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Boris Vian: Cultural Pariah, Swingin’ Dilletante, or Iconoclastic Pataphysician?

Bart Plantagena reviews I Spit On Your Graves, Boris Vian, TamTam Books, 1999 ISBN 0-9662346-0-X, Translated from the French by Boris Vian & Milton Rosenthal 200 pp. $17.00 and From Dreams to Despair: Integrated Reading of the Novels of Boris Vian, J.K.L. Scott, Rodopi BV Editions, Amsterdam, 1998, ISBN 90-420-0310-3, pp. 304, $40

War’s a grotesque thing ... and those, who are amused by it believe that they’re, in general, entitled to extend it so that it should incorporate those who are not amused by it. ... That’s why, in the reduced measure in which something written, and therefore artificial, can have any effect, I have tried to react against it ..." - Boris Vian

"In his attacks on the keystones of his society, Vian is one of the great iconoclasts, and more than that, one of the great comic iconoclasts." - J.K.L. Scott

Death’s Punchline
Spit Shine Fine
Spit’s Buzz and Fuss
Dreams & Despair Up Close
Posthumous Career
War of the Words
Avant Cool
Getting Pataphysical
Selectetd Vian Resources

Death’s PunchlineBack to top

On the morning of June 23, 1959 Vian sank nervously down into his seat in the stuffy Cinema Marbeuf as he awaited the private screening of the film version of his controversial novel, J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes (I Spit On Your Graves). He’d already denounced it, had already fought so much with the producers over their treatment versus his that he was ready to remove his name from the credits. He’d also "forgotten" to take his heart medicine that morning. The curtains parted and ten minutes after the first images flickered across the screen he reportedly blurted, "These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!" At 10:10 AM he collapsed into his seat and died of a heart attack en route to the hospital. The horror of coming face-to-face with his own Frankenstein literally may have killed him.

So when Vian, early in his life, declared he’d never live to age 40, his death at age 39 seemed prophetic. Although given his medical history -- rheumatic and typhoid fever -- the prediction wasn’t altogether prescient. The end of his short life had been a long time coming. Twelve years earlier doctors had urged him to give up his beloved trumpet and jazzy lifestyle. In 1956 he had a stroke but by 1959 he’d stopped fretting about his heart, denying he even had the chronic heart problems that had dogged him his entire life. So it was then: fragile body betrays implacable soul.

Vian had created so much, so fast, and "pseudonymbly and nomdepluminously aliassisted ... in composing explosive spirals of nitroglycerincognitro," wrote Raymond Queneau, author of Zazie Dans Le Metro, in 1953 and when he wrote, "Boris Vian is just setting out on the road to becoming Boris Vian," he had no idea how short Vian’s road was to be or how fast Vian would travel down it and how right he’d be because serious interest in Vian would only blossom some 10 years after his death.

Like compatriot-protegé, Serge Gainsbourg, Vian’s career would be jettisoned into the world of scandal by one work. And to think he began writing in 1941 just to amuse his first wife, Michelle Léglise. But as Queneau emphasized, "that’s far from being the whole story."

Spit Shine FineBack to top

Without a doubt I Spit On Your Graves is among the great literary hoaxes of our time -- or any time. The novel which borders on trash while fondling literature and winking at pornography began inconspicuously in 1946 when Vian claimed he’d translated the perfect book to launch friend Jean d’Halluin’s new publishing house, Editions du Scorpion with a bang.

Little did Halluin know how big that bang was to be. Because, instead of finding a writer, Vian, during a vacation in Vendée in August 1946, had written a novel in two weeks (certainly rivaling the spontaneous-prose-roll-of-paper myth of Kerouac’s On The Road.)

But instead of signing his name, he used a pseudonym, Vernon Sullivan (an homage fusing the name of fellow jazz bandmate, Paul Vernon, to that of jazz pianist Joe Sullivan). In his preface Vian claimed he’d discovered and translated a book by a controversial, under-appreciated black American author who was allegedly banned in America. According to critic, J.K.L. Scott, in his recent study on Vian’s novels, From Dreams To Despair, Vian claimed Sullivan was exiled in France, due to racial prejudice and the book’s incendiary subject matter -- racism, graphic sex, and black-on-white murder. The book’s themes defined the psychogeography of America’s South -- the cheap sentiments of over-wrought Tobacco Road pulp fictions plus the lynching of thousands of blacks in the years after the Civil War. Lynching represents classic wartime behavior -- humiliation and emasculation through rape and hanging where the genitals of the hanged were often mutilated. In part Vian’s sense of injustice -- like Dylan’s -- was fed by articles like ones that detailed the lynching of Emmit Till for whistling at a white girl or how jazz men pretend to be white to get by.

It didn’t take long for the publicist’s dream to roll out the red carpet. In early 1947, as if part of the plot, Vian’s book was denounced by a moral watchdog. Daniel Parker was the head of the Cartel d’Action Sociale et Morale, ancient Gallic predecessor of Falwell’s Moral Majority which had already reaped some sour fruits by having Henry Miller’s books banned. They were suitably outraged by Spit with its salacious pre-splatter-punk fusion of murder, revenge, and sexual arousal. The more Parker fulminated against Spit however, the more it became France’s most talked about novel of 1947. People bought it to see for themselves. The conflict eventually escalated into a full-blown court case with Vian escaping a fine on a technicality.

Vian wasted no time employing one of his typical tongue-in-cheek acts of "minor revenge" [Scott]. Daniel Parker emerged as the main character in Vian’s next novel Les Morts Ont Tous la Même Peau (The Dead All Have the Same Skin Color), one of three Vian novels to appear in 1947. In it Parker’s a white guy who looks black who’s married to a white woman and lives a caucasian lifestyle until a black "brother" threatens to expose Parker as half black. Enraged, Parker visits his "brother’s" house, rapes his mistress and a black woman in front of the drunk "brother" before killing him. After learning that this "brother" had lied and that his wife now despises him, he commits suicide.

But the dust hadn’t quite settled on some forgotten shelf of remaindered Vian books, when in February 1947, in a small Montparnasse hotel, a young salesman strangled his mistress, leaving behind a copy of Spit opened to a circled passage -- "I again felt that strange sensation that ran up my back as my hand closed on her throat and I couldn’t stop myself; it came; it was so strong that I let her go ..."

This, of course, predates the controversy surrounding Catcher In The Rye which Mark David Chapman claimed as his template for killing Lennon. Or the countless times rock’n’roll and Hollywood -- recently, The Basketball Diaries -- have been blamed for inciting senseless killing. Never mind Marilyn Manson; what about all the times the Bible has become a sociopath’s moral manual for murder?!

Notoriety only boosted sales. It was reprinted in 1950, and eventually sold over 500,000 copies, incredible numbers for any book in any time, and it is still selling as we reach the period at the end of this sentence. Vian earned some four years worth of income from it and with it freedom.

To "prove" that Vernon Sullivan was real and deflect further attention, Vian even collaborated on an English-language version of J’Irai with Milton Rosenthal. This strategy failed -- the tongue was out of the cheek. Parker, encouraged by the "copycat" murder, again prosecuted the "translator," (the author was nowhere to be found and remained an enigma for some time) for translating "objectionable foreign literature." Parker eventually triumphed and had Spit declared an affront to public morals. In the summer of 1950 the French government officially banned further sales and in 1951 Vian was fined 100,000 francs. And now some 49 years later we have the English-version from TamTam Boooks.

Spit’s Buzz and FussBack to top

What was the fuss? After all, Spit’s basic story is simple, although Vian did send the thriller through a few post-modern loops. Lee Anderson, is set up to manage a bookstore in a small town by a friend of his brother’s, presumably, to help him chill out after the horrific lynching of his brother. Life in Buckton is quaint, cute even. Vian sets right to punning -- ‘buck" being slang for an impetuous youth with Southern sexual undertones. Nearby lies Prixville -- wink-wink -- need we say more? Anderson’s bookstore job is a breeze; he skims new books, reads blurbs and can sound informed enough to sell them in no time. This affords Vian opportunities to hurl barbs at the gimmick-mongering publishing world which pushes inconsequential books that no one cares about.

Anderson plays the ingratiation game in Buckton, even goes to church but finds it boring playing upstanding citizen. He discovers what passes for Buckton’s teen demi-monde -- sex, drinking, skinnydipping, carrying on like rebels without causes, free and easy -- by page 15, Anderson’s already fixated on a teen’s breasts. "Probably firm to the touch, like ripe plums."

They’re all some years younger and less worldly than Anderson. He sings, knows jazz, plays guitar, has wheels (albeit a Nash). He soon has the town’s youth eating out of his hand or, rather, drinking from his bottomless whiskey flask. It’s all absurdly easy plunging into the moist panties of the local attention-starved chicks who have the modesty of "monkeys in rut." His presence oozes a certain blond prowess with his "drooping shoulders [of] a colored prizefighter." His mystique leaves the local "neither male nor female" boys "as dumb as [he] could hope for" and the attractive but "greedy, chattering, vicious" girls in his thrall.

This backwater idyll begins to sizzle after he meets the two Asquith sisters, daughters of a sugar plantation owner. Partaking of these local fruits leads to revelations of casual racism. But, as James Campbell in Paris Interzone, rightly points out: "Like Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s novel Light in August, Lee is light enough to pass for white." (Ironically, it was the admiring French in the 1950s who taught America what a literary giant Faulkner truly was).

Anderson can survive, even thrive here if he so desires. But he has other objectives. The more racism he witnesses the more it incites his own hostilities which, once pressed into the service of his (sociopathic) vindictiveness, evolves into full-blown obsession. Anderson (and Vian) dress up this vengeful obsession as mission, as destiny and sutures it to matters of social justice. Sociopathy blurred by social justification not unlike Travis Bickle in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver.

The easy life of drink and poontang takes a sinister turn as Anderson sets out to fuck the two sisters, conquer them, make them jealous of one another, and finally humiliate them in preparation for their savage, sexually-depraved murders and, in some self-deluded twist of logic, to avenge his brother’s lynching.

Vian forces a cognitive dissonant crisis in the reader: Our hearts go out to Anderson at the same instant he begins to stomp on them and abuse our To Kill A Mockingbird sympathies. Vian refuses to let Anderson act heroically as social agent of humane resolution -- there will be no morally uplifting ending as Anderson turns into a brutal, soulless killing machine. This tongue-twisted-in-cheek "homage" scandalizes by pushing and wringing the already wellworn envelope of socially-accepted taste. Since Vian’s time, it’s become a clichéd entertainment escape clause -- the criticizing-via-satirizing by utilizing absurdly hyperbolic levels violence (Ellis’ American Psycho, Peckinpah’s ballets of elegant gore, or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). Or look at Spit’s strategic moral precursors -- over-the-top revenge dramas with no obvious morally uplifting message -- as Scott points out, we’re talking Shakespeare, man!

Anderson is eventually tracked down and, as Scott astutely notes: "the power accorded to him by his status as narrator vanishes, and we are at last able to pity him." He’s shot and then lynched. Absurd redundancy? No, Vian’s flipping everyone (critics, readers and moralists alike) the bloody bird: Although already dead "the townspeople hanged him anyway because he was a nigger. Under his trousers, his crotch still protruded ridiculously."

This ending is cum-pie in the face of Jesse Helms-style mendacious moralists and art-farty keepers of the cultural flame while highlighting deep-seated mythopoeic fears that you can kill a "nigger" but his erection will never go away. It rides the angry undertow of ever-more deep-seated and poorly articulated dissatisfactions which need ever more hyperreal outlets. The recent conviction of two Texans for dragging a black man from their truck bumper to his death and the racial inequities of the death penalty reassures us that whatever tastes Vian purposely transgresses are daily transgressed by real dramas of law and gore.

Between laughs -- Spit’s funnier than we’re allowed to admit and we laugh the way we laugh at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- we re-examine why we’re laughing at this American thriller homage, overloaded as it is with a pastiche of jokes, clunky B-movie tropes, sex, puns and send-ups. He foregoes as-is reality mirrors for an amplified view of man’s hidden, inescapably corrupt being, pushing our faces into perpetually unresolved modern issues: race, gender, violence and depicted violence as incitement. Gaping wounds that refuse to heal. But by book’s end Vian’s relentless nihilistic misanthropy becomes a kind of inverted idealism, negations of the negative becoming a positive.

Dreams & Despair Up CloseBack to top

J.K.L. Scott’s From Dreams to Despair is a meticulous bookworm’s textual analysis of Vian’s novels. It attempts to "read" Vian’s life through a close reading of his novels. This commendable effort cobbled together with perspiration/admiration is, however, like any travel guide, best called upon as one journeys through Vian’s own writings.

Scott’s analysis distills the myth of Vian’s fictions from the fictions of his myth, offering interesting insights, as well as the peculiar reproduction of mystifying scientific-looking graphs, structural maps and flow charts which purport "to consider his present critical and popular standing" more graphically. Scott does this by proposing "that within this wide span of writing there are certain structural, narrative and linguistic elements which tie all the works into an integrated whole" and that despite his ecclectic diversity, Vian’s aims remained true and focused throughout his career. Scott makes good reflexive use of popular culture comparisons to clears away the bull around the half/un-truths to debunk each of the many Vian myths: he wasn’t the "privileged child of wealthy parents" nor a collaborator’s son, nor a mere "dilletante whose literary works were mere occasional diversions," nor a "pornographer and literary fraud."

Scott stumbles only when he tries to "understand" Vian’s "sexism," especially the most trenchantly transgressive of Vian’s near-pornographic excesses. But he cannot; instead he offers a moral molehill of prudish platitudes -- "utterly repugnant," "resolutely non-erotic" -- even quoting Andrea Dworkin(!) as he temporarily loses sight of Vian’s inveterate teasing, satirical use of clichés and his rapscallion lampoonings in the traditions of Swift, Vonnegut, and Rabelais, the very "guying" of the audience Scott seems so titillated by.

Posthumous CareerBack to top

Vian’s legacy? Inspiration can be found both in the work and lifestyle of this multi-tentacled, multi-talented culti-vore. "Boris Vian refused to ... be ... typecast as a writer. Be a specialist in everything, that was what he advised, and he had himself the zest and variety of mind to be a specialist in extraordinarily many things," critic John Sturrock notes in his introduction to Vian’s Heartsnatcher. His poetry, music, art, inventions, lyrics, and his avowedly contrarian DISengagé novels hoed a different field in a time when Sartre and DeGaulle defined the zeitgeist. His work, as Scott notes, "eventually makes the strong bold leap to a non-nationalistic, non-denominational denunciation of the butchery of modern warfare" which in turn determined his eventual triumphant ascent.

Vian, always conscious of time’s narrow corridor, threw himself into everything, sleeping less and less to find more and more time to create. As a critic, he tirelessly promoted others like Gainsbourg or Jacques Prévert, and, despite his frail constitution, became the prime mover (trumpeter/mc) in St. Germain-des-Pres’ jazz scene. He held court in the caves and cafés where philosophy and poetry ignited the bushy brows of its bohemian denizens. He befriended Sartre, De Beauvoir and Queneau. Although he despised the pretentious excretions of existentialism, Sartre championed Vian who wrote a regular column of eclectic pieces in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, as "The Liar." He even mocked Sartre in L'Ecume Des Jours as Jean Sol-Partre whose novel Neon Letters is no longer concerned with life and death and meaning but with commercial neon signs.

Yet, after Spit there was almost "no critical or popular acclaim," Scott notes. "Vian’s versatility as a writer worked against him." Vian was still translating the works of others -- Algren, Chandler, and Richard Wright -- as death approached. When he died in 1959, Boris Vian’s works seemed to die with him. "He was regarded as a disreputable, if not scandalous figure by his contemporary audience..." [Scott] Most of his novels were out of print and he’d written so much that much of it -- his anti-military plays -- was only published posthumously.

In the 1960s Boris Vian finally found renown -- that cruel and all too common posthumous fame. Friends got his novels (re)published which were taken up in a huge way by the young. They offered a pained celebration of youth [like Catcher or Tom Sawyer], which he presented as an age of caprice, imagination, insouciance, resistance, and easy sex. Young readers "found them irresistible, not least because they are beautifully literate without being literary, full of small verbal jokes and surprises, and in their casualness just the sort of reading-matter we need to work our release from the solemnities of a literary education," writes Sturrock. L'Ecume sold a million copies in both French and English. Ironically, this appreciation came during 1968 when the disengagé Vian, who’d always avoided political polemic, became hip, even engagé, with the youth who were treading the joys and limits of total autonomy. "Students found in Vian," Scott notes, "a world view which was the antithesis of establishment values in its anti-militarism, debunking of authority and fantasy ..." His career took off -- as much as a career can take off after one’s death -- and he’s since become one of this century’s most renowned writers -- except in America and Britain.

War of the WordsBack to top

Vian was ahead of what little time he had even when it came to that dubious genre, anti-war singer-songwriter. In 1954, facing numerous failures, Scott asserts, Vian "performed an astonishing volte-face; he became a singer-songwriter." Vian wrote some 400 songs, many -- boom -- on a cocktail napkin, in a frenzy. His most famous, "Le Deserteur," ironically, was criticized from a totally different angle -- before he wasn’t political enough, and suddenly he became too political. Sung in an intense tinny voice, buzzsawing precariously between jazz rhythms and word-driven French chansons, it’s an anti-war song about the dignified gesture of desertion, certainly a dangerous notion during the troublesome Algerian conflict. "Deserteur" was consistently interrupted by loyalist protesters. It was forbidden to broadcast or publicly perform the song at the time, but after his death it became an (inter)national success.

"The day when no one will return from war will mark the first well-made war. On that day we shall notice that all abortive attempts which had been made at peace had been until then the work of amateurs." Vian contemptuously turned his back on WWII by playing jazz and participating in a series of wild conceptual "surprise parties." These were noble, trivial festivities which reoriented participants away from war and toward notions of play as valid reality and imagination conquers war, a diversion that recuperated a semblance of the carefree teen years they were entitled to but that adults would deprive them of. For me they serve as precursor of the Situationist dérive because they were "unscripted gatherings where convention gave way hilariously to invention, and the more wayward the invention the better") [Sturrock].

Vian’s fictional character, Le Major -- part Lucky Jim, part Neal Cassady -- figures heavily in the parties and Vian’s early novels. He’s based on friend, Jacques Loustalot, whose antics were legendary: at parties Loustalot leaped out windows, popped out his glass eye and swallowed it and once protested the bad records spinning by swallowing a box of phonograph needles. His zany style allowed Vian to blur the boundaries between real life and fictional effect and allowed the characters in his ten novels to step beyond mere realist survival into inspired lunacy. His books, Scott notes, are not "biography, but allegory; while rooted in the specific circumstances of their author’s life and times, they go beyond this into a vision of the world ..."

Mid-WWII, Vian and friends also created an aeronautics club dedicated to bizarre, cosmic kites whose glories would be exhibited in a park in St. Cloud, exemplifying Vian’s important contribution -- the fusion of Gandhian pacifism with teenage insouciance.

Vian was also a jazz "zazou." Zazous danced away the heartache in the face of national wartime dance prohibitions, had no politics -- not unlike British mods or disco-nauts or zoot suiters or beer punks -- and no rites other than their liberational devotion to jazz and their "right" to a good life. "There’s only two things" Vian wrote in L’Ecume, "love ... and ... Duke Ellington’s music." This became, Scott notes, Vian’s credo of "exemplifying everything the establishment regarded as frivolous and decadent."

His father died under mysterious circumstances in 1944, either executed by the Resistance for being a suspected collaborator with a bullet to the head, or killed by a robber in their house. The truth was less important than appearances however, because, as Scott insists, "Such a killing would have been tantamount to proof of collaboration."

In any case, it left its mark; the indifferent Vian became vehemently anti-war and wrote extensively about the insane roots of war: "War’s a social phenomenon of capital interest because all those who engage in it may earn a pure and complete objectification and thus reach the corpse state ... but war does not provide a solution because often one is not killed." His dismissal of religion is best illustrated in "L’Ecume where two workmen play hopscotch with the figure of Christ taken from a crucifix ..." [Scott]

Avant CoolBack to top

Vian heard Duke Ellington play Paris in 1937. It inspired him to take up the trumpet. He became a good Bix Beiderbecke-styled trumpeter. At 22, he was performing with the Claude Abadie Orchestra and emceeing in St.Germain-de-Pres as its "uncrowned king" [Scott].

After WWII, Vian brought jazz to Paris. When Miles Davis, Ellington (godfather to Vian’s daughter), and Charlie Parker came to Paris, Vian served as host-friend-accompanist, zealously promoting their sound.

Getting PataphysicalBack to top

In 1946, Vian quit his engineering job because, as Sturrock notes, "his was an anarchic spirit, not cut out for work in offices or for regularity of any kind." He prefered engineering as a hobby -- eventually designing such whimsical gadgets as an elastic wheel.

In 1952, Vian joined the College of Pataphysicians, which Scott notes, was his only membership to a group because "this society is in itself a parody of a society." Other members included film director-poet René Clair, Queneau, Prévert, and Ionesco. They celebrated the works of Alfred Jarry, precursor of surrealism and absurdism, who detailed his theories of pataphysics in The Adventures of Dr Faustroll. Pataphysics tapped the positive speculative transformation found in the imagination: "Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions..." Jarry explained, "and will describe a universe which can be -- and perhaps should be -- envisaged in the place of the traditional one..." In other words, liberation through imagination.

They held absurd honors ceremonies with strange decorations and silly titles while engaging in "the earnest scientific discussion of stupid ideas, such as the traversing of Paris by means of ‘land tides’ in a boat made from a material composed of millions of small holes." [Sturrock] Vian as Transcendent Satrap was in charge of the Extraordinary Commission on Clothing.

Vian in his short life strived to convey delight in language’s capacity to present imaginary worlds more real and telling than ordinary life. A strange amalgam of absurdity, play, and invention, that oozed autonomy, kinesis, adventure, notoriety, and demi-monde glamour which could all be loosely floated atop an inveterate pataphysical sense of anarchy, a healthy mistrust of science as religion, religion as truth and militarism as inevitable. The fact that he is still "suceeding" some 40 years after his death is a testament to his legacy.

Selectetd Vian ResourcesBack to top

Fondation Boris Vian, 6 bis, Cité Veron, 75018 Paris
Round About Close To Midnight: The Jazz Writings of Boris Vian, translated by Mike Zwerin, Quartet Books, London, 1988.
Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian and other on the Left Bank, 1946-1960, James Campbell, Secker & Warburg, London, 1994.
Boris Vian by Philippe Boggio, Flammarion, Paris. Fisher recommends this biography. In French.
Boris Vian et Ses Interpretes 2-CD collection, Polygram Records, 1991, ISBN 845 918-2.

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