Saturday, November 12, 2011

James Campbell's "Boris Vian, The Prince of Saint-Germain"

The following is an article that was printed in The Times Literary Supplement.

Boris Vian, the Prince of Saint-Germain

James Campbell

Bibliothèque nationale de France
Until January 15, 2012

191pp. BNF/Gallimard. 39euros.
978 2 07 013530 1

Published: 9 November 2011
J-P Sartre, Boris Vian and Simone de Beauvoir, 1951
Just when it seemed impossible that Boris Vian could do anything else to surprise us, his too-lean, too-pale face veers into close-up on one of several screens in this captivating exhibition. Accompanying himself on an outlandish nine-string guitar-cum-lyre,Vian begins to sing a solemn Italian ballad. It takes only a few moments for the listener to realize that it’s improvised nonsense – all spaghe-h-h-h-tt-tt-i, minestro-o-o-ne, forrrrrmAAGGio, chocoLAAATTe. An interviewer asks in English why he is singing this gibberish. “I never went to Italy”, an almost smiling Vian replies, “so I had to write a song about it to know it.”
Throughout his thirty-nine years, Vian made up life as he went. When the world declared that his invention did not fit, he spun his own planet, in a parallel orbit, where the laws of Boris applied. The most successful of the eight novels to be published during his lifetime, J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946), was written in two weeks and published under the name “Vernon Sullivan”, an African American writer whose work was translated “de l’Américain par Boris Vian”. The action takes place in the United States, which Vian never visited. Sex, violence and a racial conundrum – the anti-hero Lee Anderson is a black man light enough to pass for white, like Joe Christmas in Light in August (Faulkner was in vogue) – led to Vian being charged with having outraged “des bonnes moeurs”. It was the first literary prosecution of its kind since 1857, when Madame Bovary entered the dock. Vian did not enjoy the scandal, which resulted in time-consuming litigation and a fine, nor the infamy. His hopes of being taken more seriously as a writer at the Café de Flore, which had suddenly become the literary centre of the world, were raised when Gallimard published, first, Vercoquin et le plancton (1947), a novel originally written to amuse friends, and then, three months later, in the collection “Blanche”, L’Écume des jours. At the same time, Les Temps Modernes took his short stories and translations and indulged a sequence of send-ups of “Meloir de Beauvartre” and “Pontartre de Merlebeauvy”, making a motley of the journal’s leading thinkers, under the heading “Chronique du menteur” (Liar’s chronicle). The brief surge of good fortune was quashed, however, when Gallimard rejected his next novel, L’Herbe rouge, in 1949.
The letter bearing the bad news from Raymond Queneau, a reader at the firm, is displayed here. Queneau, a lifelong friend, cannot bring himself to disagree with the other dissenting readers, who included Sartre. Meanwhile, Merleau-Ponty, the editor of Les Temps Modernes, had got fed up with seeing himself lampooned in his own magazine, and the truth-talking liar’s hi-jinks were discontinued. Sartre himself remained fond of Vian, even when the latter turned up in Left Bank nightclubs reciting passages from L’Être et le néant to a blues accompaniment by Henri Salvador. Sartre had enjoyed his depiction in L’Écume des jours as Jean-Sol Partre, author of “La Lettre et le néon”, a study of neon lighting. But the mutual affection could not survive the decampment of Boris’s wife Michelle, mother of their two young children, to the Sartre coterie, of which she remained part until Sartre’s death in 1980. Michelle Vian, once “une belle blonde” – her own description, in a fascinating recent interview in Le Nouvel Observateur – still lives in the sixth arrondissement, and has been instrumental in the mounting of this exhibition, as was Vian’s second wife, Ursula Kubler-Vian, who died last year.
To describe Vian as a writer is less than half the story. It is his exhilarating versatility that makes the show such a joy. The awkwardness of putting a mainstream literary figure on display was manifested six years ago in the Sartre exhibition, in the same Galérie François 1er of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The curators tried valiantly to blow life into dusty material by providing clips of the Temps Modernes circle in discussion, together with footage of early productions of Sartre’s plays. There was also a short film of postwar Saint-Germain-des-Prés, of which the highlight was a few seconds of a reed-thin Vian, shot from below, playing a bebop solo on a pocket trumpet. That cameo has now been amplified and given a broad context, in a splendid presentation, under the direction of Anne Mary.
Music dominated the second part of his career, after 1953, when the last of the Vian novels appeared, the painfully titled L’Arrache-coeur – one of only a few Vian books to have been translated into English, in this case as Heartsnatcher, by Stanley Chapman. The fourth and final Sullivan novel came out in 1950. Vian’s passion for jazz was already equal to his love of literature, and his jazz writings occupy several volumes. A selection translated by the late writer and jazz trombonist Mike Zwerin under the title Round About Close to Midnight was published in 1988. Here is Vian, who disliked New Orleans jazz, reporting from a festival in Nice in 1948 for Albert Camus’s old newspaper, Combat:
“Louis Armstrong, who had just woken up, crossed the lobby in kingly manner on his way to breakfast. Last night was a triumph for him, tonight will be another. You cannot really find fault with Louis. He is the same Louis you hear on record. In fact you sometimes get the impression that his records are playing, not him.”
When American musicians visited Paris after the war, buoyed by Marshall Plan largesse, Boris acted as host, while the bilingual Michelle took the job of interpreter. One photograph on display shows Vian with an arm round Miles Davis; another catches Duke Ellington looking enquiringly into the wide eyes of Juliette Gréco. Vian approached his jazz writing as he did every other kind – as if composing a letter to a friend. His dispatches are full of jokes, recriminations, made-up words, flights of fancy: “Birds are responsible for three of the lesser curses that burden mankind: the desire to climb trees, to steal, and to sing”. The introduction to his treatise on songs and songwriting, En Avant la Zizique, of which these are the opening words, has the recommended tempo, “Andante, pataphysicoso”. The reader turns the page to arrive at “Chapitre Zéro”.
Vian was having great fun saying “merde” to one and all; but while he was adored by his intimate circle, as the designated Prince of Saint-Germain, the wider public was minded to reply to his industry in similar fashion. Vian had suffered from heart trouble since childhood, and the scandal over J’irai cracher sur vos tombes depressed his constitution further. Even by 1947, we learn here, he had to manage his energy, and his breath, carefully. Vian was a competent nightclub trumpeter – his recordings with small groups are available – and even if he never dreamed of making a living playing “Muskrat Ramble” at the Club Saint-Germain or the Tabou, it must have been crushing in 1950 to hear a doctor say that he should give it up altogether. The film clip of him leading a trio including his brother Alain in a pacey “Sheik of Araby” is particularly affecting in this respect. Dated 1958, it shows the trumpeter a year and a half from death, doing what he loves most, in the knowledge that each note shortened his life by a minute. An empty trumpet box, made by Vian, is on show. “The instrument itself has disappeared.”
With several careers already behind him – he had begun his professional life as an engineer at l’Afnor (the un-Vianesque Association française de normalisation) – he turned in his early thirties to songwriting and popular music generally. In the years that remained, Vian would become, first, joint artistic director “pour les variétés” at Philips, under the wing of Jacques Canetti, brother of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, and then, in 1958, artistic director of the Fontana label in France.
He wrote about 500 songs, many of which have become part of French pop culture. His interprètes include Gréco – an exquisite “Musique mécanique”, which may be heard here – Serge Gainsbourg (a sloppy “J’suis snob”), Magali Noël, who joins Vian in a riotous rendition of “Fais-moi mal, Johnny”, Henri Salvador, with the gargling “Blouse de dentiste” – the dentist turns out to be a plumber – as well as Yves Montand, Leo Ferré, Jacques Higelin and Serge Reggiani. For all his limitations in range and technique, however, there is no substitute for hearing Vian sing Vian. He recorded only about twenty of his own songs, but every track expresses his character. They satirize suburban mores (“Complainte du progrès”), arms dealers (“Le Petit Commerce”, “La Java des bombes atomiques”), psychotherapy (“Bourrée de complexes”), as well as recalling lost love (“Je bois”) and early Westerns (“Cinématographe”). Two EPs were issued in 1956, followed by an LP the same year, Chansons possibles et impossibles, with either Alain Goraguer or Jimmy Walter serving as composer and arranger. A few demos exist of Vian singing with one or the other at the piano. Admirers live in hope of the discovery of a cache of bootleg tapes.
Vian himself wrote the music for only one of his recorded songs, but it is the best known. “Le Déserteur” was first sung by Mouloudji in 1954, before being recorded by Vian. Almost a decade before Bob Dylan taunted statesmen in “Masters of War” for cowering behind their desks while armies went into battle, Vian’s narrator tells Monsieur le Président (at the time René Coty) that he never foresaw his destiny as killing poor folk. An invitation is issued which, as sung by Vian, has stirred generations of French students:
S’il faut donner son sang 
Allez donner le vôtre 
Vous êtes bon apôtre 
Monsieur le Président . . .
(If blood must be spilled, why not spill your own and set a good example . . . .) As for the deserter himself, he is content to become a drop-out, wandering “les routes de France / De Bretagne en Provence”.
Alas, the singing career was no more successful than any other enterprise. “Le Déserteur” was released shortly after the fall of Dien Bien Phu and at the time of a deepening crisis in Algeria. State tolerance of youth protest was not yet in an evolved condition. Vian was in physical danger when he stood up to sing. In any case, he suffered from stage fright. Jacques Canetti’s daughter described the demeanour in the theatre of the jesting prince as “glacial”. The coat he designed himself and wore onstage, familiar from gloomy photographs of the otherwise highly photogenic figure, is displayed in a glass case.
Vian’s death could have been yet another of his inventions. In the early 1950s, he had sold the film rights to J’irai cracher sur vos tombes. By the time Michel Gast was ready to put it into production, however, the author had changed his mind. Perhaps he felt that the advent of civil rights in the US had altered the mood; or maybe the older man was uneasy at his younger self’s violent story. But his efforts to block the project failed. Attending a private screening at the Salle du petit marbeuf, near the Champs-Élysées, on June 23, 1959, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Since his revival in the 1960s, Vian has never been out of fashion. L’Écume des jours is a perennial student favourite and his collected works have recently been issued in two Pléiade volumes. What would the perpetual rebel – “a son, not a husband”, according to Michelle – who loved everything in life except trad jazz and “les flics” have to say about that, if he could look down from the uppermost room at the Flore? Probably that the world, so long out of joint in his regard, had moved a millimetre closer to the laws of planet Vian. There are numerous things to enjoy in the exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale. Not the least, on the day I was there, was the sight of two teenage girls with headphones clamped to their ears bobbing up and down to Vian’s immortal rhythms.

James Campbell’s books include a biography of James Baldwin and Exiled in Paris, a study of anglophone literary life on the Left Bank after the Second World War.
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