Mood Indigo: Boris Vian, surrealist


This podcast is presented and produced by Kieron Yates.

Although he’s one of France’s most widely read and popular authors of the twentieth century, Boris Vian has never won the international recognition gained by friends and contemporaries such as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Kieron Yates talks to Alistair Rolls, Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle, Australia about the life and work of Boris Vian

Even within France, apart from a few doctoral studies, Vian’s work has remained outside the consideration of academia and to some degree is still frowned upon by scholars.

The closest most English speaking audiences will have come to Vian’s work is probably Michel Gondry’s 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which drew inspiration from two of Vian’s novels. More recently Gondry has directed a film of Vian’s most famous book, L’Ecume des Jours. Titled Mood Indigo for English speaking audiences, the film stars Audrey Tautou and gets its US and UK cinema release this summer.

A recent translation of Vian’s poems and short stories – If I say If– published by the University of Adelaide Press, and co-edited by Alistair Rolls means that for the first time all of Vian’s short stories are available in English.

Born in 1920 at Ville D’Avray, a bourgeois town on the western edge of Paris, Boris Vian was raised in a world of imagination fuelled by literature and society games. His parents were well-off and his early life was carefree and comfortable. But, in 1929 the stock-market crash ended the Vian fortune. The Vian’s were forced to move into the caretaker’s cottage of the family home so they could rent out the main house. At the age of twelve Vian was diagnosed with a heart condition that consigned him to his bedroom and to the care of his mother.

Boris’s health improved in his teenage years and he went on to become a brilliant scholar who, reputedly, had read everything.

Alistair Rolls: He was clearly very talented from an early age. One of his next door neighbours as a child was Yehudi Menuhin and Menuhin and he used to play chess together. He was very sharp. He was very mathematically alert… very musically alert early on and he was brought up in a very culturally alert environment so he was exposed early on to opera and all kinds of classical music.

I kept on coming across the expression, “Il a tout lu”…he’s read everything. No one’s read everything. Then the people in the Boris Vian Foundation in Paris took me aside and said , “You have to understand that you know that we publish more now than we used to publish.” So back in the 1920′s it was not possible to read everything but you could give it a damn good shot.

So he had this ongoing heart condition which he had from early on. I think it wasn’t just the heart condition that stifled Vian. It was then people’s reaction to the heart condition notably his mother. So he was certainly over mothered when he was young and I think he rebelled against that. And then you have this overwhelming thesis which is such that Vian killed himself by living. He lived too hard and brought about his own death.

KY:  Boris’s obsession with literature and language led to him cultivating a passion for punning and wordplay. He also began to learn English in his spare time.

Music also played a major role in Boris’s teenage life. At the age of 16 he developed a passion for jazz and went on to become not only a competent trumpeter and band leader but a highly regarded critic and editor for jazz magazines.

In the immediate post-war years Vian could be found in the trendy hotspots of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with other luminaries of the area or simply playing his trumpet in the lively clubs.

MUSIC:  Basin Street Blues – Boris Vian with Radiodifussion France introduction:

It was around this time that Vian’s first literary works began to be published. In 1945 he signed a contract with French publishing house Gallimard and later that year his first novel appeared in bookshops.

In 1946 Vian created a storm and had his first commercial success with J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos TombesI spit on your Graves. Ostensibly a hard-boiled American thriller credited to an unknown African American writer, Vernon Sullivan, with Vian as translator, the book was written as a wager with the the young publisher Jean D’Halluin.

Graphically violent,the story revolves around a light skinned black man,  who acts out an act of revenge against a small Southern town. J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes is now viewed as a parody of the hard-boiled genre but Alistair Rolls sees it as having much deeper resonances.

AR: At the time that was written you have a whole new tradition of French crime fiction which is beginning — something called the Série Noire by a guy called Marcel Duhamel…he was at Gallimard. Basically its always construed as very straightforwardly a case of American fiction, American thrillers, being very, very popular in Paris and so Parisians after the four years of occupation at the hands of the Nazis finally get what they have being crying out for which is these lovely American novels and the translations are the vehicle for them to get their hands on them. Which is a wonderful over-simplification, I think, of what’s happening.In fact you have these novels being translated very cleverly by Duhamel to create an allegory of the French condition in the immediate post-war years. So the Série Noire itself is very much a parody already of crime fiction. It’s a use of crime fiction for a particular end. I think when Vian then gets accused of being simply a parody of the Série Noire, this black series, by creating a black character, I think he’s doing something much more clever and much more reflexive. So he’s actually doing a parody of something that’s already a parody.

The wager is that John D’Halluin is running a publishing house called Scorpion Editions and he wants to set up something to rival these money making classics that are being trundled out by Duhamel at Gallimard. So Vian says, “Well, I’ll write you one.Give me a couple of weeks, and I’ll write you one of these things.” And he goes off to the countryside with his friends and two weeks later produces this text which he says has been written by this black American author called Vernon Sullivan.

What I think is interesting is that James Hadley Chase wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish,which is one of the first novels produced in the Série Noire by Marcel Duhamel and James Hadley Chase, wrote his novel, reputedly again, in about the same time frame as Vian in about two weeks. So there is already this tradition of writing these books very quickly. He’s almost chosen to write his book in exactly the same time frame as the novels he’s apparently parodying.

So one of the ideas is that Vernon Sullivan is just a huge joke and that Vian himself was a joker and a prankster and that somehow the war years are blotted out of Vian’s writing, whereas I think what Vernon Sullivan does is really attune us to the fact that Vian was actually part writing allegorically about the end of the Second World War. I think in L’Ecume des Jours you have a very clear allegory of departure of the German occupying forces from Paris and I think Vernon Sullivan plays in to this.

KY: Before being banned in France for obscenity J’irai Cracher topped the best seller list in Paris and sold around half a million copies. Vian went on to write a further three successful novels under the Vernon Sullivan pen-name. At the same time as the publication of J’irai Cracher the first of Vian’s more literary novels L’Ecume des Jours reached the presses. Although it sold in relatively small numbers it was nominated for the prestigious Prix de la Pléiade. Alistair Rolls considers this to be the first of a quartet of books penned under Vian’s own name that can be linked to form a coherent body of work.

AR: The four novels themselves that he writes…well, my PhD thesis was trying to tie them together to form a tetralogy which I did via the failed love story of the male protagonist of L’Ecume des Jours and the woman he doesn’t fall in love with. I strung those together to make it a coherent series but otherwise those novels have been seen to be quite separate.

So you have L’Ecume des Jours which is the fanciful very word play, very jocular novel with love gone wrong and the creation of this garden of Eden and then the Original Sin and everything going wrong. And then you have a novel called Autumn in Peking where you have this thing set in the desert and my thesis there is its  a Parisian novel. So I think that second one is the most clearly surrealist of the novels I think it’s very much a strong allegory novel of Paris itself and of the Paris streets. And then you go onto a book which is seen as much more science fiction driven which is The Red Grass where people tend to go on about H G Wells an awful lot. And then you end up with one called L’Arrache-coeur which is seen to be  much more to do with psychoanalysis. So you have these four novels which are seen to be quite different in fact.

One of the things I found interesting about the last two novels which people haven’t worked on very much, was when I saw Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… Immediately when I saw that film I thought that film was a rewrite of Boris Vian and it seemed to be conflating The Red Grass and the last novel the HeartsnatcherL”Arrache-coeur— in a very interesting way and I wrote a piece suggesting that Gondry was actually adapting the last two Boris Vian novels. I was really quite excited to see that Gondry took the chance to make L’Ecume des Jours,almost proving my thesis. So there are other people who have seen links between these novels which otherwise have been seen to be really disparate and difficult to string together logically and coherently because he doesn’t stick with a them

KY: Although at the heart of Left Bank literary scene and a contributor to Satre and de Beauvoir’s Les Temps Moderne, Vian remained outside the main thrust of the existentialist movement. Some of the columns he wrote for the Les Temps Moderne were openly critical especially as the magazine leaned increasingly towards the Communist Party. Around this time Satre began an affair with Vian’s first wife Michelle Léglise and Vian and Léglise eventually divorced in the early 1950′s.

Sartre himself is parodied in L’Ecume des Jours as the famous writer Jon-Sol Partre, an obsession of one of the main characters in the book. So although existentialism plays a part in Vian’s first serious novel it isn’t an overriding theme and pre-war surrealism has a far greater influence in this book and his later novels.

AR: It seems to me he that doesn’t fit into the existentialist movement happily in the same way as people like Albert Camus. A lot of people get corralled into the existentialist movement which to an extent was a fashion that lasted less time than people seem to think… it was a fairly short lived thing at the end of the second world war. Clearly Sartre goes on to be a huge huge figure. But people like Camus never claimed to be an existentialist and Vian certainly wasn’t an existentialist. I can’t see much more than a parody. There is existentialism in Vian but only in as much as he is a left wing atheist… its not a huge underpinning.

The surrealist stuff is much more interesting. I think there is a very serious debt to surrealism which gets overlooked in Vian’s work. So the whole idea of this universe where wordplays generate events and people’s desire – I think David Meakin, the Vian scholar describes it as a desire shaped universe and I think that’s right. At the start of L’Ecume des Jours the character Colin desires something and then that thing simply happens in front of him and that whole debt goes back to the surrealists and the idea that walking in the streets generates events. If you want to put him in a camp, which is very hard because most Viansists would tell you you can’t put him in a camp, I would say surrealism is the most interesting one.

KY:  Vian’s appropriation of Sartre hints at another literary method he employed – the repurposing of external texts from a range of authors to extend the boundaries of his art.

This is a theme Alistair Rolls has explored by focusing on intertextuality – references to external texts – and intratextrality -threads throughout the four novels which connect them into a four part whole.

AR: The approach I took… I was attempting not to use intertextuality in a deconstructive sense at the time…purely because I didn’t have the intellectual baggage to do it when I was starting my PhD… but I did sense immediately that the references were not flippant. They weren’t simplistic… whereas people dealing with stuff like that would trace the text. They would say OK this is a reference to… and they would content themselves with tracing the reference to its hypertext or whatever. Whereas what I wanted to do was to try and place it into some kind of narrative.

The things that Vian’s four novels had in common more than anything rather than a literary school like Surrealism or Existentialism was in fact the the intertextual way in which they are made up. So there is a very specific way he uses referencing and the way his use of references develops… so perhaps you have a slightly more naive use of referencing which is perhaps a little more scatter-gun in L’Ecume des Jours but it becomes much more targeted as the texts develop. In L’Automne à Pékin for example, when the characters are about to go from Paris into Exopatamia as he calls it, there are some interesting references which are quite cleverly hidden in the text to Camus’ The Outsider…a lot of the action there happens on the beaches of Algiers – then you have an interesting way of the text through its hidden references guiding you through this exit from Paris into a desert. That in a sense could also be read quite cleverly too to suggest perhaps Camus’ The Outsider is in fact not simply an Algerian text but is actually perhaps more Parisian than you may take it for. So you can then read backwards as well and see how is Vian’s use of textuality is offering you a critical way of renewing your engagement with the texts he is referencing.

KY:  In the early 50s, Vian expanded his range of interests to include theatre – writing plays, musicals and opera librettos. He also began to appear as an actor on stage and screen.

At the same time Vian still pursued his passion for jazz and popular music, moving away from his trumpet playing to writing lyrics to popular cabaret-style songs which won him  enormous critical acclaim. While frequently lighthearted in tone, Vian’s lyrics show a paradoxical unease with modernity and a pathos found even more intensely in some of his poetry.

Music:  “Je Bois” – Boris Vian

AR: He’s a paradox in that sense. He’s certainly someone who is forward looking. He’s very interested in technical innovation. He’s himself an inventor and he’s a great embracer of science fiction and yet at the same time someone for whom the future seems bleak. So I think he is a paradox. I think one of the ways that comes across is in the songs and also the poetry… in some of the poetry in particular…one anthology Je Voudrais pas Crever, meaning I Don’t Want to Die, you get this first person coming out . So you have a real tension between the the very third person texts, the very de-Vianised texts that are the novels, where everything passes through this veil of parody , this veil of referencing, where he’s trying to put as many screens, if you like, between himself and the reader, despite the fact that the references often seem to be towards his friends and his entourage, which suggests he’s blurring the lines between his lived reality and the novels. I think the opposite is true. I think these serve to actually fictionalise the fiction to make it much more reflexively fictional.

That veil gets dropped to a large degree with the song writing and the poetry. I think particularly in the poems…the poems were actually posthumously put together… quite some time after he was dead in fact. And then you hear this ‘I’ coming through really poignantly and some of those poems talk expressly about… there’s one where he says given a choice between a locomotive…which of course is the sort of leitmotif of the nineteenth century and a metonym for progress… I think it’s in Zola’s La Bête Humaine where you have this rampaging train driving forward…and given the choice between that and a little bird, and the little bird is the most fluffy and chirrupy thing he can think of and he says,“I would take the bird”. So you have this very cutesy side of Vian coming through.

Je Voudrais pas Crever read by Pierre Brasseur – translated as I Wouldn’t Wanna Die from the collection If I say If.

KY:  In the mid-1950′s troubled by divorce, debts and a heavy work load Vian’s health went into severe decline. Despite suffering a series of pulmonary oedemas, Vian kept up his hectic work schedule finding time to star in films and translate plays including several of August Strindberg’s most famous works.

By 1958 he was close to nervous exhaustion and tried  to take more time off to rest. But his multiple activities left him little time for a break. In 1959 Vian became involved with a project to turn J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes into a film. He began writing a screen adaptation of the book, but after a series of ‘artistic differences’ he was dropped from the project. In April of the same year Vian played his final cinematic role, featuring alongside Jeanne Moreau in Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

On June 23rd, Vian attended a private screening of J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes. Reputedly, a few minutes after the film began, he shouted out: “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed into his seat. He later died from a heart attack on his way into hospital.

Popular in his own lifetime Vian later became a darling of the May ’68 generation, a relationship melded by Vian’s  anti-authoritarianism and his position outside the establishment elite. It is this disconnection between public and academic recognition that Alistair Rolls views Vian’s principal legacy.

AR:So he remains this non-translatable Franco-French phenomenon… almost like a jealously guarded secret whereas Sartre and Camus and Simone de Beauvoir have become world wide phenomena to the point where Simone de Beauvoir becomes a symbol of American feminism rather than French feminism because she’s such an American export. Vian didn’t do that.

It’s maybe odd to ring someone in Australia to do an interview on Boris Vian… because they’re not in France… they’ve never been in France. The major critical figures working on him – Noel Arnaud was the first, who was French based… but after him the academics are US based. Rybalka, and  Pestureau are both in the Chicago area and the you’ve got Marc Lapprand who’s Parisian by birth but is now over in Canada in Victoria. So all Vian scholarship happens outside France because the French have never taken him seriously in the universities and in the bookshops.

You say all those things I’ve just said and they do constitute his legacy and I also think they constitute the single biggest problem facing Vian… getting to grips with Vian in the cannon… which is what I am doing along with my colleagues in and around the world,… we’re trying to write stuff about Vian and take him seriously and create a critical legacy for him. Marc Lapprand is the big, number one scholar on Boris Vian at the moment… when I first met him in 2007 at the Sorbonne we discussed what the big problems were and the big problems were that Boris Vian was being studied by people who knew all about Boris Vian… and it was always done from a biographical standpoint. So people would get really excited about what a wonderful guy he was, how clever he was and constantly forgetting to read the texts.

So the legacy has been one of disconnection between the man with this larger than life personality and this terrible contradiction between this man who worked all hours of the day, translated all night long and played jazz in the wee hours and then had to go and work in his day job as well as all the while having this heart condition. You have all that, and then you have these wonderful works of art which we then have to try and extract from the dominant. So basically Vian scholarship has been dominated by some a priori judgements set by people who are mostly interested in Vian the human being and they’ve dominated critical discourse for the last 50 years. So the way Vian studies is now trying to extricate itself from that and go back towards, since about 2007, trying to study the works in their own context, as works of art. So you do have this legacy, I think of disconnection and almost of misunderstanding and I think we need to scratch that surface now and get a little bit into the pathos and away from the jokes.


 Note:  Alistair Rolls is a leading expert on Twentieth and Twenty-First Century French Literature, the principal English-speaking scholar on Boris Vian and is paving the way forward in the field he calls Fetishism Criticism, a discourse which recognizes that two opposing narratives can co-exist while actually refuting each other.

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