From “The New Yorker”
Whimsy and Spit: Boris Vian’s Two Minds
Michel Gondry’s latest movie, “Mood Indigo,” now in theatres, is based on a book that most Americans have never heard of but that many French people love, by a French writer who loved America and its culture but never visited. His name was Boris Vian, and every time something is written about him in this country it comes with the same caveat (you don’t know him) accompanied by the same hope (but you should). A number of his works are readily available from TamTam Books, a small press in California, and the 1967 translation of “Mood Indigo,” by Vian’s friend Stanley Chapman, has just been reissued by Farrar, Straus and Giroux with an appealing cover the colors of a Tequila Sunrise. Still, ask for Boris Vian in the hippest bookstores in New York and you hear crickets.
Vian was born, in 1920, to a middle-class family in Ville d’Avray, a suburb of Paris. He was a sickly child and predicted that he’d die by his fortieth birthday; as it happened, he made it to thirty-nine, collapsing of a heart attack while heckling a première at the Marbeuf cinema. (The film being screened was an adaptation of his novel “I Spit on Your Graves.”) He had a long, sallow hare’s face that Picasso would have made good use of, with hooded eyes and a nose straight enough to pick a lock. It was his mouth, with its plush lips, that gave him away: Vian was trained as an engineer, but jazz was his religion, the trumpet his instrument, Duke Ellington the godfather to his daughter.
Starting during the Occupation, he played all over Paris. Later, he insinuated himself into the Sartre-de Beauvoir scene at the Deux Magots, though he couldn’t have cared less about existentialism. For Vian, being, not its nothingness, was the point. He was frenetically productive, writing poems, plays, reviews, radio programs, songs, and novels upon novels. His brain was always cooking, and for good reason. “Take Shakespeare,” he wrote in the magazine Jazz Hot. “He is very, very dead. The rottenest of the rotten. . . . But hey, we have his plays, so voilà.”
The novel that Gondry’s movie is based on has become, in the decades since Vian’s death, one of the most popular works in all of French literature, a book whose reading still serves as a rite of passage for French adolescents, as reading “The Catcher in the Rye” does for Americans. It is called, in French, “L’Écume des Jours,” which, as Dan Halpern pointed out in this magazine, in 2006, literally means either “The Foam of the Days” or “The Scum of the Days” but has been translated as “Froth on the Daydream,” “Foam of the Daze,” and—after the Duke Ellington song—“Mood Indigo.” The problem of translating Vian doesn’t end with titles. His books are crawling with wordplay: puns, mixed metaphors, neologisms, you name it.
The plot of “L’Écume,” at least, is simple. Colin, an amiable and wealthy idler, lives in a friendly hallucinogenic version of the world we know. To drain his bath, he bores a hole in the tub so that the water pours into the apartment downstairs, whose rooms are constantly shifting around. He owns such fabulous devices as the pianocktail, which mixes cocktails when played, with each key corresponding to a different liquor, and lives in a city whose subways are lined with aviaries—“resting places for weary sparrows, nesting places for rearing sparrows, and testing places for cheering sparrows.” (You see what Stanley Chapman was up against.) Things are swimming right along for Colin, but he isn’t satisfied, because he wants to fall in love. Everybody else is doing it. His confidant and cook, Nicholas, is going out with Isis, a ritzy society girl, and his best friend, Chick, has Alise, a woman he met at a lecture given by Chick’s idol, the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre. At a party chez Isis, Colin meets Chloe, who is distinguished by her “red lips, dark brown hair, a gay happy smile, and a dress that might just as well not have been there at all.” They dance. In short order, they marry. Then Chloe gets sick. A water lily is discovered inside her lung. Colin spends his fortune on a cure, which consists of surrounding Chloe with a constant supply of fresh flowers, and the candy-colored fantasia gets very dark, very fast.
These are the kinds of loopy, fanciful things that Michel Gondry movies are made from, and for about the first hour of “Mood Indigo,” the director has a very good time playing in Colin and Chloe’s world. Food goes whizzing around the table in stop-motion animation, then glugs down a drain in the floor before the table itself slides out on roller skates. Coffee beans rattle in a gramophone horn, and the legs of the dancers at Isis’s party stretch like Silly Putty. On their first date, Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloe (Audrey Tautou) float over Paris in a plastic swan-headed cloud conveyed by a construction crane. But at a certain point the heaped-on whimsy begins to grate, and then to suffocate. The film is superficial in the purest sense: it looks wonderful, but so much visual cleverness overpowers the imagination, blocking it from doing any deeper work.
In part, Vian is to blame. “L’Écume” is a fairy tale, if a bitter, even cynical, one, and though Raymond Queneau’s opinion of the book—he called it “the most beautiful love story of our time”—seems to be widely shared in France even now, it’s hard to fabricate actual love in the absence of actual people. Shimmering figments that they are, Colin and Chloe—particularly Chloe, who seems more food than flesh (“her golden skin was as soft and sweet as marzipan”; “Her spun hair flowed freely, exhaling a heady perfume of pink jasmine”)—hardly fit the bill. It doesn’t help that Tautou shrinks apprehensively every time Duris leans in to kiss her, or that the hottest moments in the book all seem to happen when Chloe, Alise, and Isis catch one another in various states of undress.
A couple of days after seeing the new film, I watched Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), written by Charlie Kaufman, and found Clementine expressing everything that Chloe, prettily wilting as Colin scrambles to cure her, can’t. “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m going to make them alive,” Clementine says to Joel. “But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind.” Vian could invent a machine to snatch the beating heart from your chest (Alise uses it to put a quick end to Partre), but he never came up with a line like that.
“L’Écume des Jours” was finished in the spring of 1946. That summer, shortly after Sartre excerpted the manuscript in his literary journal, Les Temps Modernes, Jean d’Halluin, a young publisher trying to get his new imprint off the ground, asked Vian to bring him something juicy enough to be a hit. Vian went away to the beach in early August. Two weeks later, he turned in “I Spit on Your Graves,” which he claimed to be a translation of a novel by Vernon Sullivan, a black American writer whose work had never been published because, according to Vian, he wrote too honestly about race to get a book deal in the United States. Lee Anderson, the novel’s hero, is a light-skinned black man who leaves home after his brother is lynched for being seen with a white woman. He moves to a new town, where he passes for white, and spends his time drinking whiskey, playing the guitar, and having sex with a procession of giggly, extraordinarily suggestible girls; improbable as it may now seem, he also manages the local bookstore. To avenge his brother, he seduces and then murders a pair of rich white sisters. (In a gleefully warped tip of the hat to d’Halluin, one of them is named Jean.) The book ends with Lee shot dead by the police and then, for good measure, hanged by the townspeople.
“I Spit” made Vian famous, though it’s fair to say that literary merit wasn’t the main factor in the book’s success. In early 1947, the leader of a right-wing morality group sued the book’s author for indecency—the first such suit since the publication of “Madame Bovary,” nearly a century earlier—thus forcing the question of who the author actually was. Then, two months later, a copy of “I Spit” was discovered beside the body of a strangled woman lying in a Montparnasse hotel, with the passage in which Lee Anderson strangles one of the sisters and then copulates with her corpse circled. The book went on to sell five hundred thousand copies.
That “L’Écume des Jours” was written by the person behind “I Spit” is jarring enough; to realize that they were written within months of each other is either to shrug and quote Whitman on containing multitudes or to infer schizophrenia. Imagine that, while working on “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had amused himself by updating “The 120 Days of Sodom” and you get a sense of how startling the disjunction is between the Vian who created the pianocktail and the Vian who had his hero, among other things, rape a woman passed out in a bathroom and force himself on a child. In “L’Écume,” the love between Chloe and Colin starts at the lips and ends at the waist: “Colin held her close and kissed her very tenderly, as he would have kissed a flower.” Lee, for his part, spends all of his time groping, thrusting, nibbling, and sucking, undeterred by signs of resistance. As he is strung up to hang, Vian tells us, “his crotch still protruded ridiculously” in a final, mocking salute to his persecutors.
Vian, as Sullivan, had no interest in the libertine French froofiness of the novels of the Marquis de Sade, with their servant girls suspended from chandeliers and their orgies between princesses and nuns. Lee comes from an America of bullets and bourbon and monosyllables, the country as it appeared in the crime novels that poured into France after the Second World War and immediately lodged themselves in the national imagination. In 1945, Marcel Duhamel founded the imprint Série Noir to publish translations of hard-boiled American thrillers, forever changing French culture by introducing it to, among others, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The postwar French, as James Baldwin put it, in an essay on Vian included in his book “The Devil Finds Work,” had “a tense, even rather terrified wonder about Americans,” their liberators, who now sat in their cafés and ambled around their boulevards, drinking and laughing and talking with their mouths full. Vian knew how to stoke that wonder. “If in France, we strive to more originality,” he wrote in the preface to “I Spit,” signed in his own name, “no anxiety is felt in exploiting unblushingly a formula which has proved its value.”
The America that Vian imagined in “I Spit” is a garish cartoon, but cartoons are a way of getting at the truth. Baldwin found, in the book, “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.” The victorious American soldiers, self-styled heroes in Vian’s Paris, had one story to tell about their country. Vian knew enough to hear another.
In this he reminds me of one of his contemporaries, the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, and of Malaparte’s extraordinary novel “The Skin” (republished last year by New York Review Books), which strings together tales of the American soldiers who occupied Naples after driving out the Germans, in 1943. Unlike Paris, Naples had been destroyed in the war. It was bombed more heavily than any other Italian city, first by the Axis and then by the Allies, and the squalor and anarchic desperation that Malaparte describes comes as close to a vision of hell as anything I’ve read.
Emaciated women hang around alleys, where they sell children to anyone who will buy them, two dollars for boys and three for girls. Fathers have their virgin daughters open their legs to lines of paying viewers. The stench of corpses hangs in the street as prostitutes cluck at soldiers. Through it all stroll the Americans, genially observing the chaos they have ostensibly come to relieve, playing the part of the benevolent liberator. “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy,” Malaparte writes. “It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence.” Like Vian, Malaparte was fascinated by the Americans, by their unshakable faith in their own goodness, by their happy indifference to misery—Malaparte calls them, with exquisite venom, “the most disinterested people on earth.” The Americans smile at his ruined city, and Malaparte smiles right back—to show them his rotten teeth.
“L’Écume des Jours” is often seen as a quintessentially postwar book, flush with the sense of woozy, magical freedom that filled Paris after the liberation put an end to the worst years of privation. Thanks to a new edition brought out in the sixties, it became a favorite among the soixante-huitards, the revolutionary students of 1968, who superimposed their own utopian aims onto Vian’s apolitical surrealism. As I read “L’Écume,” though, I thought of the German occupation of Paris, which lasted from June of 1940 through August of 1944. Vian entered engineering school in 1939, at the age of nineteen, and studied in the unoccupied zone, but after he graduated, in 1942, he moved back to Paris. I called up Alistair Rolls, a Vian scholar at the University of Newcastle, in Australia, to try to get a better sense of where Vian was coming from. Did this man who felt so strongly about injustice in the United States really spend the war trumpeting around Paris as thousands upon thousands of Parisians were rounded up to be killed? “Vian was considered, and is still considered today, to have ignored the war,” Rolls told me. “People say that it’s almost as if the war didn’t happen for Vian.”
And yet it must have, because the war happened for everyone in that city, even if its horrors were less apparent there than in Naples. In the second half of “L’Écume,” as Chloe gets sicker, the world that she and Colin live in begins to reflect their despair. The windows of their apartment grow grimy, blocking light from entering, and the apartment itself starts to shrink, closing claustrophobically in on them until they can barely move. I thought of this as nothing more than one of Vian’s surrealist touches until I read “When Paris Went Dark” (Little, Brown), Ronald C. Rosbottom’s new history of the city under German rule, out this month, and got to the chapter called “Narrowed Lives.” Again and again in his research into Parisians’ experience during the war, Rosbottom writes, he found descriptions of the way in which “physical and psychological space seemed to progressively narrow.” Because of the confinement, the restriction of movement, the overcrowding, the shortages of food and resources, the winter cold, and the relentless boredom, the city “seemed to be contracted, closing in on Parisian lives, as the Occupation dragged on.” As wartime suffering goes, this might seem relatively trivial, but suffering isn’t always comparative, especially for those in distress. Four years of confinement, of curfews, of surveillance, of rote fear—four years is a long time to feel the walls closing in.
Vian was a fantasist, but, as is often the case, his best inventions turn out to be those that skim the surface of reality. Things in “L’Écume” that seem exceptional to us, or to a bunch of idealistic students rallying, in 1968, behind the Vianesque slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the cobblestones, the beach!”), may not have been so exceptional after all. Near the end of the novel, Colin, miserable and worn out, gets a job as a door-to-door bearer of bad tidings. “He got well paid for this and pleased the management,” Vian writes—though he is met with abuse everywhere he goes. One day, he looks at his list and sees his own name. Chloe is to die the next day. Fantastical, yes—who actually has a job like that? But not all that fantastical to a Parisian who knew the potential meaning of a knock at the door and a name on a list.
When Vian finished “L’Écume,” he signed and dated it: Memphis, March 8, 1946, and Davenport, March 10th. (That would be Davenport, Iowa, the birthplace of Bix Beiderbecke, a trumpeter much admired by Vian.) The introduction he dated March 10th, New Orleans; no laws of physics stop the mental traveller from being in two places at once.
It’s tempting to wonder what Vian would have made of the United States had he actually come here. We can’t know, but here’s something that might be just as good: “The Disunited States,” by Vladimir Pozner, translated into English for the first time and available later this month from Seven Stories Press. Pozner, a novelist and journalist, was born in France, in 1905, to anti-tsarist Russian Jews, and spent his childhood between St. Petersburg and Paris. He was close with Maxim Gorky and Louis Aragon, and became involved in France’s anti-Fascist movement. In 1936, he travelled to the United States and wrote about what he found. The result is this brimming book of reportage, a cross between Studs Terkel and the New Journalism written years before either came around. Pozner had the right eye and the right ear for the great American frenzy; he was following in the footsteps of Tocqueville, but he was no more interested in theorizing than Vian was. He simply wanted to record what was going on in Harlem, in luxury hotels, in gangland Chicago, and he understood that to tell the American story he needed to find the right rhythm. Take the book’s opening essay, “A Day Like Any Other,” a syncopated collage of news items culled from thirty newspapers on September 22, 1936. Pozner begins by tracing the sun as it rises like a curtain over the land—5:26 in Portland, Maine; 5:30 in Boston; 5:42 in New York City; on and on, to San Francisco. You can hear the crazy American music as the stories whir by, interrupting one another and tangling together:
In West Virginia, one hundred workers hired to put in a pipeline go on strike.
In a Newark hospital, a police officer approaches a nurse. “You’ve got a casualty who lost his nose in a car accident? Well! We found the nose stuck to the car radiator. I’ve brought it for you.”
A black boy in St. Louis flees at the sight of detectives who suspect him of theft: THEY SHOOT TO KILL.
Mrs. Johnson of Washington filed for a divorce: she drank too much one night and the next morning woke up in North Carolina, married to a Mr. Johnson. . . .
The child grows weaker at the hospital in . . . A gangster approaches the cash booth of the Chicago Skytrain— The radio dreams of jazz— Unemployed people are sleeping in parks— The Rocky Mountains: airplane flies— The rotors rotate: news flies— Chicago: gangster flies off with his loot. All along the telegraph wires, from cloud to cloud, telegrams fly.
To Pozner, America was a steroidal Cerberus with hundreds of heads, all of them barking through the night and into the next morning. Vian would have recognized that place. He had already seen it for himself, in his mind’s eye.