Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Black Comme Moi": Boris Vian and the African American Voice in Translation

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Black Comme Moi": Boris Vian and the African American Voice in Translation

Article excerpt

In 1946, Boris Vian published a faux-French translation of a novel by a non-existent African American author. Emphasizing through parody and self-referentiality the "impossibility" of translation from American English into French, Vian simultaneously attacks both the notions of a constructed, fetishized "original" text and of racial authenticity.

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In late 1946, capitalizing simultaneously on the post-war market in France for African American fiction and the seemingly insatiable French appetite for American crime stories, twenty-seven-year-old novelist, jazz critic, and occasional translator Boris Vian published, in translation, the work of African American newcomer Vernon Sullivan, entitled J'irai cracher sur vos tombes. The book, which told the story of a fair-skinned black man passing for white who deliberately seduces and savagely murders a pair of wealthy white sisters as revenge for the earlier lynching of his younger brother, drew immediate comparisons to the work of James M. Cain and of James Hadley Chase, whose 1939 No Orchids for Miss Blandish featured a similar plot and had been a war-time bestseller. J'irai cracher sur vos tombes was an almost immediate cause celebre, not least because it was deemed obscene and despite the fact that its American author could not be found.

Vernon Sullivan could not be found because he did not exist, as the literary world soon realized. By early 1947, it was hard to find a review of the novel that referred to Vian, then best known as the author of the "Chroniques du Menteur" in Les Temps modernes and as a jazz critic for Jazz-Hot and Combat, merely as the translation of Sullivan's work. Vian himself, with typical playfulness, continued to insist that he had merely done a favour for an extremely media-shy friend whose work was too extreme to be acceptable to white America, "the land of the puritan elect, of alcoholics, and of get-that-through-your-head, you" (J'irai 10): (1) "Critiques m'ont attribue gaiment la paternite du livre. Ce sont des procedes vilains mufles: je suis trop chaste et pur pour ecrire de telles choses" (Morts 182). [Critics have gleefully attributed to me the paternity of this book. This is villainous, loutish behaviour. I am far too chaste and pure to write of such things.]

Vian's little hoax might have proved to be merely a money-making jest, as he himself claimed was the objective, telling a journalist two years after the novel appeared that "it [the book] is terrible, very bad. But it was well constructed in a commercial sense" ( qtd. in Noakes 22). He had, after all, boasted to Jean d'Halluin of Editions du Scorpion, who sought a best-selling novel in English to translate into French, that he could write one himself, given fifteen days in which to do it. Furthermore, J'irai cracher sur vos tombes had been written during a break from the creation of what most now consider Vian's masterpiece, the surrealism-inflected love story L'Ecume des jours, which should have eclipsed the Sullivan venture. But J'irai cracher sur vos tombes was not merely a disposable piece of pulp fiction; the fact of its pseudo-translatedness made it special, forced the reader to confront what critic Andre Bay called "the point at which translator and author run strangely together" (qtd. in Noakes 19). T he fact that the novel's ostensible author was a black American, that in essence Vian had chosen to write using a persona whose authenticity he seemed perhaps more poorly situated than almost anyone to simulate, politicized the novel in ways that Vian perhaps did not expect. No one in the Parisian literary establishment wanted to argue that only blacks should translate the work of black writers. Indeed, Vian himself supplemented his income throughout his career with translations of white and black authors, including Raymond Chandler and Richard Wright; however, there were serious objections to a white author usurping the subject position of an African American. …

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