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|This edition is a translation by Boris Vian himself. I Spit on Your Graves is an extremely violent, sexy, hard-boiled novel about racial and class prejudice, revenge, justice and is itself a literary oddity due to the fact that it was written by a jazz-loving white Frenchman, who had never been to America.|
Vian translated this "french thriller" into English to deflect notions that he was the author. He had previously pretended to translate the book into French. Neither gambit worked. He was fined 100,000 francs and jailed for "being a corrupting influence on society's morals" after a woman was killed in the same manner as the murder in the book, the novel being left in the room beside the victim.
|Nobody knew me at Buckton. That's why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn't had a flat, I didn't have enough gas to go any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem's letter, and that's all. There wasn't a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let's not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid's little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter. It was still in his pocket when the sheriff came to tell us to take the body away to bury it. I've got to say that I counted on Clem's letter more than on everything else. It ought to work, it just had to work. I looked at my hands on the steering wheel, at my fingers, my nails. Nobody would find anything wrong there. No risk on that score. Maybe I'd get away with it.|
My brother Tom had known Clem at the University. Clem never treated him like he did the other students. He was glad to talk to him. They drank together, went out together in Clem's Cadillac. It was because of Clem that people put up with Tom. When he left to take his father's place at the head of his factory, Tom had to decide to leave too. He came back to us. He'd learned a lot and didn't have much trouble getting an appointment as a teacher in the new school. And then the business with the kid ru-ined everything. I could have been a hypocrite and kept my mouth shut, but not the kid. He didn't see anything wrong in it. So the girl's father and brother took care of him.
That's why my brother gave me the letter to Clem. I couldn't stay in that town any longer and he wrote to Clem to find me something.
Not too far away, so he could see me once in a while, but far enough so nobody would know me. He thought that with my face and my personality I wouldn't get into trouble. Maybe he was right, but I still couldn't forget the kid. Buckton Bookstore manager – that was my new job. I was to get into touch with the present manager and learn the job in three days. He was getting a new managership, a better one, and wanted to make a name for himself.
It was nice and sunny. The street's name had been changed to Pearl Harbor Street. Clem probably didn't know it. You could still see the old name on the signs. The store's number was 270. I stopped the Nash right in front of the door. The manager was sitting behind the register, copying some numbers into an account-book. He was about 40 years old, with hard blue eyes and light blond hair, as I noticed when I opened the door. I said hello.
'How do you do! Can I help you?'
'Yes, this letter is for you.'
'Oh, so you're the one I'm supposed to break in here. Let's see the letter.'
He took it, read it, turned it over, and gave it back to me.
'It isn't very complicated,' he said. 'There's the stock (he made a sweeping motion with his arm). The accounts will be straight tonight. As far as selling and advertising and everything else, follow the suggestions of the inspectors from the main office and the circulars you'll get.'
'This is a chain outlet?'
'O.K.' I said, 'What do you sell most of?'
'Oh, novels. Bad novels, but that isn't our affair. Religious books, pretty fair, and text-books too. Not many children's books, nor any serious stuff either. I never tried to build up that line.'
'You mean that in your opinion religious books aren't serious?'
He licked his lips.
'Don't be saying I said something which I didn't say.'
I laughed heartily
'No need to get mad, that's what I think too.'
'In that case, let me give some advice. Don't let anybody else know it, and go to church every Sunday, cause otherwise you're not going to have many customers.'
'Oh alright,' I said, 'so I'll go to church.'
'Here,' he said, handing me a sheet of paper. 'Check that. It's the accounting for last month. It's pretty simple. You get all your books from the main office. All you've got to do is keep a record, in triplicate, of what you get and what you sell. They come to collect twice a month. You get paid by check, a commission on sales.'
'Let me see it,' I said.
I took the form and sat down on a low counter, cluttered up with books the customers had taken off the shelves and had been too rushed to put back.
'What's there for a guy to do in this town?' I asked him.
'Not a damn thing.' There are the girls in the drug-store across the street, and you can get some Bourbon in Ricardo's, couple of blocks up the street.'
I found him pleasant, with his brusque way of talking.
'How long have you been living here?'
'Five years,' he said. 'Still got five to go.'
'You're too damn nosy.'
'Don't blame me. Why'd you say you've got five more to go. I didn't ask you.'
His mouth became less harsh, and he crinkled his eyes.
'I guess you're right. O.K., then five more years and I quit.'
'What are you going to do?'
'Write,' he said. 'Write best-sellers. Nothing but best-sellers. Historical novels; novels where colored men sleep with white women and don't get lynched; novels about pure young girls who manage to grow up unblemished by the vicious small-town life which surrounds them.'
'Yep, best-sellers. And then some very daring and original novels. It doesn't require much to be daring in this part of the world. All you've got to do is write about things everybody knows, and take a little trouble in doing it.'
'You'll get there,' I said.
'Sure I'll get there. I've got six of 'em ready right now.'
'Never tried to get them published?'
'I'm not pals with any publisher, and I haven't got enough dough to pay for them myself.'
'So what are you going to do?'
'Well in five years I'll have the money.'
'I guess you'll make it,' I told him.
There was plenty of work from then on, in spite of the store's uncomplicated administrative arrangements. I had to bring the order lists up to date, and then Hansen, as the former manager was called, gave me all sorts of tips about the customers, a certain number of whom came regularly to see him and talk about books. About all they knew about literature they learned from the 'Saturday Review' or from the book reviews of the paper published in the State capital, which had a circulation of about sixty thousand. For the time being I did no more than listen to them talk with Hansen, trying to remember their names and their faces, since in a bookstore, more than anywhere else, it's damn important to greet the customer with 'Good Morning, Mr Soandso' as soon as he comes in the door.
Hansen fixed me up with a place to live too. I took over the two rooms which he had been renting just above the drugstore across the street. He'd loaned me a couple of dollars, enough to stay at the hotel for three days, and he was considerate enough to invite me to eat with him an average of twice a day, thus keeping me from running up a big monetary debt with him, since I had no one else to borrow from. He was a nice guy. I was somewhat concerned about this plan of his to write best-sellers: you don't write best-sellers just like that, even if you do have dough. Maybe he did have talent. For his sake, I hoped so.
|Reviews and comments|
|The Two Graves of Boris Vian - Paul Duncan, Crime Time (May 2000)|
Paris. Summer 1946. Jean d'Halluin wanted to launch his new press, Editions du Scorpion, with a bestseller, so he asked his friend Boris Vian if he knew any good hardboiled American writers he could publish. Vian said that he'd just translated a book by Vernon Sullivan, a black American who couldn't get the book published in America because of the racist overtones. The title was J'irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes (I Spit On Your Graves).
The story is about Lee Anderson, who enters the small town of Buckton, and takes over the management of the local bookstore. To make sure he gets sales, he must use all the sales literature sent by head office (the most salacious titles get the most publicity), he must skim the new books so that he knows what they are about, he must remember the names of everyone in town, and he must go to church.
Making a good living, Lee decides to find out where the local girls hang out. Being, slightly older, blond, muscled, a good dancer, a singer and guitarist, with an ample supply of liquor, he is immediately welcome in the small group. Lee is driven to seek women and to screw them at every opportunity. They are happy to fall into his arms and to take everything he can give.
Only, Lee is black, a mulatto who passes for white, and he's seeking revenge on white people for the death of his brother. With this in mind, he finds two rich sisters, and decides he will seduce each in turn, humiliate them, then kill them.
Paris. November 1946. In France, immediately after the war, everything American was great. The film noirs of the war years which had been banned by the Germans, were grabbing the public's attention. Marcel Duhamel started his Serie Noire line of American hardboiled translations at Gallimard. Only not many people seemed to be that interested in Vernon Sullivan. What the book needed was publicity. It got it, in spades.
February 1947. Daniel Parker, head of a right-wing moral action group, who was already fighting the depraved works of Henry Miller, decided that J'irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes was equally depraved. Many people had never heard about this depraved work and decided to find out for themselves just how depraved it was.
April 1947. A salesman in Paris went mad and strangled his girlfriend in a hotel room. Beside her lifeless body, he left a copy of the book. He had circled certain passages describing the death of one of the rich sisters by strangulation. It was a scandal. Everyone wanted to know more about the murder, and about the book which inspired it.
Jean d-Halluin printed lots more copies, outselling French favourites Sartre and Camus in 1947, and had sold half a million by 1950. Boris Vian made a lot of money from it too, and some notoriety, because by 1948 it had been revealed that there was no such person as Vernon Sullivan and that Vian was the real author.
Rather than find and translate an American crime thriller, which would have been too much work, Vian had gone on his traditional family holiday to Vendée on August 5th 1946 and, in ten days, had written the book. The American pseudonym had come from Vian's friend Paul Vernon and the jazz pianist Joe Sullivan. The original title was I Dance On Your Graves, but his wife didn't think it was gritty enough, so 'Dance' was changed to 'Spit.' Although Vian had never been to America, he had learnt a lot about racial prejudice and attitudes from black American jazz musicians he played with - Vian was a well-known jazz trumpeter on the Parisian cabaret circuit.
When Vian was brought to court by Daniel Parker for translating "objectionable foreign literature," Vian collaborated with Milton Rosenthal on an English-language version, published by Vendome Press in April 1948, to 'prove' that Vernon Sullivan was real, and deflect attention away from Vian. It didn't work - the cat was out of the bag and, in 1951, Vian was fined one hundred thousand francs.
Boris Vian wrote four other translations of Vernon Sullivan, which didn't have the same impact as the first novel but still sold a fair amount. (Much like James Hadley Chase and No Orchids For Miss Blandish.) Ironically, it was as a result of I Spit On Your Graves, that he got offered work to do real translations - his first book being The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing. After that came other crime author translations like Peter Cheyney, before diversifying with translations of Nelson Algren A E van Vogt, August Strindberg and, most appropriately, Richard Wright.
Born March 10 1920 near Paris, and brought up in comfortable surroundings, at the age of twelve Boris Vian contracted rheumatic fever, which left him with a chronic heart condition. He was told that he could die at any time and would certainly not live past the age of forty. Unsurprisingly, this had a profound effect on the way he lived his life, and the subjects he wrote about. Life and death co-existed in his life and work.
Always conscious of the lack of time he had to do anything, Vian threw himself into everything he did. His daytime job was as an engineer. After hearing Duke Ellington's orchestra in Paris, Vian took up the trumpet despite medical advice against it. When he was twenty-two, he was performing with the Claude Abadie orchestra. He worked to all hours.
Vian was a surrealist, a 'pataphysician, an absurdist. He became the closest French friend of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and was friends with the leading authors (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir) who got his short stories into the influential magazine Temps Moderne.
He wrote two unpublished novels before he got his break with I Spit On Your Graves. And after the crime books and translations, his own more personal work, began to appear. Such was his output, that many of these were not published until after his death.
After the publication of what many regard as his best book L'ecume Des Jours (published in English as Froth On The Daydream and Mood Indigo) in 1947, Vian gave up the day job and concentrated in writing full-time. L'ecume Des Jours is a tragic love story set in a world where figures of speech assume literal reality, and familiar objects fight back surrealistically. Streets are named after jazz figures Sidney Bichet and Louis Armstrong; Colin, the hero, has a "100,000 doublezoons". Before dinner, Colin and Chloe drink "pianococktails" created by a machine which mixes exotic drinks according to the music of Duke Ellington; Chloe becomes fatally stricken when a water-lily grows on her lung. There being no money for a funeral, the undertaker throws her coffin out the window, where it strikes an innocent child and breaks her leg.
He wrote four hundred songs. Dozens of books. Hundreds of articles. Poems. Plays. Libretto for opera. His pseudonyms include Baron Visi, Adolph Schmurz, and Bison Ravi. All were full of spontaneous humour, and violence.
In Papers on Language and Literature, Jennifer Walters observed that, "the central theme of Vian's prose work is the way man moves incessantly and irrevocably toward death. His books are liberally bestrewn with corpses of all kinds, and rare is the story which does not end with the death of one or more of the protagonists."
Vian knew he was going to die, but was going to do what he wanted until that time came. There were no boundaries for him, and his characters reflect this attitude. In I Spit On You Graves, Lee Anderson has no moral compunctions. He screws women and under-age girls. He gets them drunk so that he can screw them. At one stage, he says of Jean Asquith, one of the rich sisters, 'I never had any luck with her. Always sick, either from having drunk too much or screwed too much.'
So what is the point of the book?
Vian wants to shock us, to create a mini-earthquake in our heads. He doesn't hide what people can be like. If you go into a bar, you are going to see a lot of young men and women getting drunk and eyeing each other up, to see who they want to get laid by. Vian shows this. The characters are not worried about this behaviour - it's natural to them. What is shocking is the way Vian writes about it. The language is terse, direct, concise. He doesn't pull punches.
In 1959, a film version of I Spit On Your Graves was made, which Vian did not want to be associated with. Watching a preview, as the opening frames flickered on the screen, he commented, "These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!.." and his heart stopped. He was only thirty-nine. And with him, died Vernon Sullivan.
It is only now, more than fifty years after its first publication, do we get to read I Spit On Your Graves. For me, it was a revelation. Perhaps it will be for you as well. - Paul Duncan, Crime Time (May 2000) There is another publication of this Paul Duncan piece on Murder Magazine's web site.
"The novel (I Spit on Your Graves) became a best seller in France and established a scandalous reputation for Vian. But for the past forty years, Vian has become one of the most famous writers of the mid 20th Century, as his hoax of 1946 is only one example --provocative and outrageous, though powerful and meaningful -- of his prolific production: novels and short stories, plays and songs." - Gilbert Pestureau
"In the tradition of Karl May and Franz Kafka, Boris Vian imagines an America even more amazing than the land he has never visited. I Spit on Your Graves is the first novel to put quotation marks around the 'hardboiled' --a vivid and startling performance." - J. Hoberman
"To Americans Boris Vian has long been one of the hidden glories of French literature. In I Spit on Your Graves, he wrote an utterly untypical work, a blast from his Id that may well have killed him. Even now, with misogyny disguised as racial justice, its venom remains potent and disturbing, in equal parts appalling and riveting. It is a singular book, not for the squeamish, and not to be passed by." - Jim Krusoe
"As unlikely as it may seem, America was somewhat "in" for the French after World War II; the prewar renown of Hemingway and Faulkner was giving way to the novels of Cheyney and Cain, and film noir heroes such as Humphrey Bogart had unknowingly joined forces with the rising stars of French existentialism. The sex-and-violence pulp novel to have the biggest impact, however, was I Spit on Your Graves by a certain Vernon Sullivan, whose existentialism came short of actually allowing him to exist. He was the pen name of Boris Vian, jazz musician, song-writer and author, whose best-known novel (translated as Froth on the Daydream in Britain, and Mood Indigo in the U.S.) would later be described by Raymond Queneau as "the most beautiful love story ever written." If that was to be the most beautiful, however, then this, his literary debut, was without question one of the ugliest - a brutal sex-and-murder revenge story to outdo even Charles Willeford at his worst.
A lawsuit against indecency and a copy of the novel (with aptly-circled passages) found in a hotel room by the strangled body of a business-man's mistress did wonders for the book's sales, but Vian's subsequent translation of the book into its "original" English failed to maintain his anonymity. It did, however, make this text available to the English reader, even if it took 50 years for it to now see print in the States.
The book's protagonist is Lee Anderson, a white-skinned mulatto seeking retribution for the racially-motivated murder of his kid brother. His somewhat curious method: to sleep with as many white woman as possible-and if they prove worthy enough (which would seem to mean "white" enough), murder them. There are no heroes, but-less common for the "noir" genre- there are almost no victims, with the exception of the barely mentioned dead brother, and a particularly disturbing chapter involving two pubescent prostitutes. To read this book as an outrage against racism, however (which has been done), would be a misreading. Although the issue is obviously present, it makes for more of an off-kilter vehicle for the narrative. This might perhaps be due to the fact that Vian had never been to America; in the existential jazz atmosphere of postwar Paris, the lynching of a black man was perhaps as exotically "American" as the gumshoe. But the book, for all its terse prose and crafted crudity, is actually more complex than that, and ends better as a reflection (or perhaps celebration) of the misogyny and sadism so endemic to postwar pulp fiction. These were qualities that George Orwell addressed in an essay on the enormous success of James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish- qualities that Queneau, Vian's pataphysical colleague, attempted to parody in his own puzzling effort at pseudonymous pulp: We Always Treat Women Too Well. Vian, though, proved to be more successful at casting a troubling light on this peculiar period in French literature. The fact that it took this long for its translation to see print in the U.S. is puzzling, to say the least." - Marc Lowenthal, Excerpted from a longer piece in The Boston Book Review
With time, most scandalous art mellows into historical curiosity. Lady Chatterley's Lover's dirty bits disappoint eight year olds; it endures mainly as a record of pruderies past. But other works survive the vicissitudes of taste and respectability - Ulysses and Lolita "Bitch's Brew" and "Rite of Spring." Publishers who specialize in rescuing out-of-print literature settle the difficult but largely abstract questions of literary posterity in very practical ways by deciding which of the thousands of books daily tumbling out of print are worth saving and why. One new press, TamTam Publishers, "is devoted to the purpose of reprinting lost masterpieces" of "20th Century International literature." It has published three titles so far, among them French writer Boris Vian's 1946 I Spit on Your Graves, a graphically violent novel about race, sex, lynching and revenge. Vian, a frequent translator of American pulp novels, claimed that the book was written in English by an African-American writer, Vernon Sullivan. The book became a sensation and a scandal in 1947, when a copy of the novel, with the passage about a strangling underlined, was found in the Paris hotel room in which a man strangled his mistress. Then it was revealed that the book was actually written by Vian and in French. The book is interesting from a historical standpoint because of its publishing history and Vian's authorship hoax. It's also a good example of an artful thriller that plays with the pulp conventions and uses the genre to satiric effect - while reading the lurid story, readers are encouraged to conflate social criticism of race relations with sheer titillation, and the reception of the work dramatizes the way people can behave, as though reading a sensational novel about racial violence is the same as doing something abut it. Unlike many pulp novels, Vian's holds up as a strange and shocking read today, no small feat in a gratuitous age. - Monique Dufour Review of Contemporary Fiction Fall 2000
Boris Vian, the Prince of Saint Germain, is not particularly well-known to the English reader. Apart from his celebrated novels, most notably L'écume des jours (Foam of the Daze: TamTam Books 2002), he also wrote a series of pulp novellas. I Spit on Your Graves was published in France in 1946 purporting to be a translation of the black American writer Vernon Sullivan. It's a savage piece of writing, taking the hardboiled fiction of James M. Cain as its start point and driving homicidally in the direction of Celine. The book caused a scandal in France and no wonder - what a seismic shock it would have caused in Britain before the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial. It's the story of Lee Anderson, a black man who can pass for white, who is looking to avenge the lynching of his brother and has decided that all whites are a legitimate target. It opens innocuously enough with Lee establishing himself in small town America, but soon you are embroiled in a maelstrom of violence, pornography and nihilism. Blacker than noir, this Molotov cocktail of race, sex and hatred burns off the page - Jim Healy
I Spit on Your Graves by Frenchman Boris Vian is dreamily convincing on heated sexual and racial conflict in the U.S. Appearing for the first time in English, this is a work of authentic forgery: first published in France in 1946, it masqueraded as a translation of a censored American work by one Vernon Sullivan and went on to sell more than half a million copies. Main inspiration would have been the slew of Hollywood movies that opened in Paris after the liberation, identified by the French as films noirs. I Spit… is straight noir, but also a work of liberated imagination after four years of Nazi occupation: heady, abandoned, fevered and lubricious. A fusion of prime U.S. pulp and French sado-eroticism, the author was a jazz aficionado, boulevardier and pamphleteer who wrote it for a bet in a fortnight. Stranger even than Vian's book was his premature death, aged 39: in an act of bizarre poetic symmetry, he managed the ultimate critical statement by dying of an attack of rage while watching the opening of a movie version. - Chris Petit
Well, here it is at last, the historic shocker finally in English. "A best seller?" Echoed Vian, lunching with a publisher. 'Give me ten days and I'll make you one!' Which he did, though it was banned by the French government in 1947 because of copy-cat killings. Boris Vian, jazz trumpeter, hipster, pal of Bird's and Duke's, was very much part of the immediate post-war Paris craze for all things American - hardboiled novels, jazz, film noir and black slang (he translated Cain, Chandler and Kenneth Fearing into French). His novel purports to stem from nonexistent black American writer Vernon Sullivan and its central character is a black, Lee Anderson, who can pass for white. Lee's young brother has been lynched for going out with a white girl, and Lee vows vengeance, screwing as many rich, racist white women as possible - and then breaking the news about his race.
It's very much of its time, knee-deep in terms like solid, square, longhair and bum boozer's puns like 'the very sight of the shakes gave me the shakes'. Lee runs a bookshop, boxes, sings in a Cab Calloway voice and plays guitar, sitting in with a jazz band. He 'cut a rug with the cats that hung out in the joint… I was able to talk their jive better than they - maybe it was in my blood'. He's irresistible and is soon the stud of the teen scene. Hardly deterred by sickly white buddy Dexter's taste in 12-year olds. The book is loaded with fairly explicit sex, some of it sadistic, all justified because the intention was to make his dead brother 'squirm in his grave with joy'. It's crude pulp, even nastier than Jim Thompson at his worst. 'The townspeople hanged him anyway because he was a nigger. Under his trousers, his crotch still protruded ridiculously.' Vian, 'The Prince of St Germain', watched the opening of the French film version, leaped up and cried, 'These guys are supposed to be American my arse!', clutched his heart and died. He was 39. - Brian Case