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Mood Indigo

By Boris Vian: translated by John Sturrock; Grove Press; 191 pages; $4.95 (Original title, "L'Ecume des Jours")

By Nina Bernstein

THE GROVE PRESS label and the Barbarellaesque book jacket could not be more misleading: Mood Indigo will be a disappointment to the whips-and-white-things crowd. It's a love-story and a fantasy, but it's about as far from A Man with a Maid as grass is from heroin.

The metaphor is not inappropriate: though Boris Vian wrote the novel in 1946, the world it created seems more in tune with perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic than with the view from a bistro in post-war Paris. In a brief preface Vian explains that the book's "material realization consists in projecting reality obliquely and enthusiastically onto another surface which is irregularly corrugated and so distorts everything."

The Vian's heroes live unperturbed in a world where broken windows heal themselves, where clouds smell of wild thyme or cinnamon sugar, and where a rectangular bedroom becomes spherical when "The Mood to Be Wooed" is played. If we find these anomalies disconcerting, it is because, as Jacques Bens points out in his afterward to the French edition, we are used to fairytales where the supernatural of flying carpets or seven-league boots is inserted in an otherwise normal world. In Vian, on the other hand, the symbolic "pianocktail," which allows one to get literally drunk on jazz, is placed in a universe that continually surprises with flowers growing from the pavement, or with neckties that struggle against being tied. But Mood Indigo is not an anarchic collection of magic notions; what disturbs us from the beginning is a sense of the fantasy's internal coherence: We can't know that laws which govern it, but we're convinced not only of their existence, but of their frightening irreversability.

If there is a key to the system's inner logic, it is in the environment's response to changes of mood. When Colin feels ready to fall in love, doors begin to close "with the sound of a kiss on a bare shoulder," and the air turns sultry. This environmental adaptability is all very well in the first half of the book, when Colin's main preoccupations are his love for Chloe, for Duke Ellington's music, and for the gastronomical delights concocted by his cook. But when Chloe falls fatally ill the atmosphere of light and luxury changes. As he runs to her bedside his world literally constricts and darkens:

He was running as fast as he could go, and, as he looked, people toppled slowly and fell like ninepins, full length on the pavement, like big cardboard boxes being dropped. . . . The acute angle of the horizon, squeezed between the houses, hurtled toward him. Beneath his feet it was night. A night of black cotton wool, shapeless and inorganic, while the sky was colorless, a ceiling, one more acute angle.

As Chloe dies, Colin's apartment shrinks into a prison, his records wear out, and to pay for Chloe's treatment he's forced to find work in a munitions factory, where guns are grown with the heat from human bodies.

VIAN maintains a kind of baroque humor throughout, but puns and word games (unfortunately badly translated) shade into black humor which at the novel's end becomes a Kafkaesque surrealism that we find frightening rather than funny. Sartre, who was a real-life friend of Vian's, is amusingly satirized as Jean-Sol Partre, the cult idol who enters packed lecture halls on elephant back, crushing his waiting fans. But when Chick, Colin's friend, sacrifices everything, including his girl-friend Alise, in order to buy Partre's work, the joke turns grisly. Chloe dies from a water-lily growing in her lungs: this is both Vian's preposterous parody of the consumptive heroines who litter romantic tradition, and a real tragedy in the context of a world where orchids grow from the sidewalk. By the time Chloe dies, here eyes "two bluish marks beneath her brows," we are not laughing.

The love story itself is simple to the point of banality, but set in this strange, poetic universe it becomes unforgettable. Vian's language evokes both sensuality and a kind of fragile tenderness; Chloe's skin is "amber-colored and as appetizing as marzipan," but she coughs "like a piece of silk tearing." This delicacy is poignant in the second half of the novel, as Chloe and Colin become the innocent victims of an inexplicable determinism for which no one will take responsibility. At Chloe's grotesque, horrifying funeral, Colin cross-examines Jesus:

Why did Chloe die?"

"It's got noting to do with me," said Jesus. "Suppose we talk about something else" . . . He tried to make himself more comfortable on his nails. . . . His eyes . . . closed and Colin could hear, coming from his nostrils, a faint purr of satisfaction, like a well-fed cat.

Vian is not accusing religion of indifference so much as pointing out its irrelevance. What is relevant and important then? In his forward, Vian declares, "There are only two things: love, all sorts of live, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans or Duck Ellington. Everything else ought to go, because everything else is ugly. . . ." This is a flippantly stated philosophy, but the hedonistic note it sound accords well with Vian's own life-style. A cardiac case from childhood, Vian decided to ignore his illness with a vengeance. He was a jazz musician, a composer, an engineer, an actor and a playwright as well as a novelist. Friend of writers like Sartre and Ionesco, habitué of the caves of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Vian was generally considered the prince of the enfants terribles of French existentialism. His death in 1959 at the age of 38 was sudden, but it could hardly be called unexpected. While he was alive, the only one of his books that sold was a semi-pornographic novel that he'd written for a bet under a pseudonym; his most successful song, "Le Désérteur" (made popular in the States by Peter, Paul and Mary) was banned in France for its frank anti-war message. As a rule the critics treated him with amused tolerance. Recently, however, an enthusiastic Vian cult has been growing among French students, and the critics have begun to speak of L'Ecume des Jours, L'Automne à Pékin, and the play The Empire Builders, with increasing respect, giving Vian a place in the tradition of Dadaist humor, the Theater of the Absurd, and modern French poetry.

It's unlikely that Vian's novels will become particularly popular in this country: they're very French, and they suffer in translation. But Mood Indigo has a magic no heavy-handed translator can counteract. It's effective on so many levels that reading it is more than a pleasant pastime--it's like an initiation into Vian's way of responding to reality. And a very powerful one too: chances are that when you read your second Vian novel, it will be like coming home.

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