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.

Fig3.3

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.

The Not So Belle Époque: personal ads, la zone and La Goulue

Image

Zone inhabitants of Ivry in front of their ‘roulotte’, 1913, press photograph, Agence Rol.

The exhibition Paris 1900, the City of entertainment has opened its doors to the public at Le Petit Palais. An iconic Toulouse-Lautrec image is used as the face of the exhibition. It plays on what many people already think of when they think of Paris 1900: carriages, elegant salons, theatres, cafes, the Moulin Rouge, sumptuous art deco design, the world exhibitions. According to the website the collection on display is ‘an invitation to the public to relive the splendour of the French capital.’ The exhibition aims to show the other side to this as well (prostitution, drugs), already present of course in Toulouse-Lautrec’s images. Yet the focus does appear to be very much on the glamorous and luxurious aspects, on this idea of a cultural bloom before the First World War altered everything. It made me think about the backgrounds of the people in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, about the less glamorous, everyday lives of Parisians at the time. And it made me remember the few glimpses of their lives I have come across in newspapers. Image Such as here in L’Écho de Paris from 31 March 1886 where I was struck by the personal ads on page 4. Click here for the original on Gallica and a better resolution. Most of these are for jobs in service, not surprising considering the paper’s bourgeois audience. Demand for work greatly outnumbers the jobs on offer though and some of these ads are quite a depressing read: a 10 year old boy, a young single woman, an unemployed married man, all looking for a job. There’s a whole life behind these few words. What was their story? Did they get a job in the end? Life in service was not easy. Employers only had to give domestic servants 8 days notice if they wanted to get rid of them.[1] Salaries varied. Valets, coachmen and especially cooks could earn between 60 and 120 francs a month, but a ‘bonne à tout faire’, the general help, often earned little more than 1 franc a day.[2] The ‘fille de cuisine’, the kitchen maid, ‘should preferably never be seen.’ Still, it was better compared to many other options. Le Journal’s Saturday edition also had similar job and personal advertisements. Some are quite dubious. In the edition from 5 October 1895 an individual is advertising his range of ‘plusieures jeunes filles veuves et divorcées’ (several widowed and divorced young women). It is apparently up to the reader to guess what exactly these women were for. In other ads we encounter people who offer their money to make an investment or are seeking money from others to invest. Several are also from women who have fallen on hard times (or claim they have) such as in this one: jeune femme, du meill monde, honorable, tres gênée  moment. Par suite de malheurs, dés. Empr. 300 fr. d’une pers. Sér. Et discr. Rembours ! Ecr. G.K.E. Jnal. young woman, from very good family, honourable, very short of money at the moment, due to misfortunes, seeks to borrow 300 fr. From Serious and discreet person. Will repay! Write G.K.E. Jnal. (Le Journal, Saturday 5 October 1895) I wondered how many reactions she would have received. Was it a scam? Who knows. Either way, what this ad and others show was the continuous quest for some sort of social and economic stability, whether through employment, marriage or slightly more questionable transactions. There was no safety net, no security. One event – a divorce, a family death, a bad investment, redundancy – could plunge anyone into instant poverty. The festive colours of many well-known Belle Époque images also stand in great contrast to contemporary press photographs or Eugen Atget’s  album Zoniers (1913). See the original album here. Paris was expanding rapidly and couldn’t deal with the amount of people arriving in the capital looking for work. Photographers such as Atget and press agencies had begun to document the living conditions of people in the infamous zone, the slums all around the outskirts of the city. For an excellent visual, historical overview of the expansion of ‘la zone’ and Paris see Avant le périph’, la zone et les fortifs’ on the wonderful French blog Orion en aéroplanePhotography made these people visible to newspaper readers. Domestic servants were well off compared to the ‘zoniers’ who earned their money from recycling and selling small goods. One of the zone’s inhabitants was a woman who had once been a celebrated figure in the music-halls of 1890’s Paris. The singer Louise Weber, better known as La Goulue, was depicted at the height of her fame by Toulouse-Lautrec in several of his most famous posters. She went from being a celebrated Moulin Rouge star to spending the last years of her life in a caravan in one of the zones in Saint-Ouen, earning some money from selling snacks in nightclubs. Her obituary in Le Petit Parisien on 31 January 1929 movingly captures her trajectory from celebrity to poverty.

mort goulue Petit Parisien

Le Petit Parisien, 31/1/1929, Gallica

Often the images we see of the period uphold this myth of a carefree, optimistic, fabulous period in the history of the city of Paris. And that was certainly part of the city’s life. Yet personal ads, photos of ‘la zone’, La Goulue’s personal story also show us the other side of the splendour; the socio-economic insecurity many experienced around 1900. This was also the Belle Époque. Not so ‘belle’ for most people.

Toulouse-Lautrec_-_La_Goulue_arrivant_au_Moulin_Rouge

Louise Weber in her glory years. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892.

Update 5 May 2014:

Today I took a stroll around the Cimetiére Montmartre where La Goulue is buried. Go left on the roundabout close to the entrance and her grave is almost immediately on your left. It is maintained. And judging from the little bracelet and the fresh flowers left there, she still has admirers today.

IMG_1755

Louise Weber’s grave at the Cimetiére Montmartre. Photo taken on 5 May 2014.

References:

[1] Paris-Parisien 1899, Paris, Ollendorff, p. 222.

[2] Ibid., p. 222