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Some Thoughts on the Work of Boris Vian

I am not one of those tyrannical characters, of which nature and literature provide copious examples, such as disgrace world culture and the progress of genuine human civilization.
The Father in Vian's play The Empire Builders.

Dalkey Archive Press's republication of Boris Vian's Heartsnatcher (L'Arrache-coeur - introduced by fellow Pataphysician Raymond Queneau) is the ideal moment to reappraise a writer who despite the attempts of fans remains no more than a marginal figure. Annoyingly, Boris Vian seems, here in the UK at least, to be rather forgotten. The redoubtable Scottish publishers Canongate brought out an edition of the stark, bitter I Spit on Your Graves (J'irai cracher sur vos tombes) a year or so back and that remains the only other one of his works readily available in English translation. A French writer, difficulties of translation can hardly be blamed, so why the silence? Blues for a Black Cat (a fine collection of Vian's short stories; Bison Books) and probably his most famous work the matchless Froth on the Daydream (translated as Mood Indigo in the States, from the French L'Ecume des jours) languish out of print. For those of us whose schooldays' French is barely up to the job this dearth of translations could not be more frustrating.

Born in 1920, Vian famously died thirty-nine years later in a fit of apoplexy watching the terrible film version of I Spit on Your Graves. His death is now part of the myth of Vian - but it has prevented study, in English at least, of Vian's writing, writing which deserves the fullest attention. Under the nom-de-plume Vernon Sullivan Vian pretended that he had merely translated the notorious I Spit on Your Graves a book he declared, "no American editor dared publish". The novel arose as a bet between Vian and his friend the publisher Jean d'Halluin of Editions du Scorpions. D'Halluin needed a bestseller and Vian declared that he could construct for him a piece with just the right admixture of sex, violence and race relations. I Spit on Your Graves, Vian's first novel, subsequently became a runaway success - and landed Vian a 100,000 franc fine for an "affront to public morals".

As Vernon Sullivan Vian wrote hardboiled fiction both in homage to, and parodying, the great American crime writers - writers, like Chandler, whom Vian went on to translate in an attempt to keep him and his young wife Michelle (later Sartre's companion) and family together. Remarkably, of the four Sullivan novels, only I Spit on Your Graves has been translated into English.

Vian's work, like all art, is situated in a particular time and place - without the Sartre of Nausea (La Nausée) and the Camus of The Stranger (L'Etranger), without the jazz of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, without Ionesco and Beckett's absurdism and without the American noir of McCoy, Cain and Goodis - themselves beloved by a French tradition enamoured equally by Existentialism as by Chandler - Vian wouldn't be the writer he was. But there are other echoes. Heartsnatcher's strange fantasy world reminds me sans doute of the surrealists, and of writers like Alfred Jarry (Pataphysics founder), Michel Leiris and Pierre Klossowski, but there is a similarity to the contemporaneous literary work of Mervin Peake and the modern Scottish writer Alasdair Gray's superb Lanark is often remarkably similar in tone.

Heartsnatcher is weird! Clementine, the wife of Angel, is helped to give birth to her triplets (twins Joel and Noel, and an other child Alfa Romeo) by passing psychoanalyst Timortis. Clementine cannot bear to be touched by Angel any more and sends him away. Initially she seems negligent of the children but soon realises that her negligence is the worst of crimes and so she begins to think up scheme after scheme to prevent any possible harm coming to her brood. Her concern becomes a mania and, whilst beginning in love, becomes a parody of parenting - to prevent any chance whatsoever of harm she will surely have to imprison her children. Timortis, meanwhile, after accidentally coming to the village, stays in Clementine's home, sees Angel off on a journey to who-knows-where, and tries to begin to understand the strange place in which he has come to live. Animals hitchhike, woodpeckers speak, trees die in melodramatic agony. At an Old Folks Fair Timortis sees the awful treatment of the Village's seniors sold as play things to be battered and abused. On visiting the blacksmith he witnesses the appalling treatment of the young apprentices. But the tone remains absurd and hallucinatory. Whilst Vian moved in the same social circles as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir he was never an engagé and he declared himself to be not an Existentialist on the very postmodern grounds that he did not believe in anything like a human essence.

His most popular novel in translation has proved to be the "romantic fantasy" Froth on the Daydream. Again, events within are hardly normal: two couples, Colin and Chloe, Chick and Alise, suffer dissolution and pain and love doesn't save the day. Colin is rich and hopelessly in love with Chloe who one day finds a water lily growing in her lung. As the nenuphar grows her apartment gradually shrinks until, at the fateful hour, the roof collapses and falls in. Chick is obsessed with the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre and begins completely to neglect Alise bankrupting himself trying to buy every book by his master. Whilst a heartsnatcher does not appear in its eponymous novel (except, metaphorically, via Clementine, who would through her overbearing love steal her children's heart; and through Timortis' emptiness - he psychoanalyses to steal essences) it is just such a bizarre device that Alice presses against Partre's chest, "with a determined gesture [she] planted the heart-extractor ... he died very quickly, and gave a last look of astonishment when he discovered his heart was tetrahedral in shape."

Throughout Froth - as with Heartsnatcher - we have Vian's anti-religious swagger, the trademark surrealism (Colin's rat commits suicide just as he does!) but in the words of Louis Malle we also have an extraordinarily talented "poet, fiction writer, singer, subversive, actor, musician and jazz critic" - and he is also a damn fine read.

-- Mark Thwaite (19/09/2003)

Readers Comments

  1. Thomas D. Svatos says... Saturday 03 November 2007

    I've found a reference in Czech to a work by Boris Vian, entitled something like "Let the Corpse Dance."

    Is there such a work? Might I ask what the original French-language title is and the most common English-language translation is?

    Thanks, Tomas Svatos

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