boris vian and black american writers : LUSENET : Boris Vian : One Thread

Hello, i'm french, so excuse my english, i would like to know more about the relationship between Boris Vian and the black american writers and is there a relation between Lee Anderson in I' ll spit on your graves and Lee Gordon in The lonely crusade of Chester Himes ? Thank's

-- julie chabrie (, March 26, 2002


Hi Julie,

Jim Sallis might know, he has a web site. He has written a marvellous biography of Chester Himes.

Both books appeared in 47 - Vian may have known of Himes, certainly not the other way round at that time, maybe later.

There is general Himes bio here with links to other writers

A biblio of Himes hre

Also in "Paris Interzone" (1995 Reed Books Ldt ISBN 0 7493 9869 8) a book essentially about the black American author Richard Wright, James Campbell wrote:


If it were necessary to elect a single figure from among that circle to act as an emblem of the 1950s, the choice would not be Camus, nor Sartre or de Beauvoir, but Boris Vian.

Vian was the opposite of Camus: playful, irreverent, satirical, iconoclastic, a man of likes rather than beliefs. Going into Vian's house, someone said, was like going on holiday. He was in the vanguard of everything he turned his hand to, and he turned his hand to everything. He had studied to be an engineer and enjoyed tinkering with 'inventions' throughout his life (one of his fictional creations was a piano which mixed cocktails according to the tune played on it); in addition to novels, he wrote plays and operas, poems and songs, filmscripts for impossible films, science fiction and pornography; he made collages and drew the cover artwork for his own books; he led a jazz band; he restored old cars, and carried out metamorphoses in their design. Critics have ranked him among the pioneers of the Theatre of the Absurd, on the strength of his early play, Les Battisseurs d'empire (The Empire Builders), which was never performed in his lifetime. Writing of a play that was performed, in 1950, Cocteau elevated Vian above 'the rest of us timid people, limited as we are to confronting the plural with the singular'.

In the column he wrote in the 1940s for Les Temps Modemes, 'Chronique du menteur', Vian joked about the magazine's dullness, its bad rates of pay, its awkward design. He made fun of the sombre pronouncements of Meloir de Beauvartre and Pontartre de Merlebeauvy. Merleau-Ponty, the general editor of Les Temps Modernes, was less than amused: a piece in which Vian teased the hard-left philosopher for taking up too many pages in the magazine ('He is a capitalist') was rejected, and the 'Chronique' did not appear again. But nothing could stop Vian. One of his musical turns in the St Germain caves was to have the singer Henri Salvador do a blues to a background of readings from Being and Nothingness.


The indefatigable Vian - he wrote novels, plays, songs and just about everything else, as well as playing the trumpet himself - reviewed the latest sounds from across the ocean in a number of newspapers and magazines, all at the same time, including one he founded himself, Yazz News. For him, as for others of the St-Germain elite, this taste in music was inseparable from an interest in the social conditions in which blacks lived, particularly in the American South. Vian wrote in his jazz column in Combat about the introduction of anti-lynch laws in Southern states which previously did not have them, and about the censoring in Memphis of the film New Orleans, because of the appearance in it of Louis Armstrong. ('It's an astonishing decision when you see to what point the poor Mr Armstrong is exploited in this movie.') He also ridiculed the racist remarks which had been directed against Gillespie by a few hooligans in the Salle Pleyel.


Indeed, the most talked-about novel of the year in Paris in 1947 was [...] Jirai cracher sur vos tombes, by Vernon Sullivan. The English title would be 'I Will Spit on Your Graves', but, as was explained in a preface by the book's translator - Boris Vian, again - Sullivan had no hope of seeing his work published in his native country. For one thing, it was obscene, containing many descriptions of sexual acts. For another, it was extremely violent, and the violence was that of a black against whites. Yirai cracher sur vos tombes charts the erotic adventures of a lightskinned Negro, Lee Anderson, after he takes up a job managing a bookshop in the small Southern town of Buckton. Like Joe Christmas in Faulkner's novel Light in August, Lee is light enough to pass for white. He becomes fixated on two sisters, but his desire to dominate them sexually is morbidly, fatally, connected to a need to obtain vengeance on behalf of his darker-skinned brother, a victim of white violence in the past. Seducing a series of white girls with pathologically inspired energy, Lee revels in a private revenge (they do not realize he is a Negro); but it is not sufficient to satisfy him, and in the end he murders both sisters, before being killed himself by a police bullet.

According to the translator, Sullivan's light skin would have enabled him to live, like his protagonist, among whites, but he preferred 'les Noirs'. While Jirai cracher sur vos tombes became highly successful, Sullivan remained an enigma. In fact, this Afro-American novel was a hoax. The book had been written in French, and 'Sullivan' was a ghost. His real name was Boris Vian.

The book earned Vian a good deal of money, but he was correct in pointing out the dangers of publication in his spurious preface, for Jirai cracher was prosecuted for obscenity: the first such trial of a French novel since that of Madame Bovary in 1857. Did Vian read Native Son? Jirai cracher was written in August 1946 (in two weeks) while Wright was in Paris. Native Son would not be published in its French translation until several months after the appearance of the pseudoAmerican novel, but Vian read English, was up to date in things American - especially Afro-American - and it seems unlikely that he would have ignored the major work of the black American everyone was talking about. In fact, he translated a fifty-page story by Wright for the French-African journal Prisence- Africaine, 'Bright and Morning Star', which came out in the same month as Jirai cracher . In the preface to Jirai cracher, Vian mentions as influences on 'Sullivan' the works of Henry Miller and James M. Cain, both of whom were enjoying a vogue in French translation, but the theme of the 'black' novel is almost identical to that of Native Son, in which a young Negro kills a white girl, half accidentally, but also with feelings of triumphant revenge - 'it made him feel free for the first time in his life'- for the slow death he has suffered throughout his entire life.


The Cartel d'Action Sociale et Morale and its chairman, Daniel Parker, who had initiated the offensive against the Miller books (Tropique du Cancer was also involved), then turned towards the novel by the 'black writer', Vernon Sullivan. As a result of this, Jirai cracher sur vos tombes, published six months earlier and selling slowly, suddenly took off. Until the moralists' crusade, few outside of St-Germain-des Pres had taken much notice of the Sirie noire-style policier by the ghostly 'icrivain noir', whom many already suspected was the talented young trumpeter and soon-to-be Gallimard author, Boris Vian.

Vian continued to deny any stronger association with Sullivan other than that of translator and spokesman (Sullivan was said to abhor publicity), even to close friends such as Queneau; meanwhile, he seemed to be enjoying the attention it gave to the forthcoming novel to be published under his own name, L'Ecume des jours.

The affair took a sinister turning, however, in April 1947, when a Parisian salesman, Edmond Rouge, strangled his mistress, Marie-Anne Masson, in a cheap hotel next to the Gare Montparnasse. Both were married. They had spent the early part of the evening on a regular outing to the cinema. Back at the hotel, the twenty-nine-year-old 'jolie femme' broke it to the lame, middle-aged Edmond that she did not wish to continue seeing him; she had found another lover. So Edmond said in a note left beside the body, adding that he now intended to kill himself, which he duly did, in a wood outside Paris. Also on the bed was a copy of Jirai cracher sur vos tombes, in which Lee Anderson kills the Asquith sisters, one of them with his bare hands, as Edmond had throttled Marie-Anne.

The press leapt on it. Here was proof enough that the written word could corrupt the feeble in spirit. 'Haunted by his reading, a man strangles his mistress,' said the headline in France-Libre. 'The killer repeated the act of the pitiful hero in the book which had unsettled his mind,' declared France-Soir. The report in Libinztion opened with a phrase from the book itself, describing how Lee murdered one of the sisters, illustrating the story with a facsimile of the page 'which inspired the killer'. Having read these words, ran the caption, 'Edmond strangled Marie-Anne'. The paper solemnly declared that the copy of the novel on the bed had been left open at this page.

Questioned about the affair, Vian responded with ironic detachment, which did not always strike the right note. Investigation into his own life and medical history by the press enabled a further grisly twist. On May 4, France-Dimanche ran this story:

When he learned about the crime which he had inspired, of which he was even a kind of author by proxy, the young writer smiled and made the following curious statement:

'A novel is meant to relieve pressure. This crime therefore suggests that my book was not violent enough. What I write next will be much more virulent.'

But if this drama seems to be having little effect on Boris Vian, there is another drama in the young novelist's life.

He has a serious heart condition (so he says) and at the same time is trumpeter in an orchestra. Playing the trumpet is forbidden him.

'If I continue, I will be dead in ten years,' says he. 'But I prefer to die and to go on playing the trumpet.'

Thus (if one is to believe him) Boris Vian, murderer by proxy, is condemning himself to death: one wonders whether this, too, is a publicity - stunt?

In another paper, Vian saw his picture printed beside that of Edmond. Clearly, his cover was blown. Vernon Sullivan - his alter ego forged in the image of Richard Wright - was exposed for what he was, an invisible man. With a court case in train against Girodias, and similar charges looming against Vian and his publisher, Les Editions du Scorpion, Daniel Parker of the Cartel d'Action Sociale et Morale was triumphant.

But Vernon Sullivan, unmasked, unblacked, refused to disappear. Some people, Sartre among them, felt that 'Sullivan' was better suited to the expression of Vian's dark-edged playfulness than the works the author wrote under his own name (in such a reckoning, 'Boris Vian' would be the pseudonym), and indeed 'Sullivan' had already completed another book. It was called Les Morts ont tous la meme peau (The Dead All Have the Same Skin), and featured a deeply confused character, whose overriding fear in life is that he may have Negro blood in his veins. Blackmailed by a man who claims to be his brother, and who threatens to denounce him in his prim white community, he kills him, which leads to perdition. Up till then, Vian had been unable to settle on a name for his pathetic hero. Now he had it: Daniel Parker.

When the case finally came to trial, in May 1950, Vian and his publisher were found guilty of committing an outrage against good morals, and each fined 100,000 francs (about $200 or 00). Three days after the verdict, Vian wrote an article for Combat, called 'I Am a Sex Maniac'. In it he marvelled at the fact that his eight-year-old son, forced to live with a sex criminal in a house containing the works of Miller, Sade and Vernon Sullivan, 'nevertheless prefers The Adventures of Tintin'.

-- Robert Whyte (, March 26, 2002.

This page quotes Baldwin on that subject.


-- Robert Whyte (, March 26, 2002.

Hello, i am a student of English literature in Paris, i am an african more exactly from algeria, i would like to know a lot of the black American literature. Please, send me the names of all these ones if you can . thank you.

-- lounas AZOUG (, August 08, 2003.

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