Boris Vian Gets Pataphysical 
By Bart Plantenga

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2001


Death's Punchline
When Boris Vian was still young, he announced that he would never live to age 40. So, when he died in a Paris cinema on June 23, 1959 at the age of 39, his prediction seemed prophetic. Given his medical history of heart problems, however, the end of his short life had been a long time coming. Doctors had hounded him for years to give up his trumpet and mad-with-living lifestyle. He had already suffered one stroke in 1956, but when you tell a multi-tentacled Jacques-of-all-trades like Vian to slow down, you might as well cut the tentacles off an octopus and tell it to go for a swim in a shallow puddle.

On 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.

I love to sleep with the shutters open because it prevents me from falling asleep and I hate sleep.

Always 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.

Like 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 celebrity.

... a sort of temptation of exorcism against the domination of "real whites."—Vian in Spit's preface

All 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.

Spit's 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.

Cognitive 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).

Lee 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.

In 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.

Vian 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 suicide.

The 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 senseless bloodshed.

Notoriety 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.

I 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

Vian 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.

In 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.

Vian contemptuously turned his back on WWII by playing jazz and participating as animateur de 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.

Vian's 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.

Vian 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."

I 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 Pour Tous

His 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 interest."

After 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.

By 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.

He 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 political.

Getting Pataphysical
In 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 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 via imagination.

The 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 Marx.

Posthumous Career
As 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.

But 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.

Vian 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.

I 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