Demobilized GIs and the American Forces Network kept Boris
Vian (1920-1959) in touch with everything American culture exported in
abundance after the Liberation, from jazz to crime novels and science
fiction. The writer‑musician‑translator was very familiar with them,
unlike most of the French, who had been cut off from the United States
during the Occupation. As early as adolescence, Vian relied on the
culture of the place he called the uhessa for many of his artistic
resources. Never having been there, he pictured the country, both its
good and bad sides, through novels, movies, records, articles, travel
narratives, jazz criticism and probably essays. He must have read Hugues
Panassié's Cinq mois à New York (Five Months in New York, 1947), a
collection of travel stories and jazz criticism, and, among the host
of writings on the excesses of American society, Georges Duhamel's
Scènes de la vie future (America the Menace: Scenes from the Life of
the Future, 1930). Hence, a set of constructions built with fervor,
conviction and imagination but not much concern for accuracy permeates
his work and forged the funny, vibrant style that quickly became his
trademark. But Vian was more an "inventor of America" than a cultural
go-between. His America was all the more convincing because he knew it
second-hand and reconstructed it with a poetic imagination more
existential than political.
Vian, who never set foot in the United States, may have had unrealistic
musings about America, but they never veered into idealism. While
admiring some of its cultural products, he was not especially interested
in the everyday lives of its citizens, as Jean‑Paul Sartre and Simone de
Beauvoir were when they spent several months there in 1945 and 1946. His
writings denounce the shortcomings for which the country is commonly
known, starting with racism and puritanism. Moreover, he did not have to
leave France to enjoy what mattered to him most: American jazz and
motion pictures. They, as well as, of course, literature, captured his
imagination throughout his life. To a certain extent, his prose work,
theater and songs were Americanized. Was this a matter of cultural
appropriation or Americanization?
Vian was never truly an Americanophile. With caustic humor, he clearly
expressed everything he liked as well as loathed, or at least made him
dubious about, a transatlantic culture that enjoyed a surge of esteem
after the Second World War. Americans were perceived as liberators and
bringers of material well-being. That is how Vian became an inventor of
America, or, as Leslie Fiedler said a decade after his death, an
"imaginary American." He did this in two different yet complementary
areas: jazz as a musician and a knowledgeable critic, and literature as
a translator. After the war, Vian was active on many fronts with no
apparent concern for intellectual consistency. He was a novelist, a jazz
musician and journalist, an emcee at the famous caves of
Saint-Germain‑des‑Prés and the editor of "Chroniques du menteur" ("The
Liar's Chronicles") in Les Temps modernes (1946-1947) with the
temporary but kindly approval of Sartre, alias Jean-Sol Partre in
L'Écume des jours (Froth on the Daydreams, 1947). Vian even
invented an American writer named Vernon Sullivan, claiming to be his
translator while actually writing the novels himself.
(Jazz) music soothes the savage beast
Vian suffered from a heart condition; jazz gave him the will to live. He
grew up in an affluent family that enjoyed every kind of music, which
filled their fashionable villa in Ville-d'Avray near Paris. The
acquisition of his first trumpet at the age of 14 set him on the path to
his future passion. Jazz soon became a family affair: the three
brothers, Boris, Alain and Lélio, often played together and at dances in
a ballroom on the family property. It was still the age of swing. In
April 1939, Vian attended his first Duke Ellington concert at the Palais
de Chaillot: from then on there was no turning back. Before long,
Ellington became his idol. In July 1948, Ellington even stayed with
him at his home in Paris and was the godfather of his daughter Carole,
born April 12 the same year. Vian named the ill-fated heroine of Froth
on the Daydream after the title character in Ellington's 1920s piece
Chloe (Song of the Swamp). The version he listened to was Ellington
and Billy Strayhorn's adaptation from the early 1940s. The warm welcome
that the great American jazz musicians received in France made Vian feel
all the more dismayed at how little the American GIs with whom he
sometimes jammed knew about them. These experiences inspired him to
write a semi-autobiographical short story, Martin m'a téléphoné
(Martin Called Me), in October 1945.
"He loved jazz, he lived for jazz, he listened to jazz, he expressed
himself in jazz," said French crooner Henri Salvador. Vian helped to
popularize the genre in France in two complementary ways: first as a
trumpet player in well-known bands; second, and primarily, as a music
journalist. His hundreds of contributions to the newspaper Combat and
magazines Jazz Hot, La Gazette du Jazz and Jazz-News, among
others, fill three full volumes of his complete works. Lucien
Malson, who in the 1950s edited Jazz Hot with Vian, André Hodeir and
Frank Ténot, was the first to publish his jazz columns after his death.
In the foreword, he wrote:
For a long time—I want to say since adolescence—Boris Vian has cared more about jazz than anything else. If Vian the writer loses interest in novels one day, Vian the critic will love jazz for the rest of his life.
In January 1957, Vian became the artistic director for jazz and variety
music at the Philips record label, where he had created the "Jazz pour
tous" LP collection two years earlier. He wrote many liner notes about
artists ranging from Miles Davis to Kid Ory, Mahalia Jackson (whom he
called the world's greatest gospel singer), Count Basie, Erroll Garner,
Louis Armstrong and his quintet and, of course, Ellington. All the great
names and cutting-edge styles including be-bop and cool jazz are there,
not to mention all the singles that were also recorded.
What is striking about Vian\'s stance on the cause of black jazz
musicians is his form of racial purism. He defended their cause as an
oppressed people, as Mezz Mezzrow did in Really The Blues (1946). In
April 1948, he wrote in Combat:
The problem is as follows: black music is increasingly burdened by
white elements that are sometimes sympathetic but always superfluous,
or at least advantageously replaceable by black elements. Must we
continue to congratulate, criticize, encourage or excite the whites in
question? Or must we simply advise them to hang themselves by their
suspenders? [...] In theory, I was all for integrated groups, but
I've come to realize how selfish this is. Of course it's great to play
with blacks. But who benefits from it? Certainly not them.
A few days later in Jazz Hot he wrote, "Call me a racist, but I insist
that whites will never be equal to blacks in jazz."
Vian backtracked on this radical position later, but took the issue so
much to heart that he called Madeleine Gautier and Marcel Duhamel's
French translation of Mezz Mezzrow's book Really the Blues, published
as La Rage de vivre (1951), "racial treason":
Comments on the translation by Madeleine Gautier, "the empress of
English text: Now, when your hair drags the ground—bucks are
*Gautier's text: When your hair grows to drag on the ground, when
dollars fly like butterflies.
Remarks (for example): Where is "grows to drag on the ground" in the
original? [...] As for the butterflies, it's a poetic addition by
Mame [sic] Gautier. She could have also put pterodactyls, because
it's not in the text.
No, madam, it is not serious work to betray the black race.
The humor of this remark defuses its potentially serious character, but
Vian, while showing his broadmindedness, sometimes put himself into
awkward positions. He wrote:
Art. 1. THIS PRESS REVIEW IS NOT A PULPIT FROM WHICH I THUNDER.
Art. 2. WHEN I AM HARD ON A READER, IT IS OBVIOUSLY FOR LAUGHS.
However, this laughing matter may have had another meaning a few years
earlier in a reply to a reader:
I leave you here, and without wanting to give you any advice, let me
say again that ignoring this letter or answering it on the fly, as you
do most of the time, would be very embarrassing for you with regard to
many people [which ones, for God's sake?]. In any case, it would be
judging you once again.
Dear Schauenberg, if you knew how little I care about being judged by
people who do not understand what they read...
Whatever his polemical positions about jazz, its performers and its
faithful fans, Vian managed to work them into his earliest works of
fiction. The first, Vercoquin and the Plankton (1946), was a
novel read by Queneau, who opened up the doors of Gallimard to him. The
hilarious adventures of his friend Jacques Loustalot, aka "the Major",
who became a surly character in his first fictional works, can be read
as a guide to planning the kind of surprise parties that the Zazous of
the time used to throw. Parties take up half the novel—parts one and
four, respectively: "Swinging at the Major's" and "The Jitterbugs'
Passion". But this filiation thrives especially in Froth on the
Daydream. In his introduction to the Fayard edition, Gilbert Pestureau
called it "an Ellingtonian masterpiece". "It is mainly jazz that
nourishes both the lyricism of Froth on the Daydream and the poignant
strength of the unhappy but eternal love story," he wrote. Vian
continued in this vein, but differently, in Les Fourmis (The Ants,
1949), a collection of 11 short stories shot through with jazz. Nine pay
tribute to musicians: Sydney Bichet by referencing Didn't He Ramble in
"Les Fourmis" ("The Ants"); Louis Armstrong (My Sweet) in "Les bons
élèves" ("The Good Pupils"); Billy Strayhorn (Clementine) in "Le
Voyage à Khonostrov" ("The Journey to Khonostrov"); Rex Stewart
(Without a Song) in "L'Écrevisse" ("The Crayfish"); Muggsy Spanier
(Lonesome Road) in "La route déserte" ("The Deserted Road"); Jack
Teagarden (who becomes Jacques Théjardin in "L'Écrevisse") in "Blues
pour un chat noir" ("Blues for a black cat"); Bix Beiderbecke in "Le
Brouillard" ("The Fog"), "who died of it" (an allusion to In a Mist);
Johnny Hodges (Blue Goose) in the eponymous "L'Oie bleue"; and Fats
Waller (Ain't Misbehavin') in "Le Figurant" ("The Extra"). A subtle
game is going on here, for the reader can only discover the allusion by
the French translation of the song's title (In a Mist for Le Brouillard) or by the French adaptation of the performer\'s name (Jack Teagarden for Jacques Théjardin). All of these songs predate the war, yet Vian was a fierce advocate of bebop. How can this choice be
understood? One hypothesis is that he distinguished emerging jazz from
its more classical antecedents still being played by the champions of
the New Orleans, Chicago and swing styles, which would be seen as more
suitable for his fiction.
American jazz musician and writer Mike Zwerin, who considered Vian one
of the best jazz critics of his time, wrote, "In a way, Boris Vian
[...] was an American living in a Frenchman's skin." It is worth
noting that New York radio station WNEW chose Vian to introduce jazz
records made in France in the 1930s and '40s. He wrote the humorous
texts in English for the 45 or so programs he recorded with American
radio host Ned Brandt. Sadly, none of the recordings are known to exist,
but Gilbert Pestureau tracked down the manuscripts and typescripts in
the Boris Vian Foundation archives and published them in Jazz in Paris
(Pauvert, 1997). For example: "No. 23. This is your old pal Boris Vian
saying bonjour from Paris and bringing you more comic jazz from
Boris Vian vs. Vernon Sullivan
In 1946, Vian invented a mixed-race American writer named Vernon
Sullivan and published J'irai cracher sur vos tombes as his
translation of Sullivan's I Spit on Your Graves, a thriller so dark
and steamy that, it was claimed, no American publisher would go near it.
Hastily written in August, it was released by Scorpion in November.
When the truth came to light, what began as a hoax to boost Scorpion's
sales became a runaway bestseller ensuring that Vian's name would go
down in posterity. The spoof features all the earmarks of the
hard-boiled novel: violence, tough guys, murder and sex. But it also
allowed Vian-Sullivan to address racism, an issue he deeply cared about.
The protagonist, Lee Anderson, wants to shockingly, not to say
sadistically, avenge his younger brother's lynching by whites. He has
the advantage of being light-skinned enough to "pass". To research the
book, Vian read "Who is a Negro?", an article in Collier's magazine
(August 1946) about light-skinned blacks who, like the fictional author
Vernon Sullivan, go through life as whites.
Easily blending in with the upstanding residents of Buckton, the
fictional town where the novel is set, Anderson searches for the ideal
expiatory victims. He finds them in the Asquith sisters, whom he rapes
and murders. The description of the crime is blood-curdling: I Spit on
Your Graves is worlds away from the romantic Froth on the Daydream
written just a few months earlier. Anderson breaks all the rules of
civilized behavior by taking his rage out on two innocent victims. The
mask of the false translator makes anything possible, including
peppering the novel with word-for-word "translations" of Americanisms
("Sûr!" for "Sure!", "Sainte fumée!" for "Holy smoke!", etc.). Anderson
can be seen as a metaphor for Vian's position as what Sharon Monteith
calls a "white negro" in the world of letters of the time. Monteith
compares Richard Wright and Vian, who read Wright before creating the
pen name Vernon Sullivan. In many ways, she argues, I Spit on Your
Graves "was prescient of the creative dialectic that emerged in a
transatlantic exchange of adventure stories and melodramas characterized
by a love of American popular culture."
Vian translated "Down By the Riverside" and "Bright Morning Star",
Wright's harrowing short stories about the plight of blacks in the Deep
South. Sartre invited Wright, the grandson of a slave, to write for Les
Temps modernes after the war. Vian/Sullivan was already betting on two
sides, real and false translator, as if it were a game. In The Empire
Builders, which premiered at the Récamier Theater in December 1959, the
father says, "There are times I wonder if I'm not playing with words.
[...] Maybe that's what they're for." But the game is a dangerous one
because the fictional Sullivan eclipsed the real Vian when Froth on the
Daydream came out. The novel fell into almost total oblivion until
the 1960s, and by then it was too late for the author to reap the
It was, then, also through literature, more specifically satire, that
Vian became the inventor of America by creating Sullivan. This literary
act fit in with his positions as a musician: he protested the fact that
blacks were oppressed by an ultra-racist system (the theme of I Spit)
and forced to perform before segregated audiences. In February 1947, as
people began talking about the novel, Vian was preparing the
retro-translation of J'irai cracher into English, which came out as Shall Spit on Your Graves. The translator was his friend Milton
Rosenthal, an ex-GI and occasional American correspondent for Les Temps modernes. After returning to the United States, Rosenthal corresponded regularly with Vian, giving him detailed insights on the everyday lives of Americans, which, naturally, were an important source of information for him.
In April 1948, Vendôme Press released I Shall Spit on Your Graves in
English with almost the same cover as the French edition. Amusingly, in
June 1947 Hélène Maurice‑Bokanovski published Le Grand Horloger by
Kenneth Fearing, the real translation of The Big Clock (1946) by Vian.
Clearly impressed by his translations, Maurice‑Bokanovski wrote to him
on December 3, 1946:
Sir: I have read your translations with great interest, particularly those of Vernon Sullivan, and wonder if you would be willing to translate for us an American book by Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clock, which we intend to publish at Éditions des Nourritures terrestres.
It is noteworthy that Vian's dual career as a false and a real
translator began at about the same time, and that he was particularly
successful in the latter. He translated 11 books, 11 short stories and
three plays, all from English with the exception of two plays by
Strindberg. After The Big Clock, he translated two major Raymond
Chandler novels with help from his wife Michelle, who, unlike her
husband, was a real Anglicist: The Big Sleep and The Lady in the
Lake (with the note "Translated from the American by Boris and Michèle
[sic] Vian"), both of which appeared in La Série noire in 1948.
Michelle Vian recounted that, one day when her husband dropped by at
Gallimard, Marcel Duhamel asked him to choose a novel to translate from
a selection of titles; a month later the job was done. In
the 1950s, Vian translated science fiction short stories and two novels
by Alfred Van Vogt that have become cult favorites: The World of A and
The Pawns of Null-A, which Rayon fantastique published in 1953 and
1957. He then became known as a connoisseur of American popular culture.
After J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, he wrote three more novels under
the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan: Les Morts ont tous la même peau (The Dead All Have the Same Skin, 1947), Et on tuera tous les affreux
(To Hell with the Ugly, 1948) and Elles se rendent pas compte (They
Do Not Realize, 1950). The Dead All Have the Same Skin was a
success, but the other two sold poorly and print runs were reduced.
As the Vernon Sullivan hoax came to light, Vian wrote his second "noir"
novel, The Dead All Have the Same Skin, published by Scorpion in
September 1947. In a way, it is a mirror image of I Spit on Your
Graves, in which Lee Anderson is a black man with white skin. In The
Dead All Have the Same Skin, a blackmailer tries to convince Dan
Parker, a white man, that he has black blood. Vian was increasingly
painting himself into a corner, continuing to pass off his novels as
translations. In a scathing afterword to the second Sullivan novel, he
attacked critics incapable of seeing I Shall Spit for what it was:
"They say nothing about the story itself, the 200 printed pages," he
wrote. "It is not that book in particular. It is all of them. That is
what they call reviewing a book. It is bewildering." However, in
"Les nègres et l'obscénité en littérature" ("Negroes and Obscenity in
Literature") an article published in Les Lettres françaises (July 25,
1947), Joseph Zobel, the author of La Rue Case Nègres, accused Vian of
trickery and bad faith. "I Spit on Your Graves is neither a Negro
novel nor an American one; neither pornographic nor obscene," he wrote.
"It is a lie, a hoax, a piece of demagogy." Vian retorted: "An
individual claiming to be a black man from Martinique has stated that no
black person wrote this book."
Not everybody was as clever as Zobel. Duhamel, the founder of Série
Noire, fell for the hoax:
One day Boris handed me a manuscript and asked me to tell him if I thought it was original or a translation from the American.
I read it. It supposedly takes place in Harlem and the systematic violence, a certain attitude towards blacks, seemed made up and put me off a little. But to me, Vernon Sullivan, the author, is definitely American. Boris looked quite content and Les Éditions du Scorpion published the book a short time afterwards. I Shall Spit on Your Graves was a bestseller! He got me.
Oddly, Vian translated only one book about music: Dorothy Baker's Young
Man with a Horn (Gallimard, 1951), a romanticized biography of Bix
Beiderbecke. The jazz cornetist was very important for Vian and inspired
his trumpet playing.
Vian was also an inventor of America in June 1946, when he submitted his
third "Liar's Chronicle" to Les Temps modernes, "Impressions
d'Amérique". It was rejected by Merleau-Ponty (Vian often found him too
"pontyficating"), and for good reason. The "liar" pulled out all the
stops for this special issue on the United States set to come out in the
autumn. He wrote about meeting André Breton in Harlem, where he was
living in exile disguised as a black man and speaking the local jive:
"It is a loss for Surrealism," said his travelling companion Alexandre
Astruc. His provocations in this issue of Les Temps modernes, which
was published to summarize Sartre's long, recent trip to the United
States, were bound to make waves. "We waited all morning outside the
hotel door hoping to see a nigger get lynched, but New Yorkers are
decidedly soft. They say there are still some tough guys in Nevada.
We'll try to get out there. Our bags are packed." Vian's
translation of Wright's short story "Down by the Riverside" was
published in L'Âge nouveau the same year. Apparently, it did not
bother him to have it both ways: on the one hand the serious translation
of an important black writer, on the other an article with totally
irreverent black humor (no pun intended).
By inventing his America, Vian displayed his total freedom from the
cultural norms of his time. It should not be forgotten that postwar
France saw a surge of patriotism and morality exemplified by Daniel
Parker and his Cartel d'action sociale et morale, which tried to have
Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn as well as
Vernon Sullivan's first two novels banned. While the United States
captured the French imagination, it could also be perceived as an
exporter of obscenity (if not pornography) and so-called "savage"
music. Vian challenged the social climate and brandished his
"Americanism" for what he believed was a good cause, i.e. the total
emancipation of the individual. Fiercely anti-militarist, he wrote
L'Équarrissage pour tous (Slaughter for All, 1947), a play that
mocked D-Day but earned him admission to the Collège de Pataphysique to
great fanfare. In 1955, he sang "Le Déserteur" ("The Deserter") on
stage, sparking protests in some provincial cities. During his tour,
Vian met with such a hostile reception in Dinard that he called off his
concert in Deauville. He wrote an open letter to Paul Faber, a municipal
councilor of the Seine, who wanted to censor the song, which was
eventually banned on the radio. The mood in France was tense and
divisive: after losing one colonial war in Indochina, the country was
bogged down in another in Algeria.
As rock'n'roll swept the United States off its feet and Elvis Presley
shook his hips on television, Henri Salvador, Vian and Michel Legrand,
alias Big Mike, who had just come back from America, wrote four
hilarious spoofs of the genre in early June 1956: "Rock'n'roll mops",
"Dis-moi qu'tu m'aimes rock", "Rock-hoquet" and "Va t'faire cuire un
œuf, man". But Vian did not think highly of the genre. "If you want
to adapt an Elvis Presley song," he wrote, "you may as well not bother
and give the job to an illiterate person to respect the spirit of the
model." His invention of America was a parody of a non-existent
original. In the same spirit, two years later Henri Salvador recorded
"Le Blouse du dentiste" with lyrics by Vian.
In the afterword of The Dead All Have the Same Skin, Vian not only
lashed out at an inept, if not prudish, critic, but above all proclaimed
his freedom as an individual and an artist‑creator. The four Sullivan
novels take place across America from the South to New York, California
and Washington, D.C. So what would be the point of going there since, as
Raymond Roussel said, "imagination is everything for me"? A
free-thinker, Vian had enough information to construct his own America.
Was his vision of it so far off?