Skewed vision

James Sallis is the author of many novels, including "The Ghost of a Flea" and "Cypress Grove."

A legend throughout Europe -- French musician, translator of Raymond Chandler and seminal science fiction writer, poet, songwriter, novelist and screen actor -- Boris Vian remains little known in the United States. Los Angeles-based Tam Tam Books aims to correct this, having published a paperback edition of Vian’s landmark thriller “I Spit on Your Graves” in 2001 and now a new translation of his masterful “Foam of the Daze” (“L’Ecume des jours”), with the first translation of “L’Automne a Pekin” to follow.

There have been two previous English translations of “Foam”: Stanley Chapman’s 1967 British edition, “Froth on the Daydream,” and John Sturrock’s U.S. version, “Mood Indigo,” which appeared shortly thereafter. Chapman’s is by far the superior, admirably transposing Vian’s rhythms into English and finding equivalents for his multi-level puns and wordplay. But Brian Harper’s hip new translation, edged toward the modern U.S. reader, may well become the standard.

This is a great novel, mind you. Though on its surface, the simplest of stories -- Vian summed it up as “a man loves a woman, she falls ill, she dies” -- beneath are a host of ambiguities, digressions, levels of meaning. Not quite beneath, actually, for subtexts keep erupting to the surface. It is in many ways a novel built of eruptions.


Simply, then, this is a tale of two couples: Colin, a rich and rather superfluous man, and Chloe, a woman dying from a lily growing in her lung; Chick, whose life is ruined by his collecting of Jean-Sol Partre’s books and memorabilia, and Alise, who tries to save Chick from himself by murdering Partre. As the lily grows in Chloe’s lung, Colin does all he can to keep her alive. But her bed sinks closer to the ground and the room grows ever smaller. Because Colin has no money left to pay for burial, Chloe’s coffin is simply thrown out the window.

In Vian’s world, nothing is simple, nothing may be taken for granted. Because people they love have died, mice persuade diffident cats to kill them; bells detach themselves from doors to come and announce visitors; neckties rebel against being knotted; some broken windowpanes grow back overnight while others darken from breathing difficulties; a piano mixes cocktails to match the music being played upon it; armchairs and sausages must be calmed before use. When Colin puts Duke Ellington’s “The Mood to Be Wooed” on the phonograph, the O’s on the record label cause the corners of the room to become round.

In Vian’s books, the world becomes ineluctably strange, the world as a child or a madman might see it. And that’s the recipe for “Foam of the Daze,” a novel with paradox at its heart, as critic David Meakin has observed: one part light-hearted fantasy, one part tragedy. Add wordplay and romance to taste. Your heart will be broken. You will be confused and confounded. You will laugh aloud. And at least for a time, however hard you try, your own world will refuse to be what you think it is.

Here is Colin in church after Chloe’s death:

“Why did you have her die? asked Colin.

Oh ... said Jesus, drop the subject.

He looked for a more comfortable position on his nails.

She was so sweet, said Colin. Never was she bad, neither in thought, nor in action.

That has nothing to do with religion, mumbled Jesus, yawning. He shook his head a little to change the slant of his crown of thorns.

I don’t see what we’ve done, said Colin, we don’t deserve this.

He lowered his eyes.... Jesus’s chest was rising softly and regularly, his features breathed calm, his eyes had closed and Colin could hear a light purr of satisfaction coming from his nostrils, like a sated cat.”

Vian died June 23, 1959, at 39 as he sat watching a film version of his thriller “I Spit on Your Graves.” He’d neglected to take his heart medications that morning and as the first frames ticked by on screen, he is said to have uttered, “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed.

Vian’s was a short, very full, very strange ride, like that of his ever-youthful characters in “Foam of the Daze.”