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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The many faces of a spy. The death of Mata Hari in French newspapers.


Mata Hari 16 oktober 1917

Mata Hari detail

‘She abused our country’s hospitality for years only to betray us’, Le Petit Parisien, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

On Monday the 15th of October 1917 at six in the morning Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, better known as Mata Hari, faced a firing squad in Vincennes. She was 41 years old. Earlier that year she had been sentenced to death for espionage by French military court. Newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which loved a bit of melodrama, describes how the first shots just wounded her after which a sergeant fired the lethal shot from close range. When her body dropped to the ground ‘her eyes’, according to Le Petit Parisien, ‘seemed to look up to the sky as if asking for forgiveness.’ OK then.

Much has been said and written about the Dutch-Frisian woman who reinvented herself in Paris as a mysterious, Asian dancer/courtesan, who captivated audiences at the Olympia and the Folies-Bergères. Today the consensus is that she was never really the master spy – or double agent – the authorities claimed she was. However, she was a good scapegoat. The execution of an alleged traitor, a foreigner no less, a performance artist with questionable morals, offered a small, symbolic victory at a time when France was facing tremendous losses in the war. This was quite clear in the way her death was reported in most national newspapers on the 16th of October. The papers managed to get her real name more or less right, but she is described as either German or simply ‘foreign’.

Mata Hari fusillée Le Matin 16-10-1917

Le Matin detail Fake Hindu dancer, traitor and ‘choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’, Le Matin, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

Le Petit Journal 16 10 1917

Le Petit Journal 16-10-1917 ‘The dancer of German origin’ according to Le Petit Journal, 16 October 1917. The woman in the photo does not really look like her, but who cares, the spy is dead. Source: BnF/Gallica

Le Journal 16-10-1917

Le Journal, 16 October 1917: ‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’. The newspaper uses a detail of a photo of Mata Hari that had already appeared in fashion magazine Les Modes in February 1908 (see below). Source: BnF/Gallica

Mata Hari Les Modes February 1908

The press did not seem too interested in the actual person behind the myth. No journalist bothered to investigate her background or the facts of her case. Instead the papers regurgitated official press releases and old pictures, showing the many faces – literally – of the glamorous, but treacherous Mata Hari.

Newspaper La Croix cared even less and put the news of Mata Hari’s execution on page 4, next to advertising and the weather.

La Croix p4 16 10 1917

‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in…’ Wait, we’ve seen this sentence before. La Croix, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica

Women in bed with snakes and other news. The year 1900 in Le Petit Parisien’s illustrated supplement.

 

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Snakes: ‘Why is no one actually looking at us?’

‘A difficult arrest’ is the understated subtitle of this slightly farcical cover of Le Petit Parisien‘s literary illustrated supplement from 25 February 1900. Despite the seven snakes crawling out of her bed, the woman seems more preoccupied with adjusting her hair and striking a pose. She also doesn’t really seem to notice the people standing in her bedroom door. Was the illustrator just not very good at drawing people’s expressions? What is going on here?

The weekly, Sunday illustrated supplements of Le Petit Parisien – and other popular newspapers – were known for their sensational, visual representations of currents events and fait divers. These were the days before photography became widely used in newspapers so illustrators could let their imaginations run wild. And they did. The covers had to be eye-catching and action packed to draw the attention of potential buyers. The articles inside were often a lot less sensational and more balanced, but the cover drawings were basically the 1900 version of click-bait. Obviously it worked, because they managed to catch my attention 114 years later. Check out the covers from 1900 and other years here on Gallica.

Even though there is some gruesome violence pictured in many of them, there is a very odd, emotionless distance in these drawings as well as in the expressions of the people pictured. Even when an individual is in the midst of being murdered. Is this due to poor artistic skills or was this done to avoid too much realism? Dehumanised violence for sensitive viewers? In any case, some truly horrible events end up looking very staged and artificial, if not unintentionally comical. At least I hope it was unintentional.

murder of a guardian of the peace

‘I am not going to stop arresting this man just because there is a knife stuck in my head’

 

murders, accidents, disasters

More murders, accidents and disasters

In between all these horrors, when there were no freak events to report, other things happened as well in 1900: a horse getting ready for some parade, the fire brigade getting an electric car, another horse at a race with a lot of flag waving, the president at a very important ceremony, 6 officers with bicycles protecting 3 French citizens, a laboratory being opened. The underlying message of these rather boring events is clear. Look how wonderful the French Republic is: just waving some flags, having fun parades, making scientific discoveries, with non-threatening officers taking care of citizens.

Other things that also happened

Things that also happened and made the government look good.

And then there were actual historical events happening in far away places: the Boer war, a bit of French colonial expansion and fighting in Africa, Europeans being attacked by angry Chinese rebels, friendly foreign imperial rulers who were supportive of France.

Meanwhile far away...

Meanwhile far away…important historical events were taking place. The emphasis is of course on the bravery of France and its foreign allies.

Back to the most important event of the year though: the female snake charmer. I was of course curious to find out who she was. Medusa reincarnated? Just a woman with an unfortunate choice of pets? Well, neither really. Her name was, depending on the newspaper, either Zalemma Keardy or Neardy. But who cares about futile facts when there is a juicy story to be told. Apparently this 24 year old Swedish woman claimed to be a snake charmer, but was in reality a swindler with an international arrest warrant. The police visited her at her Paris hotel room where they found her asleep in between her snakes. She threatened the officers, but of course the courageous French detective was not afraid of her snakes. A brave man. According to newspaper articles Zalemma ended up in the Saint-Lazare prison. I have no idea what happened to the poor snakes or what happened to her, but the story was picked up by newspapers everywhere. Below you can see how the same story was represented in the illustrated Sunday edition of regional newspaper L’Express de Lyon (Source: BM de Lyon). Le Petit Dauphinois used the same cover illustration as you can see here.

So what is the overall sentiment in 1900 according to these covers? Mostly a bit of scare-mongering mixed with some human interest, foreign news and a dose of chauvinism. Not just in Le Petit Parisien, but also in the regional papers. Dangers are obviously everywhere: criminals, scary foreigners, nature. Luckily brave police officers, soldiers and other heroes are busy trying to protect French citizens from harm everywhere in the world. And it’s probably best to buy illustrated supplements to read all about it.

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‘Laugh all you want, scary foreign woman, but your snakes are no match for the French Tricolour I have in my hand!’

 

 

 

 

Duelling Women: Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre

An intriguing news item on page 3 of Le Petit Parisien in 1886:

A duel between women has just taken place in Belgium, as evidenced by the following message we received: ‘Mme Astié de Valsayre, know for having published several books, has just been to Waterloo (Belgium) for a fencing duel with an American, Miss Shelby. During a debate on the superiority of French female doctors over American female doctors she had thrown her glove in the face of Miss Shelby. France was victorious. During the second engagement the American was lightly wounded on the arm. Witnesses have stated that everything happened according to the rules.’ (Le Petit Parisien, 27 March, 1886, source: Gallica BnF)

Duels were not uncommon in the nineteenth century and often highly publicised. It was the gentleman way of dealing with a dispute or an insult, rooted in a century-old code of honour and masculinity: a tradition from which women were excluded.

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Le Petit Parisien, Supplément littéraire illustré, 19/01/1893, source: Gallica/BnF

Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre had studied medicine and was a socialist, feminist, public speaker, and journalist. She sometimes published under the pseudonym Jehan des Etrivières, including the book Les Amazones du siècle (1882). She had also famously volunteered to be a guinea pig for Louis Pasteur so he could inoculate her. And she was a keen cyclist, which at the time was a feminist statement in itself as we have seen before.

In 1887 Astié de Valsayre asked parliament to grant women the right to wear trousers. This had been prohibited in Paris by Revolutionary law since 17 November 1799 unless the woman was ‘holding a bicycle, a horse, or had official police authorisation.’ Fun fact: this law was only officially abolished on 31 January 2013.

But Astié de Valsayre was particularly notorious in the media for being an accomplished fencer and duellist. Engaging in a duel as a woman was a provocative act and for many in the intellectual elite of Paris a step too far it seems. Fellow feminist and prominent journalist Séverine preferred to send her husband to duel for her instead. Astié de Valsayre then accused Séverine of not being able to stand up for herself. Séverine in turn distanced herself from feminists like Astié de Valsayre whose antics and demands for the right to wear trousers she deemed ridiculous and counter-productive.

In 1884 La Presse wrote that Astié de Valsayre was involved in a legal battle after someone had slandered her in the press. This had led to some sort of row en public and everyone being taken to a police station. In the article she is menacingly described as ‘armed with a whip and agitated’. Feminist troublemakers generally did not receive a warm welcome in the press. Even the Dictionnaire de pseudonyms (1887) described her as ‘too famous and eccentric’ (p. 144).

Catholic newspaper La Croix also reported her duel with Miss Shelby on its front page. It’s a small article, but it still manages to sneer at feminists, female doctors and Darwin’s theory of evolution:

Women have now completely barged through the doors of the Faculty of Medicine, and we have a legion of lady doctors who challenge the preconceptions of the restrained and modest sex. These female doctors are now getting women involved in the duel. A bluestocking, Mme Astié de Valsayre has…

Here the report follows that of Le Petit Parisien before it ends with a final editorial comment:

Very soon we will have no doubt another duel between two lady doctors to find out whether man or woman is descended from apes. (La Croix , 27 March,1886, source: Gallica/BnF)

The duel was not just reported in the French Press. The New York Times mentioned it as well, describing Astié de Valsayre as ‘prepared to go anywhere and do anything’ (New York Times, 20 April, 1886). The British tabloid Illustrated Police News  also provided a nice illustration of the event:

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Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886, source: here

I suspect the illustrator had no idea what the women actually looked like and just wanted to show voluptuous, half undressed women trying to kill each other. It is a a bit of a contrast with Le Petit Parisien’s portrait of a scholarly, serious-looking Astié de Valsayre.

Judging from a quick scan of newspapers, the press seemed to focus mainly on the more outrageous aspects of her personality. However Le Petit Parisien did report on her fight for women’s rights in their illustrated supplement in 1893, albeit tucked away on the last page. Astié de Valsayre and others had formed a committee to get women elected in parliament. This proved a difficult campaign with opposition from politicians, but also from other prominent women like Séverine, but Le Petit Parisien writes:

Despite that, Mme Astié de Valsayre and her friends continue their campaign with real courage and a very honourable energy. (Le Petit Parisien, 29 January, 1893, source : Gallica/BnF)

I think Astié de Valsayre would have approved of those qualifications.