IMAGINE AN intellectual, astutely French, who hangs out with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, has a child’s sense of humor and of the world’s newness, writes radically perverse novels and spends his evenings playing trumpet with jazz bands ‘round about the Left Bank. There you pretty much have Boris Vian.
Life on its own, however fervently and furiously embraced, was never enough for him. It needed the seasoning of imagination: rhetorical figures, filigrees of language, slapstick, turns of phrase and radical shifts of perspective, a touch of the mythic, a pinch of the mystic. He’d walk by front doors left ajar, squeeze his way in through a basement window propped half open.
In an early story about the Normandy invasion Vian wrote: “We arrived this morning and weren’t well received. No one was on the beach but a lot of dead guys (or pieces of dead guys), tanks, and demolished trucks. Bullets flew from almost everywhere. . . . The boy just behind me had three-quarters of his face removed by a whizzing bullet. I put the pieces in my helmet and gave them to him.”
Of the dead-unserious group in which he was central, he remarked, “Only the College of Pataphysicians does not undertake to save the world.” Asked to fill out a form in triplicate, Vian said, the Pataphysician will remove the carbons and enter different information on each sheet. That playfulness and refusal to be pinned down peeks out, Kilroy-like, from all that Vian wrote.
His great novel, “L’Ecume des jours” (“Foam of the Daze”), is a tragedy of young love in which a woman dies of the lily growing in her lung. As she worsens, her bed sinks closer and closer to the floor and the room grows ever smaller. In Vian’s world, because the people they loved are gone, mice persuade diffident cats to kill them. Stallions are crucified for their sins. Children, when they stray -- as in “L’Arrache-coeur” (“Heartsnatcher”) -- are shut into cages. 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; armchairs and sausages must be calmed before use. When Colin, of “L’Ecume,” 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.
Vian died in 1959, at 39, while watching the screening of a film made from “J’Irai cracher sur vos tombes” (“I Spit on Your Graves”), a 1946 novel he wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan and put out as a translation. A bestseller in France, it became also a cause celebre and the subject of litigation when a man strangled his mistress to death in a Montmartre motel, leaving behind a copy of the novel with violent passages marked. That novel, published in 1998 by TamTam, is the story of a black man who passes for white in a Southern town in order to avenge the lynching of his brother by courting and killing two white sisters.
“The Dead All Have the Same Skin” is, if not literally, then spiritually, a sequel. Vian wrote two further Vernon Sullivan novels, in which he kicked out all the stops and skidded toward parody; neither has the authority or purchase of the first two. Reminiscent of Chester Himes’ sadly neglected “Run Man Run” in its intensity and its protagonist’s needless headlong rush to oblivion, “The Dead All Have the Same Skin” also verges -- with its fierce energy, candor and matter-of-fact savagery -- on Jim Thompson territory: “I liked it. I got a kick out of pummeling the heads of those pigs. But after five years I’ve started to lose my taste for this particular sport. Five years and not a soul suspects it. No one has the slightest idea that a man of mixed blood, a colored man, has been the one pounding on their heads each and every night.”
Dan Parker works as a bouncer in a New York club. It’s all gone stale: drunken clients, available women, the buzz of violence, the hard-and-easy sex. Living as white in a white world, he has always felt out of place and vaguely afraid, but he has his home, his white wife and kid, his job. And when braced by Richard, a black man claiming to be his brother, Dan fears it will all come undone. From that moment, we are securely in the jaws of classic noir, as, driven by circumstance, careening from one dreadful act to another, Dan becomes his own chatty tour guide to damnation.
If only. . . .
But character is destiny and writes the script of our lives.
“I killed Richard for nothing. His bones snapped under the force of my hands. I killed the girl with one punch. And now the pawnbroker is dead, again for no reason. . . . I killed them all for absolutely no reason. And now I’ve lost Sheila and the hotel is being surrounded.”
“The Dead All Have the Same Skin” came out in 1947, at the peak of success for “I Spit on Your Graves.” These years were signal for Vian, seeing, along with the two Sullivan novels, the novels “Vercoquin et le plancton,” “L’automne a Pekin” and “L’Ecume des jours.” “L’Herbe rouge” (1950) and “L’Arrache-coeur” (1953) followed, but none managed to match the triumph of the first Sullivan book. (When he died, Gallimard had more than 1,250 of the 4,400-copy run of “L’Ecume” warehoused.)
In ensuing years, Vian’s career skittered. He turned to translation, rendering into French novels by Kenneth Fearing and James M. Cain, as well as Raymond Chandler’s “The Lady in the Lake” and “The Big Sleep.” He wrote plays, such as “The Empire Builders” and “The General’s Tea Party.” He published poetry and numerous articles, many of these springing from, and reflecting, his pedigree as Pataphysician. He performed and recorded original songs, again achieving notoriety with his take on the Algerian war in “Le Deserteur.” He wrote on jazz for Combat and other publications, these pieces latterly collected as “Round About Close to Midnight: The Jazz Writings of Boris Vian.”
Certainly, Vian is not to every taste. As is said of pulp fiction, there’s much silliness mixed in with the driven, hard-edged storytelling. Ever the iconoclast and reconstructed adolescent, Vian continually pushes boundaries and crawls under barricades, seeing how much he can get away with. Yet like other great arealist writers, he had a way of dipping into the pools of archetypes and primal emotions we all share -- very much, in fact, like Jacquemort, of “L’Arrache-coeur,” condemned to fish the refuse of an entire village, all of its guilt, from the river with his teeth.
In recent years, L.A.-based publisher TamTam Books has given us an exemplary new translation of “L’Ecume des jours,” a new edition of “I Spit on Your Graves” and the first English translation of “L’automne a Pekin.” Now TamTam, much to be commended, midwives this outstanding translation by Paul Knobloch, with a third Vernon Sullivan novel promised.
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