27 July 2012

Boris Vian: J'irai cracher sur vos tombes / I Shall Spit on Your Graves [1946]

Les Éditions du Scorpion was a French publishing firm created in 1946, and its founder, Jean d'Halluin, asked Boris Vian in the same year if he would write a novel in the same genre as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Vian wrote the book between 5 and 20 August and later described it as principally influenced by James M. Cain, a writer of hardboiled crime novels perhaps best known for his (filmed) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943). (There are also, of course, some (mainly sensational) similarities between this novel and Richard Wright's Native Son (1940).)

But Vian wrote this under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan (a name he would use for three more novels), an invented person whose work he claimed to be translating from the American, and who he also claimed was an American black who could pass as a white but identified himself as black: J'irai cracher sur vos tombes concerns Lee Anderson, an American black who passes as white, and one of whose brothers has been lynched in a racist attack.

The book was banned in France in 1949 for its (at the time extreme) sexual and violent content: Anderson narrates the whole book apart from a few very short chapters at the end, and much of its concern is with his sexual pursuits on moving to Buckton, but his obsession with two sisters from a wealthy family (in Prixville!) turns from mere interest in sexual conquest to violent retribution for the his brother's death. This is a long way from L'Écume des jours.

Vian, whose health was quite delicate, died of a heart attack aged 39 in 1959 during the showing of the rather different cinematic version of the book, and had previously declared that he wanted nothing to do with it.

In 1948 The Vendôme Press in Paris (a one-off imprint of Éditions du Scorpion?) published Vian's translation of his own book into English (with an Introduction by Vian, and apparently in collaboration with Milton Rosenthal) as I Shall Spit on Your Graves; the American publisher Audibon Ace rendered the title as I Spit on Your Grave in 1971; and this was re-pluralized to I Spit on Your Graves by Canongate of Edinburgh in about 1982, and then in a new edition in 2001. But surely a better translation is 'I'm Gonna Spit on Your Graves'?

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Boris Vian: L'Écume des jours

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