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Blues for a Black Cat

by Boris Vian

During the 1950s, Boris Vian was a Renaissance figure in Parisian artistic circles. As a novelist, critic, dramatist, poet, song writer, jazz musician, and film actor, Vian displayed an incandescent range of talents. His prolific diversity, his impish sense of humor, and his early death at the age of 39 have insured him a continuing cult of followers in France, where his books have never gone out of print. Some 68 collections of Vian's essays, juvenilia and unpublished manuscripts have appeared in France since his death.

Typical of Vian's nature was a love of controversy, first evident in his opposition to the Second World War, or more accurately, his relative indifference to the occupation of France during the war. Like so many of his countrymen, Vian accommodated himself to the change in regime; he explained that he was not so much anti-military as pro-civilian. War, he said, inspired "nothing but a desperate, all-consuming anger against the absurdity." During the Algerian/French conflict of the 1950s, his song "The Deserter" was banned by the French government.

Yet another controversy arose in 1948 when Vian's novel J'irai cracher sur vos tombes ("I Shall Spit on Your Graves") sparked an obscenity trial because of its graphic mix of sex and violence in the hardboiled detective tradition. Set in the United States, a nation Vian never visited, the novel tells of a homicidal black man who preys on white women. Vian meant the story to be a comment on racism in American society, something he learned about through his jazz musician friends. The obscenity trial was prompted when a Parisian murdered his girlfriend and left a copy of the novel, opened to a particularly gruesome page, near the body.

Although he had written the sordid novel as a favor for his publisher, who was desperate for a best-selling book and hoped that something scandalous would do the trick, Vian maintained in court that the novel was not his own work but rather his translation of a book by the American writer Vernon Sullivan. Newspapers immediately saw through the scam. By 1951, Vian was obliged to admit that there was no Vernon Sullivan at all, and he was ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 francs. In the meantime, he had written several other hardboiled novels under the pseudonym, taking advantage of the public's interest in the case.

J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, translated into several foreign languages and later filmed, was the biggest success Vian enjoyed during his lifetime. (Ironically, he was to die of a heart attack while watching the film adaptation of the story.) Although his serious writings were critically successful, they never earned Vian enough money. He resorted to translating books by such authors as Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Baker and General Omar Bradley, playing in a jazz band, and writing over one thousand magazine articles.

In the 1960s many of Vian's plays were translated and published in America by the Grove Press, but the majority of his work has never appeared in this country. As a part of its ongoing series of modern French literature in translation, the University of Nebraska Press has published the first English-language edition of Vian's 1949 story collection Les Fourmis--the only story collection published while Vian was alive--as Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories.

Blues for a Black Cat differs greatly from the notorious J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, displaying instead Vian's Pataphysical sensibility and love of language play. A casual doctrine derived from the anarchistic aesthetics of 1890s writer Alfred Jarry, author of the satirical play Ubu Roi, Pataphysics refuses to take life too seriously and delights in mocking the pretensions and foibles of allegedly civilized thought and behavior. Vian was a member of the tongue-in-cheek College de'Pataphysique and contributed to the group's publications.

Reading one of the stories in Blues for a Black Cat is an unstable, tricky business akin to walking through a funhouse. The floor bucks and twists, the walls tilt, furniture hangs upside-down from the ceiling, and unexpected gusts of air shoot up your pantlegs. Vian's prose forces the reader to pay careful attention to what he reads lest his logic slip and fall. This can be a delightful experience, as in the opening to the story "Blue Fairy Tale": "At eighteen kilometers in the afternoon, that is to say nine minutes before the clock strikes twelve, because he was doing 120 kph (and that's in a car), Phaeton Goodfellow stopped on the edge of the shady road, obeying a thumb extending from an attractive body."

Because Vian's prose is so entertaining in itself, many of his plots tend to be minimal, little more than a series of events strung together by plays on words, sheer whimsy or linguistic metamorphosis. What keeps you reading is the flash and sparkle of the prose as it unfolds, kaleidoscope-like, before your eyes. So long as the author's inventions are fresh, this sort of writing can be great fun. When the author's imagination flags, a story can seem interminably long and irritating.

Although Vian's plots are minimal, they do lead to resolutions, sometimes perfunctory resolutions to simply end the word play, sometimes unexpectedly twisting with poignant power. In "Blue Fairy Tale" the seemingly nonsensical plot about a car journey across France ultimately resolves itself into a heartbreaking love story that hits hard precisely because it was so unforeseen. "Fog" begins lightly with a delightful asylum inmate released into wartime Paris, segues into a hilarious burlesque of a courtroom trial, and suddenly ends with murder and suicide during an Allied bombing raid.

Vian's dark humor is evident in many stories. A woman in "The Plumber" announces: "My seven children have drowned. The two oldest still are breathing because the water's only up to their chins. But if the plumber still has work to do here, I don't want to disturb you--." Or in "Cancer": "He took a large knife and cut off his head, dropping it into the boiling water with a few crystals to clean it without altering its weight. He died before he'd finished, because this was in 1945, and medicine wasn't as advanced as it is today."

This dark side works best in the story "Pins and Needles" ("Les fourmis" in the original French collection), a description of the Normandy landing of World War II. The unstable, shifting nature of Vian's prose--alternating here between deadpan serious and craftily naive--perfectly captures the confusion of the battlefield, rendering the horrendously violent subject matter as black humor of a deeply chilling variety. More than a parody of battlefield horrors, unnerving enough as that may be, the story turns one of the most hallowed battles of recent history into an absurdist melange of death, dismemberment and pain, signifying nothing. An excerpt: "We got behind the tank. I went last because I don't have much confidence in the brakes of those contraptions.... But I don't like the tank's manner of reducing corpses to a pulp with the sort of noise that's hard to remember--at the time you hear it, though, it's pretty unmistakable."

Ultimately, Blues for a Black Cat is a collection of moral fables, albeit fables told in a cynical, mocking voice and set in a skewed version of the real world. Under the surface absurdity and verbal play, they offer serious indictments of human weakness and pretensions. Further, they reveal the spiritual emptiness just beneath our civilized facade. Vian's blues are not only for a black cat, but for a society without meaning.