It all began with the “classroom martyrdom” of one Félix-Frédéric Hébert (1832–1917), a physics teacher at the lycée in Rennes. Possessed of a large stomach, short legs and an air of bluff pomposity, Hébert was ragged mercilessly by his pupils. “What made him unique and inspired a plethora of ingenious inventions aimed at stirring him up”, recalled one, “was that we could look forward to beautiful tears, noble sobs and ceremonious supplications.” Two brothers, Charles and Henri Morin, began writing and illustrating a series of satirical sketches recounting the exploits of the ridiculous Père Hébert, and these stories were added to by other boys. The “Hébert cycle” consists of long poems, plays, mock newspapers and fantasy adventures, many exhibiting a protosurreal wit: “Appearance of P. H. – He was born complete with bowler hat, woollen cloak and check trousers. On top of his head is a single, extendible ear, usually covered by his hat; both his arms are on the same side (likewise his eyes) and, unlike humans, whose feet are situated next to each other, he has one behind the other, so that when he falls over he is unable to pick himself up without assistance and remains prostrated, shouting until someone helps him up.” When the fifteen-year-old Alfred Jarry arrived at the lycée in 1888 he was swiftly initiated into the cult of Père Hébert.

more from Ian Pindar at the TLS here.