Author, singer, songwriter, playwright and lifelong jazz fan, Boris Vian was a legendary figure in Paris in the post-war years. Vian, who died at the age of 39, left an indelible mark on France's intellectual and artistic life and his avant-garde music, novels and comic sketches continue to inspire a whole generation of fans more than 40 years after his death.
Boris Vian was born in Ville-d'Avray, a town near Paris, on 10 March 1920. Boris, the youngest child in the Vian family, grew up with his three siblings - Lélio, Alain and Ninon - in a refined, cultivated atmosphere, his parents Paul and Yvonne creating an atmosphere of fun and learning in the home. Boris inherited many of his traits from his father, Paul, who instilled his family with a healthy respect for personal freedoms and a sceptical mistrust of the Army and the Church. Paul Vian lived comfortably off a small, private income, but when the Great Depression hit in 1929, the Vian family were forced to move out of their villa, "Les Fauvettes", and set up home in the gatekeeper's lodge for a while.
Jazz, Practical Jokes and Metallurgy
Boris suffered from a particularly weak constitution as a child. In fact, the young boy's health was so fragile that a local schoolteacher had to come and give him lessons at home. As a result, Boris learnt to read and write at an early age - in fact, by the age of 10 he was already whizzing through the French literary canon. Boris's health continued to decline, however, and shortly after his 12th birthday he suffered his first heart problems. (Vian would continue to suffer from a weak heart throughout the rest of his life).
Boris's health improved in his teens and, once he was able to leave the confines of his home, he went on to become a brilliant pupil at the Lycée de Sèvres, then at the Lycée Hoche in Versailles. Later, Boris enrolled at the famous Lycée Condorcet in Paris, where he excelled at classical studies, doing well in Latin and Greek. At the same time the gifted young student taught himself English in his spare time. It came as no surprise to anyone when young Boris passed his first 'baccalauréat' at the age of 15, then went on to pass a second with flying colours two years later.
Throughout his teenage years Boris cultivated a passion for literature and the French language, developing a lifelong interest in punning and wordplay. But language and literature were not his only hobbies - music also played a major role in the teenage Boris's life. At 16 Boris developed a real passion for jazz (a music which was still relatively unknown in France in those days). Young Boris soon went on to become something of a jazz expert, gaining acceptance into the legendary "Hot Club de France". By the time he was 17, the budding young jazz musician had also taken up the trumpet.
In the years leading up to the Second World War Boris continued to divide his time between his two passions, writing and music. He also made a name for himself on the local Paris scene, organising extravagant parties at the family villa with his brothers Alain and Ninon. Up to 400 young people would regularly flock out to Ville-d'Avray to dance the night away in Vian's garden. Famous even in those days for his love of parties and practical jokes, Boris made an excellent master-of-ceremonies.
When war broke out in 1939 Boris received his call-up papers. However, given his poor health, he was promptly declared unfit for service. Boris went on to attend the "Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures" in Angoulême, where his family relocated during the early years of the war. Boris graduated from the Ecole Centrale three years later with an engineering degree in metallurgy.
Marriage, Friendship and Surrealist Rhymes
In 1939 Boris also began a relationship with a young woman called Monette, to whom he got engaged later that year. However in 1940 the Vian family left their home in the Paris region and moved to Gironde. It was here at Cap-Breton, during the summer of 1940, that Boris met and fall in love with Michèle Léglise, a woman who, like himself, had left the Paris region and sought refuge in the provinces. The couple went on to get married on 3 July 1941 and had two children together (a son, Patrick, in 1942 and a daughter, Carole, in 1948).
The summer of 1940 proved to be a pivotal year in Boris's personal life for it was later that same summer that Boris met Jacques Loustalot, better known to family and close friends as "le Major". Despite the difference in age - Boris was in his early 20s while Jacques was just 15 at the time - the young men struck up a close friendship, Vian immediately tuning in to Jacques' sense of fun and his eccentric behaviour. The two men remained extremely close friends right up until 1948 when "le Major" was killed in an accident.
While continuing to study for his engineering degree in Angoulême, Vian devoted much of his time and energy to writing. In 1941 the budding young author began work on his first book, "Les cents sonnets" - a work which proved to be so ahead of its time that it was not published until 1984!
Vian was fascinated by the intellectual activities of the Surrealists from an early age and he maintained a healthy interest in the "culture of the absurd" throughout his life. In the 1940s, besides busying himself with writing and studying for his engineering degree, Vian joined the "Cercle Legâteux" - a group of friends who got together in the pre-war years and set up a club where members could enjoy numerous activities such as playing chess, making short films and, if they enrolled in the "Section volante, déchaînée, sociale et cosmique de la science aérotechnique" (the Flying, Crazy, Social and Cosmic Branch of Aerotechnic Science), constructing model aeroplanes! The "Cercle Legâteux" combined serious intellectual pursuits with bizarre pastimes and several members of the circle were lucky enough to participate in "surrealist rhyming classes" conducted by Vian himself.
After graduating from the "Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures", Vian landed a job at A.F.N.O.R. (the French standards association) where he was employed in the glasswork section. Vian resigned from his post at A.F.N.O.R. in 1946 but his years with the association would provide inspiration for much of his later work.
In 1942 Vian began work on another book entitled "Troubles dans les Andains". However, this novel was to suffer the same fate as his first work "Les cents sonnets" (not receiving publication until 1966). In the early 40s Vian also began devoting more time to his musical activities, becoming resident trumpet-player with the jazz band set up by French clarinettist Claude Abadie (Abadie renamed the group the Orchestre Abadie-Vian to mark the occasion). Boris was not the only Vian in the group - his brothers Alain and Lélio also played with the Abadie-Vian Orchestre (on drums and guitar). The Orchestre Abadie-Vian went on to perform several short tours and also took part in several amateur jazz contests.
Novels, Trumpets and "Le Tabou"
Around 1944 Vian had his first works published under various pseudonyms including Hugo Hochebuisson and Bison Ravi (a suitably comic anagram of Boris Vian). It was under the latter that he wrote one of his most outspoken works - a poem about the Germans banning American jazz. It was also around this time that Vian began to take a keen interest in songwriting, penning early works such as "Au bon vieux temps" (a song set to music by one of his good musician friends, Johnny Sabrou). However, at this stage of Vian's career, songwriting remained a rather 'marginal' activity - it was not until the 1950s that Vian would really start devoting serious time to his songwriting work.
In 1945 Vian signed a contract with French publishing house Gallimard and later that year his novel "Vercoquin et Plancton" appeared in bookshops. The following year Vian went on to make a major impact on the French literary scene with the publication of his most famous novel, "L"Ecume des jours".
It was around this period that Vian was accepted into the Saint-Germain literary clique and began spending time with its leaders Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Just a few months after the publication of "L'Ecume des jours", Vian caused another major literary stir with "J'irai cracher sur vos tombes" - a witty pastiche of the American thriller genre. (In typical Vian form, he published the novel under the name Vernon Sullivan and claimed he himself was the translator!) Many leading critics slammed the 'iconoclastic' contents of "J'irai cracher sur vos tombes", but this did not stop Vian's novel from shooting to the top of the best-seller list in 1947. Vian's successive thrillers - "Les morts ont tous la même peau" (published in 1947) and "Et on tuera tous les affreux" (in 1948) went on to provoke the same amount of controversy - and proved equally successful!
In the post-war years France's artistic and cultural life thrived with renewed vigour. The capital was invaded by new clubs, bars and jazz music and the young generation threw themselves into non-stop partying and hedonism. Needless to say, Boris Vian found himself at the centre of this exciting whirl of activity. In 1947 the young musician formed his own choir, which he baptised "Le petite chorale de Saint-Germain-des-Pieds" (The Little Choir of Saint-Germain of The Feet!) Vian was also closely involved with Le Tabou, a tiny jazz club which had just opened its doors at 33 rue Dauphine, right in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Le Tabou soon went on to become one of the city's most happening nightclubs, future chanson star Juliette Gréco and crowds of hip young existentialists flocking there on a nightly basis.
Boris and his brother Alain proved to be the life and soul of Le Tabou, getting the tiny jazz club swinging each night with their popular jazz band. Legend has it that Vian even wrote Le Tabou's legendary 'anthem' "Ah ! Si j'avais un franc cinquante" (Oh, If I Only Had One Franc Fifty). Unfortunately, as Le Tabou reached the height of its popularity Vian came down with a bout of ill health again and this time he was forced to give up his trumpet-playing. Vian reconverted his jazz expertise into writing, however, joining the editorial team of the French magazine "Jazz Hot" in 1946. Over the next ten years he wrote a series of respected articles on his favourite subject and also edited a regular press review.
Music, Theatre and Ursula
In the late 40s Vian left his regular jazz haunt, Le Tabou, and began hanging out in another famous Left Bank jazz 'cavern', Le Club Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It was here that he organised concerts by a whole host of legendary U.S. jazz stars including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Meanwhile, the multi-talented Vian had already turned his hand to a new profession, writing his first cabaret shows. It was also around this period that Vian began to supplement his income by translating American thrillers. (Most famously, Vian would translate Raymond Chandler's novels and short stories for the French publishing house Gallimard).
In 1949, while continuing to work for Jazz Hot, Vian also landed another important post, becoming editor of another leading French jazz magazine, Jazz News. By this stage of his career Vian was spending an increasing amount of time on the jazz scene - a passion which caused him to give up his 'official' day job at the "Office professionnel des industries et commerces du papier et du carton" (The Office of Trade and Industry for the Paper and Cardboard).
Meanwhile, Vian continued to plug away at his songwriting and in 1949 scored his first big hit with "C'est le be-bop". Vian's lyrics were set to music by the renowned jazz pianist Jack Diéval and performed by a certain Henri Salvador (in those days a budding young singer and major jazz fan). Vian went on to work on several collaborations with Diéval up until the early 50s. As for young Henri Salvador, Vian would keep on working with him throughout the 50s and the pair enjoyed a whole string of hits together.
In the early 50s, the multi-talented Vian began branching out in a new direction, devoting an increasing amount of time to the theatre. In 1950, for example, he staged "L'Equarrissage pour tous", a play whose textual rhythm owed a lot to music and jazz syncopation. By this stage of his career Vian was experimenting more and more frequently with intricate wordplay, transforming his texts into elaborate vocal ballets. Later that year Vian went on to write his first musical, "Gialiano", following this with "Le goûter des généraux" in 1951 (although "Le goûter des généraux" was not staged before the 60s). In 1952 Vian scored two major box-office hits with "Cinémassacre ou les cinquante ans du septième art" and "Paris varie ou Fluctuat nec mergitur".
Meanwhile, Vian's personal life underwent a series of radical changes. After having separated from his wife, Michèle, he moved in with a young German dancer by the name of Ursula Kubler in 1951. Three years later Ursula would become Vian's second wife.
By this stage of his career, Vian was writing at an increasingly hectic pace, financial problems motivating him to take on more and more translation work for Gallimard. After taking an active interest in theatre, poetry, novel-writing and song-writing, Vian went on to discover a whole new genre - science-fiction ( a genre which, incidentally, was totally unknown in Europe at the time). Vian's new interest inspired him to write a song entitled "La Java martienne" (The Martian Java).
Music and Pataphysics
In 1952 Vian joined the "Collège de pataphysique", a prestigious circle of French writers and academics studying 'pataphysics' (a virtual science invented at the end of the 19th century by "Ubu Roi" author Alfred Jarry). Vian joined the association as "Equarisseur de première classe", but within a few months was promoted to "Satrape", then the following year "Promoteur insigne de l'Ordre de la Grande Gidouille". Fellow members of the "Collège de pataphysique" included such well-known French celebrities as Raymond Queneau, Eugène Ionesco and Jacques Prévert.
In 1954 Vian began to devote an increasing amount of time to his songwriting activities. War had just broken out in Indochina and this inspired Vian to write his anti-war classic "le Déserteur", a song which went on to become the most legendary number in his repertoire. Vian had already built up an extensive repertoire and in 1955 the famous French producer Jacques Canetti invited him to start performing in his cabaret, les Trois Baudets. Vian also went on to work at another well-known Paris cabaret, La Fontaine des Quatre Saisons. Vian scored something of a hit with audiences on the cabaret circuit, which led to him recording his first album "Chansons possibles et impossibles" (Possible and Impossible Songs) in April of that year. 1,000 copies of the album, which featured favourites from Vian's cabaret show, were pressed - but production stopped when "Chansons possibles et impossibles" was censored because of the controversial song "le Déserteur". When Vian set off on tour that summer "le Déserteur" provoked a fresh wave of protest, audiences at several concerts emerging in uproar when they heard the lyrics of the song.
After having experimented with jazz, thrillers and science fiction, in the mid-50s Vian started getting interested in a brand new export from America - rock'n'roll. Inspired by this exciting new beat, Vian began penning a series of popular, and often extremely funny, songs collaborating with Alain Goraguer, Michel Legrand and Henri Salvador (who wrote the music for these new songs). From 1956 onwards, Vian began working with the Philips label, recording his own material and also producing hits for other artists. It was Vian, for example, who wrote and produced "Rock'n'roll Mops" for Henry Cording (otherwise known as Henri Salvador) and Magali Noël's "Fais-moi mal Johnny".
Besides experimenting with rock'n'roll, Vian also drew inspiration from other sources, revamping old musical styles such as the java and inventing his own hilarious songs: "La Java des bombes atomiques" (The Atomic Bomb Java), "La Java des chaussettes à clous" (The Hobnailed Sock Java), "La Java javanaise" (The Javanese Java) and the "Java mondaine" (The High-Society Java). Beneath the comic façade of such songs, Vian wove in social and political commitments, thinly disguising his anti-establishment sentiments. By this stage of his career, Vian's highly original songwriting was beginning to attract the attention of several leading French stars. Singers such as Renée Lebas and Mouloudji asked Vian to start writing material for them and Mouloudji helped turn "Le Déserteur" into a French classic.
Work, Overwork and … The Final Curtain
Unfortunately, it was around this period that Vian's health went into severe decline once more. Despite suffering a series of pulmonary oedemas, Vian kept his hectic work schedule up, writing opera librettos (such as "Fiesta" in 1958, set to music by Darius Milhaud) and scripts for film documentaries (such as "La Joconde" in 1957). Somehow Vian also found time to star in films (including Pierre Kast's "Un amour de poche") and translate plays (including several of Strindberg's most famous works). In 1957 Vian also went on to become artistic director at Philips. Then in 1958 he took up the same position with the Fontana label.
Meanwhile, Vian also kept up his prodigious songwriting output, penning a whole series of French classics such as "J'suis snob", "Les joyeux bouchers", "On n'est pas là pour se faire engueuler" and "Je bois". In 1958 Vian also put the finishing touches to "En avant la zizique…" (a satirical show inspired by his experiences in the record industry). In the late 50s - when audiences enjoyed listening to 'literary' songs by Prévert, Aragon, Queneau and even Sartre - Vian's work began to win enormous critical acclaim.
Vian, close to suffering from nervous exhaustion by this stage of his life, was trying to take more time off to 'rest'. But his multiple activities left him little time for a break. In 1959 Vian became involved with a project to turn "J'irai cracher sur vos tombes" into a film. He began writing a screen adaptation of the book, but after a series of 'artistic differences' Vian was eventually dropped from the project. In April of that year Vian played his final role on the silver screen, starring alongside Jeanne Moreau in Roger Vadim's film "Les Liaisons dangereuses".
Later that year, following his work at Philips and Fontana, Vian was invited to become artistic director at another leading French record label, Barclay. Vian accepted the position but barely had time to leave his mark on the label. On June 11th 1959, Vian and Ursula organised a huge party in their home at the Cité Véron, in honour of the appointment of a new director at the Collège de pataphysique. A few days later, on June 23rd, Vian was invited to a private screening of "J'irai cracher sur vos tombes" - and died just a few scenes into the film which he barely recognised as an adaptation of his novel.
Vian's death left an enormous vacuum in France's artistic and cultural life. But needless to say, Vian's influence lives on today. Vian's songs have been covered countless times by a wide variety of French singers - from Jacques Higelin, Serge Reggiani, Mouloudji and Catherine Sauvage to Yves Montand, Les Frères Jacques, Bernard Lavilliers and Maurice Chevalier (who recorded his own version of Vian's famous "Pan Pan poireau pomme de terre" in 1957). There have also been countless re-releases of Vian's own recordings of his work and French theatre troupes regularly revive his plays and comic sketches. (A new production of "En avant la zizique" was staged at la Porte de la Villette in August 1999).
Meanwhile, Vian's novels have become classics on the French literary syllabus, students up and down the country analysing his satirical humour, his attacks on the 'Establishment' and his avant-garde sense of the absurd. Given the modernity of his work and his rebel status, Vian has become something of an idol for a whole new generation of French teenagers today.