Vian versus virus(es): Born 100 years ago today, he spat on their graves before he went to his at the age of 39

Texts by and copyright Boris Vian
Translated and introduced by Paul Ben-Itzak

Tempting as it’s been in these heady days of impending pandemic to translate and share an excerpt from Albert Camus‘s “The Plague,” I just can’t bring myself to do it. (The latest development here in France: The culture minister is among the 1400 infected.) Not because historical parallels can be perilously inexact — notwithstanding that French radio announcers’ initial pronunciation of the name of the Chinese town where that country’s Corona virus affliction started sounded a lot like the cosmopolitan Algerian coastal city in which Camus situates his 1948 drama, Oran. But because I realized that what makes the author’s high moral stance problematic is that the indigenous population in Albert Camus’s Oran are the invisible men (and women). Born 100 years ago today and dead at the age of 39 when his heart burst as he watched a preview of the film version of his novel “I’ll Spit on Your Graves,” in which the pseudonymous “Vernon Sullivan” recounts a vengeful murder spree against white people, Boris Vian, songwriter and novelist, poet and playwright, Pataphysician and DJ, jazz critic and promoter (he introduced Ellington in France), godfather of the post-War Germanopretan scene and cornet player who blew his heart out, puts Camus to shame when it comes to moral consistence.

To condemn war, Vian doesn’t pick a morally uncomplicated example but chooses the justest of just wars, setting his novella “Les Fourmis” (the Ants) on a beach in Normandy where an Allied soldier wanders along a beach littered with German corpses, and his 1946 anarchist burlesque “Horse-quartering for beginners” in the home and abattoir of a horse-quarterer in Arromanches on D-Day, when his hero’s main preoccupation isn’t “their war” but to get the “Fritz” who’s (probably) been sleeping with his daughter for four years to make her an honest woman. Similarly, if the moral high ground of many French critics’ of anti-Black racism in the United States is often undermined by their ignoring similar tendencies in their own backyard (sure, Josephine Baker had it better in Paris than in the U.S., but if the “melomanes” flocked to see her at the Folies Bergère in the 1920s, the banana belt probably had something to do with it), when Vian uses a jazz press review (largely of the American jazz press) as a prism — the excerpt below, from Vian’s Jazz Hot jazz press review of June 1956, is just one example — to examine the treatment of Blacks in the United States, he starts out by allowing that he’s throwing his stones from a glass house:

“In the April 1956 issue of Jazz Journal, a fine piece by Berta Wood on racial prejudice. It’s a good thing that the Americans themselves have decided to enter the fracas by protesting against the bullying to which Blacks there are subjected; because given the fashion with which we comport ourselves in certain quarters we should probably shut our traps on the subject.

“In a word, Berta Wood writes about  ‘The Record of Emmet Till.’

“You know the story: the young Black man Emmet Till accused of raising his eyes and casting his lewd gaze on a good white woman; on the basis of which the good woman’s husband and brother-in-law kill him in cold blood and are acquitted by the all-white jury faster than you can say ‘Jim Crow’.

“About which the Blacks have made a record. ‘The Record of Emmet Till.’

“At night, on the radio, when everyone’s at home, there’s a sudden silence. And then the record is played.

“And the record is sung by a Black man with the flat voice of a Black man, without any apparent trace of emotion. It recounts how Emmet Till, at the age of 14, whistled one day in admiration when the white woman walked past him, and how the whites came to look for him at his uncle’s, took him to a barn, and beat him to death. And how the white men laughed when the verdict was pronounced.

“The record is played without any introduction. Just this moment of silence before and another after it’s finished playing. And the program continues as if nothing’s happened.

“This will surely not keep the murderers from sleeping. Because in all the countries of the world, the murderers sleep deeply.”

In a(nother) historical moment in which right-wing politicians in Italy, Poland, and Hungary often resort to a thinly veiled racial purity argument to keep the refugees penned up in frontier junctions like, lately, a Greek island called Lesbos, an item from Vian’s column of July-August 1956 is also worth sharing and translating:

“A little joker named Asa Carter, the secretary of the Council of White Citizens of Northern Alabama, has condemned ‘rock and roll’ in declaring ‘that it is being encouraged as a method of lowering the white man to the level of the Black man’ and that it is ‘part of a conspiracy to sap the morality of our nation’s youth. It is sexual, amoral, and constitutes the best way to bring together the members of the two races.’

“… which seems to me like an excellent idea. For that matter, the future lies in the mixing of the races, whether Carter, Asa likes it or not, from the moment one finds (and one does happily find) people who couldn’t care less about the color of their neighbor as long as he’s sympathetic.”

Extracted from Boris Vian, “Chroniques de Jazz,” text established and introduced by Lucien Malson, copyright 1967 Editions La Jeune Parque.