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.

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.

Mode et Beauté recommends: criminology, Madame Bovary, massage

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Mode et Beauté, December 1902, source: BnF/Gallica

On incomplete and failed hangings is the disturbing and strangely specific title of a book written by a certain Dr. Verse. Even stranger is that it is among a list of book titles recommended by fashion and women’s magazine Mode et Beauté in 1902. Find it here on BnF/Gallica.

I came across this list while doing research for a talk I gave a few months ago about Jean Lorrain’s newspaper articles. Now, Lorrain was infamous for his gossipy, decadent pieces and his fascination with death, sex, and crime. However I was a bit surprised to find a similar obsession in a magazine primarily devoted to fashion and beauty tips. In the December Christmas issue no less. Mothers killing their children, alcoholism, suicide, sexual assault: nothing better than a bit of light reading to get you through the holidays.

The magazine stressed that its heart was in the right place. As the editor explains: ‘We have created a bibliography for our readers, with works on philosophy, the occult, novels and – in these times of crime and murder – on criminology. We think it is good to share with our readers studies on these important issues. Knowing the causes of criminal development will serve to avoid the danger and help fight poverty, alcoholism and social degeneration.’

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The list of 107 titles for the library of Mode et Beauté’s readers, page 12.

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Detail from the list with a book on Oscar Wilde next to titles on child murders, vampires and failed hangings.

The list of 107 titles is truly fascinating, in particular because fiction is mentioned alongside non-fiction and scholarly literature. Most notable is Madame Bovary. The editors seem to suggest that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Willy and Colette’s Claudine en ménage, Rachilde’s L’Heure sexuelle are on equal footing with ‘scientific’ studies such as Vampirisme, nécrophile, nécrosadisme, nécrophagie. It shows how at the time novels were still very much judged on their morals and their didactic value. And so were literary authors. Hence also the mention of Oscar Wilde whose life and the ‘affair’ are held up as a cautionary tale.

I used this list in my talk to illustrate the extent to which Decadent literature was intertwined in the press with contemporary medical theories and discourse on crime and sexuality. Scientific ideas were being popularised through literature and magazines like this influencing public opinion and perceptions on crime, class, gender and sexuality. Judging from some of these books titles tattoos for example were a clear sign of bad behaviour. 

For the respectable lady readers of Mode et Beauté these titles constituted dangerous reading. Yes, they are must-reads, ladies, but they must only be read as a warning to help you recognise and fight ‘social degradation’ Otherwise who knows. You might end up like Emma Bovary. Or Oscar Wilde. Or a vampire

Fortunately for the readers of Mode et Beauté this December issue wasn’t all doom and gloom. To make sure its female audience would not have the most depressing Christmas and New Year ever, the magazine also recommended this wonderful electric massage tool on page 7, made especially for ladies and their lady parts. Happy holidays indeed!

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According to Mode et Beauté the possibilities of this massage tool are endless.