(PolizzottI’s article appeared in the 2011/12 edition of Bookforum.)
Some years ago, while I was interviewing a cordial octogenarian for my biography of André Breton—often called, to his disgust, the “Pope of Surrealism”—my interviewee suddenly leaned across the table and threatened to give me “a sound thrashing” if I used the abhorred word pope in my book. I did include the term, of course, but not without trepidation—a fear that had little to do with the outrage of vengeful codgers and everything to do with disappointing those whose trust I’d spent years courting. It’s a quandary for any biographer, particularly when writing about a figure who still inflames the passions of a fervent cult: Does one respect the insider’s code and eschew those aspects of the subject deemed vulgar, indiscreet, or commonplace? Or does one acknowledge that, for the general reader, such inconvenient or well-rehearsed truths are an integral part of the story?
In some ways, Alfred Jarry is the poster boy for literary cult figures. Like fellow turn-of-the-century French eccentrics Arthur Cravan, Raymond Roussel, and Jacques Vaché—though more famous than any of them—Jarry has left a legacy based partly on an enigmatic, often hermetic body of writing, and partly on an equally enigmatic, and more flamboyant, garland of anecdotes. Figures as diverse as Apollinaire, Picasso (with whom Jarry might have had a dalliance), the Surrealists, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and even Sir Paul of Liverpool have acknowledged his influence—one that owed as much to Jarry’s nonconformist attitude as it did to his writing. The literary historian Roger Shattuck enshrined Jarry as one of the four great French precursors to modernism (along with Erik Satie, Apollinaire, and Henri Rousseau) in his magisterial 1958 study, The Banquet Years; in France, Jarry’s works fill three volumes of the Pléiade—the ultimate literary canonization.