Boris Vian was an interesting creature. Born in Ville D’Avray, France, in 1920, he generally lived a contented childhood until the stock market crash of 1929, which forced the Vian family from their villa and caused Boris to acquire several severe illnesses (rheumatism, indeterminate heart problems and typhoid). A very distinctly intelligent child, he nonetheless had to be educated at home due to his frail constitution. He became stronger during his teenage years, however, and was able to enrol (and display dazzling results) at the Lycée de Sèvres, Lycée Hoche and Lycée Condorcet. His strongest results and passions were for literature and music, and he became a proficient jazz trumpeter at the age of 17. Nazi occupation saw the application of broad censorship and jazz (a recurring theme throughout both Vian’s life and work) became very popular amongst young people as a characteristic gesture of rebellion; youth and the traits associated with youth were something Vian prized very highly. Vian found the sober, austere disposition which adults of his time were supposed to adopt to be anathema, spending much of his life instead writing, playing music, attending parties and loudly decrying any form of bureaucratic misconduct or pretension.
Much of his ire was saved for aggressive institutions, such as organised religion and the military: he quickly leapt to rebuke the French government for its actions during the Algerian War with his song Le Deserteur (which was banned for its politically sensitive content). His work (published under the alias of Vernon Sullivan), J’irai Cracher sur vos Tombes (I Spit on Your Grave) concerned a vengeful murder and saw Vian dragged into court (when the novel was discovered at the site of a murder), where he incurred a 100,000 franc fine for producing a work which was “contrary to public morals.” Despite the government’s disapproval, Vian was a legendary figure, held and hailed as a hero by numerous protest movements.
Having been in his life an actor, engineer, cabaret singer, translator, jazz trumpeter (and highly-acclaimed jazz writer), record company executive and even the inventor of the elastic wheel, Vian strode in the circles of individuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Miles Davis and Dizzie Gillespie and managed, in his 39 breathing years, to find inspiration for no less than 10 novels, 42 short stories, 7 theatre pieces, 400 songs, 4 poetry collections, 6 opera librettos, 20 translations (of short stories and novels) and approximately 50 articles. These works run the gamut of critical jazz writing, violent thrillers (under the alias of Vernon Sullivan, above) to surreal and poignant novels; some of these include Vercoquin et le Plancton, Trouble dans les Andains, Les Fourmis, L'Équarrissage pour Tous, l'Automne a Pékin, L'Arrache Coeur, L'Herbe Rouge and my personal favourite, L’Ecume des Jours, translated as Froth on the Daydream by Stanley Chapman; the latter is considered to be Vian’s quintessential work, as well as one of the most poignantly beautiful and catastrophically morose love stories ever written (perhaps heightened by the fact that it strongly echoes many of the calamities of Vian’s own life).
Boris Vian was a master of ambiguity when it came to deciphering his word construction. One particularly important note, for instance, is the fact that L’Ecume des Jours exists in English only as a translation. Ergo, before it was presented to the audience it already bore Stanley Chapman’s mark, himself a respondent. Two different translations of the novel exist, containing subtle differences (‘radiant’ and ‘golden’ expressions, ‘beige’ and ‘camel’ suits) which illustrate already the effect of the translator upon the imagery evoked. The two may require different audiences – Chapman’s version (endorsed herein) alters certain cultural elements in order to best engage the intended audience (such as a game of marelle becoming a game of cricket) and therefore provides a certain implacable quality and uniqueness to his work.
A surrealist both by nature and literary practice, his stated goal was to bring to the reader an imaginary world which was nonetheless more engaging, emotive and fundamentally human than the regimented existence of “ordinary life.”
Vian’s health began to decline once again as he continued to take on more and more work to meet financial obligations. He never slowed his pace, despite several pulmonary oedemas. During the screening of an adaptation of J’irai Cracher sur vos Tombes (which he barely recognised, having been dismissed for his disapproval of what the Director proposed to do to his novel) he died. He currently resides in Ville D'Avray, unforgivably unfamiliar to the English-speaking world, despite a contribution to the arts which is nothing short of surreal.