From the Archives: On two novel by Boris Vian

Note: This review originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.

Rays of sunlight stream through windows and congeal into honey-golden droplets on a tile floor, which are gathered like jewels by a friendly house mouse. A “pianocktail” concocts wild libations inspired by the jazz songs played on it. Rifle barrels are grown like flowers in coffin-shaped planters, which have to be warmed by naked human flesh. Metal-frog-powered Rube Goldberg machines crank out a pharmacy’s medications. Cops tool around in skin-tight, bulletproof black leather and heavy metal boots. A weapon kills by attaching to the torso and ripping out the heart. Welcome to the wonderfully alive and terrifyingly human world of Boris Vian.

Born in Ville-d’Avray, France, in 1920 and passing away a short 39 years later, the fearsomely talented Vian crammed nearly a dozen careers into his brief life. Educated as a engineer, Vian abandoned the steady life to pursue his other interests, turning himself into a novelist, playwright, journalist, poet, writer of pornography and sci-fi, translator, actor, musician, jazz critic, instrument inventor, and, because that wasn’t quite enough, opera librettist.

Most baffling, Vian miraculously squeezed out his original, imposing output during a life that sounds lifted from a bohemian fantasy. He was a member of the College of Pataphysicians, a parody of an intellectual society dedicated to imaginary solutions. A habitué of Paris’ post-war St. Germain-de-Pres, Vian befriended Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, writing a column in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes under the name “the Liar.” A jazz fanatic, Vian introduced a young Miles Davis to his friend Louis Malle, and the American jazz giant eventually scored the French filmmaker’s debut, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Vian wrote “Le Deserteur,” the scathingly sardonic make love/not war song during France’s Algiers troubles. He famously drank for sport; women liked him, and he liked them right back. His “debut” novel—a pulp dashed off in a fortnight called J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves), published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan— became the American Psycho controversy of late-’40s Paris. When his congenital heart condition took his life—since Vian couldn’t even die mundanely, he passed during a screening of the unauthorized film adaptation of his J’irai—Vian’s acclaim was on the rise, and by the spring of 1968 he was a revered French cult figure.

[Some copy missing here, but at this point the essay is referring to L’ecume des jours, which has been translated into English as Foam of the Daze, Froth on the Daydream, and Mood Indigo] . . . a mash note to pretty girls and the music of Duke Ellington, the book follows the fabulous misadventures of two young couples, Colin and Chloe and Chick and Alise, through an imaginatively bustling and otherworldly Paris. The independently affluent Colin lives with his manservant Nicolas and a mouse, and after marrying Chloe gives his friend Chick 25,000 doublezons (the novel’s monetary unit) so that he can marry Alise—which Chick blows on the publications and collectibles of his favorite writer/philosopher, “Jean-Sol Partre.”

Vian vibrantly paints this quartet’s good life in colorful gestures—ice-skating where valets come and broom-sweep the fallen from the ice, dancing the oglemee at bawdy parties, and Colin and Chloe’s magical wedding. Yet just as Colin and Chloe become gaga newlyweds, life turns bleak. Chloe becomes mortally afflicted with a water lily growing in her lung, and Colin spends his entire fortune, sells his belongings, and finally submits to the ultimate indignity—employment—to fill their bedroom with flowers, the only medication comforting her condition. Their radiant apartment begins to shrink, until the jovial mouse has to flee. From the crucifix above an altar, Jesus mocks Colin at Chloe’s funeral, wondering why Colin didn’t spend as much money as he did on the wedding. The cops come after Chick, and the cast-off Alise goes after the vendors of Partre paraphernalia with the heart-snatcher.

That weapon’s made-up French word—”l’arrache-coeur”—plays on the euphemism for “heartbreaker” (“crève-coeur”), and Vian’s final novel carries the heartbroken’s heavy weight. Heartsnatcher, though less playfully animated, is Vian’s most mature work, the shadow of his lifelong knowledge that his heart could stop at any moment cast over every page. Set in a phantasmagoric small town where the old are auctioned off and the congregation assaults the priest, Heartsnatcher follows the mounting obsessions of Clementine, a mother of three—twins Noel and Joel and a third, Alfa Romeo—who loathes her husband for putting her through the rigors of birth. Clementine grows more and more overly protective as her children age, and though town psychiatrist Timortis tries to assuage her neurosis, she ends up going to extremes to shield her offspring like animals eating their young—to put them back—eventually imprisoning them in cages.

Disarmingly funny and catastrophically tragic, Vian’s novels take place in parallel worlds much removed from this one, yet their emotional landscape couldn’t feel more familiar: love and art and sex and life and music and everything can be great, but things can always go horribly, monumentally wrong. Vian confronted his own unknown by injecting his ceaseless talents and infectious humor into everything he did, leaving behind a body of work that inspires by example: that it’s what people choose to do with their life, however troubled and brief, that makes it the intoxicating folly worth caring about.