Boris Vian  

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"Totally isolated on the recent French scene is Boris Vian [...] He was, first of all, an imaginary American (as even writers born in the United States must be these days), who found himself in opposition to the politics of America at the very moment he was most completely immersed in its popular culture--actually writing a detective novel called I'll Spit on Your Grave under the pen name Vernon Sullivan but pretending that he was only its translator into French [...] he managed to straddle the border, if not quite close the gap, between high culture and low, belles-lettres and pop art. On the one hand, he was a writer of pop songs and a jazz trumpeter much influenced by the New Orleans style; and, on the other, he was the author of novels in which thinly disguised French intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are satirized." --Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1968), Leslie Fiedler

Chansons “possibles” et “impossibles” (1956)

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Boris Vian (March 10, 1920June 23, 1959) was a French writer, poet, singer, and musician, who also wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. His works were often highly controversial, but his writing and performance of jazz songs gained the admiration of many famous names.


Early life

He was born to an upper middle-class family in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Ville-d'Avray, near Paris, and educated at the École Centrale Paris. His early childhood was a privileged one, and even after his father lost most of his wealth in the crash of 1929, the family still managed to maintain a comfortable existence, renting out the main villa at the Ville d’Avray to the Menuhins of later musical fame while living in a small cottage on the property. His liberal upbringing included, among other indulgences, frequent surprise-parties (the English word was used at the time), unscripted social gatherings where “convention gave way to invention, and the more wayward the invention the better.” Vian relished the novelty and absurdity of this childish pastime, and as an adult he continued to host surprise-parties from time to time. Before his teen years had expired, Vian was keeping a diary and had already written several works of fiction.


Vian earned a degree as a civil engineer and began his career at the French Association for Standardisation where Vian held an undemanding post, and amused himself with pataphysical conundrums, by composing songs and sketching sub-aqueous plants, and by publishing a chapbook for friends that satirized his colleagues.

Vian wrote 10 novels, including popular hardboiled thrillers published under the name Vernon Sullivan, Vian's fictionalised American persona. The Sullivan œuvre earned Vian opprobrium and fame in equal measure, and he was fined 100,000 francs for the 100,000 copies sold of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes. His books were frequently banned.

Under his own name Vian published L'Arrache-Cœur (Heartsnatcher), L'Herbe Rouge, L'automne à Pékin and what critics regard as his masterpiece, L'Écume des Jours.

Vian was Raymond Chandler's French translator; he was intimately, if remotely, involved with American pop-culture and its reception in France.

He also authored plays, short stories and songs, including a 1958 collaboration on the opera Fiesta with Darius Milhaud. He often played jazz at the "Tabou", a club (now defunct) located in the Rue Dauphine, close to Saint-Germain des Prés, in Paris. He played a pocket trumpet, which he called "trompinette" in his poems. His most famous song was "Le déserteur", a pacifist song written during the Indochina War. His songs were recorded by a variety of other artists, including Juliette Gréco, Nana Mouskouri, Yves Montand, Magali Noel, and Henri Salvador. Serge Gainsbourg said that seeing Boris Vian on stage inspired him to try his hand at songwriting.

Vian and Jazz

See Boris Vian and jazz


On the morning of June 23, 1959, Boris Vian was at the Cinema Marbeuf for the screening of the film version of his controversial "Vernon Sullivan" novel, J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall 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 of a heart attack en route to the hospital. The heart attack is widely attributed to the fact that Boris Vian had been suffering from irregular heartbeat for a long time.



Vian is surprisingly popular in Germany. L'Ecume des jours and L'Automne a Pekin were translated in 1965, but the Vian boom started in the early eighties with the edition at Zweitausendeins. Most of the titles are still in print. Klaus Wagenbach a very famous publisher in Germany (and an expert on Kafka) released the paperback edition. Many of Vians novels were translated by Eugen Helmlé and Klaus Völker. Völker's main occupation is theatre but he is the editor of the German edition and also translated some of the titles. He wrote a pictoral biography of Vian and it is believed he knew him personally. He is also a member of the Collège de 'Pataphysique.

Art Spiegelman recently designed the covers for the German edition of Vian's (almost) complete works in the Zweitausendeins publishing house. Here [1] you can find all the covers. And on that same site [2] is a discography in German with some album covers.


L'Écume des Jours appears in three English translations, but Stanley Chapman's translation, called Froth on the Daydream, is the most highly regarded. L'Écume des Jours was translated by an American in 1968 as Mood Indigo (named for the famous Duke Ellington song), and most recently by Brian Harper as Foam of the Daze. Paul Knobloch has also translated "Autumn in Peking", which has received spectacular reviews, including one from American novelist James Sallis. It was published in 2004 by TamTam Books. In addition, Paul Knobloch did the recent and first-ever English translation of "The Manual of Saint-Germain-des-Prés", published by Rizzoli International in concert with TamTam. He is currently at work on two other Vian/Sullivan novels: "Les morts on tous la même peau", and "Et on tuera tous les affreux" (“The dead all have the same skin” and “To hell with the ugly”).

Selected bibliography


Dramatic works




The difficulty of translating Vian might account for his relative obscurity in the English-speaking world. L'écume in English means foam, froth or spume, but the expression l'écume des jours is a bizarre and unnatural concoction, typical of Vian's light and surrealistic touch. Critics comment that in L'Écume des Jours -- which Raymond Queneau called 'the most heartbreakingly poignant modern love story ever written' -- Vian's imaginative and playful use of language constitutes a fourth dimension of meaning, which supplements ordinary elements of plot and character. The difficulty of re-capturing the distinctively Vian-esque tone and charm of the text is the challenge confronting his translators. Vian's novels are tied irrevocably to the language of their composition.

It should be noted, however, that despite the difficulties almost all of his works have been translated to Hungarian, German, Polish and Russian, a lot of them to Italian (the list of the translated works can be found on the Boris Vian Wikipedia pages of the given language).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Boris Vian" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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