Boris Vian — Three Plays: an Introduction by Simon Watson Taylor

Boris Vian (1920-1959)

BORIS VIAN, singer, songwriter, essayist, playwright and jazz aficionado, was a legendary figure in Paris in the post-war years — ‘the Prince of Saint-Germain ‘ — who left an indelible mark on France’s intellectual and artistic life. His avant-garde music, novels and plays continue to inspire a generation of fans more than 50 years after his death. This (PDFISSUU) is the introduction to a new translation* of three of his plays — The Empire Builders, The Generals’ Tea Party and The Knacker’s ABC — by his friend, comrade, translator and fellow pataphysician, the late Simon Watson Taylor.

* These remain unpublished (by ChristieBooks) due to a copyright dispute with the executors of the Vian estate

BORIS VIAN  was only 39 when he died in 1959. He was an insomniac who sometimes wrote all night and then left home for a morning appointment without having slept at all. He once calculated that, should he die at the age of 40, he would have lived as long, in the waking state, as a man of 102 who had indulged in the average eight hours of sleep a night.

As a child he had suffered a severe attack of rheumatic fever, and thereafter his heart was in permanent danger. Indeed he had a presentiment that he would never reach that symbolic age of 40. But far from coddling his malady he led a hyperactive  life that covered an amazing range of frequently simultaneous creative activities.

At 22 Vian graduated from the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures as a civil engineer (and later profited, eccentrically, from this training by inventing and patenting an elastic wheel, and by building a whole storey on top of his penthouse apartment in Montmartre). But he fairly soon abandoned this profession in favour of jazz music, which continued to occupy his attention throughout his life, as musician, songwriter, prolific contributor to Le Jazz Hot and other specialized reviews, and eventually record company executive. While playing an accomplished jazz trumpet, Vian was also busy writing. In 1946 he began contributing light-hearted pieces, under the byline “Chronique  du Menteur”  (“The Liar ’s Chronicle”),  to Les Temps Modernes,  the literary review directed by Sartre and de Beauvoir. In the same year he published his first novel, Vercoquin et le plancton; in the following year he wrote and published two more novels, L’Ecume des jours (1) and L’Automne à Pékin. All three were greeted at the time with singularly little critical or popular acclaim, although the novelist-poet Raymond Queneau hailed L’Ecume des jours as “the most poignant of all contemporary love stories”. To remedy matters financially, Vian, in this same prolific year, wrote and published  the first of a series of raunchy  thrillers,  J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, which purported to be his translation of a work by an American ex-GI, Vernon Sullivan. This achieved an immediate succès de scandale and was followed in quick succession by three more Vernon Sullivans “translated” by Boris Vian. At the end of 1948 Vian – rather rashly, and against the advice of his friends and publisher – confessed his authorship of this sado-erotic quartet: the enraged literary critics never forgave him this exercise in duplicity and “bad taste”, and high- minded journalists pursued him to his own grave with taunts about his dual identity.

These were mere pinpricks  which the anagrammatic  Bison Ravi (his favourite  alter ego) could shrug off. By now he had become the impresario and trumpet-playing band leader of Juliette Greco’s famous cabaret-nightclub Le Tabou, and soon he was to be dubbed “the Prince of Saint- Germain”. By the following year he was publishing his first poems, Cantilènes en gélée, his first collection  of short stories, Les Fourmis, and was achieving  his first success as a songwriter  with “C’est le be-bop”, sung by Henri Salvador who became his close friend and the co-author of a whole succession of “pop” hits during the years to come.

Even in this apparently innocuous field, though, he had his problems: the one album he recorded himself, singing his own lyrics, was promptly banned by the government on the grounds  that a particular  song, “Le Déserteur”,  was subversive.  The song remained  banned during his lifetime.

1950 saw the production of his first play, L’Equarrissage pour tous (The Knacker’s ABC), which he had written during 1946-7. Two days after the opening, a Paris court sitting in judgement on J’irai cracker sur vos tombes found him guilty of “outrage to public morals by means of literature” and fined him 100,000 francs. This much publicised condemnation added fuel to the wrath of the journalists and critics who were appalled by the ironic and anarchistic glee with which Vian, in his one-act “paramilitary vaudeville”, poked fun at allies and enemies, “resisters” and “collaborators” alike. With few exceptions, both press and public found it intolerable that Vian should mock the “glories” of the recently concluded war by using the Anglo-American  landing in Normandy as the background for his hilarious tale of a knacker trying to marry off his daughter to a German soldier billeted in their house. Only Cocteau (a strange ally) praised the play’s “exquisite insolence”.

The Vernon Sullivan caper having ceased to be financially profitable, Vian found time, among his countless exhilarating but often ill-rewarded activities, to translate a number of American authors: Raymond Chandler, Peter Cheyney, James M. Cain for Gallimard’s “Série Noire”, and then General Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s History – the latter feat accomplished in eight weeks with the aid of a special food-and-drink-dispensing apparatus which he had designed and which thrust refreshments at him while he slaved away at the interminable and turgid memoirs. However Vian had his revenge on the general by following up this forced labour with a new play, Le Goûter des Généraux (The Generals’ Tea Party), an outrageously camp farce in which his idiotic generals  plot with the French prime minister,  an archbishop  and the military  delegates  of the Great Powers and start a burlesque war which ends with a mad game of Russian roulette. The revenge remained private, alas, since the play was not performed in France until 1965, six years after Vian’s death.

It is not possible to write even briefly about Vian without taking into account his admiration for Alfred Jarry and for Jarry’s incomparable creation Père Ubu – Pa Ubu. Jarry chronicled Ubu’s monstrous adventures in a celebrated trilogy of plays, (2) and the presence of the great booby looms large behind several of Vian’s inspired literary provocations, particularly his own plays L’Equarrissage pour tous and Le Goûter des Généraux. Equally important in the evolution of Vian’s thought is Jarry’s “science” of pataphysics, of which Ubu himself claims the paternity when he proclaim  loftily: “Pataphysics  is a branch of science which we have invented  and for which a crying need is generally experienced” (Ubu Cocu, I, 3). Jarry elaborated this “branch of science” in 1898 in his astonishing and unclassifiable work Les Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll pataphysicien  (The Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, Pataphysician). (3)  It is sufficient to recall, in the present context, that according to Jarry:

“Pataphysics is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics. Ex: an epiphenomenon being often accidental, pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will examine the laws that govern exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be – and perhaps should be — envisaged in the place of the traditional one… Definition: Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions…” (Faustroll, Chapter 8).

In 1946 Vian had already written, in his preface to L’Ecume des jours: “The most important thing in life is to have a priori opinions on everything, since it seems that the masses are usually wrong, and individuals always right.” And even earlier (as he subsequently related) he had acquired his first revelation of pataphysics in the pronouncement by a character in some play that “I like to set myself thinking about things that I think other people are unlikely to be thinking about.” What more natural, then, than that in 1952 Vian should have gravitated towards a group of conscious pataphysicians  with whom his long-time friend Raymond Queneau was associated. The Collège de ‘Pataphysique had been founded in 1948, precisely fifty years after Jarry completed Faustroll, to glorify the memory of Jarry’s many-faceted genius, and to explore further the imaginary worlds of Pa Ubu and Dr Faustroll. In the Collège Vian joined a joyous and distinguished company that, in addition to Queneau, included figures as diverse as Eugène Ionesco, Jacques Prévert, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, René Clair, the ethnologist Michel Leiris, the mathematician François Le Lionnais, the Arctic explorer Paul-Emile Victor…

Despite his involvement, during this period, in a multitude of demanding professional obligations, Vian always found time to participate enthusiastically  and effectively in the activities and non-activities (equally arduous) of a “learned society” whose rigorous standards of scholarship, recondite interests and partiality for elaborate intellectual hoaxes all appealed strongly to his instincts. The Collège (who had been the first to publish a play by Ionesco) were the first to publish Vian’s plays Les Bâtisseurs d’Empire and Le Goûter des Généraux in their Dossiers, and to the day of his death Vian contributed a stream of essays, comments, proposals and pataphysical inventions (such as a “gidouillographe”) to its pages. The Collège, in its turn, awarded  him several imaginary  honours  including  that of Promoteur  Insigne de l’Ordre de la Grande Gidouille (Queneau being the Grand Conservateur of the Order). Vian had found his spiritual home among the “transcendent corps of satraps” of this highly idiosyncratic and exclusive institution. As he himself explained in an interview, in reference to the Collège: “One of the fundamental principles of pataphysics is that of equivalence. It is that, perhaps, which explains our refusal to distinguish between what is serious and what is not, since for us it is all exactly the same thing, it is all pataphysics.”

Aside from these pataphysical activities Vian also contrived, during 1952 and 1953, to write most of the delightful, laconic poems which comprise the posthumously published Je voudrais pas crever. During the following years he wrote an enormous amount of journalism on jazz and other themes, review sketches for theatre and cabaret, film scripts, song lyrics, created the choreography for ballets, translated  two plays by Strindberg  and one by the Irishman  Brendan  Behan, and Nelson Algren’s novel The Man with a Golden Arm, collaborated with the composer Darius Milhaud on an opera, Fiesta, acted in several films (including Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses), published a book on the world of popular song, En avant la zizique…, prepared a scenario for a proposed filming of his 1946 pastiche J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (he never did pay the fine imposed on him in 1950 for writing it in the first place!), and in 1957 wrote his last and best-known play Les Bâtisseurs d’Empire. (4)

The Collège published Les Bâtisseurs in February 1959, four months before his death. The first production, by Jean Vilar ’s Théâtre Nationale Populaire, did not take place until the end of December. Vian was no longer around to witness the critics’ habitual discomfort.

The play tells of a bourgeois family, moving higher and higher up the stairs of their own house, into ever more cramped quarters, pursued by a hideous noise, surrounded by the haunting presence of a faceless being, the Schmürz, which they pretend not to notice while mercilessly torturing it. By the end of the play the family has been reduced to nothing and the stage is invaded by a silent proliferation of schmürzes… The critics grumbled and carped, dismissed the late author as an outdated exponent of the “theatre of the absurd”, and proferred an amazing variety of mutually contradictory interpretations, especially concerning the “meaning” of the Schmürz and of the related “noise”. But it was the critics who, lacking the grace of pataphysics, were absurd; and their absurdity lay not in their particular interpretation of the play but rather in the confidence they reposed in their own interpretation at the expense of all the many possible alternatives.

To a friend who, after reading the script, suggested to him that the play was a satire on French colonial policy, Vian replied: “Ha! a splendid idea! But I hope you’ll agree that that doesn’t prevent an absolutely mythical myth from assuming any number of other meanings.” As for the Schmürz: Vian’s wife, the Swiss dancer-actress Ursula Kübler, coined the word (doubtless a combination of Schmutz/Schmerz) in 1957 as a conversational term for anything or anyone tedious or annoying. Later its scope expanded. When the exigencies of home and family required some extra cash, Vian wrote whimsicalities for fashionable magazines such as Constellation and Elle, signing the pieces “Adolph Schmürz”.

On June 23rd, 1959, Vian was persuaded by friends to attend a private preview of the film of J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, shot finally from someone else’s script. Vian had quarrelled with the production  company  over this, and was demanding  that his name be removed  from the credit titles. Ten minutes after the film started, Vian suffered a fatal heart attack. He had made his ultimate gesture of disapproval of the “real” world and its cruel stupidity.

His final piece of writing, an essay for the Dossiers du Collège de ‘Pataphysique, which reached the editor of that review the day after his death, was signed simply “Schmürz”.


(1) English translations:  Mood Indigo (Grove Press), Froth on the Daydream (Penguin Books).

(2) Alfred Jarry, The Ubu Plays, translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor (Methuen, London, 1968; Grove Press, New York, 1969).

(3) See The Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, edited by Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor (Grove Press, New York, and Methuen, London, 1965, 1980), which includes an annotated translation of Faustroll.

(4)  The Empire Builders, translated by Simon Watson Taylor (Methuen, London, 1965 and Grove Press, New York, 1966).