Pierre Albert-Birot – Novel about the happiest man in the world, a child-like, satyric, and comical Parisian as he visits other planets, travels through time, and finds poetry wherever he goes

Pierre Albert-Birot, The First Book of Grabinoulor, Trans. by Barbara Wright, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000. [1919.]

"A key figure in France's modernist movement, Pierre Albert-Birot founded and edited CIS - an early 20th century avant-garde literary magazine - where he published and helped to shape the work of fellow Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists (including Apollinaire, Adre Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault and the first texts of Tristan Tzara).
Like its author, GRABINOULOR has been rediscovered only in the last few decades. Originally published in SIC in 1919 and praised by such writers as Apollinaire, Celine, Max Jacob, and Raymond Queneau, it did not appear in English until 1986.
Smart, joyous, playfully philosophical and completely without despair, the novel follows the character Grabinoulor - "the happiest man in the world" - a child-like, satyric, and comical Parisian as he visits other planets, travels through time, and finds poetry wherever he goes."
"After founding the Dada journal Sic, which printed his poems and those of more famous writers, Albert-Birot invented his joyously erotic hero, Grabinoulor, whose earliest exploits appeared in Sic in 1921. The irrepressible Grabinoulor performs his fantastic epic feats in an onrush of perpetual motion, which this slim book presents in rivers of unpunctuated prose. When Grabinoulor moves a statue in his apartment, trying to restore the parallels and perpendiculars of the furniture, he topples the earth. With his unconventional poetry, he squashes a grammarian. When unleashing his sexual fantasies, he produces poems shaped like bellies, breasts and phalluses. For some of these verses, the French text is included to reveal plays on words. Albert-Birot celebrated the erotic as a means of freeing the artistic imagination from bourgeois constraints. For him, sexuality represented poetic creation. His tricks of language, his leaps through time and space are in the traditions of Rabelais and Shandy. The ribaldry does not shock now as it once perhaps did, but Grabinoulor is still fun to read. The book is a valuable document in the development of Dada and surrealism." - Publishers Weekly

"Albert-Birot's 1986 Grabinoulor actually appeared first in 1919 in the literary avant-garde publication SIC, of which the author was founder and editor. The book is presented in both traditional chapters and in sections in which the words appear in the form of shapes such as triangles and even lips. In Cholodenko's more straightforward work, the eponymous hero sets out to investigate himself and his surroundings in a series of vignettes highlighting the absurdity of his life. More for the academics." - Library Journal

"Pierre Albert-Birot remains a peripheral literary figure of the 20th century, largely unknown outside France. He wrote a great deal, though his success in getting published was limited. He wrote, it seems, everything: experimental poetry and texts, dramas, all variety of narratives. A child of the avant-garde period of the early 20th century, he embraced it as fully (and successfully - at least in terms of actually creating avant garde work) as anyone.
Grabinoulor is Albert-Birot's magnum opus. The Atlas Press/Dalkey Archive Press edition, The First Book of Grabinoulor, is, as the title suggests, just the first book of a larger work - a sliver, in fact: the complete French version of Grabinoulor, six books in all, runs to some 900 page.
The complete text remains inaccessible except in French, but The First Book is still a worthwhile introduction to the work. A preface by translator Barbara Wright, and a postface by Arlette Albert-Birot provide some of the necessary background information about Albert-Birot and his creation -- though both are quite personal in their approach, and a more general introduction to author and work might also have been useful.
The book has twenty-six chapters, recounting episodes from the unusual Grabinoulor's life. He is an odd, surreal creation: "Grabinoulor walks admirably on the earth and on the water above and below both in space and time".
There are few constraints on the character. In the first scene his accomplishments already range from the mundane to the unexpected: "while he was happily washing his hairy body he went jumping naked through the woods and published a book then he put his clothes on". Time isn't much of a constraint to him, as he moves back and forward across it, traversing "all the rest of the Great War", for example, simply with "an extra-big stride". There are also few corporeal constraints: for an instant, for example, he becomes "one of those majestic automobiles", only to "become the perfumed being made of white skin of black rhythm and of the unknown who stepped out of it". Rarely, if ever, throughout the book does Grabinoulor stand still (in place or time) or remain unchanged.
If Grabinoulor is anything he is also a sexual being, and sex is of prime interest to him. The book begins with him "reaching out to life in virile expectation", and he doesn't let up until the end. There are amorous adventures (or, more often, brief flurries of engagement) throughout.
Love and sex seem the prime preoccupations and occupations of author and subject. This is even reflected in the typography, as Albert-Birot offers (in the eighth chapter) poems and lines that are suggestive not only in their content but also their shapely appearance.
Albert-Birot's style takes a bit of getting used to, specifically because he employs no punctuation marks. Sentences tend to run on and meld into one another. As most of the chapters are very short this isn't quite as daunting as it may sound.
The un-reality of the narrative - the carefree, avant-garde approach -- may also not be to everyone's taste. But Grabinoulor does have some fun adventures as well as some entertaining amorous encounters. And the pace of the book is almost breakneck. Never a dull moment, in other words -- though occasionally some baffling ones.
The few notes that are included are helpful (though more might have been better), as are the post- and pre-face. The original first version of Grabinoulor (a page in SIC) is also reproduced, giving some sense of the French appearance and sound of the text.
Barbara Wright's translation deals well with a difficult text, and certainly makes it approachable for an English-speaking audience. Fortunately, she decided to present chapter eight (with much punning verse) in both the French original and translation, acknowledging that it is "impossible to do justice" to some of the poems in translation.
An unusual text, The First Book of Grabinoulor is certainly not for everyone. But it is a fun, playful book, and Grabinoulor certainly a figure worth knowing. The greatest disappointment for readers will likely be that they find the many further adventures of Grabinoulor remain still untranslated..." - The Complete Review


Debra Kelly, Pierre Albet-Birot: a poetics in movement, a poetics of movement
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