Published on March 30th, 2023 | by Conor Hultman2
Book Review by Conor Hultman: “Speculations” by Alfred Jarry
by Alfred Jarry (translated by R.J. Dent)
Black Scat Books ($15.95)
Alfred Jarry, the French symbolist writer, founder of “pataphysics” (the absurd study of that which is beyond metaphysics), and influence for every weird artist from the Dada on down, has seen an embarrassingly low amount of translations in proportion to his historical significance and contemporary relevance. One might have the good luck to run into a copy of his most famous work, the play Ubu Roi, at a bookstore, but most likely not. R.J. Dent has done a great service for anyone with a sick and slanted sense of humor, in bringing into English Spéculations, a collection of Jarry’s “essays” on imaginary scenarios and antisensical observations.
Why Jarry reads so fresh today is much due to his perverse and unreal conception of what’s funny. The essay “Cannibalism” starts: “This much-neglected branch of anthropology, anthropophagy, known more generally as cannibalism, is not dying out; cannibalism is not dead.”
Is “much-neglected” meaning in study, or in practice? “Known more generally”!
“Anthropophagy”! The hilarious, ironically-mournful note, “cannibalism is not dead”! Not to dissect a joke (or dissect a dissection, in this case), but I mean only to give a taste of the strange, alien tone Jarry uses across this book to derange the reader out of their comfortable stance toward the commonplace.
Dent is as much or more responsible for achieving this alien effect in translation. It’s hard to imagine these flesh-splitting, perception-altering lines not having originated in English; “The fashion is for kidnappings”; “virtuous philanthropists have organized the large-scale milking of white women”; “There are virtuous celibates who abstain and use the ‘moral restraint’ of Malthus, which is available from all the good tyre makers,” for a few glittering examples. The English used carries off all the bizarre unreality of Jarry’s idiom without recourse to erudition nor archaisms. We have here “speculations” about the bus as quarry for hunters and trappers, biological studies of drowned drunks as aquatic specimens, and the Crucifixion reimagined as a bicycle race between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Jarry ranges over war, sex, cities, industry, all the crude obsessions of modernity, and strains them through a dream logic. Dent captures this logic in a language perfectly clear, admirable for writing that aims at nothing so less as clarity.
There’s a story that Jarry carried a loaded revolver around with him (said revolver Picasso obtained after his death, and took it with him on night walks around Paris). A woman living near Jarry complained to him about the danger of his gun-toting to her children. To which Jarry said, “If that should ever happen, ma-da-me, we should ourselves be happy to get new ones with you.” If you can appreciate as demented a sentiment as that, you can have a hundred more reading Speculations, in a delightful translation from R. J. Dent, available at blackscatbooks.com.