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Boris Vian (1920-1959)


French novelist and playwright, a jazz connoisseur and critic, Dixieland trumpeters, and author of more than 400 songs. As a writer Boris Vian is perhaps best remembered for his novels L'écume des jours (1947, Mood Indigo) and J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946, I Spit on Your Graves). Vian's collected works amount to more than 50 vols. He died in a Parisian cinema at the age of 39 while watching a preview of the film I Spit on Your Graves. It was a story of a black man named Lee Anderson, who avenges the lynching of his younger, darker skinned brother by raping and killing white girls.

"Write," he said. "Write best-sellers. Nothing but best-sellers. Historical novels; novels where colored men sleep with white women and don't get lynched; novels about pure young girls who manage to grow up unblemished by the vicious small-town life which surrounds them." (in I Spit on Your Graves by Boris Vian, English translation by Boris Vian & Milton Rosenthal)

Boris Vian was born at Ville d'Avray into a bourgeois family, that lost much of its wealth in the Depression. He was a second child of his parents, Paul and Yvonne Vian. At the age of 12 Vian developed rheumatic fever and later he contracted typhoid which left him with an enlarged heart. However, it did not prevent him from pouring his energy into a number of artistic projects later in his life. Vian was first educated at home. At the age of 17 he learnt trumpet after seeing Duke Ellinton play. He studied philosophy at the Lycée Hoche in  Versailles, and excelled in mathematics at the Lycée Condorcet, receiving a civil engineering diploma in 1942.

During the 1940s Vian was employed for a time by the AFNOR (Association Française de Normalisation), a bureaucracy, which Vian satirized in his first novel, Vercoquin et le Plancton (Vercoquin and the Plancton). It was written in 1943, but published in 1946. Vian left AFNOR to write L'Écume des jours (1947, Mood Indigo), his most famous love story.

After the war Vian played a New Orleans-style trumpet in Claude Abadie's jazz orchestra, penned several hundred songs, mader a reputation as a cabaret singer, and wrote reviews for the magazine Le Jazz-Hot. He also contributed to Jean-Paul Sartre's magazine Les Temps Modernes. Vian's most beautiful songs include the pacifist 'Le déserteur' (1954), which sold thousands of records. Written in the form of a letter, addressed to Monsieur le Président, the song outraged the French patriots, and was forbidden to broadcast on the radio. The song was composed by Harold Berg and was first performed by Vian's friend Marcel Mouloudji.

Monsieur le Président
je ne veux pas le faire,
je ne suis pas sur terre
pour tuer de pauvres gens.
(from 'Le déserteur')

J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946) was penned under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan in ten days in the hard-boiled style of crime fiction. Vian had made a wager with his publisher that he can compose a best-seller novel, and when a copy of the book – opened to scene where the ptotagonist kills his mistress – was found on the Parisian hotel bed on which a married man had shot his lover and then committed suicide, it gained publicity beyond anyone's expectations. J'irai cracher sur vos tombes sold 100,000 copies before it was prosecuted for obscenity, the first such trial of a French novel since that of Flaubert's Madame Bovary in 1857. Vian was fined one franc for every copy sold.

"Vian's book has a certain weary, mysogynistic humor – the chicks fuck like rabbits, or minks, and our hero gets a certain charge, or arrives at the mercy of a nearly unbearable ecstasy, out of his private knowledge that they are being fucked by a nigger: he is committing the crime for which his brother was murdered, he is fucking these cunts with his brother's prick. And he comes three times, so to speak, each time he comes, once for his brother, and once for the "little death" of the orgasms to which he always brings the ladies, and uncontrollably, for the real death to which he is determined to bring them." (The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin, 2000, pp. 43-44) At the court Vian insisted that it was not his own work but a translation of a book by the American writer Vernon Sullivan, and went on to provide a biography for his "alter-negro". The pseudonym combined the names of Joe Sullivan, an American pianist, and Paul Vernon, a French jazz musician, who played in Claude Abadie's band alongside with Vian.

In addition to American jazz, Vian was familiar with American mystery and detective novels, although he never visited the US. He translated Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain for Gallimard's "Série Noire." In addition he translated with his wife – for a period, translating was the main source of their income – works by Nelson Algren, Strindberg, Pirandello, and Brendan Behan, and from the field of science fiction A.E. van Vogt, William Tenn, Henry Kuttner, and Ray Bradbury. New Vernon Sullivan thrillers followed in 1947 and 1948. At the same time Vian produced more or less serious novels, plays and poems. A short opera, Fiesta, which tells the story of a mysterious shipwrecked man, was written for Darius Milhaud. The opera was first performed in West Berlin in 1948. Vian also acted small parts in films and wrote film scenarios. In 1958, he and the director Louis Malle persuaded Miles Davis to play the music for Malle's film Lift to the Scaffold.

In the preface of Mood Indigo Vian wrote – echoing in his uncompromising tone Voltaire: "There are only two things: love, all sorts of love, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans or Duke Ellington. Everything else ought to go because everything else is ugly." (Mood Indigo by Boris Vian, translated by John Sturrock, 1968) The title of its Amerian translation, Mood Indigo, referred to Duke Ellington's famous composition. This tale of amour fou ('mad love') was set in the world where all material is organic, an eel sucks pineapple flavored toothpaste through the cold water tap, and elephants walk on the streets. Vian used deliberately naïve style with surrealistic images. The protagonist, Colin, is a rich young man, who is surrounded by his intellectual friends, one of whom is obsessed with the philosopher Jean Pulse Hearthe. Colin meets a pretty girl, Chloé. A strange illness is eating her away. "The corridor door would not open. All that was left was a narrow space leading to Chloé's bedroom from the entrance. Isis went first, and Nicholas followed her. He seemed stunned. Something bulged inside his jacked and from time to time he put his hand on his chest. Isis looked at the bed before she went into the room. Chloé was still surrounded by flowers. Her hands, stretched out on the blankets, were hardly able to hold the big white orchid that was in them. It looked grey by the side of her diaphanous skin." A mysterious water-lily grows inside Chloé's chest, Colin gives her more flowers, and she dies. Chloé is buried in a pauper's grave, and the verger and pallbearers dance away.

Vian's avant-garde plays had much connections to the theater of absurd, especially the work of Alfred JarryL'équarissage pour tous from 1946 was a "paramilitary vaudeville in one long act." Set in a Normandy knacker's yard, it depicted farcical marriage problems of a family on D-Day. Their home is destroyed by wartime allies, the Free French, and other military personel. Les Bâtisseurs d'Empire ou le Schmurz (1959) was about a bourgeois family whose new apartment is invaded by a terrifying noise, and an annoying being, the Schmürz. The play was staged in England in 1962 and in New York in 1968. The General's Teatime was first presented in France seven years after Vian's death. It portrayed war as a "nursery tea-party," and mocked military leaders, church and the government. The play was inspired by General Omar Bradley's A Soldier's Story which Vian translated into French.

Several of Vian's books reflected his interest in science fiction, although sf made up only a small part of his activities. In Vercoquin et le plancton joys of life are threatened by standardization, represented by the Association Française de Normalisation. L'Automne à Pékin (1947) was a desert utopia, set in the imaginary land of Exopotamia, where a pointless railway is constructed. One way of arriving the country is by taking the 975 bus. Occasionally the driver becomes insane and drives to Exopotamia instead of taking the normal route through Paris. No extra charge. In L'herbe rouge (1950), a time-machine story, one character is haunted by a double.

Vian's first marriage, to Michèle Léglise, ended in 1952 in divorce, and two years later he married Ursula Kübler, a Swiss dancer. Among the existentialist and post-surrealistic circles of Paris, Vian was a famous personality, but  largely ignored by academic literary criticism; he was "the existentialists' court jester." (Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank by James Campbell, 2003, p. 85) In 1952 Vian was inducted as a Transcendent Satrap of the Collège de 'Pataphysique, an unconventional literary association founded to perpetuate the memory of Alfred Jarry.

Due to his serious heart condition, Vian was forced to give up trumpet playing – "each note played on it shortens my life by a day," he said. ('Vian, Boris,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 1489) Boris Vian died of a heart attack on June 23, 1959, in a small cinema near the Champs Elysées, where he had sneaked to watch the preview of the screen adaptation of his I'll Spit on Your Graves. Vian was thirty-nine. According to Louis Malle, this poorly made movie, directed by Michel Gast, had finished Vian: "I've always thought that Boris died of shame from having seen what they'd done to his book. Like anything else, the cinema can kill." ('Foreword' by Louis Malle, in Blues for a Black Cat & Other Stories by Boris Vian, edited and translated by Julia Older, 1992, p. viii) The film was banned in Finland.

For further reading: Boris Vian by D. Noakes (1964); Boris Vian: La Poursuite de la vie Totale by H. Baudin (1966); Boris Vian by J. Clouzet (1966); Boris Vian by M. Rybalka (1969); Les Vies parallèles de Boris Vian by N. Arnaud (1970); 'Vian, Boris,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); From Dreams To Despair: An Integrated Reading of The Novels of Boris Vian by J.K.L Scott (1998); Boris Vian Transatlantic: Sources, Myths, and Dreams by Christopher M. Jones (1999); The Flight of the Angels: Intertextuality in Four Novels by Boris Vian by Alistair Charles Rolls (1999); Black Like Boris: Boris Vian's Fictions of Identity in Post-World War II Paris by Celeste Day Moore (2003); Irresponsibly Engagé: Boris Vian and Uses of American Culture in France, 1940-1959 by Julie Kathleen Schweitzer (2005); Jazz Diasporas: Race, Music, and Migration in post-World War II Paris by Rashida K. Braggs (2016); Boris Vian, faiseur de hoax: pour une démystification de l'affaire Vernon Sullivan by Clara Sitbon (2019)

Selected works:

  • Troubles dans les Andains, 1942-42 (written; published in 1966)
  • L'équarissage pour tous, 1946 (play, performed in 1950) - The Knacker's ABC (tr. 1968) / Knackery for All (tr. in Plays for a New Theater, 1966)
  • Vercoquin et le plancton, 1946 [Vercoquin and the Plankton]
  • J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, 1946 (as Vernon Sullivan)
    - I Spit on Your Graves (tr. Boris Vian and Milton Rosenthal, 1948)
    - Films: 1959, prod. Sipro, CIT, dir. by
    Michel Gast, starring Christian Marquand as Joe Grant ; 1971, Ipini boynunda bil, dir. Ferdi Merter, prod. by And Film (Turkey)
  • Les morts ont tous la même peau, 1947 (as Vernon Sullivan)
    - The Dead All Have the Same Skin (tr. Paul Knobloch, 2007)
  • L'Écume des jours, 1947
    - Froth on the Daydream (translated by Stanley Chapman, 1967) / Mood Indigo (translated by John Sturrock, 1968) / Foam of the Daze (translated by Brian Harper, 2003) / Mood Indigo (translated from the French by Stanley Chapman, 2014)
    - Päivien kuohu (suom. Leena Kirstinä, 1972)
    - Films: 1968, prod. Chaumiane, S.E.P.I.C., dir. Charles Belmont, starring Jacques Perrin, Marie-France Pisier, Sami Frey, Alexandra Stewart; 2001, Kuroe, dir. by Gô Rijû, prod. by DENTSU Music And Entertainment (Japan); 2013, dir. Michel Gondry, starring Audrey Tautou, Romain Duris, Gad Elmaeh, Omar Sy
  • L'Automne à Pékin, 1947
    - Autumn in Peking (tr. Paul Knobloch, 2005)
  • Fiesta, 1948 (opera, performed in Berlin)
  • Barnum’s digest, 1948
  • Et on tuera tous les affreux, 1948 (as Vernon Sullivan)
  • Elles se rendent pas compte, 1948
  • Les Fourmis, 1949
    - Blues for a Black Cat & Other Stories (edited and translated by Julia Older, 1992)
  • Cantilènes en gelée, 1949
  • Elles se rendent pas compte, 1950 (Vernon Sullivan novel)
  • L'Herbe rouge, 1950
    - TV film 1985, dir. by Pierre Kast, starring Jean Sorel, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Mijou Kovacs, Franca Gonella
  • L'Arrache-coeur, 1953
    - Heartsnatcher (tr. Stanley Chapman, 1968)
  • Le chevalier de neige, 1953
  • En avant la Zizique..., 1958
  • Les Bâtisseurs d'Empire ou le Schmurz, 1959 (play, performed at Jean Vilar's Théâtre Nationale Populaire)
    - The Empire Builders (tr. Simon Taylor, 1967)
    - TV film 1974, dir. by Jaime Jaimes, cast: Albert Simono, Micheline Presle, Stéphanie Loïk, Andréa Ferréol, Bruno Balp et al.
  • Les Lurettes fourrées, 1962
  • Je voudrais pas crever, 1962 (edited by Jean-Jacques Pauver)
  • Le Dernier des métiers, 1965
  • Le Goûter des généraux, 1965 (play, performed in Paris)
    - The Generals's Tea Party (tr. Simon Taylor, 1967)
  • Textes et chansons, 1966
  • Trouble dans les Andais, 1966
  • Chroniques de jazz, 1967
  • Chansons et poèmes, 1967
  • Théâtre inédit, 1970
  • Le Loup-Garou, 1970 (edited by Christian Bourgeois)
    - Films: 1998, Mona, les chiens, le désir et la mort, 1998, dir. by Jean-François Perfetti, starring Laura Favali, Richard Bohringer, Mariane Plasteig, Christophe Mie; 2007, À feu (animation), dir. by Vladimir Mavounia-Kouka
  • Tête de Méduse, 1971
  • Je voudrais pas crever, 1972 (edited by Noël Arnaud)
  • Manuel de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 1974
    - Boris Vian's Manual of St. Germain des Pres (tr. Paul Knobloch, 2005)
  • Chroniques du menteur, 1974
  • Derrière la zizique, 1976 (ed. Michel Fauré)
  • Traité de civisme, 1979 (ed. Raymond Queneau)
  • Ecrits pornographiques, 1980 (ed. Noël Arnaud)
  • Autres écrits sur le jazz, 1981 (ed. Claude Rameil) - Round About Close to Midnight: The Jazz Writings of Boris Vian (translated and edited by Mike Zwerin, 1988)
  • Le Ratichon baigneur, 1981
  • Opéras, 1982 (ed. Noël Arnaud)
  • adaptation: Mademoiselle Julie, 1984
    - TV drama from August Strindberg's play Fröken Julie, dir. by
    Yves-André Hubert, starring Fanny Ardant
  • Oeuvres de Boris Vian, 1989
  • Œuvres, 1999-2003 (15 vols., ed. Ursula Vian Kübler, Gilbert Pestureau et al.)
  • Letters to Stanley Chapman, 2009 (selected and introduced by Stanley Chapman)
  • Œuvres romanesques complètes, 2010 (2 vols.; édition publiée sous la direction de Marc Lapprand; avec la collaboration de Christelle Gonzalo et François Roulmann)
  • Post-scriptum: dessins, manuscrits, inédits, 2011 (avant-propos de Jacques Prévert; prologue de Siné; édition conçue, commentée et annotée par Nicole Bertolt)
  • Correspondances, 1932-1959: Vouszenserrancinq!, 2020 (édition établie, présentée et annotée par Nicole Bertolt)

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