Eroticism figures quite naturally in the bizarre and hyperbolic universe of Vian’s texts, as an integral part of the human condition. As such, it is at odds with society’s hypocritical anti-erotic stance, in particular that of the clergy, which Vian denounces and mocks vigorously. Yet love is always twofold. Physical attraction to beauty and youth is presented as life affirming and playful (oftentimes in a tongue-in-cheek manner), and sensual details such as colors, dress, songs, and scents are the joyful anticipation of lovemaking. However, once consummated, the sexual relationship, and those living it, begin to wear and decay, all too often resulting in the death of the initial object of desire. The women portrayed are clichés. Sexually assertive women (and/or lesbians) are frowned on or ridiculed. Despite Vian’s notoriety, his few downright erotic texts (Écrits pornographiques) were not published until 1980, featuring among other things the conference Utility of Erotic Literature from 1948, and a Dracula parody of deadly sex. In the works he penned under the pseudonym of Vernon Sullivan, sex is both a sales strategy and a way to expose the voyeuristic desires of the general public.
Boris Vian was many things: novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, actor, translator, singer/songwriter, jazz trumpeter, critic, essayist, and member of the Collége de Pataphysique, and “prince” of the St. Germain-de-Prés district of Paris. His first novel, L’Ecume des jours [Foam of the Days], was nominated for the 1946 Prix de la Pléiade. In that same year, the noir racial thriller J’Irai cracher sur vos tombes [I’ll Spit on Your Graves] became the first of four novels written by Vian under the pseudonym “Vernon Sullivan.” The succès de scandale of 1947, the book earned Vian a reputation as a “master pornographer,” thwarting his aspirations to join the literary establishment and denying his subsequent works the critical attention they deserved. These included the novels L’Automne à Pékin (1947), L’Herbe Rouge (1950), and L’Arrache-coeur (1953), along with novellas (e.g., Les fourmis), plays (L’Equarissage pour tous, Les Bâtisseurs d’empire), and poetry (Cantilènes en gelée). His anti-war song Le Déserteur (1955) and the iconoclastic character of his versatile work has assured him postmortem cult status.
Vian is said to have written J’Irai cracher sur vos tombes in ten days in August 1946 on a wager with publisher Jean d’Halluin. Vian posed as the supposed French translator of an African American writer who was unable to find a publisher in the United States, a ploy that both excused and allowed for the over-the-top eroticism and violence of the novel. When in real life in 1947 the body of a young woman strangled by her lover was found in a Montparnasse hotel with the novel next to her opened to the page where the protagonist kills his mistress in a similar fashion, a scandal erupted and Vian was labeled an “assassin by proxy.” Charges and lawsuits led to the book’s being banned in France from 1949 to 1953; Vian was convicted of affronting public morals and was sentenced to pay a 100,000-franc fine.
In the novel, Lee Anderson, a black man passing for white, seeks revenge for the death of his younger brother, who was lynched for having dated a white girl. Befriending a gang of adolescents, Lee acts as the indefatigable, ever-ready “sex machine” and supplier of alcohol. He pursues and promises marriage to two daughters of a plantation owner. As he attempts to implicate the younger one in the murder of her pregnant sister, she attacks him to prevent the crime. He massacres her and proceeds to rape and kill the other sister. The police apprehend and kill him, leaving the body for the townspeople to hang.
In this violent plot Lee’s numerous sexual encounters serve to confirm that he is white (as when he has sex with a 13-year-old black girl) and to prove his overall prowess, or as “foreplay” to the eventual killings. Sex is a way of dominating and humiliating women, of manipulating them and their sexual pleasure, which is ultimately used against them. Hence the “colonized becomes the colonizer,” but at the same time this white impostor sexually behaves like the racial stereotype of a “black man,” lusting for and seeking to violate white women. Some few episodes are truly erotic, as when Lee tries to seduce the contrary younger sister, who employs the classic apparatus of female seduction and demands that he act out the respective male part. The restless pace of sexual acts rouses and strings along the reader, but seduction always and inevitably ends in violence. If there is jouissance in this novel, it comes with a bitter aftertaste, with the reader feeling as manipulated and abased as the female characters. A pastiche of hard-boiled as well as black American protest literature, which makes for some well-meaning racism, this hoax of a novel is also an allegory of the workings of literature and of the French literary establishment. It also satirizes male-female relations, and with Vian’s ideas on erotic literature in mind, it might be read as a deliberate challenge to female writers to voice their own erotic or violent fantasies involving men.
In the form of a talk or seminar, The Utility of Erotic Literature explains some of the principles according to which the Vernon Sullivan novels (in particular J’Irai cracher sur vos tombes) were composed and advertised. The erotic content of these novels, announced and implicit in the supposed censorship (and partly the cause of the actual censorship following its publication) was meant to be a “weapon of subversion.” Yet, it was probably less the “revolutionary quality” of his erotic writing than the forbidden touch and the potential for transgression that enticed people to buy the book. As it engages the reader by provoking a visceral response, erotic literature is one way to “sell” such an urgent message.
Rather than propounding a coherent argument, the author concludes in his own implicit defense by proposing that literature does not create eroticism or violence but evokes something already existing in the reader’s mind. But while eroticism rouses the reader as much as do matters of death, the two are diametrically opposed, violence is the worst enemy of sexual pleasure, and Vian underhandedly admits that his Sullivan novels are not erotic but pseudo-erotic at best.
Born in Ville d’Avray near Paris, March 10. Civil engineering degree from the École Central Paris in 1942; worked with AFNOR (L’Association franÇaise de Normalisation) and the Office du Papier until 1946. Having suffered from heart and lung conditions since adolescence, Boris Vian died June 23 at the age of 39.