Boris Vian (10 March 1920 – 23 June 1959) was a French polymath: writer, poet, musician, singer, translator, critic, actor, inventor and engineer. Today he is remembered primarily for his novels. Those published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan were bizarre parodies of criminal fiction, highly controversial at the time of their release.
Vian’s other fiction, published under his real name, featured a highly individual writing style with numerous made-up words, subtle wordplay and surrealistic plots. His novel L’Écume des jours (literally: “The Foam of Days”) is the best known of these works and one of the few translated into English, under the title of Froth on the Daydream.
Vian was also an important influence on the French jazz scene. He served as liaison for Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Paris, wrote for several French jazz-reviews (Le Jazz Hot, Paris Jazz) and published numerous articles dealing with jazz both in the United States and in France. His own music and songs enjoyed popularity during his lifetime, particularly the anti-war song “Le Déserteur” (The Deserter).
Vian was born in 1920 into an upper middle-class family in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Ville d’Avray (Hauts-de-Seine). His parents were Paul Vian, a young rentier, and Yvonne Ravenez, amateur pianist and harpist. From his father Vian inherited a distrust of the church and the military, as well as a love of the bohemian life. Vian was the second of four children: the others were Lélio (1918–1984), Alain (1921–1995) and Ninon (1924–2003). The family occupied the Les Fauvettes villa. The name “Boris” was chosen by Yvonne, an avid classical music lover, after seeing a performance of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov.
Boris’ later childhood was also marked with sickness as he suffered from Rheumatic fever when he was 12. From then on Boris parents became overprotective toward him, and he would later judge them harshly for this in L’Herbe rouge and L’Arrache-coeur.
Formal education and teenage years
From 1932 to 1937, Vian studied at Lycée Hoche in Versailles. In 1936, Vian and his two brothers started organizing what they called “surprise-parties” (surprise parties). They partook of mescaline in the form of a Mexican cactus called peyote. These gatherings became the basis of his early novels: Trouble dans les andains (Turmoil in the Swaths) (1943) and particularly Vercoquin et le plancton (Vercoquin and the Plankton) (1943–44). It was also in 1936 that Vian got interested in jazz; the next year he started playing the trumpet and joined the Hot Club de France.
In 1937, Vian graduated from Lycée Hoche, passing baccalauréats in mathematics, philosophy, Latin, Greek and German. He subsequently enrolled at Lycée Condorcet, Paris, where he studied special mathematics until 1939. Vian became fully immersed in the French jazz scene: for example, in 1939 he helped organize Duke Ellington’s second concert in France. When WWII started, Vian was not accepted into the army due to poor health. He entered École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris and subsequently moved to Angoulême when the school moved there because of the war.
In 1940, Vian met Michelle Léglise, who became his wife in 1941. She taught Vian English and introduced him to translations of American literature. Also in 1940, Vian met Jacques Loustalot, who became a recurring character in several early novels and short stories as “The Colonel”. Loustalot died accidentally in 1949 falling from a building he was trying to climb on in order to enter into a flat by the window, after a bet. In 1942, Vian and his brothers joined a jazz orchestra under the direction of Claude Abbadie, who became a minor character in Vian’s Vercoquin et le plancton. The same year, Vian graduated from École Centrale with a diploma in metallurgy, and his son Patrick was born.
After Vian’s graduation, he and Michelle moved to the 10th arrondissement of Paris and, on 24 August 1942 he became an engineer at the French Association for Standardisation (AFNOR). By this time he was an accomplished jazz trumpeter, and in 1943 he wrote his first novel, Trouble dans les andains (Turmoil in the Swaths). His literary career started in 1943 with his first publication, a poem, in the Hot Club de France bulletin. The poem was signed Bison Ravi (“Delighted Bison”), an anagram of Vian’s real name. The same year Vian’s father died, murdered at home by burglars.
In 1944 Vian completed Vercoquin et le plancton (Vercoquin and the Plankton), a novel inspired partly by surprise-parties of his youth and partly by his job at the AFNOR (which is heavily satirized in the novel). Raymond Queneau and Jean Rostand helped Vian to publish this work at Éditions Gallimard in 1947, along with several works Vian completed in 1946. These included his first major novels, L’Écume des jours and L’automne à Pékin (Autumn in Peking). The former, a tragic love story in which real world objects respond to the characters’ emotions, is now regarded as Vian’s masterpiece, but at the time of its publication it failed to attract any considerable attention. L’automne à Pékin, which also had a love story at its heart but was somewhat more complex, also failed to sell well.
Frustrated by the commercial failure of his works, Vian vowed he could write a best-seller and wrote the hard-boiled novel I Spit on Your Graves (J’irai cracher sur vos tombes) in only 15 days. The book was ascribed to a fictitious American writer, Vernon Sullivan, with Vian credited as translator. Vian persuaded his publisher friend Jean d’Halluin to publish the novel in 1947. Eventually the hoax became known and the book became one of the best-selling titles of that year. Vian wrote three more Vernon Sullivan novels from 1947 to 1949.
The year 1946 marked a turning point in Vian’s life: At one of the popular parties that he and Michelle hosted he made the acquaintance of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, became a regular in their literary circles and started regularly publishing various materials in Les Temps Modernes. Vian admired Sartre in particular and gave him a prominent role—as “Jean-Sol Partre”—in L’Écume des jours (litt. “The foam of the days”) published in English under the title: Froth on the Daydream. Ironically, Sartre and Michelle Vian commenced a relationship that would eventually destroy Vian’s marriage.
Despite his literary work becoming more important, Vian never left the jazz scene. He became a regular contributor to various jazz-related magazines, and played trumpet at Le Tabou. As a result, his financial situation improved, and he abandoned the job at the AFNOR. Vian also formed his own choir, La petite chorale de Saint-Germain-des-Pieds.
The year 1948 saw the birth of Vian’s daughter, Carole. He continued his literary career by writing Vernon Sullivan novels, and also published poetry collections: Barnum’s Digest (1948) and Cantilènes en gelée (Cantelinas in Jelly) (1949). Vian also started writing plays, the first of which, L’Équarrissage pour tous (Slaughter for Everyone), was staged the year it was written, 1950. The same year saw the publication of Vian’s third major novel, L’Herbe rouge (The Red Grass). This was a much darker story than its predecessors, centering on a man who built a giant machine that could help him psychoanalyze his soul. Like the previous two books, it did not sell well; Vian’s financial situation had been steadily worsening since late 1948, and he was forced to take up translation of English-language literature and articles in order to get by. Vian separated from his wife, and in 1950 he met Ursula Kübler (1928–2010), a Swiss dancer; the two started an affair, and in 1951 Vian divorced Michelle. Ursula and Boris married in 1954.
Vian’s last novel, L’Arrache-cœur (The Heartsnatcher), was published in 1953, yet again to poor sales and Vian effectively stopped writing fiction. The only work that appeared after 1953 was a revised version of L’automne à Pékin, published 1956. He concentrated on a new field, song-writing and performing, and continued writing poetry. Vian’s songs were successful; in 1954 he embarked on his first tour as singer-songwriter. By 1955, when he was working as art director for Philips, Vian was active in a wide variety of fields: song-writing, opera, screenplays and several more plays. His first album, Chansons possibles et impossibles (Possible and Impossible Songs), was also recorded in 1955. He wrote the first French rock and roll songs with his friend Henri Salvador, who sang them under the nickname Henry Cording. He also wrote “Java Pour Petula” (a song about an English girl arriving in France, written in Parisian argot) for Petula Clark’s first concert performances in France.
Still in 1955, Vian decided to perform some of his songs on stage himself. He had been unhappy about the fact that French singer Marcel Mouloudji (1922-1994), who had interpreted “Le Deserteur” (The Deserter) on stage the year before, had not accepted the original lyrics because he thought that they would lead to the song being banned. Although Vian accepted a change to one verse, the song was banned from TV and radio channels until 1967. The record of Vian’s songs performed by himself was not successful in France until ten years after his death.
Vian’s life was endangered in 1956 by a pulmonary edema, but he survived and continued working with the same intensity as before. In 1957, Vian completed another play: Les Bâtisseurs d’empire (The Empire Builders), which was only published and staged in 1959. In 1958, Vian worked on the opera Fiesta with Darius Milhaud, and a collection of his essays, En avant la zizique… Et par ici les gros sous (On with the Muzak… And Bring in the Big Bucks), was published the same year.
On the morning of 23 June 1959, Vian was at the Cinema Marbeuf for the screening of the film version of I will Spit on Your Graves. He had already fought with the producers over their interpretation of his work, and he publicly denounced the film, stating that he wished to have his name removed from the credits. A few minutes after the film began, he reportedly blurted out: “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” He then collapsed into his seat and died from sudden cardiac death en route to the hospital.
During his lifetime, only the novels published under the name of Vernon Sullivan were successful. Those published under his real name, which had real literary value in his eyes, remained a commercial failure, despite the support of famous authors of this time.
Almost immediately after his death, L’Écume des jours, and then L’automne à Pékin, L’Arrache-coeur, and L’Herbe rouge, began to get recognition in France and became cult novels for youths of the 1960s and 1970s.
As a songwriter, Vian had mixed success. When he decided to sing the songs that were rejected by the stars himself, he succeeded only in reaching a limited audience (including Léo Ferré et Georges Brassens), the public remaining unconvinced of his talent for singing. Nevertheless the May 1968 in France generation, even more than the previous ones, loved his songs, especially because of their impertinence.
As a songwriter, Vian also inspired Serge Gainsbourg, who used to attend his show at the cabaret Les Trois Baudets and who wrote, thirty years later: “I took it on the chin […], he sang terrific things […], it is because I heard him that I decided to try something interesting”. As a critic, Boris Vian was the first to support Gainsbourg in Le Canard Enchaîné, in 1957.
Over the years, Vian’s work have become modern classics, often celebrated and selected as subjects for study in schools. Vian is still viewed by many as the emblematic figure of Saint Germain des Prés as it existed during the postwar decade, when this district was the centre of artistic and intellectual life in Paris. (by wikipedia)
And here´s a pretty good sampler with songs from Boris Vian sung by many artists from the Fifties like Petula Cark, Henri Salvador or Juliette Gréco.
What a wonderful way to discover the world of the one and only Boris Vian.
01. Mouloudji: Le deserteur (1954) (Vian/Berg) 3.11
02. Henri Salvador: Faut rigoler (1958) (Salvador/Vian) 3.30
03. Annie Cordy: Nick nack paddy whack (1959) (Vian/Arnold) 2.08
04. Magali Noël: Oh! si y´avait pas ton père (1959) (Salvador/Vian) 2.39
05. Petula Clark: Java pour petula (1959) (Henderson/Steelman/Vian) 2.09
06. Dario Moreno: Venus de milo (1959) (Vian/Freed) 2.34
07. Hugues Aufray: Nous avions vingt ans (1959) (Vian/Goraguer) 2.46
08. Magali Noël: Oh! cest divin (1959) (Vian/Simon) 3.21
09. Juliette Gréco: Musique mecanique (1957) (Vian/Popp) 3.07
10. Philippe Clay: Juste le temps de vivre (1955) (Vian) 1.37
11. Henri Salvador: Moi, je prefere la marche a pied (1958) (Salvador/Vian) 2.31
12. Mouloudji: Je suis snob (1955) (Vian/Walter) 3.12
13. Magali Noël: Mon oncle celestin (1959) (Vian/Bolling) 3.24
14. Claude Piron: D´où reviens-tu Billy Boy (1958) (Scott/Vian) 2.31
15. Henri Salvador: Blouse du dentiste (1958) (Salvador/Vian) 3.29
16. Patachou: On n´est pas la pour se faire engueuler (1955) (Vian/Walter) 3.49
17. Mouloudji: Cinematographe (1955) (Vian/Walter) 3.06
18. Henri Salvador: Va t´faire cuire un (1956) (Legrano/Vian) 2.54