DISCUSSED: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sartre, Georges Hugnet, Camus, Raymond Chandler, I Spit On Your Graves, Editions Du Scorpion, Native Son, Quasipolitical Anger, Northern Renaissance Painters, Blowtorched Feet, Jackbooted Thugs, Well-Groomed Mice, Sergio Leone, A Novel of Oppositions, Beaujolais, Triplets, Identity Vampirism, Randy Newman


Boris Vian—poet, novelist, jazz lyricist—appears on the screen in the fifth minute of Roger Vadim’s 1959 Les liaisons dangereuses. In the minor role of a French foreign minister, Vian accuses Jeanne Moreau of ignoring him. She argues to the contrary that she likes him a lot. Her remark “hurts his heart,” Vian replies.

“Oh, you have one?” she asks.

Yes, he does, since the moment that her husband introduced them.

“Be grateful,” Jeanne Moreau answers, “hearts are scarce these days.”

A minor film appearance would be a silly place to begin a survey of a career as kaleidoscopic as M. Vian’s, were it not for the fact that the cinema killed him. Legend has it that at a private showing of the unauthorized film adaptation of his controversial novel I Spit on Your Graves (also 1959), the actors’ lousy performances allegedly provoked him to exclaim, “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!”[1]—whereupon he dropped dead of a heart attack. He was thirty-nine.

For a man of such a frail constitution, Vian was restlessly active throughout his life. Born in Ville d’Avray, France, in 1920, Vian endured a malady-riddled childhood that left him with a weakened heart. This organ, an instrument of life, he knew would also cause his death, a realization that colored everything to which he turned his attention (that is to say, a considerable lot). During World War II, he trained as an engineer, wrote a couple of novels, and played jazz trumpet with amateur nightclub bands. This love of jazz (and a good time) put him at the center of the newly liberated postwar renaissance. Vian literally wrote the manual on Saint-Germain-des-Prés,[2] the neighborhood over which the stars momentarily aligned to concentrate the terrestrial cool. He knew everyone: Jean-Paul Sartre, Alberto Giacometti, surrealist Georges Hugnet. His friends and admirers included literary superstars Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, and Albert Camus. In the fourteen years of his literary career, Vian himself wrote at least ten novels and forty-two short stories, four collections of poetry, seven plays, six opera librettos, fifty-plus journalistic articles, and translated twenty works from English, including novels by Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren, and the five-hundred-page memoir of General Omar Bradley, which he reportedly completed in two weeks.

But his literary work failed to achieve the same reputation as that of contemporaries like Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute. Vian’s four pseudonymous pulp novels, however, did gain critical mass: they were so scandalous that everyone wanted a copy (and so scandalous that he was taken to court and fined for outraging public morals). Plenty of admirable authors start out writing pulp (Kurt Vonnegut, David Markson). Some raise it to the level of art (Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon). Very few begin writing pulp, hit their stride writing literature—and then decide to give it up to be the French Cole Porter. In 1953, Boris Vian abandoned fiction and began a second career as a lyricist, writing more than four hundred songs in the six years before his death. His is one of the unlikeliest and most diverse careers in literature.

  1. The film is, by most accounts, terrible (and not be confused with the 1978 U.S. film that pilfered its title). It has been noted for its sociological value as a European vision of the 1950s American South, depicted as “a region populated by elderly aristocrats attended by parasol-carrying Negro footmen in sculptured gardens, while leather-jacketed motorcycle hoodlums play games with homemade electric chairs in an ice-cream parlor next door” (New York Times, June 29, 1963).
  2. Reading his Manual of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1951; English version by Rizzoli, 2005) is like going to a stranger’s twenty-year high-school reunion with the garrulous yearbook editor as your guide. Vian sketches the scene’s history in offhand detail and serves up a program of the major players. His account is more valuable for his descriptions of the vitality of ordinary lives than as history. It’s a star chart written by an insider with an eye for the most vivid, irrelevant detail and an ear for the best sordid anecdotes.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Victor Brand is a freelance writer in New York who writes about photographers, writers, and Frenchmen, the more obscure the better.

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