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The Flight of the Angels - Intertextuality in Four Novels by Boris Vian

by Dr Alistair Charles Rolls, (FAUX TITRE Etudes de langue et littérature françaises publiées, sous la direction de Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman, Sjef Houppermans, Paul Pelckmans et Co Vet No. 146 ISBN: 90-420-0476-3 ©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - Atlanta, GA 1999 Printed in The Netherlands)

Froth on the Daydream
Autumn in Peking
Red Grass
L'Arrache Cœur (Heartsnatcher)

According to Alistair Rolls the novels Froth on the Daydream, Autumn in Peking, Red Grass and Heartsnatcher should be seen not only as a coherent tetraology, but also as sharing a method of narrative construction - that is, the repurposing of external texts from a range of authors including Raymond Queneau, H. G. Wells, Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Rolls is at pains to point out that his thesis does not question Vian's originality, but instead places Vian in a literary tradition in which authors acknowledge and utilises the discoveries of their predecessors and contemporaries in order to extend the boundaries of their art

Rolls argues that Vian draws substantial ideas, characters, themes, characters and even action from his favourite French authors and others who he would have read in English either in his work as a translator or for his own pleasure. (Vian was an early enthusiast for American writing especially detective and science fiction. He also apparently loved the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which he translated into French.)

While it is very narrowly focussed on intertextuality (references to external texts) and intratextrality (threads throughout the four novels which connect them into a four part whole) the book is nevertheless fascinating and insightful.

Rolls notes in a chapter reviewing "approaches to Vian" that Noël Arnaud, Gilbert Pestureau, Michel Rybalka and Marc Lapprand are amongst the most prominent figures in the field of Vian criticism. Among them they have contributed hundreds of books and articles - what a treasure trove awaits the translator.

As with Keith Scott's study "From Dreams to Despair" (which appeared in 1998 under the same FAUX TITRE imprint) Rolls' book is an academic study of Vian intended for students of French language and literature.

Froth on the DaydreamBack to top

L'Écume des jours, known to English readers by Chapman's translation Froth on the Daydream and Sturrock's Mood Indigo can clearly have little intratextual links with the other three novels in the tetraology, since when it was written the future novels contained no text for Froth to reference.

This is so obvious as to be a truism, however since we have all Vian's works and the benefit of hindsight we can find the connections that Vian at the time may have planned but had not yet written.

Vian's situation was that of an author at the height of his powers, but without the need to write for commercial survival. The thrillers written under his alias Vernon Sullivan, in particular the celebrated I will spit on your graves provided him with enough income to be able to write his "serious" novels full time. He also wrote journalism, songs and plays.

Froth enjoyed modest success during his lifetime, selling only a tiny fraction of the numbers sold by Spit, and later novels sold even fewer.

These are the books however that have endured. They are constantly in print in France (along with most of his output) and although Spit has appeared in English (in Vian's own translation) it has had little success compared to Froth, which appeared in the Penguin Modern Classics series, shortly after its revival in the heady days of Paris '68 when it sold more than a million copies in its French edition.

But back to Rolls' thesis. He disputes Marc Lapprand's theory that Froth is an sequel to the earlier "Vercoquin et le plancton", arguing instead that there is a vast gulf between the two books, both in terms of substance and style, so much so that Vercoquin, like Trouble dans les Andains is a youthful practice run before the real thing. It is the depth of intertextuality that convinces him. He feels books that inspired Vian to write his early works were lighter - mostly humour and adventure - than the ones with adult themes that Vian drew upon for Froth.

There are elements in both Vercoquin and Trouble that echo through all of Vian's works but these are not the things that concern Rolls. He does not mention Alfred Jarry at all in his thesis, despite the fact that Faustroll was one of Vian's five "great books". In fact Vian was more than a youthful admirer of the absurdism inherent in 'pataphysics -- he was a transcendental satrap, one of the orders highest (and therefore least significant) honours.

The first work that Rolls cites as a primary intertext is Flaubert's story A Simple Heart the first of his Three Tales. He argues that Vian read this story in microscopic detail and draws from it many elements, including its sentimentality as well as its characterisations. The other major intertexts he cites are Dogtooth (Le Chiendent) by Raymond Queneau, Le Quai des Brumes by Mac Orlan, Nausea by Sartre, and Le Petite Sirene (The Little Mermaid) - a story by Hans Christian Andersen. In The Little Mermaid his case is very strong with regard to the character of Alise. Sartre's fame is of course savagely satirised in Froth, and Sartre himself a figure of fun - Rolls argues that he is also an important literary influence.

Other intertexts include:

Mosquitoes - William Faulkner, with its references to the Song of the swamp.
Nadja - Andre Breton, for the idealised love object.
Loveless Love and Careless Love - songs by W C Handy
Chloe - Duke Ellington, which was subtitled Song of the Swamp.
A Little Fable - Franz Kafka - which contains the story of the cat and the mouse Vian rewrites for the end of Froth

Autumn in PekingBack to top

Not been translated into English until 2005 (Tam Tam) L'Automne à Pékin (Autumn in Peking) was something of a mystery to English language readers.

In this title, Rolls clears up some important concepts driving Autumn and renders the book intelligible. He explains that Peking is Paris, and that the desert of Exopotamie where the action takes place, is a layered metaphor for Paris's makeover by modern bureacracies, modern laws and modern architecture. These forces "normalised" Paris, destroyed the glass-covered corridors which created the distinctive "strolling" character of Paris before the War. The disappearance of the old Paris is lamented by Louis Aragon in Le Paysan de Paris (Paris the country), an important intertext from which Vian draws the "corridors" of italicised text.

Rolls demonstrates that Autumn in Peking is much more a literary novel than Froth and reliant on a familiarity with Vian's library for much of its deeper meaning.

Most important of these influences is Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. These books contribute an entire methodology of the dream journey to Autumn, in which all the major characters enter the story by falling asleep.

Along the way Rolls suggests many other intertexts that are woven through Autumn.

The Outsider - Albert Camus
Mort à crédit - Louis Ferdinand Céline
Fleurs de mal - Charles Beaudelaire (which could hardly not be an influence for a French author)
Le Bal du Comte d'Orgel - Raymond Radiguet
Érostrate - Sartre
Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller
Adolphe - Benjamin Constant

Vian's interest in genre fiction - both as bedtime reading and as income as a translator - surfaces in an intertext by Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia and another by hardboiled writer Verne Chute: La Funiculaire des anges. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie is also important.

Red GrassBack to top

On the surface L'Herbe Rouge (Red Grass) is a psychological novel about the discovery (or eradication) of self through memory. Access to memory is via a science fiction device - a time machine.

Cismaru has described the story for english readers. He notes the book is celebrated as being one of Vian's finer efforts, a complex, largely autobiograhical story laced with psychological terror.

Obvious intertexts are H G Wells' War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, which Rolls discusses in some detail. However he moves away from the Martian theory - preferring other sources including:

The Penal Colony - Franz Kafka
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse
The Wolf Man (Case Studies) - Sigmund Freud
L'Amour Fou (Mad Love) - Andre Breton
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
The Glass Key - Dashiell Hammett
Peter Ibbetson - George Du Maurier

L'Arrache Cœur (Heartsnatcher)Back to top

The fourth and final novel in Alistair Rolls' study is another that has been translated by Stanley Chapman. It features a foreword by John Sturrock, another translator of L'Écume.

In the foreword Sturrock writes:

Heartsnatcher is unlike his earlier novels; it is equally as inventive as they are, being set in a by no means natural landscape, it has some charming absurdities in it, but the mood is more sombre. Vian knew all his adult life that he might die at any moment, and though he lived with a splendid, indeed a famous insouciance, the thought of his early death could also oppress him. The very title of what is his most reflective novel incriminates that organ whose debility threatened him, and the themes which darken the story have to do with cruelty, with solitariness and with the curbing of our vitality by those who have power over us. The obsessive young mother, Clementine, is a worrying character and the effects of her obsession are bleak. This, then, is the most thought-out of Boris Vian's fantasies, a deeper book than the others, strange in the psychopathology into which it delves. its translator, Stanley Chapman once again, has made what is called a 'free' translation, and very rightly so, for once; because it is no good merely reproducing French like Vian's as best you can, you have to try and do a Vian in English, to make words up, to invent. Mr Chapman has done a supremely good Vian here.

This readiing of Heartsnatcher is predominantly autobiographical. Rolls prefers to see the novel as primarily a vehicle for the reappearance of other characters in the four novels towards a resolution informed by Vian's literary interests and explorations.

It does appear however that Vian was writing from his life, or at least his reflections upon it.

In a letter to Ursula Kübler the author commented on Gallimard's refusal [to publish Heartsnatcher], in part as follows:

"They are a terrible bunch; I am turned down because I am told that I can do much better things. It's very nice, but imagine [their hypocrisy and also what this does to me]. They all want to finish me. I cannot be angry at them, I know that it is difficult to read; but it is the very fabric [of the novel] which appears to them manufactured. It's funny, when I write jokes, they appear sincere; and when I write something that is true, they think that I am kidding.

Cismaru explains the genesis of the book.

The conception of the story goes back to 1947 when Vian wrote in his unpublished notes: "Novel. Mother and her children, starts by letting them go because when they are small she does not need anything to hold on to them, they return naturally. As their personalities are developed, she imprisons them more and more and will end up locking them in cages.... She is like all mothers, her face is beyond description. She ties them, when they are small, with cords which penetrate their flesh. She calls on a doctor to find out how this can be done better."

Rolls advances some insights into just how Vian arrived at the mechanisms for communicating his ideas.

He cites Hervé Bazin's Vipère au poing as being a source of Clementine as a character. He also suggests that Simone de Beauvoir - a friend of the Vians - contributes a framework for Clementine's character in The Second Sex. Other sources include:

Future Eve - Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
Les Mouches (The Flies) - Sartre
Saint Glinglin - Raymond Queneau
La Maison de retour écœurant - Pierre Mac Orlan
A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes
Look Homeward, Angel - Thomas Wolfe

The main emphasis of the final chapter is not however the intertexts but instead the intratextual links between this novel and the preceeding three.

Wolf in particular crosses over from a previous novel, to become Jacquemort in Heartsnatcher.

Angel (who was Angel/Anne in Autumn in Peking) is the central male character of Heartsnatcher.

Alise is claimed to make a final appearance, but the evidence is not overwhelming.

More convincing is the argument that Angel, in leaving this book, returns to the froth, the sea foam, from which the daydream of the first novel was created.

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