that June morning, Vian sank nervously into his rickety
seat in the Cinema Marbeuf. The curtains parted, and
the film version of his controversial novel, J'Irai
Cracher Sur Vos Tombes (I Spit On Your Graves)
flickered across the screen. He'd already fought over
the treatment with producers and denounced it. Ten
minutes into the film, he reportedly stood up and
yelled, "These guys are supposed to be American?
My ass!" At 10:10, he collapsed back into his
seat and died of a heart attack en route to the hospital.
The horror of coming face-to-face with his "own"
Frankenstein literally may have killed him—fragile
body betraying implacable soul.
love to sleep with the shutters open because it prevents
me from falling asleep and I hate sleep.
conscious of time's narrow corridor despite (or expressly
because of) his frail
constitution, Vian threw himself into everything,
sleeping less and less to find more and more time
to create. So when Raymond Queneau, author of Zazi
Dans Le Metro (1953), declared that "Boris
Vian's just setting out on the road to becoming Boris
Vian," he had no idea how short Vian's road was
to be or how fast Vian had already traveled down it.
compatriot-protégé Serge Gainsbourg,
Vian's career was jettisoned into (inter)national
notoriety by one work, I Spit On Your Graves
(TamTam Books, 1999, English translation Boris Vian
& Milton Rosenthal). But as Queneau emphasized,
"That's far from being the whole story."
Vian was a civil engineer, inventor (designing his
own furniture and a whimsical elastic wheel), translator
and film actor (most famously in Liaisons Dangereuse
with Jean Moreau). He was a singer, trumpeter,
songwriter, MC and cynosure of the Paris jazz scene.
As a critic, he found time to promote others, such
as young Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Prévert.
He also served as Philips Records' creative advisor
and was a member of the College de Pataphysique.
His advice? Specialize in everything.
But it was as a novelist that he would gain his bittersweet
a sort of temptation of exorcism against the domination
of "real whites."—Vian
in Spit's preface
his accomplishments, even his better novels, are unjustly
overshadowed by Spit, which is admittedly
among the great literary hoaxes of our, or any,
time. Spit, which borders on trash while
fondling literature and winking at pornography, began
inconspicuously enough in 1946 when Vian wrote a novel
in two weeks while on vacation. But instead of signing
his own name, he used the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan
(an inside joke combining the names of two jazz mates).
In Spit's preface, Vian claimed that
he had discovered and translated a controversial manuscript
by an exiled black American author, censored in America
because of his incendiary material. Vian considered
it the perfect book to launch friend Jean d'Halluin's
new Scorpion Publishing House with a bang. Little
did d'Halluin know how big that bang would be.
salacious pre-splatter-punk fusion of revenge
and sexual arousal evokes the cheap sentiments of
over-wrought Tobacco Road pulp fiction, plus
the Deep South's sinister Texas Chainsaw
ambience. Lee is black but passes for white and has
recently moved to backwater Buckton to recover from
the lynching death of his brother. He probes Buckton's
pubescent demi-monde and soon has these "rebels
without causes" sipping from his bottomless whiskey
flask. Partying, skinny-dipping and plunging into
the moist panties of the local chicks, life's a breeze—until
he meets the rich, desirable Asquith sisters, whose
racist attitudes inflame him. He sets out to fuck
them, humiliate them and finally murder them, all
to vindicate his brother's death—socio-pathology
blurred by twisted social justifications.
dissonance ensues because Spit is funnier
than we're willing to admit, while our To Kill
A Mockingbird sympathies go out to Lee
just as he begins to turn into a sexually depraved
killing machine. This tongue-twisted-in-cheek "homage"
scandalizes by wringing the already well-worn limits
of socially accepted taste, which is, by now, a standard
entertainment formula—absurdly hyperbolic violence
as social satire (Ellis' American Psycho, Peckinpah's
ballets of elegant carnage, Tarantino's Reservoir
Dogs, ad delirium).
is eventually captured, shot and then—yes—lynched.
Absurd overkill? No, because lynching represents
classic mano-a-mano behavior—emasculation
through hanging. Vian is flipping everyone the
bloody bird. Although already dead, "the townspeople
hanged him anyway because he was a nigger. Under his
trousers, his crotch still protruded ridiculously."
Cum-pie in the face of Jesse Helms' moral mercenaries,
highlighting deep-seated mythopoeic fears that you
can kill a "nigger"—but his erection
will never vanish.
1946, a publicist's dream unfurled—Spit
was denounced by a moral watchdog. Daniel Parker,
head of the Cartel d'Action Sociale et Morale,
Gallic predecessor of Falwell's Moral Majority,
had already reaped some sour fruits by having Henry
Miller's books banned. The more Parker fulminated
against Spit, however,
the more people snatched it up and made it France's
most-talked-about novel. In the ensuing court case,
Vian escaped a fine on a technicality.
swiftly meted out revenge by making Parker a white
guy who looks black in 1947's Les Morts Ont Tous
la M?me Peau (The Dead All Have the
Same Skin Color). A black "brother"
threatens to expose Parker as half black. Enraged,
Parker rapes his "brother's" mistress before
killing him. After learning that this "brother"
had lied and that his wife now hates him, he commits
dust refused to settle. In 1947, in a small Montparnasse
hotel, a young salesman strangled his mistress, leaving
behind a copy of Spit opened to a circled
passage—"I again felt that strange sensation
that ran up my back as my hand closed on her throat
and I couldn't stop myself." All this predates
the Catcher In The Rye controversy when
Mark David Chapman claimed it as his template for
killing John Lennon or, more recently, the film The
Basketball Diaries being blamed for inciting
boosted sales to over 500,000 copies—incredible
numbers for any book in any time—and it is still
selling as we reach the period at the end
of this sentence. Parker, galvanized by the "copycat"
murder, again prosecuted the "translator"
(in lieu of the enigmatic "author") for
translating "objectionable literature."
In 1950, the French government officially banned further
sales and Vian was fined 100,000 francs.
was being drowned in love ... My health was something
terrible. ... During my whole childhood, my father
and mother took on their shoulders everything that
could possibly hurt me.—L'Herbe Rouge
was born fragile, but after a teen bout of rheumatic
fever and typhoid, his heart grew even more delicate.
Although Vian had loving parents, he felt (s)mothered
to eternal Freudian resentment—a complex tangle
of overbearing childhood, ill health, self-doubt and
impending death. Throughout his life, he reacted against
all moral, artistic and spiritual constraints. He
could also be misogynistic but just as misanthropic
in his trenchantly pornographic excesses—a dark
view of mankind, indeed.
1937, Vian had a spiritual awakening when he heard
Duke Ellington's orchestra perform in Paris. Vian
took up the trumpet, despite medical advice against
it, and in 1942 began performing with the Claude Abadie
Orchestra. He also joined Paris' Hot Club, working
long hours emceeing jazz, which is lovingly evoked
in his earliest novels, Trouble dans les Andains
and Vercoquin et le Plancton.
contemptuously turned his back on WWII by playing
jazz and participating as animateur de soir...es
in a series of wild conceptual "surprise parties"
(precursor of the Situationist d...rive?),
which were free-for-alls where mundane orthodoxy gave
way to puckish-inspired lunacy. These alternative
festivities were extensions of Vian's childhood proto-anarchic
spirit—play as valid reality—which attempted
to obliterate war through imagination and diversion.
pataphysical character, Le Major, was based on a friend,
Jacques Loustalot. His legendary antics—he dove
out of windows, popped out and swallowed his own glass
eye and once protested the dreadful music playing
on a party phonograph by swallowing a box of phonograph
needles—figure heavily in the parties and, consequently,
Vian's early bio-allegorical novels. Le Major was
the fictive embodiment of the surprise parties.
was also a jazz "zazou." Zazous danced away
the heartache despite national wartime dance prohibitions,
had no politics—like mods, disco-nauts, zootsuiters
or beer punks—and no credo other than devotion
to jazz and their "right" to a good life.
Vian touted everything the establishment regarded
as frivolous and decadent: mid-WWII, Vian and some
friends established a chess club and an aeronautics
club dedicated to flying bizarre and cosmic kites
in a St. Cloud park. These activities exemplify an
important contribution of Vian—the fusion of
Gandhian pacifism with teenage insouciance. Vian recalled
that "I was marvelously oblivious; it was great."
regret to be one of those to whom war does not inspire
any patriotic reflections ... nor any murderous enthusiasm,
nor any poignant, or sudden piety—it gives me
nothing but a despairing anger.—L'Equarrisage
father died under mysterious circumstances in 1944,
either executed by the Resistance for being a suspected
collaborator [not true] with bullets to the head or
killed when he caught a robber in their house. The
truth was less important than appearances, however,
because this type of killing was essentially "proof"
of collaboration. In any case, it left its mark; after
WWII, the indifferent Vian grew increasingly contemptuous
of everything pretentious, religious, military, monetary
and bureaucratic and began writing about the insane
roots of war as "a social phenomenon of capital
France's Liberation, jazz was heard in Paris again
and Vian was instrumental in introducing (American)
jazz to Paris. Vian was an earnest Bix Beiderbecke-inspired
trumpeter. When Miles Davis, Duke Ellington (godfather
to Vian's daughter) and Charlie Parker came to Paris,
Vian served as host-friend-accompanist, enthusiastically
promoting their sound in St. Germain-des-Pres' caves
and caf...s where jazz, philosophy and poetry ignited
the bushy brows of its dubious denizens. He befriended
Sartre and got on Beauvoir's wrong side—to many,
Vian was an apolitical dilettante. He hoed a different
field in a time when Sartre and DeGaulle defined the
French zeitgeist. Although Vian despised the pretentious
excretions of existentialism, Sartre championed Vian,
who wrote a column in Sartre's Les Temps Modernes
under the byline "The Liar." But Vian never
took himself too seriously, unlike Sartre, whom he
mocked in his novel L'Ecume Des Jours as
Jean Sol-Partre, whose novel, Neon Letters,
is more concerned with commercial neon signs than
life and death.
1954, he was a victim of his earlier notoriety; critics
denied him his due respect or labeled him a rich dilettante,
collaborator's son, pornographer or literary fraud.
He was none of the above. Vian had experienced numerous
flops when he negotiated an amazing transformation
into an anti-war singer-songwriter. He wrote some
400 songs, many on a cocktail napkin, in a frantic
flourish of inspiration.
is most famous for a few controversial, yet very popular,
songs such as "Le Deserteur,"
about the noble gesture of desertion during the Algerian
crisis. "La Java Des Bombes Atomiques
is a cynical waltz, which addresses the explosive
issue of atomic war Phil Ochs style. These songs couldn't
be broadcast or performed publicly at the time, but
Vian, with his intense tinny voice, gallantly sang
his poetic jazz-inflected chansons anyway
while virulent protesters consistently interrupted
"Deserteur." Since then, they've become
(inter)national classics. Ironically, these songs
were criticized from a totally different angle. Before
he wasn't political enough, and suddenly he was too
1952, Vian joined the College of Pataphysicians, the
only club he ever joined, because its entire raison
d'etre was to parody clubs. Other prankster
members included film director Ren... Clair, Queneau,
Pr...vert and Eug...ne Ionesco. They celebrated the
works of Alfred Jarry, the precursor of Surrealism,
Dadaism and absurdism. Jarry "discovered"
that Pataphysics tapped the positive speculative transformation
of the imagination: "Pataphysics is the science
of imaginary solutions ... and will describe a universe
which can be—and perhaps should be—envisaged
in the place of the traditional one." In other
words, overthrow the expected with the unexpected—liberation
Pataphysicians held absurd honors ceremonies with
strange decorations and silly titles, while engaging
in "the earnest scientific discussion of stupid
ideas," notes critic John Sturrock, "such
as the traversing of Paris by means of 'land tides'
in a boat made from ... millions of small holes."
Vian, as Transcendent Satrap, was in charge of the
Extraordinary Commission on Clothing. All this seemed
natural to Vian. After all, he'd written articles
defending Jarry and Cocteau under the pseudonym Hugo
Hachebuisson, in honor of Dr. Hackenbush, a character
developed by another great comic iconoclast, Groucho
death approached, Vian was reduced to translating
the works of others: Algren, Chandler, Cain and Richard
Wright. Vian's delectable oeuvre seemed to die with
him, disreputable and forgotten. His novels were out
of print and he'd written many pieces—anti-military
plays—that weren't performed or published until
he was long buried.
then, in the 1960s, Boris Vian found cruel posthumous
renown. Friends got his novels (re)published. Even
Beauvoir came to champion him. L'Ecume sold
a million copies in both French and
English [Froth on the Daydream, TamTam is re-issuing/retitling
it in English]. Ironically, this appreciation
came during 1968 when the disengag...
and unfashionable Vian became hip, even engag...,
with young students who were tasting the joys and
limitations of total autonomy. Vian offered them allegorically
bittersweet celebrations of capricious and insouciant
youth—young love snuffed by strange diseases
or sinister sci-fi devices that snatch emotions out
of the human heart, which voiced their own fantasies
and anti-establishment values. His postmortem career
took off—as much as a career can take off after
one's death—and he has since become one of the
most renowned contemporary writers, except
in America or Britain.
strove to convey delight in language's capacity to
present an imaginary world more real and telling than
"ordinary life": a strange amalgam of absurdity,
play, invention and a renaissance man's impatience,
plus a healthy mistrust of science as religion, religion
as truth and militarism as normal. The fact that he's
still "succeeding" some 40 years after his
death is a testament to his legacy.
would get away in order to appear that I was elsewhere
... little by little I built around me a world of
my own ... without sweaters, without parents. Empty
and luminous like a wintry landscape, and I wandered
in it, tireless and tough, nose up in the air and
eyes looking straight ahead.—L'Herbe Rouge