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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Boris Vian: Plunging into Vian's unsettling version of reality

Thirty-five years ago, sitting in a dank flat off Portobello Road in London feeding shillings to an ever-voracious electric meter, I made two discoveries that changed my life.

One was American detective fiction. Chandler and Hammett at first, then, in train, others: James M. Cain, Horace McCoy. Never mind that I had to travel several thousand miles to learn of my own heritage.

The other came from sources much closer to where I then lived.

I was editing a magazine called New Worlds and as part of my duties regularly looked over new books sent for review. Quite some portion of this, certainly a far greater proportion than one might anticipate in the States, was fiction in translation. I first read Enrique Andersen Imbert, Alejo Carpentier and Julio Cortazar in that flat, for instance.

Then one chill morning I got up, made tea and toast, and went back to bed, breath streaming feathers into the room, with a copy of something titled Froth on the Daydream. It was, miraculously, about two couples: Colin, a rich and at first rather superfluous man, and Chloe, a woman dying from a lily growing in her lung; Chick, whose life is ruined by his collecting of Jean-Sol Partre's books and memorabilia, and Alise, who tries to save Chick from himself by murdering Partre. As the lily grows in Chloe's lung, Colin does all he can to keep her alive. But as she grows ever more ill, her bed sinks closer and closer to the ground and the room grows ever smaller. Because Colin has no money left to pay for burial, Chloe's coffin is simply thrown out the window, where it breaks the leg of a child at play in the gutter beneath.

I had discovered contemporary French literature.

Weeks later the world offered up another of these strange gifts. Same improbably named author: Boris Vian. This one titled Heartsnatcher and featuring children who, once they begin to stray, are first fitted with steel boots, then shut into cages. Meanwhile, a man named Jacquemort must fish the refuse of the entire village — i.e., the populace's guilt — from the river with his teeth.

In Vian's world, because people they love have died, mice persuade diffident cats to kill them; stallions are crucified for their supposed sins; sunlight and scarves and even bathroom fixtures all have a life of their own, one quite independent of mankind's. When Colin of L'Écume puts Duke Ellington's "The Mood To Be Woo'ed" on the phonograph, the O's on the record label cause the corners of the room to become round.

Instantly I recognized in Vian's work, as though an electric arc had passed between us, something I was doing — or attempting — in my own work, a peculiar, often unsettling blend of realism and the fantastic.

In the Avant Propos for L'Écume des jours, Vian defined his practice: "Properly speaking, its method consists in projecting reality, under favorable conditions, into an irregularly tilting and consequently distorting plane of reference."

So, were there others like him?

Not really. But a world of wonder out there nonetheless. Vian led me to Raymond Queneau, whose novel Saint Glinglin I would later translate. Vian's and Queneau's poetry led me to French poets such as Guillevic, Bonnefoy and Cendrars. Cendrars remains a huge influence. His "Prose du transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France" I hold to be the foundation of modern poetry. His novels, especially Moravagine, Dan Yack and the quartet of memoir-novels, also endure.

In later years my love of French literature has led me on to J.-M. G. Le Clézio, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Thierry Jonquet, Jean Vautrin, Maurice Dantec. Each of them truly sui generis, one of a kind.

Vian's been poorly served here in the States. John Sturrock's translation of L'Écume des jours appeared as Mood Indigo from Grove Press around 1970; both that and Stanley Chapman's earlier UK translation, Froth on the Daydream, are available in trade paper. Chapman's translation of L'Arrache-Coeur (Heartsnatcher), previously available in trade paper from Quartet Books in the UK, is about to be reissued here by Dalkey Archive. University of Nebraska brought out Blues for a Black Cat, a translation of Vian's story collection Les fourmis by Julia Older. A collection of Vian's jazz writing, Round Close to Midnight, though published by Quartet Books (translator Mike Zwerin), shows up on these shores from time to time. Elderly editions of several of the plays from Grove Press, most notably The Empire Builders, occasionally surface, spines cracked, joints creaking.

The good news here is TamTam Books, a small press in L.A. run by Tosh Berman. Having published an edition of Vian's pseudonymous thriller J'Irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Graves), Berman is following up with a new translation of L'Écume des jours by Brian Harper as Foam of the Daze. He also has in preparation a translation of Vian's L'Automne â Pékin. Perhaps if those go well, we'll see a translation of Vian's other major novel, L'Herbe rouge, as well, perhaps even someday a Vian Reader incorporating poems, the odd essay or article, excerpts from earlier novels and the thrillers, and that trio of marvelous stories titled Les Lurettes fourrées.

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