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Trail: BorisVian

BorisVian

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http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/bvian.htm
French novelist and playwright, a jazz connoisseur and critic, Dixieland trumpeters, and author of more than 400 songs. As a writer Boris Vian is perhaps best remembered for his novels L’écume des jours (1947) and J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946, I Shall Spit on Your Graves). Vian’s collected works amount to more than 50 vols. He died in a Parisian cinema at the age of 39 while watching a preview of the film I’ll Spit on Your Graves. It was a story of an American black named Lee Anderson on the run. He has avenged the lynching of his younger, darker brother by raping and killing white girls. He is caught, and hanged, his sex, according to Vian, mocking his murderers to the last.

“What informs Vian’s book, however, is not sexual fantasy, but rage and pain: that rage and pain which Vian (almost alone) was able to hear in the black American musicians, in the bars, dives, and cellars, of the Paris of those years... Vian would have known something of this from Faulkner, and from Richard Wright, and from Chester Himes, but he heard it in the music, and, indeed, he saw it in the streets.” (James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work, 1976)

Boris Vian was born at Ville d’Avray into a wealthy family. At the age of 12 Vian developed rheumatic fever and later he contracted typhoid which left him with an enlarged heart. However, it did not prevent him from pouring his energy into a number of artistic projects later in his life. Vian was first educated at home. At the age of 17 he learnt trumpet after seeing Duke Ellinton play. He studied philosophy at the Versailles lycée, and excelled in mathematics at the Lycée Condorcet, receiving a civil engineering diploma in 1942. During the 1940s he was employed for a time by the French Association for Standardization, a bureaucracy, which Vian satirized in his first novel, Vercoquin et le plancton. It was written in 1943, but published in 1946. After the war he played trumpet in the Left Bank caves, write several hundred songs, mader a reputation as a cabaret singer, and wrote reviews for the magazine Le Jazz-Hot. Among his most beautiful songs is the pacifist ‘Le déserteur’ (1955), about the Algerian war. It sold thousands of records, outraged the French patriots, and was banned. Vian also acted small parts in films and wrote film scenarios. In 1958, he and the director Louis Malle persuaded Miles Davis to play the music for Malle’s film Lift to the Scaffold.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes was written in ten days in 1946 under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. Vian had made a wager that he can compose a best-seller novel, and when a copy of the book was found in the hotel room of a murder victim, it gained a success beyond anyone’s expectations. “Vian’s book has a certain weary, mysogynistic humor - the chicks fuck like rabbits, or minks, and our hero gets a certain charge, or arrives at the mercy of a nearly unbearable ecstasy, out of his private knowledge that they are being fucked by a nigger: he is committing the crime for which his brother was murdered, he is fucking these cunts with his brother’s prick. And he comes three times, so to speak, each time he comes, once for his brother, and once for the “little death” of the orgasms to which he always brings the ladies, and uncontrollably, for the real death to which he is determined to bring them.” (James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work) The book sold 100,000 copies before it was banned - Vian was fined 100,000 francs. American hard-boiled fiction was familiar for Via - he translated from Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Other writers included Nelson Algren, Strindberg, Pirandello, and Brendan Behan, and from the field of science fiction A.E. van Vogt, William Tenn, Henry Kuttner, and Ray Bradbury. New Sullivans followed in 1947 and 1948. At the same time Vian produced more or less serious novels, plays and poems. A short opera, Fiesta, written for Darius Milhaud, was performed in Berlin in 1948.

In the preface of L’écume des jours (1947) Vian wrote - echoing in his uncompromising tone Voltaire: “There are only two things: love, all sorts of love, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans ot Duke Ellington. Everything else ought to go because everything else is ugly.” In America its 1968 translation, Mood Indigo, referred to Duke Ellington’s famous composition. The tale of amour fou (‘mad love’) was set in the world where all material is organic, an eel sucks pineapple flavored toothpaste through the cold water tap, and elephants walk on the streets. Vian used deliberately naïve style with surrealistic images. The protagonist, Colin, is a rich young man, who is surrounded by his intellectual friends, one of whom is obsessed with the philosopher Jean Pulse Hearthe. Colin meets a pretty girl, Chloé. A strange illness is eating her away. “The corridor door would not open. All that was left was a narrow space leading to Chloé’s bedroom from the entrance. Isis went first, and Nicholas followed her. He seemed stunned. Something bulged inside his jacked and from time to time he put his hand on his chest. Isis looked at the bed before she went into the room. Chloé was still surrounded by flowers. Her hands, stretched out on the blankets, were hardly able to hold the big white orchid that was in them. It looked grey by the side of her diaphanous skin.” A mysterious water-lily grows inside Chloé’s chest, Colin gives her more flowers, and she dies. Chloé is buried in a pauper’s grave, and the verger and pallbearers dance away.

Vian’s avant-garde plays had much connections to the theater of absurd. L’équarissage pour tous, written in 1946, was a “paramilitary vaudeville in one long act.” It was set in a Normandy knacker’s yard, and depicted farcical marriage problems of a family on D-Day. The place is destroyed by wartime allies, the Free French, and other military personel. Les Bâtisseurs d’Empire ou le Schmurz (1959) was about a bourgeois family whose new apartment is invaded by a terrifying noise. The play was staged in England in 1962 and in New York in 1968. The General’s Teatime was first presented in France seven years after Vian’s death. It portrayed war as a “nursery tea-party,” and mocked military leaders, church and the government. The play was inspired by General Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story which Vian translated into French.

Several of Vian’s books reflected his interest in science fiction, although sf made up only a small part of his activities. In Vercoquin et le plancton joys of life are threatened by standardization, represented by the Association Française de Normalisation. L’Automne à Pékin (1947) was a desert utopia, set in the imaginary land of Exopotamia, where a pointless railway is constructed. L’herbe rouge (1950) was a time-machine story, in which one character is haunted by a double.

Vian’s first marriage, to Michèle Léglise, ended in 1952 in divorce, and two years later he married Ursula Kübler, a Swiss dancer. Although Vian was not taken seriously as a writer during his life time, he was a famous personality among the existentialist and post-surrealistic circles of Paris. In 1952 he was inducted as a Transcendent Satrap of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, an unconventional literary association founded to perpetuate the memory of Alfred Jarry. On June 23, 1959, the poorly made film version of I’ll Spit on Your Graves finished Vian accrording to Louis Malle: “I’ve always thought that Boris died of shame from having seen what they’d done to his book. Like anything else, the cinema can kill.”

For further reading: Boris Vian by D. Noakes (1964); Boris Vian: La Poursuite de la vie Totale by H. Baudin (1966); Boris Vian by J. Clouzet (1966); Boris Vian by M. Rybalka (1969); Les Vies parallèles de Boris Vian by N. Arnaud (1970) - For further information: Hommage à Boris Vian; Boris Vian; Boris Vian

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