Boris Vian

When I was a teenager, Boris Vian was my favourite author. I collected his books – I have 41- and had a photo of him on my bedroom wall right next to Charles Baudelaire. I loved him because he was a very versatile person. He was a writer, a poet, a musician, a singer, a translator and many more things. I loved his sense of humour and the way he manipulated the language, I still love it of course!

Boris Vian was born in 1920 and died of a heart attack in 1959.  He had always suffered ill health and knew that he would die at a young age. He was good friend with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus with whom he like spending time in the Café des Deux Magots in Saint-Germain des Prés in Paris.

During his lifetime Boris Vian was not a very successful author and musician. It is only after his death that his work gained the recognition that it deserved.

One of his most famous novels L’Ecume des Jours, (Froth on the Daydream) published in 1947, was made into a film– bizarrely translated  Mood Indigo –  in 2013. It tells the surrealist and poetic story of a man who falls in love with a young woman pretending to be the reincarnation of a Duke Ellington song.

One of his  most famous short stories is entitled Les Fourmis (The Ants / Pins and Needles). It was published in 1949 and is written from the point of view of a young American soldier who describes the D-day landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944.  Vian’s black humour is present from the first sentence of the story:

On est arrivés ce matin et on a pas été bien reçus, car il y avait que des tas de types morts ou des tas de morceaux de types, de tanks et de camions démolis.

We arrived this morning and we didn’t get a nice welcome because there were piles of dead guys or piles of parts of dead guys, tanks and smashed up trucks. 

Internationally, Boris Vian is mainly known for his song Le Déserteur, an anti-war song released in 1954 when France was in the midst of the First Indochina War.  The song  later became famous in the United states during the protests against the Vietnam War when it was sung by Joan Baez.

Here are the French lyrics with English translation:

Monsieur le Président,
je vous fais une lettre,
que vous lirez peut-être,
si vous avez le temps.Je viens de recevoir
mes papiers militaires
pour partir à la guerre
avant mercredi soir.

Monsieur le Président
je ne veux pas le faire,
je ne suis pas sur terre
pour tuer de pauvres gens.

C’est pas pour vous fâcher,
il faut que je vous dise,
ma décision est prise,
je m’en vais déserter.

Depuis que je suis né,
j’ai vu mourir mon père,
j’ai vu partir mes frères,
et pleurer mes enfants.

Ma mère a tant souffert,
qu’elle est dedans sa tombe,
et se moque des bombes,
et se moque des vers.

Quand j’étais prisonnier
on m’a volé ma femme,
on m’a volé mon âme,
et tout mon cher passé.

Demain de bon matin,
je fermerai ma porte
au nez des années mortes
j’irai sur les chemins.

Je mendierai ma vie,
sur les routes de France,
de Bretagne en Provence,
et je crierai aux gens:

Refusez d’obéir,
refusez de la faire,
n’allez pas à la guerre,
refusez de partir.

S’il faut donner son sang,
allez donner le vôtre,
vous êtes bon apôtre,
monsieur le Président.

Si vous me poursuivez
prévenez vos gendarmes
que je n’aurai pas d’armes
et qu’ils pourront tirer.

Mr. President
I’m writing you a letter
that perhaps you will read
If you have the time.I’ve just received
my call-up papers
to leave for the front
Before Wednesday night.

Mr. President
I do not want to go
I am not on this earth
to kill wretched people.

It’s not to make you mad
I must tell you
my decision is made
I am going to desert.

Since I was born
I have seen my father die
I have seen my brothers leave
and my children cry.

My mother has suffered so,
that she is in her grave
and she laughs at the bombs
and she laughs at the worms.

When I was a prisoner
they stole my wife
they stole my soul
and all my dear past.

Early tomorrow morning
I will shut my door
on these dead years
I will take to the road.

I will beg my way along
on the roads of France
from Brittany to Provence
and I will cry out to the people:

Refuse to obey
refuse to do it
don’t go to war
refuse to go.

If blood must be given
go give your own
you are a good apostle
Mr. President.

If you go after me
warn your police
that I’ll be unarmed
and that they can shoot.

I hope you have enjoyed this little introduction to Boris Vian. As always, if you want to find out more, there is a lot of information on the internet.

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