Autumn in Beijing : LUSENET : Boris Vian : One Thread

I'm trying to find out about the English translation of "Autumn in Beijing". More or less, I would like to know if it exists and if so, where I could buy it. I read a Polish translation of it when I was a kid and I've been looking for the English version ever since. Please respond, I need this book!!!! Thanks

-- Bart Myszkowski (, July 18, 1999


There is no official translation. I wish someone would do one. Here is an account of the book.

(This is an extract from Alfred Cismaru's book on Vian which is, as far as I can tell, out of print, but you might be able to get a copy at your State Library. )

Autumn in Peking

Although his original intention was to use the pseudonym Bison Ravi (the typed manuscript of the novel, now in the possession of his first wife, bears this signature), L'Automne a Pekin was published, in 1947, under the author's own name. The first edition was soundly unsuccessful (this, in spite of the fact that Vian, as usual, kept in mind the commercial side of the publication by devising two separate covers: one which read, "not destined to see the light of day" and another whose text was to be printed upside down), although in the bibliography of the later L'Herbe rouge it was listed as ipuisi. Nevertheless, in subsequent years, the narrative proved to be one of those works on which editors wished to capitalize through the printing of new editions. One appeared while Vian was still alive, in 1956, bearing only some grammatical corrections and very few variants; two others appeared in 1964, and still another in 1968, all selling an increasing number of copies. As in the case of the previously discussed novel, L'Automne a Pekin was written, as was Vian's habit, in a hurry, yet the initial reader's reaction is one which tends to overlook the stylistic shortcomings in favor of the contaminating gall and gusto of a writer whose exuberance and exacerbation are indeed extraordinary.

Michelle, who was the first reader of the manuscript, opined, "I don't know where you are going, but you are getting there without any detours." (31) Nevertheless, L'Automne a Pekin can be easily summarized. Anne and Angel, representing the two antagonistic aspects of one and the same personality, are friends who share many things in common and are similar in a variety of ways. However, they both fall in love with Rochelle, and this event underscores the differences between them. Anne, more down-to-earth and more devoid of complexes and frustrations, becomes Rochelle's lover, while Angel must be content to love her platonically, and without any hope of possessing her. Essentially, the rivalry between the two friends becomes an unsolvable conflict which can only end in the disappearance or death of one of them. Even when Anne decides to abandon his mistress, Angel, instead of rejoicing and taking advantage of the vacuum, assassinates his friend. The story takes place in a mythical country, Exopotamie, which is mostly a desert, and to which a number of personages travel in order to build a railway system: Anne and Angel, engineers, Rochelle, a secretary, a doctor called Mangemanche, his aide, and others. Exopotamie already contains several residents, among whom are the archeologist Athanagore Porphyroginite, his aide, Cuivre, and Pipo, owner of the hotel. The latter is killed when Ping 903, a plane built by Doctor Mangemanche, flies through the window of the hotel in its first flight test. The building itself is cut in two by the train, for it is decided that the rail lines must pass through the building, for no logical reason, since all of Exopotamie is a desert. In the ensuing collapse, all those who did not die before (Mangemanche commits suicide, Angel kills Anne and Rochelle) are buried in the dibris, and the train itself disappears under the ground. There are two survivors, however, Angel and Athanagore, and the novel ends with the drawing of new plans for the building of another railway system in Exopotamie.

On the surface, there is very little that makes sense in L'Automne a Pekin. Why build a railway system in a country which is a desert and which is hardly inhabited? Why must the lines pass through the hotel? What are the reasons for the double killings committed by Angel at the very moment when his wishes are about to be fulfilled?

Yet, these questions, and many others that can be raised, are not devoid of answers on close examination of Vian's expertise in devising a concealed background, studded with cryptic vocabulary, as a depository of his outlook on life. Exopotamie needs a railway system precisely because it has no use for it, just as in real life buildings and cities mushroom not where needed, but where planners and developers, in their ignorance and/or selfishness, think they ought to be placed. This is in line with Vian's previously discussed experience at AFNOR, and with his abhorrence of those involved in drawings, outlines, and constructions. The building of a railway system for Exopotamie can also be viewed as a consequence of man's uncontrollable quest for the impossible, his desire for the attainment of some inexistent, luminous but essentially meaningless Graal. This is, in general, the opinion of Freddy de Vrie's (32) view which is not necessarily excluded by Vian's constant concern with the commercial aspects of literature. What might have appealed to him was the idea of the acte gratuit which is implied in the pursuit of something that is at the same time difficult and needless.

A railway line must pass through the hotel perhaps because in the real world, often, neighborhoods are destroyed by bulldozers, and people are bullied out of their homes, sometimes for questionable reasons, in order to make room for superhighways or other such grandiose projects which ignore the human element in favor of the abstraction of progress.

The matter of the double killings committed by Angel is not, however, so easily explainable. In fact, the love story in L'Automne a Pekin, for all its subplot role in the novel, is most complex. To be sure, it is immediately obvious that Anne and Angel can be viewed as the body and soul of one and the same character: They have both attended the same school, they have had the same type of education, they have the same profession, and they both fall in love with the same woman. But while Anne is an impetuous worker, Angel loves to do nothing; whereas Anne is sensual and sure of himself, Angel is an idealist who is never satisfied; and while Anne's love for Rochelle is physical, even beastlike, that of Angel remains on a higher plane, and it can be defined best by what the French often call an amour de tjte, that is, one which could only be diminished by intercourse" (33)

Of course, Angel is jealous of Anne, and he would like both to emulate and destroy him. His penchant for emulation is prompted by his love for Rochelle, while that for killing him is generated by his realization that he cannot continue to exist except through the elimination of the other, his antagonistic part, which eats away at and corrodes his spiritual being. The conflict is one of choice, and it is as old as the world: that between body and soul, between the lower and the higher aspirations of men. The assassination scene itself, as ambiguous as it is, shows nevertheless a kind of resignation on the part of Anne who practically taunts Angel into killing him, as if he were subconsciously aware of the necessary destruction of the physical by the spiritual in a world in which the former is still relegated to a position of inferiority vis-a-vis the latter:

Anne stayed close to Angel.

"How deep do you think it [the well in which Athanagore pursues his investigations] is?"

"I don't know," said Angel in a suffocated voice. "It is deep."

Anne bent over.

"One doesn't see very much," he said... "It is time..."

"Not yet," said Angel, full of despair.

"Yes. Now," said Anne.

He knelt next to the opening of the well and looked deeply into the dense shadows.

"No," repeated Angel. "Not yet."

He was whispering now, and fear was obvious in his voice.

"You must get to it," said Anne. "Come! Are you afraid?"

"I'm not afraid," murmured Angel. His hand touched the back of his friend and, abruptly, he pushed him into the emptiness.

And, following the assassination, he engages in a small piece of dialogue with a friend, Amadis, to whom he makes clear the reason for, and the logic behind the murder:

"Anne is dead," he says to Amadis.

"Then, this liberates you from what?" he asks.

"It frees me from myself.... I am awakening," Angel answers.

This awakening is, for him, a rebirth: for now the struggling duality has ended, he is no longer threatened from within, and he can view the entire antagonistic episode as a bad dream. Yet, because he can still view it as something, that is, because he still has a memory of it, it becomes also necessary to get rid of the source of the inner hostility, to kill Rochelle herself, for now she keeps teasing him: "There used to be two men who were in love with me, who fought for me; it was marvelous. It was very romanesque." Thus, the assassination of Rochelle can be viewed as the logical consequence of the murder of Anne, a consequence which makes much more sense than one which would have had him, in the absence of the rival, proceed to the conquest of the all too available object of his love.

Vian's anti feminism, to which the previous section in this chapter has alluded already, may also contain an explanation for the murder of Rochelle. Women, who in the previously discussed novel had played simply a secondary role and had been objectified matter-of-factly, are now depicted as semi-useless, temporary partners, whose need men must outgrow in a normal maturing process. In this context, the heading of Chapter IX of the novel, which Vian borrowed from Baudelaire's Fusies, is most indicative of the author's conception of Woman's role: "To love an intelligent girl is the pleasure of a homosexual." It follows that, those who are normal, ought to content themselves with dull, if not idiotic exponents of the female sex. And these, because of their inferiority, must not only be discarded, but are in fact discardable. David Noakes has already observed that "Anne enjoys life as a cynic and abandons his mistress as one ejects an orange after having extracted the juice." (34) Cuivre herself, the female aide of Porphyroginite, and symbol of erotic exoticism in Exopotamie for a number of inhabitants, counsels Angel not to cry on account of a girl because "girls are not worth it." And Anne, in the first chapter of the Second Part, states that one can only love a woman for a short time: a first love for two years, a second love for one year, and so on. And he goes on to explain:

"They don't have imagination. They don't have any imagination if they think they are sufficient to fill a man's life. There are so many other things.... This is not any less true in the case of Rochelle. There are so many other things. Even if there were nothing but this green and sharp grass. Nothing but to touch this grass or to crack between one's fingers the shell of a yellow snail, on this warm and dry sand, and to look at the small, shiny and dark grains one finds in this dry sand, and to feel it under one's fingers.... They don't know that there is something else. At least very few of them know it. It's not their fault. They don't dare. They don't realize it."

And to Angel's question as to what one ought to do, or might do in the absence of the other sex, Anne, surprisingly, responds in poetic fashion. This betrays perhaps the writer's manipulation of his character; for knowing his otherwise brutish nature, one does not expect him to express himself in this manner. "To stretch on the ground," said Anne. "To be on the ground, on the sand, when it is a little windy, one's head totally empty; or to walk and to see everything, and to do things, to build stone houses for people, to give them cars, to give them light, to give them everything that people can have, so that they might be able also to do nothing and to remain on the sand, in the sun, and think of nothing, and sleep with women." This convinces Angel, for later in the novel he concludes that a conquered woman can only become a degraded woman, hence not worth having. And he tells one of his friends:

"I am not a brute. I would have dropped her before making her totally ugly. Not for me, but for her. So that she might find someone else. They have nothing except that in order to find men. Their shape.... When one loves a pretty woman, what one must do is to leave her, to abandon her, or to set her free before having reduced her to zero."

This is, of course, what happened in Vian's own case, for he abandoned Michelle (a number of critics saw the rhyme between Michelle and Rochelle (35), for reasons already stated in the preceding chapter, a few years after his marriage.

Thus, his acute awareness of man's fragility and susceptibility to disease was further complemented by his understanding of the wearing-out process that women undergo in the arms of men. Sporadically this gave rise in him to a feeling of pity, although in his real fife he did not attempt to atone for his own contribution to the usury of Michelle. He considered simply that such was the order of nature, that the imperfectibility of human beings precluded any possibility of change, and that love itself meant the gradual devouring of someone else. It should be recalled that physical contact, when held to a minimum, and when benefiting from the aura, albeit illusory, of an extracurricular affair, was held by the Romantics to enhance the beauty of a woman. Such was the case, for example, with Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary who saw her appearance improve measurably after the initial act of infidelity. In Vian's view, however, love, and especially lovemaking in the course of conjugal relationships, can only result in the boredom of the couple and in a constantly diminishing aesthetic appreciation on the part of the man for his mate. The latter, weary of the repetitiveness of contact, deteriorates and corrodes in her own eyes as well, and in the eyes of others. This is the process that Rochelle undergoes at the hands of her lover, Anne, and the results are clearly stated by Angel:

"Whenever he touches her, her skin is no longer the same afterward. One wouldn't say so at first, because she still looks fresh when she comes out of Anne's arms, and her lips are just as swollen and just as red, and her hair is just as sparkling; nevertheless she is diminished. Each kiss that she seeks wears her out a little, and her stomach is less firm, and her skin less smooth and less fine, and her eyes less clear, and her walk heavier, and every day she is less and less Rochelle."

Vian's lucidity is an echo of, and is enhanced by the experiences of his own first marriage. The lessons he learned concerning the naive idealism of young couples, the fact that in real life love is only taking and cannot exist without selfishness, that there are such things as the pain of love and the degradation of love, and the unavoidable destruction of the female and defection of the male, are themes which, as we shall see, are reiterated over and over again in many of his writings. Yet, these themes, for all their assuaging sadness, are cathartic for the reader who, constantly exposed, begins to realize that they are not unique with him, and are not found solely within the confines of his own rapports, but rather that they extend to all sensitive persons whose awareness rejects illusions and delusions. Specifically, catharsis results from the very frail, yet very feasible fraternity in similar sources of suffering which bring together reader and writer. On a very real level, more real than Reality, the two hold hands and console each other, and walk together on the unsure path of the book's pages which examine without solving and state without sentimentalizing.

Thus, the author's approach in L'Automne a Pekin is honest and full of integrity. There is no deprecation of or recoil from truth, and we are made to exit tremulously out of our own closed world of insignificant solitude in togetherness, and to step, with care and hesitation, into that universe discreetly poised between the tropical sky and tropical sand of an Exopotamie which, although not on any map, draws itself, for the reader, out of the events described in the novel. In this universe life and love are both passable and palatable in spite of the fact that there are errors of judgement (Ping 903, the futility of the railway system, its collapse and interment); that inner struggles cannot end in compromise but must resort to murder (Angel, in order to be able to uphold the spiritual qualities to which he adheres, has no solution but to become an assassin, that is to opt for the physical, to become Anne); that betrayal runs rampant (that of the engineers vis-a-vis Exopotamie, of Angel with respect to Anne, of Angel with respect to himself).

But over and above the catharsis supplied by the narration, the interest of L'Automne a Pekin lies also in the fact that the reader is reintroduced to familiar preoccupations of Vian, such as his anti clericalism, his scorn for medicine, and his hatred for administrators. His irreverence is obvious in the depiction of Abbi Petitjean, in whose mouth he puts the most childish pious formulae which contain high school reminiscences of Latin and, often, the silliest type of baby-play talk. In addition, Abbi Petitjean is a caricature of the devout priest. He "exercises diverse professions: layman perchance, ecclesiastic through error, militarist in order to cause laughter;" he swears constantly, and even incites his hermit, Claude Lion, to "rape Lavande, that splendid Negro girl!" It should be recalled that Petitjean stands for Grosjean, his rival and recipient of the Prix de la Pliiade which Vian had failed to get. His dislike of medicine is, of course, evident in the character of Mangemanche who is more interested in building airplanes than in practicing medicine, and whose Ping 903 flies through the hotel and kills its owner. His abhorrence of administrators can be seen in his description of the meetings of the Conseil d'Administration, meetings~ replete with pompous language, failing always to reach conclusions, and conducted in a turmoil that is so great that the members are completely oblivious of it. Heightening the interest of the novel are also a number of allusions to contemporaries of Vian with whom the writer had cause to disagree or quarrel. Such allusions are numerous, but suffice it to point to Ursus de Jantolent, President of the Conseil d'Administration, who in reality was a well-known personality associated with the Gallimard publishing house (and now a member of the French Academy), and to "that louse Arland," referring to Marcel Arland, editor of Gallimard at the time. It is interesting to note that for the 1956 edition of the novel Vian did not want to be so obvious in the case of Arland and respelled his name to Orland in the new manuscript he prepared. Before submitting it, however, he changed his mind, and he opined publicly that an insult which is withdrawn is the worst kind of insult.

The initial reviews of L'Automne a Pekin were not too enthusiastic. For example, the anonymous critic of the Bulletin Critique du Livre FranVais stated simply that the book contained "different social types which are shown under caricature traits, their adventures being funny and replete with student-like jokes: There are some pleasant passages, much gracefulness in the construction of the story, but the interest is limited and there is too much facility . (36) On the contrary, when the book was reedited in 1956, this same Bulletin Critique du Livre Frangais accorded Vian a more laudatory review, stating, in part: "This original novel, which some will find bewildering, contains, in addition, a certain number of allusions which augment measurably its value." (37) I At the same time, Noil Arnaud wrote: "Let the entire College pay attention to this work, let it uncover its riches: they are incalculable. A great lesson that Satrap Boris Vian gives us in L'Automne a Pekin, using, moreover, a sacred language." (38) And in the criticism printed at the end of the 1956 edition of the book he explained: "L'Automne a Pekin is one of the rare novels of our time which renders words their literal sense (a procedure pointed out already in our discussion of Vercoquin et le plancton) without suffering from the prejudice furnished by other possible means." (39) He went on to explain that the author's taste for semantic confusion could lead to any interpretation, as all great works ought to, and that L'Automne a Pekin could in effect become a classic in contemporary French literature. This is in line with the richness of the work to which he pointed in the above-mentioned article in the Cahiers du College de Pataphysique. It is interesting to note that Alain Robbe-Grillet, the future unofficial chief of the Anti-Novel school, who was working at the time as reader for the Editions de Minuit, was the one to accept Vian's manuscript. Following the advice of his reader, Jerome Lindon, then editor of the publishing house, wrote for the cover of the novel: " L'Automne a Pekin could well become one of the classics of a literature which, after having exhausted with a uniformly accelerated movement all the nuances of the sinister, from Romanticism to Naturalism and from Socialism to Mysticism, notes all of a sudden that it winds up in the desert of Exopotamie; a literature where one is finally permitted to laugh!"

But, as we have seen, there is much more than laughter in L'Automne a Pekin. That Vian was also preoccupied with the more serious questions alluded to above is shown by the project of a short story one finds in his myriad unpublished notes in the possession of his first wife. Apparently concerned with the future of Angel after his departure from Exopotamie, he conceived making of his character the main hero of a short story that he was never to write but which he was going to call "Narcisse." The plan of this short story was outlined as follows: "He likes to receive letters. Okay. He never receives any. One day he has the idea of sending himself some. He sends himself some. The idyll becomes a fact. It grows. He makes a date with himself, under a clock, at 3 P.M. He goes to his appointment, dressed in his best clothes. And at three

-- Robert Whyte (, July 18, 1999.

TamTam Books are working on a translation as we speak. Hopefully an announcement will be made in 2001

-- Tosh Berman (, December 30, 2000.

A much updated answer for above. TamTam Books will be publishing 'Autumn in Peking' in 2003. The book is translated by paul knobloch, with an introduction by Marc Lapprand.

-- Tosh Berman (, October 04, 2002.

Thanks for the help. I apologize for the belated response : )

-- Bart Myszkowski (, August 16, 2004.

I no this is getting silly, but now TamTam Books are working on the design and 'Autumn in Peking' will come out this Autumn (of course) 2004. And yes, I mean it this time!

CIao, Tosh

-- Tosh Berman (, September 11, 2004.

I read it years ago but now I need to read it again ....this time in English....I can't find it unfortunately...I really need it!

-- Masha (, October 03, 2004.

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