Days And Nights (Alfred Jarry) (Atlas Press 1989)
ALFRED JARRY is chiefly known as the creator of UBU, the anti-hero of what is acknowledged as the first "absurd" drama, but this was only one facet of a writer now seen as one of the most vital (and peculiar) influences on the French literature of this century.
Jarry wrote his great visionary novel Days & Nights when he was only 24, and it has much in common with the works of two other youthful geniuses: Rimbaud and Lautreamont. Days & Nights is Jarry's masterpiece: its hero, an army conscript, uses various means to escape his intolerable everyday life. Eventually he is consumed by dreams, hallucinations, drug orgies. He abandons reality altogether and pursues a strange erotic quest: "The Double."
Jarry's language is dense, humorous and has a richness and idiosyncrasy that makes it less than surprising that this is the first translation of his most important novel.
Days & Nights also has an historical importance. Although written in 1897, it was years ahead of its time. It was the culmination of French Symbolism, yet foresaw many of the concerns of the "modern novel" and profoundly influenced both Joyce and the Surrealists.
“Published in 1897, Days and Nights is a curious hybrid… incorporating elements of roman à clef, based around Jarry’s own circle of young Symbolist hangers-on, transcripts of free-associating drug sessions, gobbets of literary parody, and metamorphical conceits that show the distinct influence of Lautréamont… Jarry’s singularity lay less in individual texts than in his refusal of fixity – making him in his writing one of pre-modernism’s great disguise artists, and in his life too perhaps the founding father of performance art.” [Jonathan Romney, Time Out]
“Atlas Press would like to thank Alexis Lykiard for his excellent rendering of a novel so spectacularly difficult to translate” [Alastair Brotchie]
Days and Nights first appeared in 1897, when Alfred Jarry was twenty-three and Ubu was already on the rampage. The book is subtitled Novel of a deserter, and it is as much about the desertion of conventional sanity and reality as it is about a soldier's attempts to dodge military service. The resulting foray into dream and hallucination produces a work of evolutionary interest rather than literary perfection, anticipating Surrealism, the linguistic, punning inventiveness of Joyce and the fragmented, alternating subjective and objective perspectives characteristic of later "experimental" novels. At the same time, Days and Nights is "one of the last significant works to employ the language of the Symbolists". It is also rooted in traditional literature, full of erudite allusions and witty word-play, with satirical touches worthy of Gargantua and Gil Blas.
The autobiographically based story at first seems straightforward but becomes increasingly (and fascinatingly) unclear. The main character, Sengle, an army conscript, finds military life unendurable and sets about trying to desert. His plan simply to go AWOL in Paris is thwarted and he turns instead to the expedient of feigning illness so that he may pass his time more genially in hospital. An overdose of caffeine and some legerdemain with the thermometer ensure his admission. It is here that he retreats into his own fantasies, the ordinary, everyday world of the ward becoming more and more dream-like, grotesque and unlikely, while the reveries gain in credibility and completely subvert normal perceptions of real and unreal, light and dark, day and night: "He no longer made any distinction between his thoughts and actions nor between his dreaming and his waking .... And he believed that above all there are only hallucinations, or perceptions, and that there are neither nights nor days." This confusion obfuscates the precise nature and identity of the plot's second main persona - "Sengle was not sure whether his brother Valens had ever existed". It is never made certain, in fact, whether Valens is Sengle's brother, his homosexual lover, his alter ego or his Doppelganger. The two characters are certainly inextricably linked, however, and it is to be presumed that the collapse of a (hallucinated?) plaster moulding fashioned like a death-mask of Valens causes Sengle's concussion and subsequent mania, maybe even death.
Jarry, of course, can be very funny, both as a satirist and as a verbal innovator. His hatred of the medical profession here engenders a lampoon sketch of a quack physician, Busnagoz, the equivalent of Le Sage's Dr Sangrado:
"Doctor, sir, it's
me, my name's Boudaire; one of my legs is seven centimetres shorter
than the other. . ."
And it says "much for the translator's ability that a piece of daunting Rabelaisian/Joycean junk-induced banter such as the following can still retain some humour when rendered into another language: "With your stick you're the old man of the woods. If you're the old man of the woods you're the plank man, an orangoutang hubbub, adoobarb. A kiosk where he bar-barks. Tree-man, come and be arborous with me in the arms-room."Days and Nights is prefaced by The Other Alcestis, Jarry's brief, strange, learned account of the dying Solomon's attempt to complete the building of the temple in Jerusalem. This dense and not readily comprehensible piece draws, as a set of useful notes makes clear, on Greek and Islamic mythical and historical sources. The fact that the two works were written at about the same time but are so different from each other makes for a bit of neat, informative Jarry packaging.
[Peter Reading Times Literary Supplement January 5th 1990]