Boris Vian – the polymath of Saint Germain de Prés

Boris Vian

Boris Vian is now seen as one of the most emblematic figures of post-war Saint Germain de Prés when it was at its artistic and intellectual height, but during his lifetime he struggled to receive recognition.

A creative polymath, Vian was an innovative author, playwright, jazz musician and songwriter, embracing life with a vigour all the more remarkable given the poor ill health he suffered from youth.

The youngest of four, Vian was born on 10th March 1920 in the small town of Ville d’Avray just outside Paris and grew up in a refined and cultivated atmosphere which emphasised fun and learning. Despite living comfortably from a private income his parents were far from conventionally bourgeois, having a healthy respect for personal freedom and instilling in Boris their scepticism of the army and the church, institutions which played an unhealthily domineering role in the society of the time.

As a sickly child Vian was educated at home and seemed to thrive from the one on one attention.  He learned to read at a precociously early age and by ten was whizzing through the French classics. Despite suffering from his first heart problems at twelve, he recovered sufficiently to finally be able to attend school, ending up at the famous Lycée Condorcet in Paris. There he excelled at classical studies and taught himself English in his spare time. It surprised no one when he passed his first BAC at fifteen, and another two years later.

His teenage years saw his passion for literature and the French language continue to grow and he developed a fondness for the punning and wordplay which would later appear in his novels and song writing.  He also became enraptured by jazz, then relatively unknown in France, and by seventeen he had taken up the trumpet.

Naturally gregarious, Vian became a regular on the Paris social scene and was renowned for the extravagant parties he held at the family’s villa at which up to four hundred youths would descend to dance the night away.

When war was declared Vian received his call up papers but was swiftly declared unfit for service.

Unable to fight he instead enrolled at the Ecole Centrale, somewhat incongruously given his creative bent, studying metallurgy.  While still a student he met and fell in love with a young woman named Michelle Léglise who helped him improve his English and introduced him to the translations of American literature which would heavily influence some of his later work. They were married in 1941 and went on to have two children.

After graduating in 1942 he began work as an engineer at the French Association for Standardisation (AFNOR).  He also made his first attempt at novel writing with Troubles dans les Andains (Turmoil in the Swathes), a surreal detective story, but it proved too avant-garde for contemporary tastes and wasn’t published until 1966.

Photo credit: Archives de la Cohérie Boris Vian

Undeterred, Vian ploughed on and began to have his first works published under various pseudonyms in 1944. It was as Bison Ravi, a suitably eccentric anagram of his name, that he published a particularly outspoken poem about the German banning of American Jazz in the Hot Club de France Bulletin.

The following year, helped by Raymond Queneau, he finally signed a contract with the distinguished French publisher Gallimard. However, his first novel, Vercoquin et Plancton, (Vercoquin and the Plankton) inspired by his youthful parties and his work at the AFNOR, which he heavily satirised, was not a success. Nor was L’Ecume de Jours (Foam of the Days) published in 1946. A tragic love story in which real world objects respond to the character’s emotions, it is now regarded as his masterpiece. L’automne a Pékin, (Autumn in Peking) which also had a love story at its heart, fared little better.

The same year he met Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus at one of the parties he hosted with Michelle. His novels may have failed to win the interest of the general public but it didn’t prevent these lions of the existentialist movement showed greater appreciation and he was soon regularly contributing material to their legendary journal, Les Temps Modernes.

Vian greatly admired Sartre and had given him a prominent role as Jean Sol Partre in L’Ecume des Jours, but it was a liaison he would come to regret as Sartre soon began an affair with Michelle which would ultimately destroy their marriage.

Frustrated by his lack of success he vowed he could write a best seller. In a mere fifteen days he produced J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I spit on your graves) a pastiche of the American thriller genre. He persuaded his friend Jean’dHalluin to publish it under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. Vian himself claimed to be the translator.  Hugely controversial with the critics it did indeed become a best-seller when it was published in 1947, the discovery of Vian’s deception doing little to harm sales.

The cover of J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes, the first novel Vian wrote as Vernon Sullivan. He claimed to be the translator.

He went on to write other Vernon Sullivan novels which would prove equally controversial and equally successful.

In the late 1940s his writing expanded into poetry and he published two collections, Barrum’s Digest and Cantilenes en gelée (Cantelinas in jelly) in quick succession. A play, L’equarrisage pour tous, (Squaring for all) whose textual rhythm owed much to the jazz syncopation he so adored, was written and performed in 1950.

The fourth novel under his own name, L’herbe Rouge (The Red Grass), came out in 1950. Much darker than his previous works it centres on a man who builds a giant machine which can help him analyze his soul. Again, it failed to sell. He published one further novel, L’arrache Coeur  (Heart snatcher) in 1953 but when that too failed to sell he effectively stopped writing.

For the last few years of his life he concentrated on song writing, his witty, literary compositions finding favour in an era where the likes of Prévert, Aragon, Queneau and even Sartre were also writing lyrics.  Le Desserteur (The Desserter), inspired by the war in Indochina, would become his signature song, so controversial that it was banned from radio and TV until that late 1960s.

Vian had always felt it was the work published under his own name which had true literary value, but could only find success as Vernon Sullivan.  His frustration must have been heightened by a film adaptation of J’irai cracher sur vos tombes which he publically denounced, demanding that the producers remove his name from the credits.

Despite the falling out he was invited to a private screening.  A few minutes in he is alleged to have declared ‘These guys are supposed to be American? My ass..,’ before collapsing and dying of a heart attack on the way to hospital.

It was a uniquely tragic end at the age of only thirty nine.

Soon after his death L’Ecume des jours began to gain belated recognition, followed swiftly by L’automne a Pékin, Arrache Coeur and L’Herbe Rouge.  His anti-establishment ideals made him the perfect idol for French youth of the 1960s and 70s who devoured his novels and turned them into major cult hits. A uniquely creative voice from a uniquely creative time, today Vian’s novels are available to all those who want to be transported back to the gitane stained, jazz infused cafes of Saint Germain de Prés at its peak.


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