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Posts Tagged ‘Twentieth Century French Literature’

After I read Andrè Breton’s ‘Nadja earlier this year, I was thinking of reading more surrealistic novels. Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat suggested Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’. I have never heard of Boris Vian or his book. So, I thought it will be nice to try a new author. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Foam Of The Daze By Boris Vian

I don’t know how to write about ‘Foam of the Daze’ because it is a complex book. The basic story is simple. Colin and Chick are friends. Nicolas is Colin’s butler. Colin is in love with Chloe and Chick is in love with Alise. Colin and Chloe meet at a birthday party hosted by another of Colin’s friends Isis. Chick and Alise first meet at a talk given by writer-philosopher Jean Sol Partre (doesn’t that name sound suspiciously familiar J) The main characters are all in love and they are all very happy. Colin has enough money to not work. Chick has to work and earn his living, but he is happy because he is in love. He also loves books, sometimes obsessively. He collects any book written by Jean Sol Partre and many times buys books that he cannot afford. (Chick reminded me of myself years back when I used to spend all my money on books and even ended up in debt because of that. It felt strange seeing a fictional version of myself in a 1947 novel.) Of course, this perfect scenario cannot continue forever. If it does, then the story would be boring, wouldn’t it? Colin and Chloe get married. And one day Chloe starts coughing. And her health starts getting worse. The doctor comes and does some tests. He tells Colin and Chloe that there is a flower growing in one of Chloe’s lungs. (I am guessing that the flower stands for cancer). He says if the treatment that he is giving doesn’t work, then an operation has to be done to remove the flower. The doctor’s medicines don’t have much effect. Chloe goes through an operation. Things seem to become better. But then one day she starts feeling weak again. The doctor comes and does tests. He tells her that a flower is growing now on the other lung. Colin’s world collapses. He spends all his wealth in treating his beloved Chloe. Now he has to go to work to make ends meet. On the other hand, Chick spends all his money in buying books and literary memorabilia – first editions, the pipe smoked by his favourite writer and things like that. He loves Alise, but he feels that with his obsessive book-buying habit and lack of wealth he can’t make her happy.

 

Is Chloe able to come through the crisis? What happens to Chick and Alise? Will Colin and Chloe and Chick and Alise live happily ever after? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

If we just look at ‘Foam of the Daze’ from a plot perspective, the book is a beautiful love story with sad events which keeps us wanting to turn the page to find out whether the ending is happy or sad. But ‘Foam of the Daze’ is not just about the plot. It is an inventive literary work. It is also surrealistic. Or should I say fantastic (I am using ‘fantastic’ here as the adjective form of ‘fantasy’). Some readers would classify it as science fiction. There are many interesting scenes in the book which we might be used to, today, after reading Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, but which must have been quite new and novel when Vian’s book was first published in 1947. Like, for example, the room changes shape based on the mood of the people in it – when Chloe becomes sick, her room becomes smaller, the walls start moving closer towards each other, the roof starts moving down, her window becomes smaller, the carpet becomes plain and the room starts resembling a sick person’s room in a very physical way. In another scene, the room becomes round after a particular musical piece is played. This is depicted when the doctor first visits Colin’s and Chloe’s home. The passage goes like this :

 

Colin led him as far as the door of the room and suddenly remembered something.

          Be careful going in, he said, it’s round.

          Yes, I’m used to it, said Mangemanche. She’s pregnant…

          No! said Colin. Don’t be stupid. The room is round.

          Entirely round? Asked the professor. You played an Elllington record then?

          Yes, said Colin.

 

In another scene, there is a description of a device called the pianocktail which Colin has invented. Depending on the musical piece that is played on it and the mood that the music evokes, the appropriate drink comes out of this device which totally represents the essence of that mood. There are many scenes like this, where the physical world changes in unusual and fantastic ways to depict a particular mood, color, feeling, emotion or to evoke a distinctive atmosphere.  Reading this gives a lot of pleasure to the reader. I found that image of a flower growing in Chloe’s lung quite beautiful, though terrible. Colin has a pet mouse which is one of the fascinating characters in the story. The main characters – Colin, Chloe, Nicholas – love it and talk to it, and though it doesn’t talk, it seems to understand what they say. It is also extremely loyal and though circumstances change for Colin and Chloe, the mouse sticks with them till the end. The last scene of the book involves the mouse and it is quite heartbreaking.

 

Jazz music plays an important part in the book. There are many jazz references including those to the music of Duke Ellington, who is Colin’s favourite. As the story progresses, the music changes in tone depicting the sadness which creeps into the story. The book has a forty page ‘notes’ section, and a significant part of it is dedicated to explaining the jazz references in the story. The ‘Notes’ section considerably enriches our reading experience.

 

There seems to be only one English translation of the book in print today, by an indie publisher. There is a beautiful introduction by the translator Brian Harper in the book, in which he talks about the themes of the book and also addresses the challenges in translating it. There is one particular sentence which Harper writes about, which I found quite fascinating. The scenario is like this. Colin’s is trying to find a new job and in the interview, the interviewer asks him how he spends his day. The original and translated versions of Colin’s reply go like this :

 

French : Le plus clair de mon temps, dit Colin, je le passe à l’obscurcir.

 

Actual English translation : I spend the better part of my day, said Colin, contemplating the night.

 

Alternative English translation : I spend the brightest part of my day, said Colin, darkening it.

 

The second translation is more beautiful, isn’t it? Just makes me think that sometimes the unused translation (and the unpublished poem or book) might be more beautiful than the official version.

 

‘Foam of the Daze’ is a fascinating, surrealistic, fantastic love story with a heartbreaking ending. It addresses all the great themes – youth, loss of innocence, love, loss, death, the soullessness of mind numbing but inevitable work – and it does all this in an inventive, imaginative, novel, unique and original way. If you like stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new, you should give Boris Vian’s book a try. It will reward you for taking the risk with a rich reading experience.   

 

I will leave you with the link to a beautiful review of the book by Xiaolu Guo, and some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Nicolas was returning; he was holding an enormous cake.

          It’s a supplementary dessert, said Nicolas.

Colin took a knife and stopped right before cutting into the smooth surface.

          It’s too beautiful, he said. We’re going to wait a little.

 

Chloe had red lips, brown hair, seemed happy and her dress had nothing to do with it.

 

She saw by the means of open blue eyes, and her total volume was limited by fresh and golden skin.

 

He was almost always in a good mood, the rest of the time he slept.

 

The sun, too was waiting for Chloe, but it could have fun making shadows, or helping wild beans sprout in convenient cracks; it could fling open shutters and shame a street lamp still lit because of the recklessness of an electric company technician.

 

You’re both saying the same thing, but you don’t agree, said Colin, therefore either one of you is lying or both of you are.

 

What interests me isn’t the happiness of all men, it’s the happiness of each one.

 

          Is it their fault if they think that it’s good to work?

          No, said Colin, it’s not their fault. It’s because they’ve been told : work is sacred, it’s good, it’s nice, it’s what counts before anything, and only those who work have the right to everything. The only thing is, it’s been set up so that they work all the time so they can’t take advantage of it.

          But then they’re stupid, said Chloe.

          Yes, they’re stupid, said Colin. That’s why they agree with those that made them believe that work is the best thing there is. That saves them from thinking and finding a way to progress and to no longer work.

 

He vigorously pinched the extremity of a ray of sunshine that was about to reach Chloe’s ear. It retracted itself lazily, and started to stroll along the furniture in the room.

 

Colin had sat down on the floor to listen, leaning against the pianocktail, and he cried large tears in soft elliptical forms that rolled down on his clothing and disappeared in the dust. The music that went through him came out filtered, and the tune that came out resembled much more closely Chloe than Blues of the Vagabond.

 

          Your work doesn’t bring you any money? asked the professor.

          No, said Colin. I don’t work in the way people usually understand the word.

 

          I need money, said Colin.

          That’s not unusual, said the man, but work makes you philosophical. After three months, you’ll need it less.

 

Have you read Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’? What do you think about it?

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