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Boris Vian was a French polymath: writer, poet, musician, singer, translator, critic, actor, inventor and engineer. He is best remembered today for his novels. Those published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan were bizarre parodies of criminal fiction, highly controversial at the time of their release. Vian's other fiction, published under his real name, featured a highly individual writing style with numerous madeup words, subtle wordplay and surrealistic plots. L'Écume des jours is the best known of these works, and one of the few translated into English.
Vian was also an important influence on the French jazz scene. He served as liaison for Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Paris, wrote for several French jazz-reviews (Le Jazz Hot, Paris Jazz) and published numerous articles dealing with jazz both in the United States and in France. His own music and songs enjoyed popularity during his lifetime, particularly the anti-war song "Le Déserteur".
Boris Vian was born in 1920 into an upper middle-class family in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Ville d'Avray (Hauts-de-Seine). His parents were Paul Vian, a young rentier, and Yvonne Ramenez, amateur pianist and harpist. From his father Vian inherited the distrust of the Church and the Army, as well as a love of the bohemian life. Vian was the second of four children: the others were Lélio (1918), Alain (1921Ц1995) and Ninon (1924). The family occupied the Les Fauvettes villa. The name "Boris" does not indicate Russian ancestry; it was chosen by Yvonne, who was an avid classical music lover, after seeing a performance of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov.
Vian suffered from ill health throughout his childhood and had to be educated at home until the age of five. From 1926 to 1932 he studied first at a small lycée, then at Lycée de Sèvres. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 the family's financial situation worsened considerably and they moved to a small lodge near Les Fauvettes (from 1929 to 1932 the Vians rented the villa to Yehudi Menuhin's family). Shortly after Vian's 12th birthday he developed rheumatic fever, and after a while he also contracted typhoid. This combination led to severe health problems and left Vian with a heart condition that would ultimately lead to an early death.
From 1932 to 1937 Vian studied at Lycée Hoche in Versailles. In 1936 Vian and his two brothers started organizing what they called "surprise-parties" (surprises-parties). These gatherings became the basis of his early novels: Trouble dans les andains (1943) and particularly Vercoquin et le plancton (1943Ц44). It was also in 1936 that Vian got interested in jazz; the next year he started playing the trumpet and joined the Hot Club de France.
In 1937 Vian graduated from Lycée Hoche, passing baccalauréats in mathematics, philosophy, Latin, Greek and German. He subsequently enrolled at Lycée Condorcet, Paris, where he studied special mathematics until 1939. Vian became fully immersed in the French jazz scene: for example, in 1939 he helped organize Duke Ellington's second concert in France. When the WWII started, Vian was not accepted into the army due to poor health. He entered École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, and subsequently moved to Angoulême when the school moved there because of the war.
In 1940 Vian met Michelle Léglise, who became his wife in 1941. She taught Vian English and introduced him to translations of American literature. Also in 1940 Vian met Jacques Loustalot, who became a recurring character in several early novels and short stories. In 1942 Vian and his brothers joined a jazz orchestra under the direction of Claude Abbadie, who became a minor character in Vian's Vercoquin et le plancton. The same year Vian graduated from Ecole Centrale with a diploma in metallurgy, and also in 1942 Boris and Michelle's son Patrick was born.
After Vian's graduation, he and Michelle moved to Paris' 10th arrondissement and, on 24 August 1942 became an engineer at the French Association for Standardisation (AFNOR). By this time he was an accomplished jazz trumpetist, and in 1943 he wrote his first novel, Trouble dans les andains. His literary career started in 1943 with his first publication, a poem, in the Hot Club de France bulletin. The poem was signed Bison Ravi ("A Delighted Bison"), an anagram of Vian's real name. The same year Vian's father died, murdered at home by burglars.
In 1944 Vian completed Vercoquin et le plancton, a novel inspired partly by surprise-parties of his youth, and partly by his job at the AFNOR (which is heavily satirized in the novel). Raymond Queneau and Jean Rostand persuaded Vian to publish this work; it was accepted by Éditions Gallimard in 1945 and published two years later, in 1947, along with several works Vian completed in 1946. These included his first major novels, L'Écume des jours and L'automne à Pékin. The former, a tragic love story in which real world objects respond to the characters' emotions, is now regarded as Vian's masterpiece, but at the time of its publication it failed to attract any considerable attention. L'automne à Pékin, which also had a love story at its heart but was somewhat more complex, also failed to sell well. Nevertheless, the year 1946 was an important one for Vian the writer: he made acquaintance of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, and started regularly publishing various materials in Les Temps Modernes.
Also in 1946, at the request of his friend Jean d'Halluin, a beginning publisher, Vian wrote the novel J'irai cracher sur vos tombes. It was presented as a translation of a novel by an American writer Vernon Sullivan. Neither the novel nor the writer existed; this hoax was created solely by Vian and d'Halluin. The book, which was written in only 15 days, caused a controversy upon its release in 1947 and became one of the best-selling titles of that year. Vian wrote three more Vernon Sullivan novels in 1947Ц49.
Despite his literary work becoming more important, Vian never left the jazz scene. He became a regular contributor to various jazz-related magazines, and started played trumpet at Le Tabou. As a result, his financial situation improved, and he abandoned the job at the AFNOR. Vian also formed his own choir, La petite chorale de Saint-Germain-des-Pieds.
The year 1948 saw the birth of Vian's daughter, Carole. He continued his literary career by writing Vernon Sullivan novels, and also published poetry collections: Barnum's Digest (1948) and Cantilènes en gelée (1949). Vian also started writing plays, the first of which, L'Équarrissage pour tous, was staged the year it was written, 1950. The same year saw publication of Vian's third major novel, L'Herbe rouge. This was a much darker story than its predecessors, centering around a man who built a giant machine that could help him psychoanalyse his soul. Like the other two books, it did not sell well; Vian's financial situation was steadily worsening since late 1948, and he was forced to take up translation of English-language literature and articles. Vian's relationship with his wife was also in trouble. In 1950 he met Ursula Kübler, a Swiss dancer; the two started an affair and in 1951 Vian divorced Michelle. Ursula and Boris married in 1954.
Vian's last novel, L'Arrache-cœur, was published in 1953, yet again to poor sales, and Vian effectively stopped writing fiction (the only other work that appeared after 1953 was a revised version of L'automne à Pékin, published 1956). He concentrated on a new field, that of song-writing and performing, and continued writing poetry. Vian's songs were successful; in 1954 he embarked on his first tour as singer-songwriter. By 1955, when he was working as art director for Philips, Vian was active in a wide variety of fields, from song-writing to opera, wrote screenplays and several more plays. His first album, Chansons possibles et impossibles, was also recorded in 1955. He was also the writer of the first French rock and roll songs, with his friend Henri Salvador, who sang them under the nickname Henry Cording.
Vian's life was endangered in 1956 by a pulmonary edema, but he survived and continued working with the same intensity as before. In 1957 Vian completed another play, Les Bâtisseurs d'empire (only published and staged in 1959); in 1958 Vian worked on the opera Fiesta with Darius Milhaud, and a collection of essays, En avant la zizique... Et par ici les gros sous, was published the same year. On the morning of 23 June 1959, Boris Vian was at the Cinema Marbeuf for the screening of the film version of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes. He had already fought with the producers over their interpretation of his work and he publicly denounced the film stating that he wished to have his name removed from the credits. A few minutes after the film began, he reportedly blurted out: "These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!" He then collapsed into his seat and died from sudden cardiac death en route to the hospital.
Guinea, 2008, Henri Salvador and Boris Vian
Guinea, 2010, Boris Vian and jazzmen
Guinea, 2010, Boris Vian