Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
Though the French film adaptation of Boris Vian’s novel L’Écume des jours has yet to be scheduled for release in the US, it seems already to have generated a buzz capable of reviving American interest in this regrettably overlooked, but wildly inventive, author. Fortunately, TamTam Books has just released another novel to add to their collection of translated Vian works, giving curious English-language readers a wealth of opportunity to explore the French writer’s imaginative oeuvre.
For those already 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 of a departure. While not as exuberantly innovative with language, Red Grass nevertheless retains the author’s distinctive wit, which pierces through the novel’s often dark and profoundly unsettling psychological themes, tinging the entire work with shades of irony. Further, readers will note the continued incorporation of jazz rhythms characterizing Vian’s earlier works. For example, an absurd dinner scene is punctuated with a steady yet chaotic, syncopated beat:
The four others engaged in typical dinner table banter – pass the bread, I need a knife, lend me your quill, where are the marbles, my candle’s gone out, who won at Waterloo, honni soit qui mal y pense, the cows will be hemmed in by the meter – all amounting to few words, for Saphir was in love with Folavril, Lil with Wolf, and vice-versa to ensure narrative symmetry. (7)
The feverish rhythm of this surreal prose continues to build through the following scene, a party, then plunges into the soothing, reflective chords that resonate throughout the work whenever the natural world is described: “Beyond sinuous swaths of shade gleamed shiny, colored stones, vague reflections, spots of clarity that faded away in response to the unpredictable movements of the earth” (26). Thus, Red Grass embraces an improvisatory exuberance wherein certain passages freewheel headlong – playful, seemingly disconnected and increasingly surreal – only to return to a slow and measured refrain that reorients us within the vivid world Vian has created.
This translation shines with both the subtle humor and the musicality that are the hallmarks of Vian’s prose. A translator’s note would have enhanced readers’ appreciation for the author’s linguistic originality, revealing his multifaceted influences and perhaps ultimately bringing the work closer to home. As it is, this edition contains only two footnotes but could have benefited from more, especially where the text seems to contain errors which may, in fact, be originally Vian’s and thus could give insight into his frenetic writing process; as Marc Lapprand points out in his introduction, Vian wrote many of his works in a matter of months, sometimes weeks (v).
Boris Vian was an engineer, trumpet player, songwriter, actor, translator and critic, in addition to being a poet and writer. He worked transatlantically, promoting jazz culture both in the US and France and collaborating with jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. Of the six novels published under his name, Red Grass, written in 1948-9, was his fifth, and all were completed in a span of under ten years. During this same period, he also wrote four novels under the name Vernon Sullivan, an American author he created in order to venture into the more commercially successful hard-boiled crime fiction, claiming to be Sullivan’s French translator. Sullivan’s books were a success, even as the novels published under Vian’s own name suffered critical neglect within his lifetime, causing him increasing frustration and disappointment. It was only after his death in 1959 that his work was rediscovered and readers came to appreciate his unique blend of surreal plot lines, pop culture, linguistic experimentation and elements of science fiction, all anchored with more serious existential meditations.
As in Vian’s other novels, the relatively simple plot of Red Grass sets the stage for these various artistic concerns to converge. The story follows Wolf and Lazuli who have just created a machine that destroys memories. While Lazuli continues tinkering with the vaguely described contraption, if only to avoid intimacy with his girlfriend, Wolf seems inexplicably obsessed with taking it for a ride, making multiple “trips” into his past. These trips do not actually transport Wolf back in time but rather to an alternate locale, also only vaguely described, where an array of eccentric characters follow a rather bureaucratically outlined “plan” to help him better understand his present existential dissatisfaction. The entire process resembles a form of psychoanalysis which does little to comfort his angst but, more importantly, wipes out each of Wolf’s memories as he relives it.
The machine, then, stands as shadowy center to a world which is comically upside-down, creating a narrative that is entertaining yet pulsing with sober undertones. The mayor, leading a whimsical parade in Wolf and Lazuli’s honor, is refreshingly honest about the uselessness of politicians. Violent sports make a game of human life but are casually dismissed by Wolf and Lazuli as diversions for idiots. The dog, Senator Dupont, talks, only to relinquish this ability upon achieving a certain enlightenment. In this sense, then, Senator Dupont’s “human” journey parallels Wolf’s, with rather melancholy implications for the human condition.
The landscape, consistently described using the language of human anatomy, is simultaneously enthralling and forbidding. The most salient feature of this landscape is the titular red grass, which in Vian’s prose is reflected in fierce shades of red, clearly reminiscent of blood. Alternating with the recurring references to the color red are descriptions of the color blue. The two hues converge in one of the final, powerful scenes, in which the narrative signals a seemingly unimportant detail of the characters’ surroundings: a color-coded engineering chart in which red and blue, though here representing parts of a motor, suggest the human body, the two colors of human blood meeting at the heart. Thus, a world in which humans are machines (and vice versa), and nature is personified, becomes fertile terrain for an exploration of chaotically diverse questions ranging from gender and race to identity, human purpose and self-fulfillment. Indeed, despite the personal nature of Wolf’s quest, it is clear the arc of his life story, as he tells it in the machine, could represent any individual’s, and so the reader is drawn into the narrative, forced to confront himself even as he watches Wolf and Lazuli alternately fleeing from their own insecurities.
Red Grass is, finally, an overwhelming assemblage of themes and ideas intersecting within the space of a rather slim volume, a narrative which teeters on the boundaries between forms and genres. All of which makes this title, in its deft translation by Paul Knobloch, worth returning to again and again, for the reader is sure to discover new layers with every read.
Vian, Boris. Red Grass. Translated by Paul Knobloch. TamTam Books, 2013.