The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Vernon Sullivan

October 23rd, 2009 · 6 Comments

[As a postscript to our event about hoaxes, I’ll post this account of a memorable literary hoax that may be unfamiliar to American readers.  It’s taken from my article “Boris Vian for Anglophones,” on the life and work of that French writer/musician, in Strange Attractor Journal Two.] 

The war had ended, Paris was free, and nightlife was in full bloom.  A rather drab neighborhood, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, started sprouting nightclubs, mostly in cellars; jazz musicians, existentialists, surrealists, lettrists, and actors filled them with smoke and noise.  Vian, tall and pale, trompinette in hand, became a symbol of the scene: the “Prince of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”  Scandal-hungry journalists (“copy-pissers,” Vian called them) snapped photos of couples necking in the murky basements, and whipped up public outrage.

A small publisher, Scorpion, suggested that Vian translate a rousing American thriller.  He had a better idea: he’d write his own.  And so was born Vernon Sullivan, a young black American too racially and sexually daring to be published in the US.  In ten days, Vian cranked out a brutal novella, about a black man passing for white, who seduces and murders white women to avenge his brother’s lynching.  Dubbed J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves), it was published as a novel by Vernon Sullivan, translated by Boris Vian.

A certain Daniel Parker, head of a “Cartel for social and moral action,” had already led a campaign against Henry Miller; now he targeted Sullivan.  As usual, the publicity only sparked sales.

Then, something unexpected intervened.  A salesman, Edmond Rougé, strangled his lover in a Paris hotel, leaving a copy of J’irai cracher beside her.  The press blamed the Sullivan smut; there was talk of banning it; and it became a best seller.  Vian was rumored to be the author, and the papers pissed copious copy about his career in the clubs.

Vian was grateful for the royalties — which allowed him to quit his job — but found himself in an increasingly difficult position.  He promised [his wife] Michelle that he wouldn’t admit his authorship.  Instead, he reinforced the hoax by producing the English “original” with his friend Milton Rosenthal, and by “translating” more Sullivan novels.  He also adapted J’irai cracher for the stage, under his own name; with the sex offstage, and the anti-racism front and center, he had a preachy show that pleased nobody and further entangled him in the scandal.

Rougé’s crime and Parker’s crusade eventually landed Vian in court, where he was compelled to confess that he was indeed Vernon Sullivan.  In spite of literary experts’ testimony, he was convicted of an “attack on public morals,” fined, and sentenced to prison.  The judgment was overturned on appeal, but the damage had been done: he was now branded a pornographer and hoaxer.  The joke had taken over his life.


J’irai cracher arose to haunt Vian one final time.  A production company hoped to turn the famous title into a movie; so Vian and Jacques Dopagne set to work on a screenplay.  It went through several versions, and even more production companies.  After being instructed that the script was too short, Vian sent off a thick typescript padded with absurdly detailed descriptions.  This brought his participation to a close, which was perhaps what he wanted all along, and the production passed to other writers.

The film was completed.  Vian attended a screening, and died a few minutes into it.  The symbolism has become a part of his legend; biographers disagree on whether he shouted a final insult at the movie.  At any rate, his heart had been killing him for years; friends recalled that he thought he’d never reach 40.

(Posted by Doug Skinner.  For more about Strange Attractor Journal, look here.)            

Tags: 'pataphysics · Hoaxes · Literature

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mamie // Nov 5, 2009 at 12:14 am

    Poor, poor Vian. Do we know what was wrong with his heart?

  • 2 Ben V // SHOOK // Mar 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Only encountered SAJ today. It looks excellent. #2 ordered.

    A big admirer of Boris Vian’s polymathic magic, I also wrote about him to mark the 50 anniversary of his death. The article is published in SHOOK issue 6.

    It’s silly he’s not known more to English readers. Plenty of good translations out there, most notably via TamTam books.

  • 3 Doug // Mar 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Sounds good!

    I’ve been happy to see more Vian translations coming out. I hoped my article would acquaint English readers with his less familiar works as well: the songs, opera libretti, screenplays, translations, cabaret sketches, liner notes, jazz criticism, and so on.

    SAJ is a great journal; #4 is out now!

  • 4 Ben V // SHOOK // Mar 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Have you also seen the beautifully crafted texts related to the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics?

    Boris Vian ‘Pataphysics? What’s That?

    and Letters to Stanley Chapman

    I’m familiar with the English translations of his jazz writing in Round About Close to Midnight. Have you any other recommendations? Or for his liner notes?

  • 5 Doug // Mar 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I have a copy of the first (which is delightful) but not the second; I’ll have to see if I can snag a copy. Vian’s liner notes were collected under the title “Derrière la zizique” (after his book on the music business, “En avant la zizique”). He also wrote a book’s worth of material in English, “Jazz in Paris.” It collects the scripts of a radio show he did in NY on French jazz. Apparently all recordings of the show have vanished; but his scripts are funny, and his English is as imaginative as his French. It’s available in a cheap paperback. And there’s a clip of Vian singing in phony Italian and being interviewed in English, thanks to the wonders of YouTube!

  • 6 name Boris Vian for Anglophones // Mar 23, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    […] I posted an excerpt over on the Ullage Group site, over here. […]

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