Monday, May 05, 2008

Book Report: "Heartsnatcher," by Boris Vian

In "Heartsnatcher"Boris Vian put the Western world on the couch for an examination and decided the best solution was to hide from it.

Like many writers, Vian had no particular claim to the title of social psychoanalyst other than the frequent contemplation of his navel, which he found time to do in between stints as an actor, jazz trumpeter, engineer and mechanic.

This French scribe, of little import beyond his native nation's borders, was part of a post-World War II Parisian ebullience springing from the magical city's Latin Quarter.

A practitioner of le swing in a band that included two of his brothers, Vian played host to such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker.

He was part of a hedonistic crosscurrent in the Saint German-des-Pres world upon which politically committed intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Andre Malraux had put their own stamp.

The two groups clashed frequently. The serious crowd probably had a more lasting impact, and the hedonistic crowd more fun, which is pretty much how things work.

In his introduction to the Dalkey Archive Press edition of "Heartsnatcher," John Sturrock writes, that Vian's 1950 play L'Equarissage pour Tous, "a spoof of the Normandy invasion in World War II, was vilified as 'shameful spittle' by Elsa Triolet, wife of Louis Aragon, the French poet, journalist, and staunch member of the French Communist Party. Jean Cocteau, already disliked by the communists, came to Vian's defense and compared the play's spirit to that of his own Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel."

Anyway, the novel appears to be part of mid-century Western lit's larger effort to break with traditional storytelling modes.

In her introductory essay to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road: The Original Scroll," Penny Vlagopoulos noted, that, "Like the European avant-garde artists of the preceding decades, Kerouac sought to collapse the distance between life and art."

Although a contemporary of Kerouac's, Vian's novel would suggest he was up to the same tricks with a focus on the interior life, rather than topographically focused screeds of the Beat poet.

"Heartsnatcher" is refreshing in that the story takes turns not normally associated with the paces of traditional storytelling, even if that means the payoff comes with less clarity and satisfaction.

In fact, it is a little hard to tell what is truly going on in "Heartsnatcher," which hails from a great French tradition that obligates you to work the brain instead of serving up its pearls on a freshly shucked oyster.

The story, such as it is, opens up with the main character, the psychiatrist Timortis, delivering triplets to a rather complex lady named Clementine, who has barred her husband Angel from the momentous event and, eventually, from her life.

"She preferred," Vian tells us, "to suffer and scream alone because she hated her swollen belly and wanted nobody to see her in that condition."

In a conversation with Angel, we learn Timortis comes from the outside with a plan to psychoanalyze the members of Clementine's household on a cliff above the sea and fill his own "empty vessel," in a firm nod to the Mr. Freud, with the subconscious detritus of residents from the nearby, unnamed village.

Timortis tells Angel he wants to learn the villager's "most terrible, heart-rending secrets, his hidden ambitions and desires; the things he does not even admit to himself; everything; everything - and then everything that lies beyond that everything."

The village turns out to be the great scummy id of humanity itself; complete with an "Old Folks Fair" that peddles Golden-agers as cheap labor, requiring men to display what Cervantes called, "the meats" as part of the bidding process, while treating broken crones no better than burros.

Shocked, Timortis questions the "Knacketeer" running this travesty about the woeful lack of scruples and gets a punch in the mouth for his troubles.

Later, he witnesses the brutes of the burg literally crucify a stallion for its sin of copulating with a mare. The narrative is peppered throughout with the deaths of wan little boy apprentices driven until they drop.

A "scarlet stream" filled with indescribable mucks and mires runs near Clementine's house and through the village. Along the waterway works a man in a barge named "Glory Hallelujah," who retrieves dead and decrepit things from the bottoms with his teeth, as required by an agreement with the villagers who pay him in gold, but forbid him to spend it.

"They pay me to feel their remorse for them," explains Glory Halleluhah.

There is a local Vicar whom holds his flock in the highest disdain and will not petition God that their fields be watered with rain until threatened with violence.

His religion is different than the one his followers practice. "Come on Sunday," he tells Timortis, " and you'll see...You'll see how I attack there materialism with an even more materialistic materialism. I'll rub the noses of the brutes in their own messes. Their apathy will find itself striking against an even greater apathy...and a worrying anxiety will grow from this collision which will land them back to religion...the religion of luxury."

Such luxury includes bread and circuses pitting the vicar and his curate in brutal fistfights given for a little local excitement.

Up at the house on the hill Clementine stores a rancid piece of meat in a drawer and eats a piece everyday as way of drawing the dangers of the world away from her triplets and toward her.

Isolated, sexually deprived yet inflamed, she works her mind into feverish fits, inventorying the many dangers from which she must protect them the little boys.

Her task grows even more difficult when they learn how to fly so that the compound is progressively walled in, pruned of all tree coverage, and ultimately outfitted with cushy cages of ready pleasure into which the little scamps are locked for their own safety.

And there's your story. One understood by those who opt for the ivory tower or have set out in youth to make the word a better place.

It does not tell us everything about Vian. As a matter of fact it is a later work from a short life and considered an attempt by him to generate "serious" literature.

Yet while his flights and fancy and non sequitir grotesqueries may try a reader's ability to maintain suspension of disbelief, the prose often graze the body poetic - a statement which obligates the scribe to go dig out an example...

....Here we go, right from the second paragraph of the book, "Timortis sauntered along, looking at the deep bloodred centers of the calamines throbbing in the flat sunshine. At each beat a cloud of pollen rose and, soon afterwards, settled on the dreamily trembling leaves. The bees had all disappeared on holiday."

His greatest success came with, "I'll Spit on Your Graves," an American noir detective send-up, which he wrote in two weeks, under a pseudonym, for handsome royalties and a prosecution for perversion.

Ah success!

"Boris Vian
has been caught
in the cogs
of the machinery of the laws
constructed by his fellow men
and has appeared
before their practitioners
because he wrote
'I'll Go Spit On Your Graves'
under the name of
Vernon Sullivan
although even that's
far from being the whole story"

Which is part of a poem about Vian by Raymond Queneau, about that particular and unpleasant episode.

The future Socialist President of France, Francois Mitterand, served as his attorney, and after a lot of unnecessary grief, Vian got a slap on the wrist.

The book literally killed him. Watching a movie version in the theater that he disapproved of, Vian stood up to publicly air his gripes and keeled over dead.

Sort of. For writers reach beyond their own times; often successfully.

Writes Sturrock: "He became the hero of youth following his death in 1959. And of course when May 1968 arrived, with its benign if hopeless insistence that imagination take power in France, Vian did better still, he was the very prophet the gallantly fantasizing students needed."

Looking to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the May '68 uprisings in Paris, highwayscribery chose to remember Vian in a way that links the literature and politics of that tremendous moment.

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