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A half-century homage to France’s master-prankster

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2009-12-07 Latest update 2009-12-09 13:42 TU

Boris Vian(Photo: Jean Weber)

Boris Vian
(Photo: Jean Weber)

Boris Vian, the provocative writer, singer, poet, inventor and jazz trumpeter, was underestimated during his short, fast lifetime. Yet he had - and still has - a huge impact on French cultural and intellectual life. Fifty years after his death, Boris has come of age.

Culture in France: Boris Vian

07/12/2009 by Alison Hird


In the preface to his perhaps finest and most famous novel L’Ecume des jours (Froth on the Daydream) Vian wrote: “There are only two things: love, all sorts of love, with pretty girls, and the music…of Duke Ellington. Everything else ought to go, because everything else is ugly”.

Wilfully provocative maybe, but there was more than a hint of truth in those words: Vian loved jazz and everything frivolous.

He refused to take himself seriously.

Album cover(Photo: J weber)

Album cover
(Photo: J weber)

Vian discovered jazz at age 17, through a Duke Ellington concert. While he was no virtuoso trumpet player (he liked to say he played trompinette), he became something of a jazz impresario, literally introducing black American jazz to France.

He welcomed Ellington in 1939 and they would do jam sessions in St Germain jazz caverns like Le Tabou. He also brought over John Coltrane, and most famously, Miles Davis who remained forever grateful to Vian for introducing him to Europe.

It was also thanks to Boris Vian that Serge Gainsbourg left fine art and turned his hand to music. The young Gainsbourg saw Vian performing live and realised music could be a dignified, creative art form.

Vian wrote more than 400 songs, mostly jovial, jazzy numbers, with simple vernacular and cheeky word play, far from the more self-consciously poetic tradition of chanson francaise. They were moderately appreciated at the time, but a number have gone on to be classics in France.

Even now, at some point in many a party, people will break out into an improvised rendition of “On n’est pas là pour se faire engueuler”, a jolly song defending the right to protest, or “Si j’avais un franc cinquante”, set to the jazz standard “Whisperin”. These are songs that can be belted out as a group, without pressure to sing well.

Vian also wrote the first French rock’n’roll songs, performed by Henri Salvador under the nickname Henry Cording, in 1956.

Believing the genre was simply bad jazz, Vian thought it merited only parody lyrics, like in the song “Rock and Rollmops”:

rock and rollmops with bread and butter
rock and rollmops and minced beef
rock and rollmops with a fried egg

The album Rock and Rollmops failed to rattle and roll audiences at the time. Nonetheless Vian proved he was once again ahead of his time.

Beneath such light-hearted gaiety, there was always a thinly veiled subversive side and this partly explains Vian’s current popularity.

He was overtly anti-establishment, anti-clerical and above all anti-war.

His song Le Déserteur, where a soldier informs the President of his dignified decision to desert the army, caused a scandal on its release in 1954.

Boris Vian album cover

Boris Vian album cover

Hardly surprising: France had just come out of years fighting in Indochina and was taking up arms in Algeria.

The song was banned, but it became the French anti-war song par excellence in 1968, when a generation of young, anti-establishment pacifists found a voice they could identify with. 

Vian’s writing also caused a scandal during his lifetime, most notably with J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I spit on your graves), a clever pastiche of an American thriller. Published in 1946, it was banned for its explicit portrayal of sex, violence and racism. 

It was, in fact, a great literary prank.

Vian wrote it under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan and claimed he was merely the translator of a book written by a persecuted black American author exiled in Paris. It caused further outrage when a copy of the book was found in the room of a murder victim.

Vian said publicly if people had a problem with the book it was because they had a problem, full stop.

His heightened sense of the absurd reached its apotheosis when he joined the Collège de pataphysique, a prestigious circle of French writers and academics studying pataphysics, a virtual science invented at the end of the 19th century by the author Alfred Jarry.

They held absurd honours ceremonies with strange decorations. Vian was promoted to Transcendent Satrap, in charge of the Extraordinary Commission on Clothing. Along with illustrious French names like Raymond Queneau, Eugène Ionesco and Jacques Prévert, they engaged in serious, scientific discussion of stupid ideas, such as crossing Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.

“I am applying myself to thinking about things that I think people will not think about,” Vian said in a radio recording, before initiating French crooner and friend Henri Salvador in pataphysics.

Hard to know exactly what Vian himself thought, but what people now think about him is far clearer. For this 50th anniversary, French artists have been queuing up to pay tribute on a compilation of his songs called “On n’est pas là pour se faire engueler”.

The arranger Fred Pallem says that even while the original recordings have a slightly outdated sound, the melodies and lyrics have withstood the test of time, and a younger public will be able to discover a “very modern author”

“Boris Vian invented French pop, with dazzling words and very subtle melodies,” he says.

Boris Vian tribute album cover

Boris Vian tribute album cover

A host of French singers and musicians queued up to sing on the album, including Emilie Loizeau, Juliette Greco, Olivia Ruiz, Arthur H, Daniel Darc and Katerine.

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy did a version of “La Valse des mannequins” (The Top Models’ Waltz).

Shows about Vian’s life featuring his music, songs and poems have been touring the country.

Vian-loyalists have always appreciated his refusal to join a group or bow to the establishment, and now younger audiences see him as a welcome breath of fresh air in an increasingly consensual society.

Vian was not party-political, but his work shows him to be anti-racist and resolutely non-nationalist. As France is embroiled in debating the question of national identity, Vian’s voice is sorely missed.

To find out more:
-Boris Vian, Le Swing et Le Verbe (in French) by Nicole Bertolt and Francois Roulmann (Editions textual), focuses on his music.
- Round About Close to Midnight: the jazz writings of Boris Vian, translated by Mike Zwerin, quartet books, London, 1988.
- Fondation Boris Vian, 6 bis, cité Veron, 75018 Paris

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