieil Intransigeant…De la rue du Croissant, des salles de rédaction souillées, irrespirable, du gaz vert. De l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière..Le Journal de Colette: On ne redevient pas journaliste’, La République, 15 December 1933. Cited in: Gerard Bonal and Frederic Maget (ed.), Colette journaliste. Chroniques et reportages 1893-1955, Seuil, 2010, 35. This book is, apart from articles in the Cahiers Colette, the only recent publication to focus on her journalism. Translation done in haste by me.

A Rave Review from 1904: Celebrating Colette’s Birthday

Today marks the anniversary of Colette’s birthday so I thought I would celebrate by sharing this enthusiastic 1904 review of her work I stumbled across some time ago.

In the early 1900’s Colette and her then husband Willy were much talked about figures in the press. The Claudine series, which appeared under Willy’s name, had been a huge, commercial succes. Journalists loved the fact that these scandalous novels cleverly blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography. The books made Willy and Colette literary stars -although not always taken seriously by the literary establishment – as well as regular features of the gossip columns.

However, Colette’s first solo authored book was Dialogues des bêtes (1904). In these stories her beloved pets do the talking. As a slightly obsessive cat lover, I have always had a weak spot for both Colette and this book. The dialogues convey not only Colette’s subtle sense of humour, but also her great love of animals. Critics in 1904 felt the same. In fact, the book marked an important turning point in Colette’s literary career. Over the years she would  become one of France’s most successful authors and journalists.  Dialogues des bêtes received mostly rave reviews when it appeared such as here in La Revue illustrée from 15 May 1904 accompanied by a wonderful photograph of the author (Source: BnF/Gallica)

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‘Mme Colette Willy vient d’écrire un petit chef d’oeuvre’ (Mme Colette Willy has written a small masterpiece), the reviewer writes.

What better way to celebrate Colette’s birthday than to celebrate her work?

What do the Bristol Rovers, the Tour de France, agressive Futurists, and forgotten female poets have in common? *

One of the beauties and one of the dangers of using digital archives is that a random keyword search can lead you on a fascinating journey through the past in which apparently random events suddenly seem surprisingly connected.

A while ago I typed ‘Bristol’ into Gallica for no other reason than that I happen to live there. One of the first things that came up was this photograph of Bristol Rovers playing Southampton in the Parc des Princes stadium –then primarily a velodrome – in March 1909. 

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Curious to find out why they played there and who won, I Googled ‘Parc des Princes 1909’. Many results were about the Tour de France since the race always finished in the Parc des Princes until the 1960’s. Here is another photographic treasure from Gallica showing the exhausted winner of the last stage of the 1909 Tour and third overall, Frenchman Jean Alavoine, being held on his bicycle by flowers and men with facial hair.

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But a lot more was happening in 1909 in the Parc des Princes. A month after the Bristol Rovers-Southampton match the poet F.T. Marinetti, leader of the Futurists, duelled writer and critic Charles Henri-Hirsch in the stadium on 16 April. Hirsch had not only been very critical of Marinetti’s play Le Roi Bombance, but had also suggested that Marinetti was having an affair with Jane Catulle Mendès. Catulle Mendès? Yes, that’s right, this one. And also this one, the one who always drank Vin Mariani when writing newspaper articles.

Jane Catulle Mendès was however not just someone’s wife and mistress. She was also a writer. In fact she was a prize-winning poet in her time, but she seems to have been completely forgotten by literary history. No wonder perhaps with all those drunk, aggressive male poets around her. Here is Jane on a publicity photograph from 1909 (source: Gallica) looking like someone had just told her that she would not make the canon of French literature:

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The duel in the Parc des Princes ended when Hirsch was wounded on his arm. Marinetti was victorious and no doubt relished the publicity generated by his fight with Hirsch. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto had only recently appeared on 20 February in Le Figaro.

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Marinetti probably also loved the symbolic value of him, the Futurist, having literally and aggressively defeated the ‘old’ literary crowd embodied by Hirsch. Word of the duel and of Marinetti’s new, artistic movement even reached the New Zealand Evening Post on 2 June 1909 in which the two men are aptly described as ‘fighting cocks’.

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Football, Tour de France, duels, avant-garde: the Parc des Princes in 1909 as a place of macho modernity. Marinetti and the Futurists would have approved. Hirsch and Jane Catulle Mendès probably not so much.

Perhaps digital archives and random keyword searches can lead you to see connections and meanings that never existed. Then again, they might turn out to be a lot of fun.

*Answer: The Parc des Princes in 1909/random keyword search

Where to get condoms and pornography in 1902? In Le Frou-Frou!

I might be alone in this, but when reading about life in the Belle Époque I always wondered how people got away with having affairs or how for example prostitutes could do their jobs without getting pregnant or sexually transmitted diseases all the time?

Even though this period -like any other period – was fascinated with sex, people could not not discuss the intimate and practical details of their sex lives openly. Unwanted pregnancies or diseases were a serious problem in the nineteenth century and campaigns by a progressive minority for birth control and sex education were still in their infancy. Yet that did not mean that birth control, condoms, pornography or sex toys did not exist of course. These had existed in some shape or form (no pun intended) for centuries. But where did people find them?

Well,  in Le Frou-Frou apparently.

Le_Frou_Frou,_journal_humoristique,_

Poster by Leonetto Cappiello for Le Frou-Frou (1899)

Le Frou-Frou (meaning frilly or fancy) was, as its title suggests, a light-hearted paper, one of the many humorist journals of the period. The magazine reflected the slightly risqué, Moulin Rouge atmosphere of 1890’s Paris and advertised itself through colourful posters of alluring can-can dancers. Its pages are filled with cartoons, humorist anecdotes on Parisian life or theatre, and lots of publicity.

frou frou 12 avril 1902

Le Frou-Frou 12 April 1902
Source: BnF/Gallica

What struck me most was a recurring section of wonderfully euphemistic advertisements such as the ones on 12 April 1902 for: ‘appareils spéciaux pour l’hygiéne intime des deux sexes et la préservation des maladies’ (special equipment for the intimate hygiene of both sexes and the prevention of diseases), for ‘usage intime caoutchouc’ (rubber intimate use),’photos suggestives, idéales, d’une pureté troublante’ (suggestive, perfect photographs, of arousing purity) or for ‘use musée secret, ultra-galant'(a secret museum, extremely seductive). All of the products are available by discreet mail order and can be send abroad and to the colonies as well. These also include products to make women’s breasts more opulent and firm, or elixirs to cure impotence and frigidity. There also ads for mid wives offering to treat ‘maladie des dames’ (ladies’ diseases) which might suggest women could go there to get an abortion.

Le Frou Frou appareils

It is easy  for us to laugh at the way these ads are phrased. Yet they make clear that there was a strong demand for these products at a time when prostitution was rife, women were ostracised for having an illegitimate child, men died from syphilis, and sex in general was very much taboo.

A positive effect of the rise of mass media and advertising in the nineteenth century was that it made these products and services more easily available to a larger audience, at least for those with some money and access to newspapers. Advertising and seemingly superficial magazines like Le Frou-Frou played their own small part in providing access to birth control and in enabling people to enjoy sex. 

Want to start your own literary salon? Don’t be too beautiful says Le Figaro

Ladies, if you are thinking of starting a literary salon, make sure you are not too beautiful. This is the sound advice of ‘un indiscret’ (an indiscrete one) in Le Figaro from 9 October 1901. A woman who is too pretty will only be the unwanted centre of attention, because all the other women will be jealous of your beauty and all the men will be attracted to you. Even worse, the level of conversation will drop to an unacceptable standard.

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Une chanson de Gibert dans le salon de madame Madeleine Lemaire (1891) by Pierre-George Jeanniot -Source: Wikimedia Commons

After these wise words, our indiscreet columnist then lists some of the most notable salons in Paris 1901. This includes that of Madeleine Lemaire, painter and society hostess extraordinaire, who launched the career of many artists including that of Marcel Proust and who famously served as one of the models for Mme Verdurin in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. The anonymous columnist in Le Figaro calls her salon ‘the most pittoresk’, because ‘every segment of society is represented there’. People are reciting verses by M. de Montesquiou or Marcel Proust, ‘women are singing songs by Raynaldo (sic) Hahn’, ‘Sarah Bernhardt recites poetry’. ‘Right and left, high finance and aristocracy, society ladies and great artists all mingle here.’ Read the article in French on Gallica here.

Madeleine Lemaire would have no doubt been pleased to read on the front page of Le Figaro that it must have been her mediocre looks that made her salon so successful.

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Madeleine Lemaire is not amused (photographed by Nadar in 1891)

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Want to be a successful nineteenth-century writer? Get high on Mariani

I previously wrote about Vin Mariani – the cocaine laced alcoholic drink labeled as a ‘medicinal tonic’ – being marketed to female cyclists. But apparently it wasn’t just women cyclists who were wandering the streets of Paris on a constant buzz. In 1933 Colette recalled her first encounters with the world of journalism in the 1890’s, visiting the offices of newspaper L’Écho de Paris where her then husband Henri Gauthier-Villars aka Willy worked.  She gives a vivid account of the dingy, gas-lit offices on the rue du Croissant filled with:

l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière… Catulle Mendès  écrivait ses articles de critique en parlant, en fumant, en invectivant, en buvant du Mariani

the smell of ink, men, wholesale tobacco, wet dirt and beer… Catulle Mendès wrote his reviews while talking, smoking, railing against something, and drinking Mariani

(Le Journal de Colette, La Republique, 15 December 1933)

 Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), poet/novelist/ renowned critic, was one of L’Écho de Paris’ most prolific journalists, contributing columns, reviews, poetry and sensationalist serial novels to the newspaper almost non-stop. Now we know his secret. Also, Mendès was not alone. All over the world people were drinking the ‘French tonic wine’ judging from this poster published in Harper’s Weekly in 1894 advertising the drink through endorsements from international celebrities, including Émile Zola (top right) and playwright Victorien Sardou (top left).

Zola, Sardou: all high on Vin Mariani. Harper's Weekly, 1894.

These celebrities were all high on Vin Mariani.  Advertisement Harper’s Weekly, 1894.

Every time I used to read something about these nineteenth-century writers and journalists I have always been amazed by the sheer amount of work they produced. Every single literary figure seems to have been a poet or a novelist as well as playwright, journalist and a critic churning out articles, novels and plays on a daily basis while still having time left to read other people’s work, socialize in cafes and have an interesting life. It has always made me feel incredibly lazy in comparison, but I consoled myself by putting their high productivity down to not having phones, computers or the Internet to distract them from work with Twitter updates or a top twenty of the world’s cutest cat videos. Turns out I was wrong. They were just high all the time.

Catulle Mendès : probably holding a bottle of Mariani outside of the frame.