“Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian;
A Vian Reader”
Translated and edited by Julia Older
Black Widow Press
207 pages, $19.95
All of us makers, crafters, hobbyists, part-time renovators, builders and writers may rejoice to find our de-specialization predicted in 1953 by Boris Vian, who wrote:
“Discover what’s in the guts of a robot. Be a specialist in everything. The future is at Looking Glass Peak. Take a good look.”
His theme: How do we keep our livelihood safe from automation?
That’s not all you’ll find in Julia Older’s translated collection of the works of Boris Vian, a French polymath who “adored” America.
There’s also a wolf, bitten by a man, who becomes a human during the full moon. There’s a priest who’s rationalized into non-existence. And a man who falls from the Empire State Building, with a detour on the 17th floor for existential coffee. There are poems sweet and saucy, a heartstrong pacificist ballad, and essays which thumb their noses at religion and technology alike.
At the risk of categorizing an un-categorizable artist, you may like Boris Vian if you’re a fan of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” or Jacques Tati or Salvador Dali or jazz or Beat poets or Wes Anderson movies or Director Michel Gondry’s newest film “Mood Indigo,” which is based on one of Vian’s most beloved novels. Or if, like me, you’re a fan of our translator.
Translators, like interpreters, can disappear into or be swallowed by the material they transform. Like backup vocalists and casting directors, these are unsung heroes. Others imbue their work with their own personalities, bring us closer to the original through their own connections, and in their affinity and affection we feel we can nearly know a foreign tongue. So it is with Julia Older of Hancock.
“Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian” is subtitled “A Vian Reader” and indeed it serves as a primer, a textbook, an introduction to the eclectic, surrealist absurdist/author/poet/musician/engineer/futurist/pataphysicist.
How to describe pataphysics? A satirical silly pseudo-science, referenced not least by the Marx Brothers and the Beatles. Founder Alfred Jarry dubbed it “the science of imaginary solutions.”
More than a primer, this collection is like a master class, complete with a charismatic teacher to guide our minds, to point out the especially clever bits, to rejoice in Vian’s merits and bring us all along for the ride.
Julia Older is a poet of many talents herself (she includes drawings of her own in this book). Having published fiction, poetry, memoir, essays and translations, she returns here to an old favorite, to bring more of Vian’s work to the English-speaking world.
Each major section of “Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian” is accompanied by her commentary giving us context and background. The bilingual format of Vian’s original in French on the left facing page is matched so that readers with the skills can compare the translation with the English on the right facing page. See how the slang of a bygone era is made fresh, and the puns and inside jokes illuminated, the rhyme and rhythm of Vian’s songs and poems retained and written anew.
Situated squarely between modern and post-modern, Vian’s writing illustrates the transition between the two movements, between a new world where any forms are possible, where all work is broken down and turned on its head, and one in which tragedy, futility and self-awareness rear their ugly heads, where wisdom and experience slow us down, and something darker and deeper emerges.
Yet Vian always writes with a wry intelligence, with infectious delight in each clever turn of phrase, in each poem, story and “essay.”
I put this last in quotes because I’m including, for example, Vian’s imaginary executive orders as mayor of Paris in 1999. He died in 1959 of the heart murmur he’d had since childhood.
Incidentally, what a perfectly absurd way to go—at the premiere of a film based on his own work (a crime novel he published pretending to have translated it from an American author!), which he’d publicly denounced, and was in the process of heckling when he suffered from a heart attack.
Vian predicted the year of his death, and may have been morbidly pleased with its manner.
In her introduction, Older quotes his friend and filmmaker Louis Malle: “The cinema can kill!”
Vian seems to have lived his life in this fashion—adventurously, wildly, absurdly. His son Patrick Vian wrote a brief Foreword for the book, and he puts it best: “He did everything but inane stupidities.”
I think Vian would have been self-consciously pleased to see his work made new for a wider audience. At the very least he would have rejoiced in this collection as a refutation of his poem “If poets weren’t so stupid:”
But poets are very stupid.
They start out writing
instead of putting themselves to work
and for that they feel guilty
which they cherish until they’re deceased
ravished by having suffered immensely.
We honor them with eulogy
and forget them in a day.
But if poets weren’t so lazy
We’d remember them two days at least.
In the spirit of Julia Older’s personal connection to Vian, since reading the book, I’ve been asking myself WWBVD: What would Boris Vian do?
Live life as if a heart murmur might take you at any moment. Rejoice in its absurdities. Laugh at your own self-importance. Make art to change the world, whether you believe it will or not. Do the things you love, he says, “because you dig it.”