I Spit on Your Graves
by Boris Vian (1920-1959)
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-80958 $17
Translated from the French by Boris Vian
Boris Vian was a novelist, jazz musician, jazz critic, poet, playwright, a friend of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Raymond Queneau, Jean Cocteau, Louis Malle, Jean Paul Sartre, and numerous others of forties and fifties Parisian cultural society. He was also a French translator of American hard-boiled crime novels. One of his discoveries was an African-American writer by the name of Vernon Sullivan. Vian translated Sullivan's I Spit on Your Graves. The book is about a 'white Negro' who acts out an act of revenge against a small Southern town, in repayment for the death of his brother, who was lynched by an all white mob. Upon its release, I Spit on Your Graves became a bestseller in France, as well as a instruction manual for a copycat killer whose copy of I Spit on Your Graves was found by the murdered body of a prostitute with certain violent passages underlined. A censorship trail also came up where Sullivan as the author was held responsible for the material. It was later disclosed that Vian himself wrote the book and made up the identity of Vernon Sullivan!
This edition is a translation by Vian, that was never published in America. I Spit on Your Graves is an extremely violent sexy hard-boiled novel about racial and class prejudice, revenge, justice, and is itself a literary oddity due to the fact that it was written by a jazz-loving white Frenchman, who had never been to America.
"The novel (I Spit on Your Graves) became a best seller in France and established a scandalous reputation for Vian. But for the past forty years, Vian has become one of the most famous writers of the mid 20th Century, as his hoax of 1946 is only one example -- provocative and outrageous, though powerful and meaningful -- of his prolific production: novels and short stories, plays and songs."
"In the tradition of Karl May and Franz Kafka, Boris Vian imagines an America even more amazing than the land he has never visited. I Spit on Your Graves is the first novel to put quotation marks around the 'hardboiled' -- a vivid and startling performance."
"To Americans Boris Vian has long been one of the hidden glories of French literature. In I Spit on Your Graves, he wrote an utterly untypical work, a blast from his Id that may well have killed him. Even now, with misogyny disguised as racial justice, its venom remains potent and disturbing, in equal parts appalling and riveting. It is a singular book, not for the squeamish, and not to be passed by."
"As unlikely as it may seem, America was somewhat "in" for the French after World War II; the prewar renown of Hemingway and Faulkner was giving way to the novels of Cheyney and Cain, and film noir heroes such as Humphrey Bogart had unknowingly joined forces with the rising stars of French existentialism. The sex-and-violence pulp novel to have the biggest impact, however, was I Spit on Your Graves by a certain Vernon Sullivan, whose existentialism came short of actually allowing him to exist. He was the pen name of Boris Vian, jazz musician, song-writer and author, whose best-known novel (translated as Froth on the Daydream in Britain, and Mood Indigo in the U.S.) would later be described by Raymond Queneau as "the most beautiful love story ever written." If that was to be the most beautiful, however, then this, his literary debut, was without question one of the ugliest - a brutal sex-and-murder revenge story to outdo even Charles Willeford at his worst.
A lawsuit against indecency and a copy of the novel (with aptly-circled passages) found in a hotel room by the strangled body of a business-man's mistress did wonders for the book's sales, but Vian's subsequent translation of the book into its "original" English failed to maintain his anonymity. It did, however, make this text available to the English reader, even if it took 50 years for it to now see print in the States.
The book's protagonist is Lee Anderson, a white-skinned mulatto seeking retribution for the racially-motivated murder of his kid brother. His somewhat curious method: to sleep with as many white woman as possible-and if they prove worthy enough (which would seem to mean "white" enough), murder them. There are no heroes, but-less common for the "noir" genre- there are almost no victims, with the exception of the barely mentioned dead brother, and a particularly disturbing chapter involving two pubescent prostitutes. To read this book as an outrage against racism, however (which has been done), would be a misreading. Although the issue is obviously present, it makes for more of an off-kilter vehicle for the narrative. This might perhaps be due to the fact that Vian had never been to America; in the existential jazz atmosphere of postwar Paris, the lynching of a black man was perhaps as exotically "American" as the gumshoe. But the book, for all its terse prose and crafted crudity, is actually more complex than that, and ends better as a reflection (or perhaps celebration) of the misogyny and sadism so endemic to postwar pulp fiction. These were qualities that George Orwell addressed in an essay on the enormous success of James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish- qualities that Queneau, Vian's pataphysical colleague, attempted to parody in his own puzzling effort at pseudonymous pulp: We Always Treat Women Too Well. Vian, though, proved to be more successful at casting a troubling light on this peculiar period in French literature. The fact that it took this long for its translation to see print in the U.S. is puzzling, to say the least."
Marc Lowenthal, Excerpted from a longer piece in The Boston Book Review
With time, most scandalous art mellows into historical curiosity. Lady Chatterley's Lover's dirty bits disappoint eight year olds; it endures mainly as a record of pruderies past. But other works survive the vicissitudes of taste and respectability - Ulysses and Lolita "Bitch's Brew" and "Rite of Spring." Publishers who specialize in rescuing out-of-print literature settle the difficult but largely abstract questions of literary posterity in very practical ways by deciding which of the thousands of books daily tumbling out of print are worth saving and why. One new press, TamTam Publishers, "is devoted to the purpose of reprinting lost masterpieces" of "20th Century International literature." It has published three titles so far, among them French writer Boris Vian's 1946 I Spit on Your Graves, a graphically violent novel about race, sex, lynching and revenge. Vian, a frequent translator of American pulp novels, claimed that the book was written in English by an African-American writer, Vernon Sullivan. The book became a sensation and a scandal in 1947, when a copy of the novel, with the passage about a strangling underlined, was found in the Paris hotel room in which a man strangled his mistress. Then it was revealed that the book was actually written by Vian and in French. The book is interesting from a historical standpoint because of its publishing history and Vian's authorship hoax. It's also a good example of an artful thriller that plays with the pulp conventions and uses the genre to satiric effect - while reading the lurid story, readers are encouraged to conflate social criticism of race relations with sheer titillation, and the reception of the work dramatizes the way people can behave, as though reading a sensational novel about racial violence is the same as doing something abut it. Unlike many pulp novels, Vian's holds up as a strange and shocking read today, no small feat in a gratuitous age.
Monique Dufour, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2000
When my talented and extremely good tastemaker wife suggested that I read the works of the French bad boy of aesthetics Boris Vian, I read three: Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories, I Spit on Your Graves, and an old American translation of L'Ecume des jours entitled Mood Indigo in English. The books did more than amuse me; I was converted into a publisher. Maybe because Vian reminded me of my late father (same generation and aesthetic) or perhaps I was just seduced by Vian's humor intensity, and his sense of the antiromantic. One thing became clear to me: I'll dedicate my life to getting Vian's work back in print in the U.S.
Last year TamTam books put out I Spit on Your Graves (the original translation by Vian). This novel has a twisted history that is almost as compelling as the novel itself, which anyone interested in can read about on the TamTam Books website (www.tamtambooks.com). Meanwhile, we've recently purchased the U.S. rights to Vian's 1946 masterpiece L'Ecume des jours. This novel features, among other things, a talking mouse and a keyboard that can do everything from changing the mood in a room to making cocktails. A new translation by Brian Harper titled Foam of the Daze will be coming out in spring 2001.
Tosh Berman, Context issue No. 4
What's On In London
Thursday 26, July 2001
Boris Vian, the Prince of Saint Germain, is not particularly well-known to the English reader. Apart from his celebrated novels, most notably L'Ecume des Jours (Foam of the Daze: TamTam Books 2002), he also wrote a series of pulp novellas. I Spit on Your Graves was published in France in 1946 purporting to be a translation of the black American writer Vernon Sullivan. It's a savage piece of writing, taking the hardboiled fiction of James M. Cain as its start point and driving homicidally in the direction of Celine. The book caused a scandal in France and no wonder - what a seismic shock it would have caused in Britain before the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial. It's the story of Lee Anderson, a black man who can pass for white, who is looking to avenge the lynching of his brother and has decided that all whites are a legitimate target. It opens innocuously enough with Lee establishing himself in small town America, but soon you are embroiled in a maelstrom of violence, pornography and nihilism. Blacker than noir, this Molotov cocktail of race, sex and hatred burns off the page.
The Guardian Saturday
August 4 2001
I Spit on Your Graves by Frenchman Boris Vian is dreamily convincing on heated sexual and racial conflict in the U.S. Appearing for the first time in English, this is a work of authentic forgery: first published in France in 1946, it masqueraded as a translation of a censored American work by one Vernon Sullivan and went on to sell more than half a million copies. Main inspiration would have been the slew of Hollywood movies that opened in Paris after the liberation, identified by the French as films noirs. I Spit... is straight noir, but also a work of liberated imagination after four years of Nazi occupation: heady, abandoned, fevered and lubricious. A fusion of prime U.S. pulp and French sado-eroticism, the author was a jazz aficionado, boulevardier and pamphleteer who wrote it for a bet in a fortnight. Stranger even than Vian's book was his premature death, aged 39: in an act of bizarre poetic symmetry, he managed the ultimate critical statement by dying of an attack of rage while watching the opening of a movie version.
Time Out London
Well, here it is at last, the historic shocker finally in English. "A best seller?" Echoed Vian, lunching with a publisher. 'Give me ten days and I'll make you one!' Which he did, though it was banned by the French government in 1947 because of copy-cat killings. Boris Vian, jazz trumpeter, hipster, pal of Bird's and Duke's, was very much part of the immediate post-war Paris craze for all things American - hardboiled novels, jazz, film noir and black slang (he translated Cain, Chandler and Kenneth Fearing into French). His novel purports to stem from nonexistent black American writer Vernon Sullivan and its central character is a black, Lee Anderson, who can pass for white. Lee's young brother has been lynched for going out with a white girl, and Lee vows vengeance, screwing as many rich, racist white women as possible - and then breaking the news about his race.
It's very much of its time, knee-deep in terms like solid, square, longhair and bum boozer's puns like 'the very sight of the shakes gave me the shakes'. Lee runs a bookshop, boxes, sings in a Cab Calloway voice and plays guitar, sitting in with a jazz band. He 'cut a rug with the cats that hung out in the joint... I was able to talk their jive better than they - maybe it was in my blood'. He's irresistible and is soon the stud of the teen scene. Hardly deterred by sickly white buddy Dexter's taste in 12-year olds. The book is loaded with fairly explicit sex, some of it sadistic, all justified because the intention was to make his dead brother 'squirm in his grave with joy'. It's crude pulp, even nastier than Jim Thompson at his worst. 'The townspeople hanged him anyway because he was a nigger. Under his trousers, his crotch still protruded ridiculously.' Vian, 'The Prince of St Germain', watched the opening of the French film version, leaped up and cried, 'These guys are supposed to be American my arse!', clutched his heart and died. He was 39.
Coming in 2004 - Boris Vian's Autumn in Peking
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