Absurdism, Books, Film

I will spit on your graves

Mood indigo released in cinemas this week, starring Audrey Tautou, has had a mixed reception. It is an adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel, L’écume des jours. The British critics have not been kind about the director Michael Gast’s images of visual whimsy, but at least no one has died. Unlike Vian himself who was killed by his reaction to a film adaptation of another of his novels, J’irai cracher sur vos tombes 1946 (I will spit on your graves). In a preview screening in a Paris cinema in 1959 he died of a heart attack mid protest; mood black.

1946 and 1947 were Vian’s great years as a writer and musician. Medically unfit for the French army he survived Nazi-Occupied Paris working as an engineer in the glassworks trying to design the perfect bottle. In 1945, aged 25, he dived feet first into the post-war cultural explosion on the Left Bank. The soundtrack was jazz, the photographers Doisneau and Brassai, the philosophy hedonism. In Saint-Germain-de-Prés it was cheap to live and easy to dance in the night clubs forming in the cellars under the devastated city. They lived in cellars by night and cheated their landladies by day. Vian played bebop on his Trumpet at jam sessions in the nightclub Le Tabou on rue Dauphine; he composed songs for Juliette Greco and wrote his novels by day. Sartre published Vian’s regular absurdist column Liar’s Chronicle, in Les Tempes Modernes, which gave full range to his jokes, ambiguities and recriminations: only the laws of Boris applied. The post-war tristesse was eulogised by Vian in print and song.

When the short-lived heyday of Le Tabou was over (the late night licence was revoked after complaints by the neighbours) the insomniacs and noctambules decamped with Vian to the nearby Le Club. Vian was now a key figure in Paris Jazz, he played in Claude Abadie’s band, he published reviews on bebop in the influential magazine Le Jazz-Hot and he organised gigs for Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael and Charlie Parker and escorted them around town. American culture helped France reshape itself after the shame of the Occupation. Many Americans were in Paris in these years, ex-soldiers staying on to study on the GI bill, others travelling on the largesse of the Marshall Plan, others avoiding the racism of the United States. In his reviews for Le Jazz-Hot, with his rebellious and anarchic spirit, Vian wrote not only about the music but racism and the horrors of war as well. He translated short stories by Richard Wright (who was resident in Paris in 1946) and James Baldwin later praised Vian’s novel I will spit on your graves, writing that he detected in it the rage and pain Vian had heard in the black American musicians playing in the bars and cellars of Paris. It was Vian who helped Louis Malle persuade Miles Davis in 1958 to produce the soundtrack to Malle’s debut film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/Lift to the Scaffold. Vian’s famous song Le Déserteur, written in 1954 (just before the French defeat in Indochina and on the eve of the Algerian war), has lyrics in the form of a letter to the President of the French Republic: “If blood must be spilled, why not spill your own and set a good example” (nine years before Dylan’s Masters of War). The song was banned from broadcast on French radio. Serge Gainsbourg later said he tried singer/songwriting because of Boris Vian’s influence, and when Gainsbourg’s first album was released in 1958 Vian favourably reviewed it praising its ‘tense and biting quality’. Neither was afraid of morbidity or sexuality in their lyrics.

In late 1946 Vian announced he’d found the perfect American novel for a friend’s new publishing house. He had translated into French, he said, I will spit on your graves by Vernon Sullivan an underappreciated young black American author banned in the United States and living in France to escape racism and censorship. It was in fact a pastiche of American pulp fiction written by Vian himself over 15 days that August. The novel’s anti-hero Lee Anderson, an African American, lives in a small Southern town after his brother has been lynched and murdered. Anderson works in a bookstore and has much sex with white teenagers and later with the two daughters of the local Plantation owner. He revenges his brother’s death by humiliating the two and killing them in an orgy of eroticism. It is scatological, obscene, funny, heady and fevered and has a deliberately incendiary plot. The final image is of Anderson’s erect penis sticking out of his pants as he hangs from a rope.

Aside from Vian’s own death, the novel claimed another two lives. Shortly after publication a man strangled his lover in a hotel room and then shot himself. Next to the two corpses, on a table, a copy of the novel was found by les flics open with a passage underlined “I again felt that strange sensation that ran up my back as my hand closed on her throat and I couldn’t stop myself” The moral watchdog Cartel d’Action Sociale et Morale sought to prosecute the author, translator and publisher (the organisation had already succeeded in having Henry Miller’s works banned). Vian stood trial for translating ‘objectionable material’ as the American author could not be found. Vian relied on the defence that the novel was not his own work and set about creating a false biography for his alter-ego. But he was convicted and fined 100,000 francs; the truth of authorship was leaking out. It was the first prosecution of a novelist in France since Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in 1857. The trial to supress the novel led, as is always the case, to a large increase in sales and I will spit on your graves was the best-selling novel of 1947 in France (massively outselling his own Mood Indigo/L’écume des jous). In a dénouement of Boris-absurdity he wrote the English translation of his French ‘translation’ in 1948 to produce the putative original.

Vian described post-war bohemian Paris as a centre of organised madness; this comedian of language with his single absurd voice of indignation was at its core. Michelle, his first wife, saw a screening of Mood Indigo last month in Paris aged 91. She still lives.

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