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The Supermale, by Alfred Jarry

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Alfred Jarry's The Supermale is one those books so loaded with the weight of expectation that it cannot but fail to disappoint. Given the place it holds on so many cycling literature lists what is most disappointing about it is that it has so little to do with cycling.

Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry

The Supermale, by Alfred Jarry Title: The Supermale
Author: Alfred Jarry (translated by Ralph Gladstone and Barbara Wright)
Publisher: Exact Change
Year: 1902 (originally published in French as Le Surmâle, translation: 1964)
Pages: 141
Order: Exact Change
What it is: Père Ubu author Alfred Jarry's satire on athletic excess which has become famous in cycling circles for its chapter featuring the Perpetual Motion Food Race
Strengths: Jarry's name
Weaknesses: If all it has in its favour is the author's name...

Completed in 1901, published in 1902 - a year before Henri Desgrange invented cycling with the Tour de France - and set in the then distant future of 1920, Alfred Jarry's The Supermale is a satire on the then current obsession with endurance records in all their infinite variety. The main record featured is one of sexual prowess - our hero, André Marcueil, is of the view that "the act of love [...] can be performed indefinitely" - but the novel also features an almost stand-alone chapter involving a 10,000 mile bike race, for which The Supermale has achieved its lasting fame in cycling circles.

The novel opens at a gathering in the Château de Lurance, home of André Marcueil, where - as a way of avoiding "tedious discussion about the Dreyfus Affair" - Marcueil's guests are discussing the subject of sexual intercourse, with Marcueil making his claim that the act of love can be performed indefinitely. Those who disagree attempt to quantify just how many times the act can be performed. One guest recalls the Labours of Hercules in which King Lysius offered the hero "his thirty virgin daughters for a single night" and the other guests try to trump that number, recalling stories from the Treatise on the Vanity of Science, the Koran and the Thousand and One Nights. Marcueil claims the round by citing Rebelais reporting Theophrastus, who told a story about an Indian who, "with the aid of a certain Herb, did it in one Day threescore Times and ten, and more."

Some time after that gathering, Marcueil summons one of his guests from that night, Doctor Bathybius, to Lurance:

"Paying no attention to his nods of doubt and annoyance, Marcueil explained what he wanted of him. It was simply a matter - 'Simply!' cried Bathybius - of supervising an attempt by an 'Indian,' in the great hall of Lurance, between midnight and midnight, to beat the record 'so celebrated by Theophrastus.' The great hall, where a large divan-bed had been prepared for the occasion, had been selected not for its size but because a small adjoining room took its light from it by means of a small bull's-eye window, which allowed everything that happened in the hall to be seen. In his retreat, now converted into a washroom, Bathybius could also carry out any examinations he might deem necessary to determine the authenticity of the experiment."

The 'Indian' - Marcueil, in disguise - easily beats the score reported by Theophrastus, adding another dozen to bring the total to 82. And more. Marcueil ends the novel strapped to a machine designed to turn his almost mechanical sexual prowess into something else: "Since this man had become a mechanism, the equilibrium of the world required that another mechanism should manufacture - a soul."

* * * * *

Between the account of Theophrastus's Indian and the attempt to better his performance, The Supermale digresses into another story, that of the Perpetual Motion Food Race, the part of Jarry's novel for which The Supermale is, today, most often recalled and classed as a cycling novel. The food of the race's title is the invention of American chemist William Elson - one of Marcueil's guests in Lurance on the night the story of Theophrastus's Indian is introduced - and the race his way of proving its efficacy, it being a 10,000 mile race between a steam locomotive and a multi-manned bicycle, the course taking them from Paris to the Siberian city of Irkutsk and back again.

The roots in reality of both aspects of this race - the Perpetual Motion Food powering the cyclists and the idea of cyclists racing trains - are worth considering. First, man versus iron horse.

Most famous here is the story of Mile-a-Minute Murphy who, in 1899, covered the distance of a mile in just under a minute, racing in the slipstream of a train. In 1896, the Syracuse-based EC Stearns & Co bicycle company organised a race between a multi-manned cycle - a six-man sextet - and a steam locomotive, over a distance of half a mile. The automobile had not yet taken off and there was nothing faster than a train, so for a human-powered bicycle to be able to outpace a steam-powered train was considered a major feat, and thus a useful marketing stunt.

Alfred Jarry

The EC Stearns & Co pacing team at work

The idea of multi-manned cycles, well that was just the era the sport was in. For the most part the multi-manned cycles - tandems, triplets, quintuplets and even stranger multi-rider powered contraptions that look like they came from the imagination of Heath Robinson - were used to make pace for individual riders, in races on the road and the track, but the teams of pacers often raced among themselves, and had their own time and distance records.

Jarry himself, he also had personal experience of racing trains, sort of. While he lived in Paris - famously on floor 2½ at 7, rue Cassette, where the rooms, being high-ceilinged, had been subdivided horizontally by the landlord, the half floor having a low ceiling, five-and-a-half feet, give or take, 'ample' for the five-foot-four Jarry - Jarry actually spent much of his time out of the city. Most of 1896 through 1898 was spent in Corbeil, in the south of the city, in a rented house on the Seine along with friends from the Mercure de France, for which Jarry wrote. Time there was split between fishing, boating, cycling, writing and drinking, with some of the cycling involving Jarry racing against trains when the road ran parallel to the railway line.

The distance of the race also bears consideration. At this stage - 1901, when Jarry wrote the book - road racing was still in its infancy. Track racing was infinitely more popular and stage racing was a thing of the future. One feat of road cycling that may have resonated with Jarry, though, was Charles Terront's 1893 ride from St Petersburg to Paris, a promotional stunt for the Rudge bicycle company. Terront - who, two years earlier, the same year Jarry himself had moved to Paris from the Breton countryside, had won the inaugural edition of Paris-Brest-Paris, at 1,200 kilometres the longest road race of the time - covered the 3,000 kilometres between the Russian and French cities in a 'record' time of 14 days and seven hours, his route taking him through Kaunas (today in Lithuania, then the Russian city of Kovno), Warsaw (today in Poland, then in Russia), Poznań (today, in Poland, then the German city of Posen), Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, and Liège. That Jarry knew of Terront is clear: he is the only rider of that era named in The Supermale.

Such city-to-city record rides - along with globe-girdling attempts - were the thrill of their day. Consider the following quotes culled from archived copies of old American cycling magazines around the time of Terront's fame:

The Referee, 1893:
"After a Long Record. Pautrat, who established the record from Paris to St. Petersburg without pacemakers, intends to make a 3,000-kilometre (1,865 miles) record on the track.

The Referee, 1893:
"There have been several long-distance rides the past season, notably those which follow: De Perrodil and Farman, from Paris to Madrid, the capital of Spain; the Italian student, Masetti, from Milano to Chicago and back; the Russian student, Orlovsky, from St. Petersburg to Paris and back."

The Referee, 1894:
"Race from Paris to Barcelona. Pautrat: the French cyclist, who recently made the trip from Paris to St. Petersburg, was preparing for a ride from Paris to Barcelona, Spain, 1,200 kilometres, when Echardt offered to make a race of it. Pautrat accepted, the stake being 1,500 francs, the start is fixed for tomorrow."

The Referee, 1894:
"Mdlle. Lydie, the record holder of 100 kilometres on the road in 4 hrs. 19 min. for women, has gone to Russia, and is thinking of establishing a record from St. Petersburg to Paris."

Bearings, 1894:
"Russian cyclists propose to establish records from Moscow to Paris, and from Moscow-Vienna and Moscow-Berlin."

The Referee, 1894:
"To Beat Jules Verne's Hero. Leuse and Lumley, the two Russian cyclists, have undertaken a difficult journey. Jules Verne's hero took eighty days to go around the world, but these cyclists intend to make it in seventy-two days. They start from Moscow, go through Bulgaria, Germany, cross France near Nice, thence to Italy. They bad a splendid reception at Rome. They embark at Naples for Egypt, then Asia and finally America."

Bearings, 1894:
"The laurels of Terront prevent the Belgians from sleeping. One of them, Charles Delbecq, who arrived second in the Paris-Brussels race, intends to establish the record from St. Petersburg to Madrid."

The Referee, 1894:
"Record Paris-St. Petersburg and Back. Pautrat, who as a rule runs in all long-distance events over here, is about establishing this 4,000 miles record. He will start Sept. 15 next."

The Referee, 1894:
"Mrs. Adricosoff, Who Has Made Several Long-Distance Rides. The accompanying picture represents Mrs. Adricosoff, one of the well known and enthusiastic wheelwomen in the Czar's domain. She is a long-distance rider of no poor quality, having covered the distance from St. Petersburg to Moscow (450 miles) in five days. The roads between these two points are anything but fair; Charles Terront upon his St. Petersburg-Paris record-ride complained bitterly about them."

The Referee, 1894:
"A German cyclist named Steinfeldt lowered the record from St. Petersburg to Paris a few day ago, his time being 12 da. 20 hrs. ; the best previous time was 14 da. 7 hrs. 31 min., by Terront."

Or, on a much smaller scale, consider the Hour record. 1893, as every cycling fan knows, was the year Desgrange invented the Hour record and over the rest of the 1890s only three attempts on the record were successful. Beyond the myth though is another story: I have details of at least three dozen successful attempts on the other Hour record across the whole of the 1890s, the paced Hour, the record climbing from 34.601 kilometres in 1890 (set in Paddington, London) to 58.980 kilometres by the end of the 1890s. What spurred the paced Hour on wasn't (just) the aggregation of marginal gains: it was that the world itself got faster, became motor-paced. It grew increasingly hard to see whose record the Hour was: the rider, or the machine pacing him.

Jarry's time, then, was a time of speed freaks. Endurance freaks. Rather than being, as some might like to think, a case of Jarry predicting the birth of the Tour de France, his Perpetual Motion Race was just a reflection on the world in which he lived. It is realism. Dialled up to eleven.

Jarry's time was also a time of speed freaks. Though it wasn't called speed in those days. It was stimulants: alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, digitalis, ether, heroin, nitroglycerine, opium, strychnine and more. Jarry's idea of Perpetual Motion Food was another thing of its time. And - for those who argue that everyone doped back then - so too was the disdain for chemical enhancement Jarry invests his character Marcueil with. You may not have had the moral clamour of today's era of prohibition but people still had morals. As for exactly what Jarry's Perpetual Motion Food was, all that's known about it is that it had a strychnine and alcohol base:

"'Strychnine in sizeable doses is a stimulant, as is well known, but alcohol? For training racers? You're pulling my leg.'"

Two years after The Supermale was published, French cycling was shocked to discover that people would cheat in a bicycle race, allowing themselves to be towed behind cars and the like during the 1904 Tour de France. And yet, there in The Supermale, such cheating had already been presented to them. Jarry's imaginary quad was being paced by a car and, in the dark of night, from the rear of this car protruded a drum, which in turn was connected to the car's wheels, revolving in the opposite direction:

"Corporal Gilbey had us pull forward so that our front wheel rested against the drum; they locked together like gears, and we were towed, effortlessly and fraudulently, during the first hours of the night."

Such was the world of cycling - the world of sport - in Jarry's time.

* * * * *

In that regard then, The Supermale is an interesting read if you want to understand the culture of the time, the time being the years leading up to the birth of the Tour de France. Its literary merit, though, is - sadly - lacking. It was designed to shock and in its day it did, though not much. But whatever power it had in that regard has long since been stripped from it. What is more interesting about it - more interesting than its literary merit, more interesting than the colour it adds to our understanding of cycling in those years - is the story of Alfred Jarry himself, who today is most famous for his play Ubu Roi, a proto-absurdist tale of tyranny in which Ubu becomes the king of Poland after wiping out the ruling royals and then has to fight off revolt from within and invasion from without.

Jarry had been born in the palindromic city of Laval on the banks of the Mayenne, in the Pays-de-la-Loire on September 8, 1873. His father was a Lavallois, his mother a Breton. On his father's side, the family owned various properties in Laval, one of them home to a textile business the father co-founded. When it floundered in 1879 Jarry's parents split and the mother returned to her Breton homeland, taking Jarry and his sister to live in Saint-Brieuc, on the north coast of Brittany. In 1888 he was entered into the lycée in Rennes where among his teachers was the man who came to be immortalised on page and stage as Père Ubu: Félix-Frédéric Herbert. A teacher of physics, Herbert had become the butt of jokes for generations of students that passed through his classroom, in the most enduring of which he became Père Hébé and then, in the hands of Jarry and some friends, Père Ubu. Drawing elements from Shakespeare - mostly Macbeth and Hamlet - Ubu went from caricature to character as Jarry refined the work over the course of his life.

In the same year that Jarry began his education in Rennes he acquired his first bicycle (or, in Jarry-speak - where the wind is that which blows - that which rolls). From Rennes Jarry would cycle to Le Mont-Saint-Michel and back in a day, a round trip of some 200 kilometres with time for fishing in between both halves. He would also cycle from Rennes to Laval, to visit his father, a distance of 80 kilometres. Cycling became an important part of Jarry's life, he at one stage expressing the view that the "bicycle is a new body part, like a mineral or metal extension of our bone structure."

With his Rennes education done, Jarry's mother took him to Paris in the hope of enrolling him in the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Each year the ENS accepted a fresh cohort of two dozen humanities students, drawn from the whole of France. To prepare him for his entrance exams Jarry was enrolled in the Lycée Henri IV. Mother and son took up residence in the City of Light's Latin Quarter. It was the year that people started racing from Bordeaux to Paris, and using Brest as the halfway point in a race from Paris and back. 1891.

Jarry never did make it into the ENS. He sat the entrance exam several times but after the death of his mother in May 1893 his academic ambition seems to have disappeared. By this time Jarry was already getting swept up in Paris's cultural scene and entering literary competitions in the city's many newspapers, with some of his writings getting published in L'Écho de Paris. Toward the end of 1893 he began writing for L'Art Littéraire and in early 1894 moved on to Alfred Valette's Mercure de France, with which he is most famously associated.

Jarry did continue to try gain admission to the ENS, partly to appease his father in Laval and partly as a means of putting off his military service. The latter, though, could not be deferred forever and his three years of military service commenced in November 1894, Jarry sent to serve with the 101st Infantry in Laval (strings were pulled). He did not allow it to interrupt his life too much. Through one of the regimental doctors - a friend of his father's - Jarry was able to obtain permits to leave the barracks and on one occasion used one of these to allow him to enter a bicycle race in Rennes (in a letter to his sister from June 1894 Jarry had written that he had cycled from the artists' commune of Pont-Aven in western Brittany to the nearby village of Le Pouldu: "22 kilometres without touching the handlebars.")

Alfred Jarry

A portrait of Jarry thought to date to just before he commenced his military service

Jarry's military service was cut short in December 1895, gallstones and some more string pulling chopping twenty-three months off his term. In or about 1896 Jarry took to wearing a cyclist's attire - he was travelling all about on his bicycle - described in Andrew Brotchie's biography, A Pataphysical Life, as being "black, all black, including the shirt and the tight calf-length breeches, and by way of a tie pin, a silver skeleton the length of one's little finger."

Shortly before he exploded into the public consciousness in late 1896 and achieved scandalous fame Jarry bought himself a new bicycle, from the same store in Laval as he had acquired his first, Jules Trochon, Quai Folqust. The bike was a new Clément Luxe, built for racing, bought for 525 francs. An additional 20 francs spent on racing wheels. All on credit. The debt was still due on Jarry's death.

Alfred Jarry

An 1896 advertisement from Le Véloce Sport for Clément bicycles

That scandalous fame Jarry - already well known within the circles of Paris's salon society - acquired came about when the avant-garde Œuvre theatre company put on a performance of his play about the palindromic père. Ubu. King. (First. Turd.) On December 10 it received its première, after a public dress rehearsal the night before. The play was staged in the Nouveau-Théâtre on rue Blanche, whose stalls and two tiers seated 900 (of whom as many as 800 were typically comp'ed, the Œuvre relying on as few as 100 paying punters to finance its productions). The house was full, for both performances.

Today, Jarry's staging would seem clichéd. A single backdrop served throughout, simultaneously depicting day and night, indoors and out. The actors were masked and wore anachronistic costumes, they spoke in a mix of accents. They were timeless and placeless (the full name of the play is Ubu Roi, ou les Polanis - King Ubu, or the Poles, with Poland at this time being a state that had ceased to existed, sundered since the eighteenth century by Austria, Prussia and Russia). But in the 1890s - even in avant-garde Paris - this was the shock of the new. And many in those comp'ed seats were shocked. On the night of the dress rehearsal it was an actor with outstretched arm performing the role of a door, his hand the lock into which a key was inserted, that set them off. On the night of the première, they whipped themselves up into a frenzy from the opening word: "Merdre!" (shit with an excess r rolled in.)

Here a bit of manufactured dissent should be noted. It was not uncommon for producers to infiltrate among the audience a claque, professional applauders. Jarry, he recruited his own counter claque: "The performance must not be allowed to reach its conclusion," Jarry instructed, "the theatre must explode." How much this counter claque contributed to what followed is not known. What is known is that the enthusiasm for the play was matched by fury against it and for a quarter of an hour the performance was disrupted. When a semblance of order was restored the play went on. But each time time the script called for another merdre - which it did frequently - the catcalls came again (some in the audience were sharp as tacks, meeting merdre! with mangre! - mange, eat it, with an added r). The critics hated it. But they had to write about it. Everybody who was anybody was talking about it. It was a coup de scandale.

Jarry was not unknown before Ubu Roi's 1896 performance - a book of poems and other writings (Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial) was published in 1894, he had briefly published his own arts revue (L'Ymagier) and a play (César-Antéchrist) was published in 1895 - but nothing he had done captured the public imagination in the same way. And the same was true of life after, even when Jarry revisited Ubu (Ubu Cocu was published in 1897, Ubu Enchaíné in 1899).

Nothing, that is, except his death, in 1907 at the age of 34, after which Jarry's influence on a generation of artists and writers began to be appreciated, that generation achieving the sort of success that had eluded Jarry during his life. For them, Jarry's greatest work was certainly not The Supermale, it wasn't even Ubu Roi: Jarry's greatest work was Alfred Jarry. He became celebrated for his eccentricities: the pistol he fired indoors, a pair of owls he kept as pets, his cycling. Picasso claimed the pistol. The owls and the bicycle, gone. Cyclists, we revel in the associated fame, use Jarry to link ourselves to Man Ray and the Marx Brothers, Umberto Eco and Raymond Queneau, Gavin Bryars and Hawkwind. That Jarry's cycling is seen as an eccentricity is something we just gloss over.

Celebrated and all as the life was, it ended a mess, Jarry's health and his finances spiralling out of control, even his beloved bicycle, owned for a decade though never paid for, pawned. Meningeal tuberculosis claimed him. He was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux. Among the mourners was Tristan Bernard, who had managed the Vélodrome de la Seine and the Vélodrome Buffalo before becoming a successful writer. The grave was rented, five years paid for. Brotchie's biography - citing André Salmon, though not confidently - says Jarry was replaced in its embrace by "an ex-champion cyclist," name not given. Two champion cyclists known to be buried in the Bagneux are Edmond Jacquelin - who was sprinting to success during Jarry's lifetime - and André Leducq. Maybe Jarry still rests in their company. Maybe he doesn't. And maybe that is why cyclists, without realising it, really feel kinship with Alfred Jarry: so much about our sport is mythopoetic. As is so much about Jarry's life.

* * * * *

The biographical details here are drawn from Alastair Brotchie's Alfred Jarry - A Pataphysical Life, a biography that is worth reading.