Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor
In the Harvard Crimson’s 1969 review of Mood Indigo, John Sturrock’s translation of Boris Vian’s L’Écume des jours, the author provides this disheartening forecast: “It is unlikely that Vian’s novels will become particularly popular in this country: they’re very French, and they suffer in translation. But Mood Indigo has a magic no heavy-handed translator can counteract.” Until recently out of print, Brian Harper and TamTam Books offered the first new translation since Sturrock’s in 2003. Harper has the advantage of working from a new (1994) French edition that corrects the standardization of Vian’s inventive language and syntax in the original 1947 publication. “One of Boris Vian’s primary concerns with the book is language as art. Language as a tool in a creative world,” writes Brian Harper in his introduction (III). Reading Foam of the Daze is an exercise in suspension of disbelief and a true delight, a surrealist and science fiction novel that revels in the godlike ability of its author to manifest the most outlandish and yet familiar scenarios. Called “The most heartbreakingly poignant modern love story ever written” by his friend, the French writer Raymond Queneau, the relatively basic plot is deceptively simple. The characters are archetypal rather than dimensional. The novel is about stretching literature to its limits: “The play on words is his signature and he means to include it in a greater context of discovery and loss,” Harper summarizes (III). Ultimately, the book is so affecting because of its universal themes of loss of love and innocence, and its critique of how we spend our days.
The English title has clearly plagued earlier translations. Stanley Chapman’s by all accounts very good translation, published in Britain in 1967, was titled more literally, Froth on the Daydream. Sturrock’s U.S. version notably dispensed with a literal translation of the French, but it’s title Mood Indigo is not a non-sequitur; it is titled after a song by Duke Ellington that is referred to throughout the story, and foreshadows the ultimately tragic fate of the characters. While Chapman’s title may be more literal, it is clunky and strange in a way that does not jibe with the fluid surrealism of the original. It is rare when the language into which one is translating has something to contribute to the original; Harper seizes the opportunity to pun in English on days/daze, which follows perfectly from the type of wordplay and the deeper concern with time that proliferates throughout Vian’s novel. It is not unrealistic, but surrealistic, like the story itself.
Later in the novel, Vian makes a poignant pun in relation to time that translates less well. When asked by a potential employer how he spends his time, Colin responds “le plus clair de mon temps, dit Colin, je le passé á l’obscurcir”. Harper explains it in his introduction:
“It is translated in the book in the following way: ‘I spend the better part of my day, said Colin, contemplating the night.’ That’s an approximate, and perhaps less poignant version than the original. In French, there is an idiomatic expression to say, ‘the better part of one’s time’ which is ‘le plus clair de son temps’ meaning literally ‘the brightest part of one’s time,’ and Colin, the protagonist, explains to the threatening and threatened potential boss that he spends this time darkening it…the original version offers up a chance to see the full effect of how the play on words allows the character to supersede reality” (V). This is the function of wordplay in Vian’s novel, and while much of the story is quite surreal in its imaginative science fiction atmosphere, it is all the while subverting reality on the linguistic level as well. While the French may be more poignant, I still found this line particularly affecting in the English. The contradiction is still apparent in the English juxtaposition of day and night.
Much of the punning and wordplay does translate fluidly into English. Harper’s excellent translation of the weapon used to kill by plucking out hearts, the “heart-snatcher,” bears as much linguistic resemblance to “heart-breaker” in English as the French “arrache-coeur” to “créve-coeur,” and equivalently underlines the emotional state of heartbroken Alise who uses it to murder her boyfriend Chick’s intellectual hero. In a bittersweet satire sustained throughout the novel, Alise is forced to leave Chick when he goes into debt from his addiction to purchasing “Jean-Sol Partre” books and memorabilia. Such plays on the names of famous figures, with whom Vian was personal friends, need no explanation.
Judging from the difficulty I had in finding a copy at local bookstores (the book is readily available on Amazon.com), it seems the book has still not found the widespread popularity and acclaim it enjoys in France. This should not be, as the novel bears a strongly American influence. I can only assume from the Harvard Crimson reviewer that Sturrock did an insufficient job of bringing the novel into English, thereby foreignizing it. As a trumpeter and jazz critic, Vian deeply admired and was steeped in the culture of American jazz. Vian sets out in his foreword the two basic elements with which the plot plays: “There are only two things: love in all its forms with pretty girls and the music of New Orleans or Duke Ellington, it’s the same” (3). Though Vian never visited the United States, he symbolically writes his Foreword from New Orleans, and fictitiously completes the novel in both Memphis and Davenport, referring to the historical spread of jazz from its point of origin. Foam of the Daze is not only written in the very unique and particular French of Vian, but fused with the rhythms of jazz, which imports concepts and words from English into the text. Take for example Colin’s delightful instructions about how to use the “pianocktail,” a piano that when played produces cocktails inspired by the tune:
“‘There’s only one problem, said Colin. The loud pedal for the whipped egg. I had to put in a special system of interlocking parts because when you play a tune that’s too ‘hot,’ pieces of omelet fall into the cocktail and it’s hard to swallow…’” (12)
The English word “hot” is used in the original as well. Vian’s readers would have had to have known some English, or at least be familiar with jazz in order to understand his punning on the adjective used to convey expressive fire among jazz aficionados, and the literal effect of heat when applied to whipped egg. The notes compiled by Gilbert Pestureau and Michel Rybalka for the 1994 French Edition mainly illuminate the myriad jazz references that are essential to understanding the work, and they point out one advantage Vian’s English translators have had to work with: “In the English language text it is of course immediately apparent that the titles [of jazz tunes] Vian chose to include were representative of the mood of the text but the French text provides for a linguistic game between the two languages whereby meaning and symbolism are reinforced through comprehension of the two languages” (255).
Harper’s confident translation restores the strange music of the original, as revolutionary as jazz when it began and as contemporary today as when it was written. If a wonderful new translation can indeed bring popularity to a neglected work of foreign fiction, Harper’s certainly should fuel an American craze for Foam of the Daze.
Foam of the Daze. Boris Vian, Trans. Brian Harper. TamTam Books, 2003.
“Mood Indigo.” Nina Bernstein. The Harvard Crimson, March 18, 1969.
Really well done. Great post. Extremely well written.
[…] familiar with Vian’s most well-known novel, L’Écume des jours (also available from TamTam as Foam of the Daze), the latest title, Red Grass (L’Herbe rouge), translated by Paul Knobloch, might seem somewhat […]