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Vian: L'Ecume des Jours, a study by David Meakin

Books on Vian for English readers are so rare that their authors seem always obliged to "start again" introducing Vian to a readership where his is virtually unknown -- an indication of the virtual obscurity, at least to English language readers, of this celebrated French author.

After Alfred Cismaru's 1974 study, we had to wait 24 years for another full length work in English -- Keith Scott's study of the themes in Vian's novels "From Dreams to Despair".

In the interim, we had the intro in Julia Older's translation of the stories in Les Fourmis "Blues for a Black Cat", some biographical material in Campbell's "Paris Interzone", and John Sturrock's excellent introduction to the Quartet edition of "Heartsnatcher" translated by Stanley Chapman.

But the best of the lot so far is undoubtedly David Meakin's 1996 study of "L'Ecume des jours", Vian's most popular work translated by Stanley Chapman as "Froth on the Daydream" and by John Sturrock as "Mood Indigo".

Meakin's book is a clear, in-depth study of the novel, which resoundingly demonstrates that Vian knew exactly what he was doing, countering the myth surrounding Vian that he was merely a wilfully 'dis-engagee' dilettante and literary prankster.

Meakin begins by talking up Vian stocks (perhaps too optimistically) by saying that "Boris Vian (1920-1959) is back again -- if ever he was away". He then goes on to mention that in France at least, interest is intense. A definitive biography by Philippe Boggio in 1993 was followed by a critical edition of "L'Ecume des jours", painstakingly reconstructed by Pestureau and Rybalka.

Meakin goes on to explore the relationship of "L'Ecume des jours" with its times (while it was written in 1946 it does not mention the war) and notes it made little impact after being beaten into second place in a prestigious literary prize despite being championed by Vian's friend and mentor Raymond Queneau.

Meakin mentions the famous scandal of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, but thankfully does not dwell on it. He soon moves on to Vian's celebration as the author of "L'Ecume des jours", especially by the student protesters in Paris in '68.

One interesting parallel Meakin draws out is Vian's fondness for and debt to Kafka, whose "In the Penal Settlement" Vian placed among his handful of favourite works.

A discussion of the novel's title sheds more light. In English we have "Froth on the Daydream" as a suitable but not completely successful translation of the title "L'Ecume des jours". Vian surely meant the title to have the same innocent grace as his story and the book needs an English title which gives us a mood such as "The unbearable lightness of being" promises but doesn't deliver.

Sturrock avoided the issue by entitling his translation "Mood Indigo" after the Duke Ellington song. Despite racking my brains, I've never come up with a better title than "Froth on the Daydream". I've thought of "Foam on the days", "Foam of the days", and "Chloe" among other things, but not "Scum on the Daydream" or "The Dross of our Days" as Meakin dryly suggests. Still, I think it's a mistake to continually refer to the book as "L'Ecume des jours" in English. It's like using the French title instead of "Being and Nothingness". We have an English title, and a very fine English translation, so I say let's use it. Meakin however, uses the French title, "L'Ecume des jours".

In his discussion of the title Meakin raises one of his main points -- the mathematical precision with which Vian has structured the novel. The airy froth and hedonistic bubbles of the first half of the book cannot last. They decay and sinks into the swamp as youthful exuberances are consumed by adult responsibilities.

Chapter Two deals with "the world made strange". Meakin investigates Vian's techniques of defamiliarisation. While Breton's use of defamiliarisation is a quest for a higher state of being. Vian's defamiliarisation is not utopian. It is a rejection of the crude realism of surface appearances, but it is realism nonetheless, in that it communicates the essential realities beneath the surface or ordinary life. Vian uses a piano that produces cocktails whose ingredients depend on the melody, rhythms and relative volumes of the notes played upon it. This, for example, sympathetically conveys the capricious indulgences of the very rich.

The distortion arises, not for any utopian ideal, but simply because material world of Vian's "L'Ecume des jours" is entirely responsive to the novel's action. Where the characters delight in their youth, so is the world delightful. Where their lives darken with misfortune, so does the world.

Many of Vian's exaggerations, inversions and burlesques are simply telling observations. Cooking is valued more highly than philosophy, military service makes a man old at 29, workers scorn the rich (believing work is noble) and the church adoringly fetes the wealthy only to turn on them savagely when they no longer have their money.

Meakin spends some time in Chapter Two on the satirical aspects of the novel. The engagee philosophers (Vian's friends Satre and de Beauvoir) are targets throughout the work, as are religion, work (which is dehumanising and often fatal), and the military. Vian satirised these targets in nearly all his works. Later, he would add the family (in Heartsnatcher).

Vian's language games are also employed in the defamiliarisation process -- he distorts language often for fun but mainly to express exactly what he wants to communicate. Meakin notes that Vian rejected Raymond Roussel's work -- composed essentially as language games without any meaningful reference to reality -- with some vehemence. For Vian, the distortions were essentially to some purpose associated with the narrative. Of course even when these distortions are brutal and pathetic, like the scene where the mouse rests his head inside the cat's mouth and waits for the teeth to snap closed when the cat's tail is trodden on, they are also very funny. Vian was a humourist, but unlike most, his jokes do not fade. They are as fresh now as they were in 1946 when the book was written.

Chapter Three, "The problem of 'identity': roles, symmetries, inversions", is once again an explication of the mathematical precision of the novel's structure. Colin is fair, Chloe is dark. The other couple is Chick, who is dark, and Alise, who is fair. Colin has a mentor, an "uncle" figure, Nicholas. Chick's mentor is the Satre figure. Parents, in this world of young love, do not exist.

There are symmetries in the narrative also. The decline of Chloe and Colin is matched by that of Alise and Chick. The first part of the novel is all gaiety and pleasure, the second half an accelerating fall into destruction and death.

Chapter Four, "A desire shaped universe?" begins with the assertion: "The main thrust of the fantasy -- especially in the opening stages of the novel -- is to evoke a subjective universe, one projected and moulded by the desires of Colin".

Meakin suggests that when desire is satisfied and consummated in marriage, it no longer has a sustaining force, unable to prevent the world's decline as it shrinks and decays. So Colin is pathetically responsible for the downward spiral even as he descends into the underworld of alienated work in his doomed orphic quest. I am paraphrasing Meakin's argument here, but it seem to me that he's saying that, in Vian's view, without the added force of the biological imperative, the sex drive which is diminished following consummation, love alone is not enough and relationships are doomed to decay.

This is not the only point upon which the transformation hinges. Once you decide on a narrative in which the characters, simply put, begin with everything and end with nothing, there is scope for commentary on many of the aspects of society that Vian felt constrained individual freedom.

Meakin's final chapter is "Song of the Swamp. or death by water" which deals with anti alchemy, entropy and regression. The alchemical transformation of base metal to gold is reversed. All gold, even the sunlight, is transformed into base metal.

Meakin tells us that the full title of the Ellington song is "Chloe, or the song of the swamp" . It seems that Vian's novel follows the song's structure. Out of the fictive urban jungle emerges Chloe, sinuously perfect like a Ben Webster saxophone solo, only to descend once again into the primal jungle swamp.

In his conclusion, Meakin writes: "Throughout all the inversions, devaluations and ambiguities, "L'Ecume des jours" still contrives to be a touching love story. [...] As a novel it is both unusually simple and remarkably complex, combining an impression of naive and tragic spontaneity with a richly ironic sophistication. This dualism and richness are the source of the fascination it continues to exercise for a wide and popular readership as much for the critic."

There seems to be a increase in Vian studies of late. It remains to be seen whether it will gather pace and reach critical mass, making Vian as much a household word for English speakers as he is for the French. Meakin in the meantime has made an important and worthwhile contribution in the attempt to present him to this readership.

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