Boris Vian

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Boris Vian

Postby Terry Tornado on Sunday, 22 August 2010, 3:11 pm

Boris Vian seems like a natural for this site. He is largely overlooked as a science fiction writer. His work is characterized by a wildly surreal inventiveness, and exuberant wordplay, but underneath I sense a very dark vision of life. In Vian's works, material objects express their feelings, and light and electricity tend to flow like water. His novels are cries of anguish disguised as jokes. There are three I have read and can recommend:
L'Ecume des jours translated by Brian Harper as Foam of the Daze starts out like a sweet, innocent, sexy cartoon, but then a mysterious disease intervenes and everything shrivels up and dies. General critical consensus seems to think it's his masterpiece.
L'Automne a Pekin translated by Paul Knobloch as Autumn in Peking has nothing to do with autumn or Peking. Four plot threads intertwine in a typical Vian surreal world in which busses feed on catfish bones, and the sun shines in an odd way that creates zones of light and darkness. It is an involved and esoteric novel.
L'Arrache-coeur translated by Stanley Chapman as Heartsnatcher was written a few years after the other two novels, and the humor is darker and more satiric. The elderly are auctioned off in Old Folks Fairs, the townspeople stone the parish priest to make it rain, and the official town scapegoat fishes discarded junk out of the river with his teeth. Personally I find this to be his wittiest and strangest work.
What I find most appealing is his style. This is a sample, chosen virtually at random:
The sun, moving back and forth over the sky, seemed unable to make up its mind. The east and the west came to play in the four corners with their two other comrades, but for sheer amusement, they decided to change positions. From far away, the sun just couldn't find its bearings. People started taking advantage of this situation but the gears of the sundials started working backwards, one after another going haywire amidst a sinister array of cracking and shaking. Still, the gaiety of the playful sunlight overshadowed the horror of these noises. Angel looked at his watch. They were a half an hour late and now it was beginning to get bothersome. He got up to move and saw in front of him one of the girls who was holding a pigeon for clipping. She was wearing a short skirt and Angel's gaze made its way over her shiny, golden knees and insinuated itself betweeen her two long and streamlined thighs. It was hot there, and refusing to listen to Angel, who wanted to pull back, the gaze decided to do its own thing and move further on up. Angel became increasingly embarrassed and regretfully closed his eyes, leaving his look to die on the young girl's skirt. Its cadaver remained there until the girl ran her hand over her skirt and unknowingly knocked it to the ground when she stood up several minutes later.
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Re: Boris Vian

Postby owlcroft on Sunday, 22 August 2010, 9:26 pm

I had not previously heard of Vian, but have done a little casual looking-up. A brief essay of some use was
"Some Thoughts on the Work of Boris Vian", by Mark Thwaite. A New Yorker article, "The Prince of Saint-Germain", was also helpful.

My first reaction is to suspect that however good a writer Vian may be (or not be), he is not really a speculative-fiction author. Obviously, tons of unreal things happen throughout his works, but they are apparently absurdist, rather than speculative. As I have remarked in one of the "Musings" on this site,
My guidelines for defining "speculative fiction" are two:

1. The tale is set where or when some rule that materially affects the way people meet or experience life operates in a way significantly different from any ever experienced in ordinary, everyday consensus reality.

2. The consequent difference in the way characters within the tale meet or experience life owing to that difference in rules is necessary to the author's purposes in telling the tale.

Vian's works do not seem to meet those criteria. The people in Vian's tales--still judging, of course, only by the discussions cited above--move amidst strange worlds, but the strangeness does not seem to be that of "different rules" that bring out or spotlight the human condition, but rather serves only as a sort of standing comment that nothing has real meaning (which is, more or less, the premise of Absurdism as an artistic movement). The idea of eels living in household plumbing is absurd, possibly amusing, but not--so far as I can see--the sort of thing that helps an author render insights on Life, The Universe, and Everything.

I suspect that Vian is a pretty good writer--certainly the sample given suggests as much, albeit in translation--but I would need some convincing that he is a writer whose work is within the fields this site attempts to survey.
Cordially,
Eric Walker, webmaster
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Re: Boris Vian

Postby Estraa on Thursday, 26 August 2010, 8:50 am

The strength of a group or list is in what it can include while retaining its identity or purpose. Its weakness is in what it has to exclude. That's why mainstream literature is taken seriously while fantasy and scifi have come to seem too limiting to be taken seriously. This isn't a historical explanation of how the academic herd drifted apart from genre fiction consciously and in incomprehensible disdain, but an explanation of why the thinking individual continues to do so. Similarly to the first argument, appropriating excellent writers for purposes of self-promotion, and other kinds of promotion, is usually an excellent idea.
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Re: Boris Vian

Postby Terry Tornado on Sunday, 29 August 2010, 7:53 pm

Vian is frequently grouped among the absurdists because of his plays. It would be a pity if this is the reason his science fiction is overlooked. Theatre of the absurd was only one avenue Vian's creativity found it fertile to explore. He was also a jazz trumpeter; he wrote songs; he wrote detective fiction under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan (none of which I have read); and he wrote science fiction.
From what little I have read about Vian, it seems clear that in his mind at least he was writing science fiction. Vian liked science fiction. He admired the works of Lewis Carroll and H. G. Wells. He translated The World of Null-A into French, and apparently did such a good job he managed to make van Vogt seem literate. Brian W. Aldiss, in Trillion Year Spree cites this as one reason for van Vogt's international popularity.
If you want to try a taste, there is a rather grim short story of his called "The Dead Fish", translated by Damon Knight, that has been anthologized from time to time (for example in David G. Hartwell's The World Treasury of Science Fiction. You might look it up.
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Re: Boris Vian

Postby Estraa on Monday, 30 August 2010, 4:44 am

Speaking of H.G. Wells, that's a rather notable omission in the lists. I recommend the War of the Worlds.
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