Boris Vian (1920-1959)
BORIS VIAN, singer, songwriter, essayist, playwright and jazz aficionado, was a legendary figure in Paris in the post-war years — ‘the Prince of Saint-Germain ‘ — who left an indelible mark on France’s intellectual and artistic life. His avant-garde music, novels and plays continue to inspire a generation of fans more than 50 years after his death. This (PDF – ISSUU) is the introduction to a new translation* of three of his plays — The Empire Builders, The Generals’ Tea Party and The Knacker’s ABC — by his friend, comrade, translator and fellow pataphysician, the late Simon Watson Taylor.
* These remain unpublished (by ChristieBooks) due to a copyright dispute with the executors of the Vian estate
BORIS VIAN was only 39 when he died in 1959. He was an insomniac who sometimes wrote all night and then left home for a morning appointment without having slept at all. He once calculated that, should he die at the age of 40, he would have lived as long, in the waking state, as a man of 102 who had indulged in the average eight hours of sleep a night.
As a child he had suffered a severe attack of rheumatic fever, and thereafter his heart was in permanent danger. Indeed he had a presentiment that he would never reach that symbolic age of 40. But far from coddling his malady he led a hyperactive life that covered an amazing range of frequently simultaneous creative activities.
At 22 Vian graduated from the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures as a civil engineer (and later profited, eccentrically, from this training by inventing and patenting an elastic wheel, and by building a whole storey on top of his penthouse apartment in Montmartre). But he fairly soon abandoned this profession in favour of jazz music, which continued to occupy his attention throughout his life, as musician, songwriter, prolific contributor to Le Jazz Hot and other specialized reviews, and eventually record company executive. While playing an accomplished jazz trumpet, Vian was also busy writing. In 1946 he began contributing light-hearted pieces, under the byline “Chronique du Menteur” (“The Liar ’s Chronicle”), to Les Temps Modernes, the literary review directed by Sartre and de Beauvoir. In the same year he published his first novel, Vercoquin et le plancton; in the following year he wrote and published two more novels, L’Ecume des jours (1) and L’Automne à Pékin. All three were greeted at the time with singularly little critical or popular acclaim, although the novelist-poet Raymond Queneau hailed L’Ecume des jours as “the most poignant of all contemporary love stories”. To remedy matters financially, Vian, in this same prolific year, wrote and published the first of a series of raunchy thrillers, J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, which purported to be his translation of a work by an American ex-GI, Vernon Sullivan. This achieved an immediate succès de scandale and was followed in quick succession by three more Vernon Sullivans “translated” by Boris Vian. At the end of 1948 Vian – rather rashly, and against the advice of his friends and publisher – confessed his authorship of this sado-erotic quartet: the enraged literary critics never forgave him this exercise in duplicity and “bad taste”, and high- minded journalists pursued him to his own grave with taunts about his dual identity.
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