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The surprising Boris Vian

posted on 18 Dec 2017

The surprising Boris Vian

I recently did a review of James Campbell’s engagingly readable book, Paris Interzone which profiled the city as a literary hub for European and self-exiled US authors in the 40s and 50s. One of the surprising characters to emerge from the pages of Campbell’s book was the French author, Boris Vian who turned out to be a fascinating polymath and socialite.

I was interested enough by his part in this period of literary history to do a little more digging around and I was delighted to find that the story just got increasingly unexpected. Born in 1920, Vian was dead by 1959 having apparently had a heart attack while heckling a film premier at a private viewing  – a tragedy of course for him and his family but quite a way to go really.

He had, it seems, always been a sickly child and had forecast that he was unlikely to make it much past the age of 40 – something that turned out to be spookily prescient. He certainly had distinctive if not traditionally handsome features and Alexandra Schwartz, writing in the New York Times, described him in this way:

He had a long, sallow hare’s face that Picasso would have made good use of, with hooded eyes and a nose straight enough to pick a lock.

Others have commented on his ‘fleshy lips’ and these were almost certainly the consequence of his love for playing jazz trumpet - there are plenty of articles that cite Vian as a significant figure in the French jazz world.

As a writer Vian is little known in the UK. Probably his most famous novel has been variously translated but is best known as ‘Froth On The Daydream’ although ‘Foam of the Days’ and ‘Scum of the Days’ have also been used. It’s also been filmed as ‘Mood Indigo’ which I can only imagine was meant to be a homage to Vian’s jazz background.

Known in French as L’Écume des Jours, Vian’s book had a cult status amongst the young in France and has been described as having a status similar to that of The Catcher in the Rye in the US. Again Schwartz comes to my aid by providing this concise appraisal of the book’s plot:

The plot of “L’Écume,” at least, is simple. Colin, an amiable and wealthy idler, lives in a friendly hallucinogenic version of the world we know. To drain his bath, he bores a hole in the tub so that the water pours into the apartment downstairs, whose rooms are constantly shifting around. He owns such fabulous devices as the pianocktail, which mixes cocktails when played, with each key corresponding to a different liquor, and lives in a city whose subways are lined with aviaries—“resting places for weary sparrows, nesting places for rearing sparrows, and testing places for cheering sparrows.” (You see what Stanley Chapman was up against.) Things are swimming right along for Colin, but he isn’t satisfied, because he wants to fall in love. Everybody else is doing it. His confidant and cook, Nicholas, is going out with Isis, a ritzy society girl, and his best friend, Chick, has Alise, a woman he met at a lecture given by Chick’s idol, the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre. At a party chez Isis, Colin meets Chloe, who is distinguished by her “red lips, dark brown hair, a gay happy smile, and a dress that might just as well not have been there at all.” They dance. In short order, they marry. Then Chloe gets sick. A water lily is discovered inside her lung. Colin spends his fortune on a cure, which consists of surrounding Chloe with a constant supply of fresh flowers, and the candy-colored fantasia gets very dark, very fast.

Interesting enough in its own right I think but actually there was another side to Vian the author – one which was less arty and significantly more enigmatic. By some distance Vian’s most successful novels were not in fact published under his own name but under that of Vernon Sullivan who presented himself to the world as an African-American author. His biggest success in this alias was the 1946 publication J’irai cracher sur vos tombes and James Campbell tells us in an essay published in the TLS that it:

takes place in the United States, which Vian never visited. Sex, violence and a racial conundrum – the anti-hero Lee Anderson is a black man light enough to pass for white, like Joe Christmas in Light in August (Faulkner was in vogue) – led to Vian being charged with having outraged “des bonnes moeurs”.

Vian was prosecuted for indecency (moral contempt) and found the process dispiriting – he especially hated the notoriety it brought. His career as a writer with an alias, like all his other projects, didn’t last and his brief moment of popularity soon came to an end.

Not content with being an author and a premier jazz musician, Vian changed horses again in the later years of his life and became a prolific song writer and crooner – neither of which were shaping up to be terribly successful when the heart attack at the private film screening of the adaptation of one of his novels drew his life to its premature end.

Since the late 60s Vian has been a popular cult figure in the literary and jazz scenes in France and his story is characteristically one which appeals to rebellious and non-conformist youth. Having said that, it appeals to me too – so maybe he’s also someone who should be explored more by rebellious and non-conformist pensioners?

Terry Potter

December 2017