|John Sturrock's Introduction to Chapman's Heatrsnatcher (L'Arrache Coeur)|
|Boris Vian is a delight twice over: he is a delight to read and a delight to read about, because he lived his much-too-short life with the same openness, levity and cheerful insolence as you will find everywhere in his writing.|
The French as we know look up to Writers, who in Paris can be heroes; but Boris Vian refused to be looked up to, or to be stintingly 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. As a student at the end of the thirties he was meant for an engineer, and he eventually had two jobs as such, but they bored him definitively; his was an anarchic spirit, not cut out for work in offices or for regularity of any kind. Engineering turned from a profession for him into an amusement; he kept it up as a lover of old cars, as an inspired DIY man, and as the inventor of technological whimsies such as an elastic wheel. Work was all right only so long as it was not like work, when it was not too serious and not all the time.
Once he had become an ex-engineer Vian led any number of lives, as journalist, as writer, as jazz musician and publicist, as man about St Germain-des-Pres - as the prime mover indeed of that epically stirring quarter of left-bank Paris in the years immediately after the Second World War. The Liberation of France in 1944-5 brought with it the happy liberation of Boris Vian. He was twenty-four years old when the German occupiers were removed from Paris and how the sudden euphoria of that longed-for moment suited him. He already had strong American tastes, in movies, in crime writing, in SF, and in jazz, which now took off in France on a postwar wave of philo-Americanism. Vian was a fine trumpet player, in a style modelled on that of Bix Beiderbecke, and the groups he played with, amateur though they stayed, were the traddest and hottest in France. He played jazz and he promoted it. When its giants came across to Paris - Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker - Boris Vian was their host and their friend on the left bank. But there was more than jazz to postwar St Germain, because its charismatic caves or underground nightclubs were where new ideas too got aired, the new doctrine of Existentialism first and foremost, with whose twin popes, Albert Camus and jean-Paul Sartre, Vian also mixed. Camus, he found, could be stuffy and Vian preferred the boisterously convivial Sartre, but only as a fellow cave-dweller, never as a thinker - Existentialism was too abstract and overblown a philosophy for his materialistic tastes; indeed, Sartre's crushing masterwork, (Being and Nothingness, no less) is cut punningly down to size in one of Vian's novels as Neon Letters, a treatise no longer concerned with life, death and the universe, but with illuminated street-signs.
Vian's own writings were intended to amuse, not to browbeat. Their manner is that of the 'surprise-parties' (they were known in France by the English term) which he loved giving and loved going to when others gave them, unscripted gatherings where convention gave way hilariously to invention, and the more wayward the invention the better. He wrote a lot: journalism - he even had a column in Sartre's earnest philosophical monthly, Les Temps Modernes, under the byline of 'The Liar'- poems, stories, scenarios for films and for operas, translations from English, six novels, and three and a half plays (one was very short), not to mention his songs, anything up to four hundred of them his bibliographers reckon, written often to order and in a few minutes only, with a wit and facility that were the wonder of the trade. Vian couldn't sing but he went on stage just the same and sang them himself; one in particular got him into trouble, 'The Deserter', an angry make-love-not-war song which he performed during the emotional days of France's war in Algeria, when there was a good chance of his being beaten up or even killed by colonialist bullies.
Yet when he died, in 1959, Boris Vian's diverse and delectable works seemed to have died with him, the novels especially, which had been published by small, commercially pinched houses in the late forties and early fifties and had flopped, selling mere hundreds of copies. If he was known at all as a writer, ironically, it was for something which he had written under an assumed name, and not even an assumed French name; disguised as the 'translator' of a new American writer called Vernon Sullivan he had published four outrageously tough, full-frontal crime stories. The first of them, J'irai cracher sur vos tombes ('I'll go spit on your graves'), took him a fortnight to write, sold by the tens of thousands and was found to be too tough and too full-frontal by some: Vernon Sullivan was sued for indecency. The case went on for six years, there were fines, a ban, and then at the end an amnesty. Out of it Vian got a certain fame and full opportunity to establish his credentials in public as the most amusing, waspish and convinced of the new libertarians. Jirai cracher served him well but it may also, grotesquely, have helped to bring about his death. He died suddenly on a June morning, in a Paris cinema, watching the preview of a screen version of the book, a version he had refused to help with and which he did not expect to like. The heart weakness that he had lived with since early adolescence had finally killed him, at the age of thirty-nine.
A year or two later, Boris Vian began to be truly famous, when his friends got his novels published for a second time in new, and this time visible editions, and they were taken up in a huge way by the young. Vian had written the books when he was himself very young, all but one of them before he was thirty, and they are the purest celebrations of youthfulness, presented by him as an age of caprice, of imagination, of honest friendship and of an easy carnality. His new 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. By the mid-1960s, Vian was a bestseller and was being translated in other countries; his most endearing and accomplished novel, L'Ecume des jours, was racing towards a sale of a million copies, and actually appeared twice in English, translated once by Stanley Chapman as Froth on the Daydream and simultaneously, less well I have to admit, by myself, as Mood Indigo. And of course when May 1968 arrived, with its benign if hopeless insistence that Imagination take power in France, Vian did better still, he was the very prophet the gallantly fantasizing students needed.
As a novelist he is funny, but not altogether funny, because sad things too happen in his books. In L'Ecume des jours young love is horribly blighted, by a strange, encroaching disease which smothers the innocent girl. And in the same novel there is another macabre invention, an arrache-coeur or 'heartsnatcher', an implement with which that traditional seat of our emotions can be gorily extracted - one victim of it is a philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre. Whence the title for this, Boris Vian's last book, published when he was thirty-three and starting to take himself more seriously as a writer. 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. - John Sturrock