The Death of Boris Vian

Writer and Jazz Musician Boris Vian (1920-1959)

This is a reprint of a blog I posted on October 1, 2018—with some minor changes. Vian was not only a member of the Oulipo literary movement, but he was a renowned jazz musician.

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and sci-fi writer A. E. Van Vogt). In addition, he was a friend to the existentialist writers of the 1950s.

I have just finished [in 2018] reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Boris Vian at the Trumpet

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves [not to be confused with the various rape revenge films released under the name of I Spit on Your Grave without the “s”]. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and music.

The Philosophers

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Just as the Second World War was ending, there was a philosophical renaissance of sorts that was born in the streets and cafés of Paris. Most associated with it are Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Best known for her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had written a novel about the French existentialists in 1954 called The Mandarins.

It is a classical roman à clef, in which real people appear under fictional names:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre becomes Robert Dubreuilh
  • Simone de Beauvoir becomes Anne Dubreuilh, Robert’s wife (In real life, Sartre and de Beauvoir were an unmarried couple for over fifty years)
  • Albert Camus becomes Henri Perron
  • American novelist Nelson Algren becomes Lewis Brogan

The book’s characters are deeply involved in leftist political issues without subjecting themselves to control by the Russian Politburo. Yet they find that it was easier to blow up trains and otherwise sabotage the Nazi war machine than to find a path through the messy politics of the Fourth Republic in France, particularly during the postwar political rise of Charles De Gaulle.

The Camus/Perron character struck home with me, because he is the most disaffected of the group after the war ends. As he gets pushed more and more by his friends into the messy politics of the French Republic, he becomes increasingly dispirited. This reflects his relationships with his women and his male friends.

Curiously, although Simone de Beauvoir never married and never had children, she is both married and with a troublesome daughter (Nadine) in The Mandarins. Her relationship with Sartre/Debreuilh is an open marriage, and she carries on a long affair with an American novelist, Nelson Algren/Lewis Brogan, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Mandarins is one of the best books I have read all year. I rather suspect that I will revisit the French existentialists in my reading during the months to come. Also, I have concluded that de Beauvoir is a badly underrated author considering her importance in a major twentieth century philosophical movement.