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|Froth on the Daydream - review by Robert Whyte|
|This is a marvellous translation by Stanley Chapman who probably has done more than anyone to promote Vian to English readers. Sadly his translation is no longer often in print. Other translations include John Sturrock's Mood Indigo and a new version by TamTam Books – Foam of the Days.|
For an in-depth comparison between this and Sturrock's Mood Indigo, read Sophie de Nodrest's dissertation.
Froth on the Daydream opens with a wide-eyed description of Colin - the wealthy, handsome and sweet tempered main character.
Almost immediately it becomes clear that the world this character inhabits responds just as readily to the forces of whimsical often surrealist ideas as it does to the forces of nature.
Stretching fiction so that the scene itself physically adds to the telling of the story is trademark Vian. There is certainly an element of capricious fancy but more often than not, when the behaviour of the world deviates from standard reality, it is telling us something important.
|COLIN FINISHED his bath. He got out and wrapped himself in a thick woolly towel with his legs coming out at the bottom and his top coming out at the top. He took the hair-oil from the glass shelf and sprayed its pulverized perfume on to his yellow hair. His golden comb separated the silky mop into long honeyed strands like the furrows that a happy farmer's fork ploughs through apricot jam. Colin put back his comb and, seizing the nail-clippers, bevelled the comers of his eggshell eyelids, adding a touch of mystery to his appearance. He often had to do this because they grew again so quickly. He put on the little light over the magnifying mirror and went up close to it to examine the condition of his epidermis. A few blackheads were sprouting at the sides of his nose near his nostrils. When they saw themselves in the magnifying mirror and realized how ugly they were, they immediately jumped back under the skin. Colin put out the light and sighed with relief. He took the towel from his middle and slipped a comer of it between his toes to dry away the last signs of dampness. In the glass it was obvious that he was exactly like a fair-headed Sam E. Phray in a film by Jacques Goon Luddard. His face was smooth, his ears small, his nose straight and his complexion radiant. He was always smiling, as innocently as a baby, and through having done it so often a dimple had grown into his chin. He was reasonably tall and slim-hipped; he had long legs and was very, very nice. The name Colin suited him almost perfectly. He talked to girls with charm and to boys with pleasure. He was nearly always in a good mood - and the rest of the time he slept.|
After preparing himself for the day, Colin consults with his manservant Nicolas, who in Vian's world is socially superior to his master, about a meal he is preparing for his friend Chick, an ardent collector of Jean Pulse Heartre. Chick is a virtual clone of Colin, except that like Boris Vian, he has to work for a living. Colin moves to the dining-room-cum-studio to further set the scene.
He went back through the corridor in the other direction, crossed the hall and ended up in the dining-room-cum-studio whose pale blue carpet and pink beige walls were a treat for sore eyes.
The room, approximately twelve feet by fifteen, had two wide bay windows overlooking Armstrong Avenue. Large panes of glass kept the sounds of the avenue from the room, but let in the breath of springtime when it appeared outside. A limed oak table filled one comer of the room. There were wall seats at right angles to each other on two sides of it, and matching chairs with blue morocco upholstery on the two free sides. There were two other long low cupboards in the room - one fitted up as a record-player and record container with all the latest gadgets, and the other, identical with the first, containing catapults, cutlery, plates, glasses and other implements used by civilized society for eating.
Colin selected a light blue tablecloth to match the carpet.
He decorated the centre of the table with a pharmaceutical jar in which a pair of embryonic chickens seemed to be dancing Nijinsky's choreography for The Spectre of the Rose. Around it he arranged some branches of boot-lace mimosa - the gardener who worked for some friends of his had cultivated this by grafting some strips of the black liquorice ribbons sold by haberdashers when school is over on to ordinary bobbled mimosa. Then for each of them he took some white china plates with filigree designs in gold and stainless steel knives and forks with perforated handles inside each of which a stuffed ladybird, floating between two layers of perspex, brought good luck. He added crystal goblets and serviettes folded into bishops' mitres; this took him quite a time. He had hardly finished all this when the bell sprang off the wall to let him know that Chick had arrived.
Colin smoothed out an imaginary crease in the tablecloth and went to open the door.
'How are you?' asked Chick.
'How are you?' replied Colin. 'Take off your mac and come and see what Nicolas has made for us.'
'Is he your new cook?'
'Yes,' said Colin. 'I swopped him at the pawnbroker's for a couple of pounds of Algerian coffee and the old one.'
'And is he any good?' asked Chick.
'He seems to know what he's doing. He swears by ffroydde.'
'What have sex and dreams got to do with cooking?' asked Chick, horrified. His small dark moustache began to droop at a tragic angle.
'No, fathead, I'm talking about Clementine, not Sigismunda!'
'Oh, sorry!' said Chick. 'But you know I never read anything except Jean Pulse Heartre.'
He followed Colin into the tiled corridor, stroked the mice and casually scooped up a handful of sundrops; to pop into his lighter.
With the above passage Vian introduces his ideal world, a comfortable existence where young men lead lives unhindered by parents, society, or other forms of reality. In the following he introduces another theme - that of mechanical whimsy where science is diverted from the serious world of productivity. Where ingenuity (Vian was an engineer) is used to liberate individuals rather than imprison them in allegedly noble pursuits but which in Vian's world only represented stupidities -- among these war, bureacracy and the church. Colin's invention is a piano that mixes drinks.
'Would you like a drink first?' asked Colin. 'I've finished my pianocktail and we could try it out.'
'Does it really work?' asked Chick.
'Of course it does. I had a hard job perfecting it, but the finished result is beyond my wildest dreams. When I played the Black and Tan Fantasy I got a really fantastic concoction.'
'How does it work?' asked Chick.
'For each note,' said Colin, 'there's a corresponding drink - either a wine, spirit, liqueur or fruit juice. The loud pedal puts in egg flip and the soft pedal adds ice. For soda you play a cadenza in F sharp. The quantities depend on how long a note is held - you get the sixteenth of a measure for a hemidemisemiquaver; a whole measure for a black note; and four measures for a semibreve. When you play a slow tune, then tone comes into control too to prevent the amounts growing too large and the drink getting too big for a cocktail - but the alcoholic content remains unchanged. And, depending on the length of the tune, you can, if you like, vary the measures used, reducing them, say, to a hundredth in order to get a drink taking advantage of all the harmonics, by means of an adjustment on the side.'
'It's a bit complicated,' said Chick.
'The whole thing is controlled by electrical contacts and relays. I won't go into all the technicalities because you know all about them anyway. And, besides, the piano itself really works.'
'It's wonderful,' said Chick.
'Only one thing still worries me,' said Colin, 'and that's the loud pedal and the egg flip. I had to put in a special gear system because if you play something too hot, lumps of omelette fall into the glass, and they're rather hard to swallow. I've still got a little bit of modification to do there. But it's all right if you're careful. And for a dash of fresh cream, you add a chord in G major.'
'I'm going to try an improvisation on Loveless Love,' said Chick. 'That should be crazy.'
'It's still in the junk room that I use as my workshop,' said Colin, 'because the guard plates aren't screwed down yet. Come in there with me. I'll set it for two cocktails of about seventy-five milligallons each to start with.'
Chick sat at the piano. When he'd reached the end of the tune a section of the front panel came down with a sharp click and a row of glasses appeared. Two of them were brimming with an appetizing mixture.
'You scared me,' said Colin. 'You played a wrong note once. Luckily it was only in the harmonization.'
'You don't mean to say that that comes into it too?' said Chick.
'Not always,' said Colin. 'That would make it too elaborate. So we just give it a few passing acknowledgements. Now drink up-and we'll go and eat.'
And so life bubbles along. Chick has one thing that Colin lacks -- a girlfriend, and Colin desperately wants to be in love. Nicolas, drawing on his own mystical powers and the help of Duke Ellington, somehow draws forth the spirit of an Ellington tune "Chloe". Colin and Chloe rush headlong through courtship towards marriage.
|'AM I PRETTY?'|
Chloe was looking at herself in the flecked silver bowl where an uninhibited goldfish was playfully performing. On her shoulder the grey mouse with the black whiskers scratched its nose with its paw and looked at the rippling reflections.
Chloe had put on her stockings - the same colour as her blonde skin, and as fine as the fumes of incense - and her highheeled shoes of white leather. The rest of her was naked, except for a wide bangle of blue gold which made her delicate wrist seem even more slender.
'Do you think I should get dressed?'
The mouse slid round Chloe's round neck and settled on one of her breasts. It looked up at her from below - and seemed to think that she should.
'In that case, I'll have to put you down!' said Chloe. 'You know you're going back to Colin's tonight. But don't forget to say goodbye to the others here!...'
She put the mouse down on, the carpet, looked out of the window, let the curtain fall back and went over to her bed. Her white dress was all laid out on it, with Isis and Lisa's waterclear dresses on either side.
'Are you two ready yet?'
In the bathroom, Lisa was helping Isis do her hair. They too were already wearing their shoes and stockings.
'None of us is getting ready very quickly - either in there or out here,' said Chloe, pretending to be angry. 'Do you children realize that I'm getting married this morning?'
'You've still got a whole hour left! ' said Lisa.
'And that's plenty!' said Isis. 'Your hair's done already!'
Chloe laughed, tossing her curls. It was warm in the steamfilled bathroom, and Lisa's back was so appetising that Chloe softly caressed it with the flat of her palms. Isis, sitting in front of the glass, let her supple scalp succumb to Lisa's scientific manipulations.
'You're tickling,' said Lisa, beginning to laugh.
Chloe touched her deliberately where she was most ticklish - under the arms right down to the hips. Lisa's skin was warm and tingling.
'And what about me?' said Isis, who was doing her nails until they had finished.
'You're both so lovely, said Chloe. 'It's a pity you can't come as you are. I wish you could both stay in just your shoes and stockings.'
'Go and get dressed, honey,' said Lisa, 'or you'll miss everything.'
'Kiss me,' said Chloe. 'I'm so happy!'
Lisa pushed her out of the bathroom and Chloe sat on the bed. She smiled to herself when she looked at the lace of her dress. First of all she put on a baby cellophane bra, and then a pair of white gingham pants that brought out the beauty of her firm outlines to its fullest extent.
Things for Colin and Chick are nearly as idyllic, however Chick's obsession with Jean Pulse Heartre seems a little unhealthy.
|'ALL RIGHT?' said Colin.|
'Not yet,' said Chick.
For the fourteenth time Chick was trying to tie Colin's tie and he just couldn't manage it.
'Try doing it with gloves on,' said Colin.
'Why?' asked Chick. 'Do you think it will work any better?'
'I don't know,' said Colin. 'It was just an idea.'
'A good job we gave ourselves plenty of time!' said Chick.
'Yes,' said Colin. 'But we'll still be late if we don't get this right.'
'Don't worry,' said Chick. 'We'll manage it soon.'
He performed a swift series of closely linked movements and sharply pulled both ends at the same time. The tie snapped in the middle and he was left holding half of it in each hand.
'That's number three,' remarked Colin. But his mind was elsewhere.
'All right,' said Chick, 'I know it is ... Be patient!'
He sat down on a chair and thoughtfully rubbed his chin.
'I can't think what we're doing wrong,' he said.
'Neither can I,' said Colin. 'It's never happened before.'
'No,' said Chick, flatly. 'Let's try it without looking.'
He took a fourth tie and nonchalantly wound it round Colin's neck, while he let his eyes follow every detail of the flight of a flutterwing. He put the thick end over the thin one brought it back through the loop, then with a twist to the right, a quick slip underneath, and ... But unfortunately, at that very moment, his eyes fell on his work and both ends of the tie brutally snapped together, squashing his index finger. He yelped with pain.
'Oh, sod the existential horror!' he said.
'Did you hurt yourself?' asked Colin, full of sympathy. Chick was sucking his finger furiously.
'Now I'll have a black man's pinch,' he said.
'Poor old thing!' said Colin.
Chick muttered something and looked at Colin's neck.
'Just a minute,' he whispered. 'It's tied itself. Don't move...'
He stepped back quietly, without lifting his eyes from the tie, and picked up a bottle of aerosol fixative from the table behind him. Slowly he raised the extremity of the tiny tube to his trembling lips and stealthily closed in on the tie. Colin hummed quietly, pretending to be looking at the ceiling.
The fine spray landed bang on the heart of the knot. The tie sprang into the air, turned a rapid double somersault, and then fell rigidly into position, crucified by the solidifying spirit.
|COLIN LEFT the house, followed by Chick. They were going to walk round to fetch Chloe. Nicolas was going straight to the church to join them there. He was putting the last touches to a special meal he was cooking that he had discovered in ffroydde and which ought to turn out terrifically.|
There was a bookshop on the way and Chick stopped to look in the window. In the very centre of the display a copy of Heartre's Mildew, bound in purple morocco, embossed with the arms of the Countess de Mauvoir, sparkled like a precious jewel.
'Oh!' said Chick. 'Just look at that!'
'What?' said Colin, coming back. 'Oh! You mean that?'
'Yes,' said Chick. Just to look at the book made his mouth water. A narrow stream of saliva began to form between his legs and wind its way down to the kerb, trickling round the little heaps of dirt on the pavement.
'Well?' said Colin. 'You've already got it, haven't you?...'
'Not with a binding like that!...' said Chick.
'Oh, you're such a bore!' said Colin. 'Come on, we're supposed to be in a hurry.'
'I bet it's worth a doublezoon or two,' said Chick.
'Of course it is,' said Colin, and marched off.
Chick went through his pockets.
'Colin!' he called... 'Lend me the money.'
Colin stopped once again. He shook his head sadly.
'I don't think,' he said, 'that the twenty-five thousand doublezoons I promised you are going to last very long.'
Chick blushed, his nose drooped, but nevertheless he still held out his hand. He took the cash and sped into the shop. Colin waited outside, anxiously and impatiently. Seeing Chick come out with such a radiant smile he shook his head once again, in pity this time, and a semismile sketched itself across his own lips.
'You're nuts, my poor Chick! How much was it?'
'Forget it,' said Chick. 'Come on, let's run.'
They hurried off. Chick seemed to be galloping on sevenleague dragons.
Outside Chloe's door people were admiring the handsome white car ordered by Colin that had just driven up with its liveried chauffeur. The seats were covered in white fur, and inside it was all warm and cosy and full of music.
The colour of the sky was permanent blue and the clouds were scarce and wispy. It wasn't too cold. The winter was coming to an end.
The bottom of the lift began to swell under their feet and, with a big soft huff and a puff, gently burst its way up to the right floor, carrying them with it. Its door glided open for them. They rang. Then the flat door opened.
Chloe was waiting for them.
Besides her cellophane bra, her little white pants and her stockings, her body was protected by two layers of muslin, with a very full veil of fine tulle that fell from her shoulders, leaving her head completely free.
Lisa and Isis were dressed in the same way, but their dresses were the colour of water. Their perfumed hair shone in the sunshine and the heavy locks nestled lightly on their shoulders. A choice between them would have been impossible. Colin knew how to make it. He dared not kiss Chloe for fear of spoiling the way she had been arranged, so he made up for it with Isis and Lisa. They were more than willing to help him out, seeing how happy he was.
The whole room was filled with white flowers - the ones Colin had chosen - and on the pillow of the unmade bed there was the single petal of a crimson rose. The smell of the flowers and the perfume of the girls mingled intimately and Chick took himself for a bee in a hive. Lisa wore a lilac orchid in her hair, Isis a scarlet rose and Chloe a big white camellia. She held a spray of lilies and a tiny chain of ivy leaves, all freshly lacquered and glistening, shone beside her wide bracelet of blue gold. Her engagement ring was inset with little square and rectangular diamonds which spelt out the name Colin in Morse. Under a vase of flowers in a comer, the summit of a cameraman's skull slowly rose. He was shooting among the leaves down below.
The wedding is excessive in every way. If alarm bells weren't ringing before, they must be now. Colin's fortune of a hundred thousand doublezoons is disappearing fast and appears to have no way of regenerating itself. To make matters worse, he has already given a quarter of it to Chick so that he can marry Lisa. Chick, of course, spends it all on Heartre. The crux of the novel is however not really the money -- it is Colin's naivety in thinking that he can enter the adult world of marriage with no strings attached. This is the world that Vian deplored, the world of inane work, mindless bureacracy, bombastic militarism and oppressive religion. As Colin and Chloe drive out of Paris on their honeymoon, the world's ugly side begins to be revealed. These are the first steps of a descent into hell -- the adult world of social responsibility that Colin and Chloe cannot completely shut out.
THE BIG white car carefully carved its way over the lumps and bumps and through the ruts of the groovy road. Colin and Chloe, sitting at the back, looked sadly and soulfully at the passing landscape. The sky was overcast. Red birds flew as low as the telegraph wires, going up and down with the same monotonous rhythm, and their harsh piercing shrieks echoed back from the leaden water of the long never-ending puddles.
'Why are we coming this way?' Chloe asked Colin.
'It's a short cut,' said Colin. 'But you are forced to take it. The main road is worn out. Everyone kept on using it because the weather was always fine there - and now there's only this road left. Don't worry. Nicolas is a good driver.'
'It's this unusual light,' said Chloe.
Her heart was beating fast, as if it had been squeezed inside a stiff, crusty shell. Colin put his arm round Chloe and, slipping his hand under her hair, playfully pinched the back of her graceful neck as if he were picking up a little kitten.
'Oh...' said Chloe, letting her head sink into her shoulders while Colin tickled her. 'Hold me close ... I'm so scared when I'm all alone...'
'Would you like the yellow windows?' said Colin.
'I'd like all the colours...'
Colin pressed green, blue, yellow and red buttons and a succession of correspondingly coloured panes appeared in place of the plain ones round the car. It was like being on the inside of a rainbow, and striped shadows danced over the white fur between each telegraph pole. Chloe began to feel better.
Sparse and faded green moss ran along both sides of the road and, every now and again, there was a gnarled gesticulating tree. Not a breath of wind crumpled the cloaks of mud which squelched under the wheels of the car. Nicolas worked hard to keep the car under control and struggled to make it stick to the middle of the subsiding roadway.
He looked round for a second.
'Don't worry,' he said to Chloe, 'it won't be like this for long. The road gets better soon.'
Chloe looked out of the window by her side and shuddered. A squamaceous monster was standing beside a telegraph pole staring at them.
'Colin, look, ... What's that?
'I don't know,' he said. 'But I don't think it's dangerous...'
'It's only a man repairing the telegraph wires,' Nicolas called over his shoulder. 'They're dressed like that so that the mud doesn't splash inside...'
'But it was ... it was horribly ugly.' murmured Chloe.
Colin kissed her.
'Don't be scared, Chloe dear, it was only a man .'
The road began to feel firmer under the wheels of the car. A glimmer of light tinted the horizon.
'Look,' said Colin. 'The sun is rising...'
Nicolas shook his head to show that he was wrong.
'It's the copper mines,' he said. 'We've got to go through them.'
The mouse, sitting by the side of Nicolas, cocked up an ear.
'It's true,' said Nicolas. 'But it will be warmer there.'
The road took several more turns. Now steam began to rise from the mud. The car was surrounded by white clouds with a strong smell of copper. Then the mud became completely solid and the old road emerged, cracked and dusty. Far ahead the air was trembling as if it were hovering over a great furnace.
'I don't like it,' said Chloe. 'Can't we go another way?'
'It's the only way,' said Colin. 'Would you like to look at the Cookery Book? ... I've brought it with us...'
They had brought no other luggage, counting on buying everything on the way.
'Shall I lower the coloured windows?' asked Colin again.
'Please,' said Chloe. 'The light isn't so bad now.'
The road twisted again sharply, and they were suddenly in the midst of the copper mines. They went down in steps on each side, a few yards at a time. Enormous deserts of and greenish copper unrolled out into infinity. Hundreds of men, dressed in goggled dungarees, were moving around in the flames. Others were stacking up the fuel in regular geometric pyramids. Electric trucks were continuously bringing more. Under the effects of the heat, the copper melted and ran in red streams fringed with spongy slag that was as hard as stone. At certain spots it was directed off into great reservoirs where pumps poured it into oval pipes.
'What a terrible job!...' said Chloe.
'They're very well paid,' said Nicolas.
Some of the men stopped to watch the car go past. The only thing that could be seen in their eyes was a look of lightly mocking pity. They were big and strong, and they looked as if nothing could harm them.
'They don't like us,' said Chloe. 'Let's go away.'
'It's because they're working. . .' said Colin.
'That's not a reason,' said Chloe.
Nicolas put his foot on the accelerator. The car whizzed over the frowning road, breaking through the barrier of noise from the machines and the smelting copper.
'We'll soon be on the old road again,' said Nicolas.
When eventually they arrive at their destination conditions have improved. The countryside is quaintly pleasant, with a mixture of tropical and temperate vegetation, and other curiosities, all hinting at a manufactured veneer of prettiness. Nicolas as usual takes time out to ravish a wench, and annoys Colin by speaking in an especially obsequious and servile manner. Chloe plays with the snow, thinking it's pretty, and Colin warns her that she'll get cold. Nicolas mutters that he doesn't like the snow. In his exasperation with Nicolas and perhaps due to the discomfort he feels after travelling through the ugly scenes to get there, he takes off one of his shoes and throws it at Nicolaswho has just bent down to scrape a minute stain off his trouers. The shoe crashes through their bedroom window, and although the glass immediately begins regrowing across the hole, that night they are kept awake by an icy draft and Chloe wakes with a flurry of snow on her chest.
What might have been a cold develops complications and sets the scene for the remainder of the novel. They return to Paris and there is a brief interlude where Spring returns and they are happy for a while, although their apartment is shrinking, Nicolas is aging rapidly, and the mouse that lives in the corridor ends up with bleeding paws after having tried to polish the tiles to make them sparkle again.
Chloe doesn't recover from her chest cold and Colin learns from the renowned and very expensive Professor Gnawknuckle that she has a waterlily growing in her left lung. The treatment is to surround her with flowers to discourage the one inside her, and to dehydrate her by only allowing two teaspoons of water a day. Colin is forced to seek work to pay for the treatment.
Chick's obsession is reaching dizzying intensity and Vian has a lot of fun with the tendency for the followers of intellectual fashion to lionize their heroes blindly and with inhuman consequences. Jean Pulse Heartre himself is a diffident, mousy man swept along by the ferocity of this adulation.
| CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT|
|RIGHT FROM the beginning of the street the crowd were pushing and shoving to get into the hall where Jean Pulse Heartre was going to give his lecture.|
People were using all kinds of tricks to needle through the eagle eye of the chastity belt of special duty policemen who had cut off the district and who were there to examine the invitation cards and tickets, because hundreds and thousands of forgeries were in circulation.
One group drew up in a hearse and the coppers stuck a long steel spike through the coffin, crucifying the occupants to the elm for eternity. This saved having to take them out again before the funeral and the only trouble caused was that the shrouds would be all messy when the real dead men came to use them. Others got themselves parachuted in by special plane. There were riots and fighting at Orly too to get on to the planes. A team of firemen took them for a practice target and, unlacing their hoses, squirted them straight in the bull's eye of the battle where everybody was miserably drowned. Others, in a desperate attempt, were trying to get in through the sewers. They were being pushed down again by hob-nailed boots which jumped heavily on their knuckles every time they gripped the edges of the man-holes, trying to get a hold. The sewer rats took over from there. But nothing could dampen the spirits of these aficionados. This couldn't be said, however, for the ones who were drowning and who continued to struggle, the sounds of their efforts rising up to heaven and bouncing back off the clouds with a cavernous rumbling.
Only the pure, the really turned-on group, the intimate friends had genuine tickets and invitation cards which were very easily distinguished from the forgeries. For this reason they slipped in unhindered along a narrow alley between the buildings which was protected every eighteen inches by a secret agent disguised as a Turkish Delight or a Mud Guard. Even so, there was still a tremendous number of genuine ticketholders, and the hall, which was already brim-full, continued to welcome new arrivals every minute.
Chick had been there since the day before. For gold he had obtained from the doorman the right to take his place and, in order to make such a switch-over plausible, had broken the left leg of the said doorman with a surplus second-hand crowbar. There was no question of sparing his doublezoons where Heartre was concerned. Lisa and Isis sat with him, waiting for the speaker to arrive. They had spent the night there too, anxious not to miss the great occasion. Chick, in his Sherwood green attendant's uniform, looked as sexy as a dream. He had neglected his work badly since he had come into possession of Colin's twenty-five thousand doublezoons.
The scampering, scurrying public was made up of some very odd types. There were bespectacled triangular faces with crewcuts, yellow dog-ends and unshaven pimples, and girls with scruffy little plaits round and round their skulls, and lumberdoublets worn next to the skin with Elizabethan slashings giving shadowy vistas on to moony crescents of sliced breast.
In the great hall on the ground floor, with its half-glazed ceiling half-decorated with heavy water-colours, ideal forgiving birth to doubts in the minds of the audience about the fun of an existence peopled with such off-putting feminine forms, more and more people were gathering, and late-comers found they had to resort to standing on one foot at the back -the other being required to kick away any neighbours; who got too close. All eyes in the cadaverous crowd were on the special box in which the Countess de Mauvoir sat on a throne with her retainers, insulting by the old-fashioned luxury of her noble elevated position the temporary nature of the seating arrangements of a row of philosophers who were perched on gallery stools.
It was almost time for the lecture, and the crowd was growing hectic. An organized din came from the back of the hall, set up by several students trying to sow doubt in the spirits of the faithful by declaiming aloud passages selected at random from The Bourbon on The Bounce by the Baroness Orczy.
But Jean Pulse was drawing near. The sounds of an elephant's trunk could be heard in the street, and Chick leaned out of his box-office window. In the far distance the silhouette of Jean Pulse emerged from an armoured howdah, under which the rough and wrinkled hide of the elephant took on a bizarre appearance in the glow of a red headlamp. At each comer of the howdah a hand-picked marksman, armed with an axe, stood at the ready. The elephant was striding its way through the crowd, and the fearsome plod of the four columns moving through the crushed bodies unrelentingly drew on. At the main gate the elephant knelt down and the especially selected marksmen got off. With a graceful leap, Heartre landed in their midst and, hacking out a path with their axes, they made their way to the platform. Police closed the doors and Chick raced along a private corridor leading out behind the stage, pushing Isis and Lisa in front of him.
Chick had cut some peep-holes in the back of the stage which was tastefully draped with hangings of festered velvet. They sat there on some cushions and waited. Just a yard in front of them Heartre was getting ready to read his notes. An extraordinary radiance emanated from his ascetic athletic body and the throng, captivated by the overpowering charm of his slightest gesture, waited anxiously for the starting signal.
Numerous were the cases of fainting due to intra-uterine exaltation which affected the female section of the audience in particular and, from their hide-out, Lisa, Isis and Chick could distinctly hear the accelerated breathing of the twenty-four gate-crashers who had stolen in under the stage and were quietly undressing to take up less space.
In one of the book's most emotionally charged passages where Vian manages to merge his contempt for war-mongering with his hero's tragic decline, Colin begins work for the military, who are manufacturing armaments by harnessing the innocence and vitality of youth. The results are profoundly disturbing.
|[Colin is discussing his duties with the duty officer, a worn out geratric of 29]|
'I need money,' said Colin.
'People often do,' said the man. 'But work makes a philosopher of you. After a few months you'll find you didn't need it so badly after all.'
'It's to help cure my wife,' said Colin.
'Oh ... Indeed?' said the man.
'She's ill,' explained Colin. 'I'm not keen on work.'
'In that case, I'm sorry for you,' said the man. 'When a woman is ill, she's no good for anything any more.'
'I love her,' said Colin.
'No doubt,' said the man, 'otherwise you wouldn't want to work so badly. I'll show you what your job is. It's on the next floor up.'
He guided Colin through immaculate passages with very low vaulted roofs and up red brick staircases until they came to a door, with others on either side of it, which had a symbol marked on it.
'Here you are,' said the man. 'Go in and I'll tell you what to do.'
Colin went in. The room was square and tiny, and the walls and the floor were made of glass. On the floor was a large heap of earth shaped like a rough coffin, but about a yard deep. A thick woollen blanket was rolled up beside it on the floor. No furniture. A little shelf let into the wall held a blue iron casket. The man went over to it and opened it. He took out a dozen shining cylindrical objects with minute holes in the middle.
'This earth is sterile. You know what that means,' said the man. 'We need first class material to defend the country. To grow straight, undistorted. rifle barrels we came to the conclusion, some time ago, that we needed human warmth. It's true, anyway, for every kind of arms.'
'Yes,' said Colin.
'Now you have to make a dozen little holes in the earth,' said the man, 'in the region of the heart and liver. Then you stretch out on the earth after you've stripped. Cover yourself with the sterilized blanket there, and do your best to give out a perfectly regular heat.'
He gave a crackly laugh and smacked his right thigh.
'I made fourteen a day the first three weeks of every month. Ah ... I was tough!...'
'And then?' said Colin.
'Then you stay like that for twenty-four hours. At the end of the twenty-four hours the barrels should have grown. Somebody will come and take them away. The earth is watered with oil, and you start all over again.'
'Do they grow downwards?' said Colin.
'Yes. The light comes from underneath,' said the man. 'Their phototropism is positive, but they grow downwards because they are heavier than the earth. We especially have the light underneath so that they won't grow distorted.'
'How about the bore?' said Colin.
'This species grow ready-bored,' said the man. 'They're tested seeds.'
'What are the chimneys for?' asked Colin.
'They're for ventilation,' said the man. 'And for sterilizing the blankets and the buildings. It's not worth taking special precautions because it's all done very energetically.'
'Wouldn't it work with artificial heat?' said Colin.
'Not very well,' said the man. 'They need human warmth to grow to the right size.'
'Do women work here?' said Colin.
'They couldn't do this work,' said the man. 'Their chests aren't flat enough for the heat to be evenly enough distributed. Now I'll let you get on with it.'
'Will I really get ten doublezoons a day?' said Colin.
'You will,' said the man, 'and a bonus if you make more than twelve barrels a day...'
He went out of the room and closed the door. Colin looked at the twelve seeds in his hand. He put them down and began to take off his clothes. His eyes were closed, and every so often his lips trembled.
|'I DON'T know what's happening,' said the man. 'You started off so well. But we can only make special arms with these latest ones.'|
'You're still going to pay me?' said Colin, worried.
He should have been taking home seventy doublezoons with ten doublezoons bonus. He had been doing his very best, but the barrel inspections had shown several anomalies.
'See for yourself,' said the man.
He picked up one of the barrels and showed Colin the funnel-shaped end.
'I can't understand it,' said Colin. 'The first ones were perfectly cylindrical.'
'Of course we can make blunderbusses out of them,' said the man, 'but we gave up using them five wars ago and we've already got a large surplus stock. It's all very annoying.'
'I'm doing my best,' said Colin.
'Of course you are,' said the man. 'You'll get your eighty doublezoons.'
He took a scaled envelope from his desk drawer.
'I had it brought here to save you going to the pay office,' he said. 'Sometimes it takes months to get your money - and you seem to need it quickly.'
'Thanks very much,' said Colin.
'I haven't gone through the ones you made yesterday yet,' said the man. 'They'll bring them in straight away. Would you like to wait for a moment?'
His rasping, croaking voice hurt Colin's ears as it went in.
'I'll wait,' he said.
'You see,' said the man, 'we're forced to pay very strict attention to these details because one rifle must be the same as another, even if we haven't got any cartridges.'
'Yes...' said Colin.
'We don't often have cartridges,' said the man. 'They're behind on the cartridge schedules. We've got large stocks for a model we don't make any more, but we haven't been told to make any for the new rifles, so we can't use them. Anyway, it doesn't matter much. What's the good of a rifle against a fodder cannon? The enemies make one fodder cannon for every two of our rifles. So we have superiority of numbers. But a fodder cannon isn't going to run away from a couple of rifles, especially if they've got no cartridges...'
'Don't we make fodder cannons here?' asked Colin.
'We do,' said the man, 'but we've only just completed our programme for the last war. So of course they don't work very well and have to be scrapped. As they're very strongly made it's taking us quite a time.'
There was a knock on the door and the quartermaster appeared, pushing a white sterilized trolley. Under a white cloth there was a slight bulge. This wouldn't have happened with strictly cylindrical barrels and Colin felt very worried. The quartermaster went out and closed the door.
'Ah! said the man. 'It still doesn't look as if they're right.'
He lifted the cloth. There were twelve cold blue steel barrels -and, at the end of each, a beautiful white rose was in full bloom, with drops of dew and beige shadows in the curves of its velvety petals.
'Oh!...' gasped Colin. 'Aren't they lovely!'
The man said nothing. But he coughed twice.
'There'll be no point in you coming back tomorrow,' he said after a moment's hesitation.
His fingers touched the end of the trolley nervously.
'Can I take them for Chloe?' said Colin.
'They'll die,' said the man, 'if you pluck them from the steel. They're made of steel too, you know...'
'They can't be...' said Colin. He delicately took one rose and tried to snap its stem. His finger slipped and one of the petals made a cut several inches long in his hand. His hand began to bleed and he automatically began to suck the dark blood that pulsed out. He looked at the red curve on the white petal. The man tapped him on the shoulder and gently showed him the door.
Colin's final job is one where he is paid to bring people bad news.
|THE MANAGEMENT gave Colin plenty of money - but it was too late. Every day he had to go and see people. They gave him a list and he had to bring bad tidings a day before they were going to happen.|
Every day he went out into the crowded streets or into society. He went up and down thousands of stairs. Nobody was pleased to see him. They threw pots and pans at his head, drove fierce harsh words through his ears, and then kicked him out of their doors. He got well paid for this and pleased the management. For once he kept his job. It was the only thing he could do well - get himself kicked out.
He was harrowed by fatigue which stiffened his knees and hollowed his cheeks. His eves saw only the ugliness of people. He went on telling them & terrible things that were going to happen. He went on being chased away by sticks, stones, blood, tears and curses.
He went up the steps, along the corridor and knocked, taking another step back almost immediately. People knew as soon as they saw his big black helmet so they treated him badly, but Colin couldn't complain as he was being paid to do it. The door opened. He said his piece and went away. A heavy block of wood hit him in the back of the neck.
He looked at the next name on the fist and saw that it was his own. Then he threw down his helmet and he walked slowly home with his heart as heavy as lead for he knew that by tomorrow Chloe would be dead.
And so the novel ends with the death of Chloe and a humiliating pauper's funeral at which the priests, minor officials and hangers on persecute Colin and treat him to every imaginable abuse, now that he is no longer wealthy.
The novel is beautifullly structured. When it begins the progtagonist has everything. By the end, he has nothng. He is still alive, but like the mouse, has nothing left to live for. In the last scene, Vian spells out the inevitably of disaster and ruin for those too innocent to find a place in a mean spirited, soul destroying world.
|'TO TELL the truth,' said the cat, 'I don't really find the proposition very exciting.'|
'But you're so wrong,' said the mouse. 'I'm still quite young and, until the last moment, I was very well fed.'
'But I'm well fed too,' said the cat, 'and I don't want to commit suicide in the least. That's why I find it all so perverse.'
'But you didn't know him,' said the little mouse.
'What was he like?' asked the cat.
It didn't really want to know. It was a warm day and the tips of its fur were tingling.
'He's standing at the water's edge,' said the mouse, 'waiting. When it's visiting time, he walks the plank and stops in the middle. He can see something.'
'I shouldn't think he could see much,' said the cat. 'Perhaps it's a water-lily.'
'Yes,' said the mouse. 'He's waiting for it to come up so that he can kill it.'
'That's stupid,' said the cat. 'It's not in the least bit inspiring.'
'When visiting time is over,' the mouse went on, 'he goes back on the bank and stares at her photo.'
'Doesn't he ever eat anything?' asked the cat.
'No,' said the mouse, 'and he's growing so weak. I can't bear it. One of these days he's going to slip.'
'Why should you care?' asked the cat. 'Is he unhappy?'
'He's not unhappy,' said the mouse, 'he's grieving. And that's what I can't bear. One day he'll fall into the water through leaning over too far.'
'Well,' said the cat, 'if that's the way it is, I'll see what I can do for you - although I don't know why I said "If that's the way it is", because I really don't understand what all the fuss is about.'
'It's very kind of you,' said the mouse.
'Just put your head in my mouth,' said the cat.
'Will it take long?' asked the mouse.
'Only until somebody treads on my tail, said the cat. 'I only need something to make me jump. But I'll leave it stretched out, so don't worry.'
The mouse opened the cat's jaws and placed its head between the sharp teeth. It pulled it out again almost as quickly.
'Ugh!' it said. 'Did you have shark for breakfast?'
'Now look here,' said the cat, 'if you don't like it, you can clear off. The whole story's a bore. You'll have to manage by yourself.'
It seemed angry.
'Don't go mad,' said the mouse.
It closed its little black eyes and put its head back. The cat let its pointed teeth close delicately on the soft grey throat. The mouse's black whiskers brushed against the cat's. The cat's bushy tail unrolled right across the pavement.
The voices of eleven little girls from the Orphanage of Pope John the Twentythird could be heard getting nearer. They were singing. And they were blind.
I hope this review, with its extensive excerpts, will encourage you to get your own copy of this cult classic.
(TRANSLATION of Froth on the Daydream by Stanley Chapman)