Friday, September 9, 2016

Birthday Book of the Day: As Mrs Venable said, “Strictly speaking, his life was his occupation. Yes, yes, Sebastian was a poet. That's what I meant when I said his life was his work because the work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean, you can't separate them. I mean, a poet's life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.”

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There are a number of events that have been said to bring the modern era into being. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris generated a riot (or at least vigorous hissing, accounts vary). Virginia Woolf located modernity’s birth a little earlier. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Woolf wrote in her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”

A third candidate is another premiere: Ubu Roi, an anarchic, mystifying play by Alfred Jarry, had its debut in Paris in 1896. The play featured Ubu Roi, “King Ubu,” a caricature of one of Jarry’s high school instructors and various other petty dictators and bureaucrats in everyday life. The characters are distinguished by their rollicking, anti-social antics, and puppet-show-on-drugs costumes. Think South Park by way of absinthe-drunk Paris. It’s a profane, absurd, pre-Dada prototype of what was later called the “theater of the absurd.”

We’re often more interested in the lives of artists, especially literary bad boys like Alfred Jarry, than their work.

In a 1932 account of Jarry, critic Herman Schnurer describes the writer’s ambiguous legacy: “Jarry belongs to that odd class of men whose conduct is subordinated to their aesthetics.” We tend to be more interested in the lives of artists, especially live-fast and die-young type bad boys like Jarry, than their work. It’s the outrageous personal anecdotes that last. Jarry was famous for his unpredictable behavior, like brandishing pistols at literary parties, as well as general public drunkenness. It’s the grace of history (and the sympathetic critics who write it) that allows this sort of thing to be charming and not sociopathic. According to Schnurer, poet Guillaume Apollinaire credited Jarry with being entirely literary, “His antics, his smallest action, everything in him, was literary.”

This is meant as a compliment, but sounds like a rather exhausting way to live. While it’s something that may have began with Jarry or Arthur Rimbaud, we know it better today as it mutated via Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, to create the brooding Kanye-Drake idiom that dominates hip hop today. The idea is that your artistic vision consumes your personal life to such a degree that there’s little permeability between them. Your life is your art, man. It certainly runs contrary to another famous French dictum, this time from Gustave Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Henry Bemis Books has a very nice first American edition of Jarry’s one great work:

Jarry, Alfred, King Turd (Boar’s Head Press, 1st Am. ed., 1953). Hardcover, octavo, 189 pp., unclipped dust jacket. Jarry (1873-1907) was a prodigy and a parody all at once. At fifteen he wrote and performed the first iteration of King Turd (Ubu Roi, in French- often the preferred title in English, as nobody knows what it means) as a vicious parody of a hated schoolmaster. The dust jacket has a few small nicks and chips. The jacket seems to have been designed- with a black-blocked yellow title on a yellow background- to stand out on a bookshelf (one bookseller on describes it as “the title unscathed and boldly visible from even a far-away shelf. It'd make a pointed gift, if one were so inclined.”

Let King Turd stand out on yours.

Henry Bemis Price: $50.
Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

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