Dennis Duncan’s LRB review (archived) of The Themerson Archive Catalogue, edited by Jasia Reichardt and Nick Wadley, is full of interesting things (Franciszka and Stefan Themerson were Polish refugees who moved to London during WWII), but this passage is of obvious LH relevance:

When Stefan eventually joined her in London they set up home in Maida Vale. It was here, in 1948, that they launched their publishing house, the Gaberbocchus Press. The name was taken from a translation of ‘Jabberwocky’ into Latin by Carroll’s uncle: the inadvertent Pataphysics of a made-up word carried over into a dead language. In Franciszka’s drawings for the press’s stationery and catalogues, the Gaberbocchus is a louche, penile dragon, masked and smiling, often brandishing a nibbed sword. As with the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press, the early Gaberbocchus productions were of the Themersons’ own work. An essay by Stefan on the Polish artist Jankel Adler – another émigré who had fought with the Polish army in France – was followed by a version of Aesop’s fable ‘The Eagle and the Fox’, devised by Stefan and illustrated by Franciszka, in which the tale is told and then reversed, with the eagle coming out on top. Two more books by Stefan followed, as well as a volume of poetry by Hugo Manning, a Londoner of Polish Jewish extraction.

In 1951, Gaberbocchus published the work for which it remains best known. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is bold, cartoonish and archly slapdash, its lead couple resembling the Macbeths reimagined as Roald Dahl’s Twits. Ubu is greedy, cruel, cowardly, oafish – all the sins except lust. His wife is a randy, ambitious grifter. Yeats had been present at the play’s notorious premiere in Paris in 1896, but Barbara Wright’s translation for the Themersons was its first appearance in English. From the opening word – Ubu’s exclamation ‘Shittr!’ (‘Merdre!’ in the original) – Wright captures Jarry’s freewheeling slang perfectly. In its typography, too, the Gaberbocchus edition was attuned to Jarry’s provocations. Printed on bright yellow paper, the book was not typeset but handwritten, in thick italics, directly onto the litho plates. The writing competes for space with Franciszka’s illustrations, which sometimes disregard the text, layering themselves bluntly on top, and sometimes play off it, as a page number, for instance, falls through a trapdoor. Franciszka’s Ubu is soft, Obelix-nosed, with a conical head: part moomin, part Ku Klux Klansman. He looks pitiful, comical, disgusting. One can’t help secretly rooting for him. […]

The Gaberbocchus Ubu Roi offered the first clear sign of the press’s defining editorial direction. In the aftermath of the war, Stefan wrote a letter to the Committee of Writers in Exile at International PEN, rejecting the idea of statelessness: ‘Writers are never, writers are nowhere in exile, for they carry within themselves their own kingdom, or republic, or city of refuge, or whatever it is they carry within themselves.’ The Themersons were almost aggressively unsentimental about their own experience of forced migration. With Gaberbocchus, they sought to achieve their own borderless republic of letters, their mission being, in Wadley and Reichardt’s words, ‘to put before British readers important works by European writers that were hitherto unpublished in Britain’. The press’s list would include the poetry of Kurt Schwitters and Anatol Stern, Apollinaire’s calligrammes and the Pataphysics of Jean-Hugues Sainmont, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, and Song of Bright Misery by Pol-Dives, the Parisian artist in whose home Stefan had hidden from the Nazis in 1940.

We need more publishers like that! (Jabberwocky translations at LH in 2003, 2006, 2022; Ubu Roi in 2004, 2005.)


  1. (It occurs to me to wonder what the origin of the surname Themerson is.)

  2. A guess: Son of Theodomir?

  3. Another translation of Ubu renders “Merdre!” into more plausible English: “Pshit!”

  4. I like Tom Quinn’s “Gobshites!”

  5. Shitch

  6. schitt?
    or just shitt?

    (i like “pshit” best of what i’ve seen in print)

  7. David Eddyshaw says


  8. I’ve also heard of “Shrite!”

    Anyway, what does “merdre” sound like to a native French speaker, channeling a forebear of 130 years ago? And why “phynances”?

  9. And, it’s ’Pataphysics. C’mon, people.

  10. I remember David Ball’s “shitsky!”
    I can’t speak to how well it captures the spirit of the French though.

    The translation of medre was discussed here
    in 2005:

  11. John Cowan says

    In trying to find some definitive word on the meaning of Themerson, I found a little book called A Few Letters From The 1950s: Selected Correspondence with Lars Gustav Hellstrom and Bertrand Russell. Hellstrom translated Themerson’s Bayamus into Swedish, to no avail, and asked interesting questions to which Themerson gave even more interesting answers.

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