14 June 2012

Boris Vian: L'Écume des jours (1947)

The first paragraph of L'Écume des jours (variously translated in English, and two publications have rendered it Mood Indigo1 and the rather ugly Foam of the Daze) begins with a man's blackheads shrinking back into his skin out of the shame of seeing themselves in the mirror, and the reader knows almost immediately that this will be no ordinary read. Sure enough, we soon learn of a cook feeding the mice, and beheading an eel that's been popping out of the tap to feast on his pineapple-flavored toothpaste, and many conventional situations are turned on their head. I'm not too certain why I'd avoided reading this book so far (probably put off by reading his J'irai cracher sur vos tombes first, I imagine), but I'm very happy I finally got round to it: this is a very funny book which also has a number of very serious things to say.

The main character is Colin, who has enough money to live on to avoid having to work, unlike his friend the engineer Chick, who has far less money than the workers he's in charge of, so Colin often invites him over for a meal cooked by his chef Nicolas, who derives his culinary inspiration from the 19th century master Jules Gouffé.

Colin soon meets Chloé, the love of his life, and quickly marries her in a wildly extravagant wedding. Meanwhile, Chick has found Alise, but the couple don't have much money for long: although Colin very generously gives his friend a quarter of his 100,000 doublezon wealth, Chick is obsessed with the philosopher Jean Sol Partre (obviously a very thinly veiled satirized version of Vian's friend Jean-Paul Sartre), and must own everything he writes, including very expensive limited editions.

Colin too will soon have money problems as a water lily is discovered growing in Chloé's lung, and the best cure is to send her to a mountain retreat and keep her surrounded all the time by flowers. Almost as soon as she gets better, the other lung begins the same complaint, and Colin will have to consider the unthinkable: working for a living.

The end is catastrophic for all four main characters. Chick has spent all his money on Partre's books and souvenirs, but Partre is working on a multiple-volume encyclopedia of nausea: Alise kills Partre as he refuses to cease publication, she dies while burning bookshops, and the police kill Chick during an argument over him not paying his taxes. Chloé dies, a heartbroken Colin decides to drown himself, and even the pet mouse, in sympathy with his dead friends, resorts to suicide by sticking his head in the jaws of the cat.

This is an anarchic book, and the author of it is of course a kind of anarchist as he takes shots at almost every institution. Another book that once did that, and which led to the author abandoning novels altogether, was Thomas Hardy with Jude the Obscure (1895). In Jude, though, work is all important, whereas for Vian it is the opposite.

Vian once said that it's not possible to see a man working without cursing the person who made him do it, because that man could be swimming, lying on the grass, reading, or making love to his wife. Ignoring the fact that the mention of the word 'wife' 2 of which Vian seems to approve alludes to another (sometimes poisonous) institution – and one for which Hardy was severely punished for taking such a strong, er, poke at – this shows us where Vian's sympathies clearly lie: in the love of freedom.

Throughout the novel, institutions represent enslavement and/or tyranny: the brutalization of work, the enslavement of everyone to money, the thuggery of the police, the callousness and avarice (and a mild suggestion of pedophilia) of the clergy, the violence of the government, etc.

To return to Vian's satire of Sartre through Partre, though, the novel makes a number of obvious references to the philosopher's works, particularly to La Nausée, and the allusion to Sartre's famous lecture on L'Existentialisme est un humanisme at the Club Maintenant in 1945 – in which Partre arrives on an elephant in an armored howdah and begins by exhibiting a pile of stuffed vomit – is hilarious. There are also references, for instance, to a 'duchesse de Bovouard' (Simone de Beauvoir) and 'Don Evany Marqué (an anagram Raymond Queneau, surprisingly, didn't find himself), but the main point is clear: celebrity cults are tyrannous too, and we have seen the destructive results of one on Chick and Alise.

Very funny, very frightening, surprisingly modern: a wonderful book.

1 This relates to the jazz theme running thoroughout the novel, in which the character Chloé's name is taken from the jazz song 'Chloe (Song of the Swamp)' (to which the water lilies obviously allude), and Vian also claims that he wrote the Foreword in New Orleans and the book itself in Memphis and Davenport – although in reality he never went to any of these places.

2 He in fact said 'femme', which can also mean 'woman', so do we give him the benefit of the doubt?

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

No comments: