The First Book of Grabinoulor (Pierre Albert-Birot)

“One day Grabinoulor took it into his head to regret all the hours of his life that he hadn’t lived and he immediately decided to live every single second but after four minutes he had to stop living that sort of life because he was so tired that he thought he could see death on the horizon and he had already aged by a month but luckily a green and blue dragonfly kindly came and poised in front of him on the tip of a wild oat so while he was watching it he recouped at least two weeks out of the month he’d lost by trying to gain too much and from that point while he was coming and going considering men’s love for women some ugly little irritations tried to fall on his neck whereupon Grabinoulor made a face and shook himself all over like a horse exacerbated by flies and the little irritations got scared and retreated telling themselves that they’d come back when they were bigger but an extraordinary thing happened which was that Grabinoulor had completely lost the day the date and the hour of the time he was living in that day and he had gone so far astray that he had practically reached eternity or at the very least its outskirts but when he was beginning with unalloyed pleasure to see things such as he had never seen before some signs got together and came and told him today is Wednesday and within a fifth of a second he had found the date and the hour again and it seemed to him that he was a dog chained up outside its kennel even though he was sitting on the sand by the sea and taking great pleasure in discovering all the shapes of his feet with his hand”

–Fifth Chapter, The First Book of Grabinoulor by Pierre Albert-Birot, translated by Barbara Wright

Most everyone who writes about Pierre Albert-Birot, whether as a primary subject or tertiary figure, begins by mentioning the unjust obscurity to which he and his creative works have been relegated. For example, there is the description of Albert-Birot by Johanna Drucker, author of The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923, as being “now much eclipsed in spite of the role he played in the 1910s as publisher, editor, and promoter/producer of performances and works.” The primary—really the only—critical work on Albert-Birot in English, Pierre Albert-Birot: A Poetics in Movement, A Poetics of Movement by Debra Kelly, calls him “a writer whose work has been neglected by the academic establishment and that remains largely unknown by the general reading public.”

Albert-Birot’s obscurity is so entrenched that it can even border on the comic. In his review of the Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature for The Times Literary Supplement, historian and novelist Robert Irwin observed that “some of the biographical entries are so strange that I wondered if some of these writers had not been made up… Was Pierre Albert-Birot a real person?” Happily yes, both for his readers and his own ebullient self. However, with the recent death of his English translator and advocate, Barbara Wright (she passed in April ’09), Albert-Birot is unlikely to become a publishing phenomenon anytime soon. More’s the pity.

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Pierre Albert-Birot, or PAB as he was nicknamed by his friends, was born on April 22, 1876 in Angoulôme in southwestern France. Though he had a happy childhood, as Wright relates, PAB experienced a “difficult, poverty-stricken adolescence.” After the failure of his parents’ marriage, he moved to Paris in 1894 with his mother, where he studied sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts because it was free.

Albert-Birot was left to raise his four children on his own when his partner left him in 1909. He began writing in 1913 after meeting his second wife, Germaine de Surville, a musician. Declared unfit for military service in World War One, PAB was collecting unemployment insurance in 1916 when he had what Wright calls “a sort of revelation. What was needed in those barbarous times, he saw, was an avant-garde review.”

An unemployed father of four without any connections in the art world, Albert-Birot produced the first issue of SIC on his own (SIC was an acronym for Sons Idées Couleurs, or Sounds Ideas Colors). The magazine would be published each month from 1916 to 1919 and be associated with movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism, Nunism/Presentism, and Simultaneism. Albert-Birot was also responsible for the first staging of Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les mamelles de Tirésias in 1917. The music for the play was composed by PAB’s wife, and the programme PAB prepared featured the first use of the term “surrealism,” though it was actually Apollinaire who came up with the word while in conversation with Albert-Birot.

Though generally referred to simply as an author, Pierre Albert-Birot was an extraordinarily experimental artist. Debra Kelly lists “figurative paintings and sculptures, still lifes, landscapes, cubist and abstract canvases, experimental forms of la peinture absolue, traditional versification, punctuated and nonpunctuated poetry and prose, sound-generated poetry, visual poetry or ‘poesie plastique,’ translation, linear narrative in more ambiguous form, theater, and autobiography” among his exploits. She forgot to mention PAB’s interest in body puppetry.

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PAB began working on Grabinoulor, the lifelong work that Kelly calls “the key to the universe created by Pierre Albert-Birot,” in 1918. He would continue working on the six-part “epic” until the early 1960s. Despite his work with SIC and various dramatic productions in the 1920s, Albert-Birot spent most of his life removed from the Parisian arts and literary scene, working for more than 50 years as an antiques restorer. After his wife Germaine’s death in 1931, he lived the next 25-some years, in his own words, “excessively, and much too solitary… I live two hours a day. I waste twenty-two in sleeping, doing my domestic chores, and earning enough to live on. These two hours of real life occur after each meal. The whole morning, all I am thinking of is the poetic hour I’m going to have after lunch, and after the meal I feel almost drunk at the thought that in a few moments I shall be immersed in poetry. I go into my work room and it’s really, really as if I were walking into heaven.”

When Wright met Albert-Birot in 1964, she writes, “almost none of his previous work was still in print. A lot of it hadn’t even been published, and was simply sitting piled up in his wardrobe.” He died three years later on July 25, 1967. His “much, much younger” widow, Arlette Albert-Birot, continued to promote his work after his death, but it wasn’t until 1991 that all six volumes of Grabinoulor were published in France (Les six livres de Grabinoulor: Epopee comes to over 900 pages).

Only the first book of Grabinoulor has been translated into English. It was published by Dalkey Archive Press in the U.S. in 1987. Barbara Wright’s translation was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize, an annual award for French-to-English translation named after the original English translator of Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu. The paperback edition of The First Book of Grabinoulor was released in 2000 and is still available through Dalkey’s website.

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Grabinoulor is a childlike, libidinous, superhuman figure intent on defending the primacy of the earth and his body, yet drawn into elaborate flights of fancy by objects as banal as a bicycle or a map. As Albert-Birot writes at the beginning of Chapter 15, “But you can’t go and live on another planet for very long when you are a man and Grabinoulor’s feet liked the earth and the asphalt for he was born on the Earth so whenever he was elsewhere he felt obliged to come back here”

The absence of punctuation is one of the things that first strikes a reader of Grabinoulor—that and the madcap, priapic joy that the character exhibits right from the getgo, when Grabinoulor awakens with a heart full of sunshine, his nose standing up straight in the middle of his face, and a blanket-clad dibber (his word) reaching out to life in “virile expectation.” In her preface, Wright relates that PAB had declared war on punctuation in 1917, for as one of the poems in his collection Trente et un Poèmes de Poche begins, “Nature has no full stops”

Nor does Grabi, who is able to overcome time and space at will—or perhaps more precisely, “at whim.” After going in search of the Empire of the Dead and failing to find it where Homer, Lucian, Virgil, Dante and others had indicated it was, Grabinoulor builds a Tower of Life that quickly becomes a celebration of copulation, or Poems to the Flesh, in which Albert-Birot exhibits his typographical creativity by setting poems in the shape of a phallus, pubic triangle, a pair of breasts, and a rounded navel.

Grabinoulor’s erotic propensities are simple and affirmative rather than crass, but not without a trace of self-mockery. In the seventeenth chapter, titled “Grabinoulor is a man,” he goes off into a future time inhabited by ten-foot androgynous figures capable of asexual reproduction, a more playful variation of imaginary voyage tales such as Gabriel De Foigny’s The Southern Land, Known (1676) and its allegorical island of hermaphrodites. The giants poke fun at “the little individual with the gross deformity” until, homesick and afraid of being put in a cage, Grabinoulor returns to the Paris streets perfumed by short-skirted women.

The episodes in books two through six of Grabinoulor sound intriguing, and include a twelve-hour Parisian orgy of eating, drinking, and sex as host to the angel Gabriel, and later, the deflowering of Eve by Adam. However, my rudimentary French isn’t up to the task of reading these volumes on my own. Considering how little attention Albert-Birot receives in the U.S., I’m likely to be fluent before a full Grabinoulor translation is published. If and when that distant day comes, I’ll post another detailed review of the remaining five books of Grabi’s epic tale.

In the meanwhile, you can buy a French Simultaneism t-shirt featuring Pierre Albert-Birot’s poetry via CafePress. Too bad it’s green.