Something akin to those science experiments that employ vast amounts of energy to achieve a momentary glimpse of a transitory but paradigm-shifting state, Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’écume des jours [i] - a delirious, nutty, affecting and tragic love story (ranked #10 on Le Monde’s 1999 list of the best 100 books of the 20th century) - radiates life and captures, for a brilliantly glowing instant, the effervescent transports of youth, love and friendship.
It’s disappointing that Vian seems to be best known, at least in the United States, for I Spit on Your Graves (J’irai cracher sur vos tombes), his raging novel of racial and sexual violence in the American South, as L’écume des jours, while hardly free of the darkness that shadows that later attempt at noir, reveals Vian working a far richer, more resplendent and dazzling vein. As though anticipating the Beat Generation (and taking most of its better aspects, leaving the larder spare), Vian’s novel mixes his beloved jazz music with poetic conceits and inventive language into a work in which music and movement seem generated by every gesture, to punctuate each event, creating an animated, spirited atmosphere of transient vivacity and bright promise. In a prefatory note to the book, Vian captures the vital concentration of this elixir, writing, “There are only two things: love, in all its aspects, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans or of Duke Ellington. The rest should disappear, because the rest is ugly, and these few pages of demonstration that follow take all of their force from the fact that the story is true, just as I have imagined it from one end to the other.”
The reader knows right away that he or she is in for an imaginative “true story.” L’écume des jours verges on fable, creating a world in which the emotions of its characters find correspondence in exterior manifestations, often of an absurdist, even hilarious nature. The novel opens with the well-off, 21-year-old Colin emerging exhilarated from his bath and walking down the hallway to the kitchen, where mustachioed mice - one serves as a mute but expressive witness throughout the novel - dance delightedly in the rays of sun reflecting off the shiny faucets of the sink. Colin’s private chef, Nicholas, has ingeniously trapped an eel that has been sticking its head out of the lavatory basin, and is preparing an extragant recipe supplied to us in full (more recipes follow, all at least as over-the-top as any in James Hamilton Patterson’s comical Cooking with Fernet Branca, but plausible, since…well, try looking into an antiquarian French cookbook sometime). When Colin’s closest friend Chick arrives, the jazz-obsessed Colin demonstrates for him his pianocktail, a piano that mixes cocktails in accordance with particular melodies played on the keyboard, just one of many conceits and inventions in L’écume des jours wild enough to rival those of Raymond Roussel.[ii]
Colin, aching to fall in love with someone, like Chick has with Nicolas’ niece Alise, encounters at the ice skating rink one day the 18-year-old Chloe, from whom he flees after committing a faux pas. Vian captures beautifully the abject fear mingled with all-encompassing hope that marks the earliest moments of love between young people. What follows is a madcap, whirling, deeply poignant love story in which the brightest and most ethereal moments of young love run up against the trials and cruelties of a world seemingly determined to snuff them out.
Though fantastical for a “true” story, L’écume des jours cleaves closely to realities thinly veiled and often tremendously funny, as in a contrepèterie transformation of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (friends and champions of Vian) into Jean-Sol Partre, the great philosopher of the moment, and his colleague the Duchesse de Bovouard. Chick, obsessed with purchasing all of Partre’s books in the finest editions (including one bound in nothingness), becomes nearly giddy when a bookseller offers him a pair of the philosopher’s worn pants. His girlfriend Alise shares his fanaticism, at least for a time. Partre himself, nearing completion of his magnum opus, a 20-volume encyclopedia of nausea, arrives at a conference riding upon the back of an elephant, accompanied by sharpshooters; following the philosopher’s talk to fans no less enthusiastic than those of the Beatles at Shea Stadium, sample vials of varieties preserved vomit are offered for sale.
Vian’s rich language provides one of the greatest pleasures of L’écume des jours. For example, in the original French, the above vials are described as “enchantillons de vomi empaillé,” the last word nearly untranslatable in context, given its connotations of taxidermy. Vian frequently employs neologisms, surprising juxtapositions of adjectives, and unusual turns of phrase, many of which slip as effortlessly as a grace note into the linguistic current, as in his invention (replete with description) of a dance he terms the “biglemoi.”
Much of the fanciful content of L’écume des jours derives from its many cartoonish exaggerations, like those one imagines might have blossomed had Salvador Dalí continued his brief collaboration with Walt Disney. In one scene, Colin draws grooves on the top of a cake, then spins the cake on his index finger while, with the sharp point of a holly leaf serving as a stylus, elicits Duke Ellington’s “Chloe.” In another scene, as a piece by Ellington is played on the phonograph, a rectangular room stretches to become round, resuming its original shape when the music stops. When Chloe undergoes an operation to remove a water lily growing in her lung, the surgical scar forms a comically perfect circle. Nicolas’ culinary concoctions reach an alarming state of absurdity when he prepares a hangover cure consisting of “white wine, a spoonful of vinegar, five egg yolks, two oysters, and a hundred grams of ground beef with crème fraîche and a pinch of hyposulfite of soda.”[iii]
Often, though, such elaborations represent material correspondences of the sharp emotions of youth. Some of these take on a violent quality of the sort present in I Spit on Your Graves, a just-under-the-surface fury at life’s injustices, a fierce protest against all that stands in the way of love, vitality and hope. When a skating rink attendant moves with lethargic indifference after Colin learns that Chloe is in the hospital, Colin, with cartoon violence, dispatches him by throwing an ice skate and decapitating him. Alise’s eventual dismay at Chick’s having become a slave to collecting all things Partre results in a furiously disproportionate explosion of violence that contains echoes of the Nazis’ destructive purges.
If not an explicit response to the horrors of the just-concluded war, L’écume des jours, written as Vian traveled about the United States in 1946, nonetheless carries within it a scream of indignation against a world that could allow the wanton destruction of so many young people, so much beauty. Coming from the pen of a writer who would go on to compose one of the most forceful and defiant refusals to participate in the killing of his fellow human beings – the acidly caustic song “Le Deserteur” - it’s small wonder that this marvel-filled and moving work of imagination and exuberance could simultaneously contain such a grimly melancholic vision bordering on fatalism, an acknowledgement that the world’s ugliness may prove too much even for the best of youth. Having witnessed the terrible things of which the world was capable, even Mickey Mouse might willingly have placed his head in the open maw of an ever-obliging cat.
[i] The difficulties of translation are evident in the history of attempts to translate the title of Vian’s novel. “L’écume” translates literally as “froth,” “foam,” or “sea spray” (Wikipedia’s entry on Vian goes for the more vulgar “scum”). At least three English translations of L’écume des jours have been published and three film versions have come out, all of which demonstrate this translation problem. The film titles include Spray of the Days and two titles that leapfrog the issue, Chloe and, sharing the same title as the second English edition to be published, the recent Mood Indigo. The first English edition appeared in 1967, entitled Froth on the Daydream. The latest, 2003’s Foam of the Daze, leans in the direction of fetishizing the kookier elements of the book at the expense of its genuine innocence and tenderness, and to me misses the poignancy of the original French. This may largely be a matter of taste; I am not a translator, but an option that appeals to me is The Evanescence of Days.
[ii] Literature’s marvelous ability to imagine what others may go on to realize is born out , as an Internet search on the word reveals, by the existence of several working pianocktails created by Vian’s fans.
[iii] Perhaps best known today as the principal ingredient in those chemical “instant heat” hand warmers and thermal pads.