I Spit on Your Graves, page 1
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
THE DARK SIDE OF BORIS VIAN
There's a French expression, "secouer le cocotier" (to shake the coconut-tree). The idea is that whoever shakes the coconut-tree secretly hopes that a few coconuts will fall on some heads, not quite accidentally, but in a somewhat random fashion. It may be that Boris Vian was in such a frame of mind when he wrote J'irai cracker sur vos tombes in the summer 1946—to shake things up a bit, to get ahead in his life, i.e. to be published. But then little did he know that this B-class thriller would blow up, like a bomb flung into the French literary circus, in the years to come.
How could he foresee that his novel would sell more than half a million copies by 1950, and become the best-seller of 1947, topping all other sales, including those of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, and Malraux, the intellectual avant-garde elite of the time.
I Spit On Your Graves was published as if it were the original version of a thriller, written by an African-American writer named Vernon Sullivan. Boris Vian claimed to have translated the novel into French so that it could be published in France. Vian and the
The Dark Side of Boris Vian
publisher explained that the novel's treatment of race was too explosive for it to be published in the U.S.
There was, however, a problem: the original English version was written after the "translation"!
In order for us to understand the multiple literary levels on which this novel works, a brief chronological summary of its publishing life is needed.
At the beginning of the summer of 1946, a young and enterprising publisher wanted a best seller in his catalogue, so that his new publishing company. Editions du Scorpion, could be launched with a big splash. The publisher's name was Jean d' Halluin (brother to the bass-player of the Vian-Abadie Jazz-band). Vian's taste (or veneration) for jazz and thrillers being already well established, d'Halluin approached him, asking him whether he could select a hard-boiled American thriller and translate it for him, for publication by Editions du Scorpion.
Well, Boris Vian decided to write it himself. Why? Perhaps in part to avoid a long search through American thrillers, or maybe just to prove to himself that he could do it.
Things then moved quickly. On his tra-
ditional summer vacation with his young family and friends at a beach resort in the Vendee on the Atlantic Coast, Vian wrote the entire novel in the two weeks between August 5th and August 20th. The name of the "author" was chosen: Vernon Sullivan, allegedly made up from the names of his friend Paul Vernon and the jazz pianist Joe Sullivan. The initial title was J'irai danser sur vos tombes, "I will dance on your graves," with a clear biblical reference. His wife Michelle thought they needed a grittier title, so they decided that "spit" would serve better than "dance".
]'irai cracker sur vos tombes , "translated" into French by Boris Vian was published in France in November. It was a quiet birth. The book had a slow start. d'Halluin and Vian realized it needed more publicity, otherwise it appeared doomed to sink in the vast sea of print.
They got more than they wanted, in two strokes: one comic, the other more sinister. In February 1947, Daniel Parker, head of a right wing association with the telling name of "Cartel d'action sociale et morale", a group already involved in the moral condemnation of the (in)famous books by Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn ,
The Dark Side of Boris Vian
launched a law suit against the presumed author oi J'irai cracker sur vos tombes .
Then in April 1947, a sordid murder took place near the Montparnasse Station in Paris. A man went crazy and strangled his mistress in a cheap hotel room. A copy of Vian's thriller was discovered in the murder room. The man who had read it — the murderer — had circled certain passages including the one where Lee Anderson, Vian's hero, strangles Jean Asquith. There was a huge scandal, much to the pleasure of sensation-hungry tabloid readers. Now Vian found himself in a strange and delicate position. Naturally, everybody wanted to read the "murder" book for themselves. So while d'Halluin was busy printing new copies, the unexpected publicity put Vian in the forefront. People wanted to know who the unknown author, Sullivan, was. The situation had become grotesque. The trick had gone too far.
But beyond the publicity, what was so scandalous about / Spit On Your Graves ?
The story is narrated by Lee Anderson. He is African-American, but his skin is so light he can pass for white. His younger brother was lynched. Determined to avenge his brother's murder, Lee sets out for Buckton, an imaginary middle-class town in the deep South.
There, through a helpful friend, he secures a quiet job at the bookstore. He mixes confidently with the locals, particularly younger women, whom he ruthlessly exploits and betrays. But he relentlessly seeks the ideal prey upon whom to carry out his planned revenge.
He finds the perfect targets: two women from wealthy families, Lou and Jean Asquith. The plot unfolds at a fast pace. The narrative is incisive, harsh, with few psychological incursions. The story is told mostly through dialogue. As for style — the word "macho" would be too mild. The focus is always on Lee's obsessive determination to kill choice white females. The compensation for the loss of his brother has to be high: two females for one male. He will act without remorse or second thought. But although he can mingle in white society with ease, he believes that his deep voice (he sings the blues) may eventually betray him — he has to act swiftly. The plot is indeed fairly simple and linear, but the story is gripping, the mood is tense. The erotic passages are more suggested than depicted in detail, in a style which Vian himself described as belonging to a "Latin erotic tradition" (whatever that means).
At the time of the release of the
The Dark Side of Boris Vian
"translation" of / Spit On Your Graves , post-war France was welcoming the new American Literature: Katherine-Anne Porter, Erskine Caldwell, Horace MacCoy, Carson McCullers, and Richard Wright — the latter moved permanently to France in 1946. On the thriller-detective side. Marcel Duhamel had just created the famous "Serie Noire" collection with Gallimard — still going strongly — which would make possible the diffusion of such authors as Raymond Chandler, Don Tracy, Raymond Marshall, and James Cain, not to mention British writers such as James Hadley Chase and Peter Cheyney / Spit On Your Graves fits right into this racy literary climate, being overloaded with all the ingredients of the genre: racism (hate, intolerance, discrimination); sex (seduction, sexual athletics, rape); death (lynching, sadism, gore). Not a love story! And obviously, it was presented to the French reader as a "U.S. product."
Now we can begin to appreciate all the intricate levels of this violent thriller.
Vian, a white French man, writes (in French) a thriller staged in the USA (where he has actually never been). The hero is black, but looks white, and sets out to wreak vengeance against white society for the harm it has done to his brother. But he is bound to die,
since his quest is a solitary one, and no hope exists for a just legal system or a just society. To legitimize its realistic subtext, Vian writes under the alleged signature of an African-American: Vernon Sullivan, while presenting himself as the translator (i.e. mediator).
Despite the aspect of hoax here, which should not be overlooked in the case of Vian (who has used many pseudonyms), Boris Vian is dead serious about what he writes, and the way he writes it. He means all of it. True, he will later claim that this novel "hardly deserves attention, from a literary viewpoint" (in his afterwo
For about a year and a half after its publication, people remained duped as to the authenticity of Sullivan. Then Vian rewrote his thriller, but this time in English (this present version), with the help of an American friend, Milton Rosenthal. He did this to validate the existence of the supposed original text behind his translation, let alone the unusual style of the English text. This English version, / Spit On Your Graves , was published in April 1948, the third novel by Sullivan, "translated"
The Dark Side of Boris Vian
by Vian, was published, and by then the secret was out. The reading public had come to know that Sullivan and Vian were one and the same.
Who was this Boris Vian, who perpetrated this strange, multi-layer literary trick?
Boris Paul Vian was born on March 10, 1920, at Ville-d'Avray, near Paris. His family was middle-class, and until 1929 lived comfortably on private investments. In 1932 the young Boris manifested the first signs of a rheumatic heart. His interest in jazz started in the mid-thirties. At school, he was brilliant and very quick. In 1939, when the war broke out, he entered "Ecole Centrale", the most prestigious French engineering school. He graduated in 1942. In 1941, he married Michelle Leglise. They had two children, Patrick and Carole. During the war years, he started writing poetry and short texts. From 1945 to 1950, he lived a very intense life. He wrote novels, short stories, poems, plays, pamphlets, jazz-chronicles, and did many translations.
Ironically, it was through his false translation of / Spit On Your Graves that he secured his first actual translation contract, for Kenneth Fearing's "The Big Clock."
During that time, he also played his trumpet frequently, at jam sessions and
concerts (against medical advice). In 1950, he was tried (and heavily fined) for affront to public decency, as a result of his first two novels written under the Sullivan pseudonym. (This, as a result of the charges launched by Daniel Parker). From 1950 on, he entered a second phase in his life. He separated from and then divorced Michelle, stopped writing novels, and devoted his talents to songs, opera and sketches. In 1954 he married his second wife, Ursula Kubler, whom he had met in 1950.
The ill-fated I Spit On Your Graves eventually came back to haunt him. In 1959, a film adaptation was made, which he utterly rejected. On June 23,1959, while he was watching the first frames of the cursed film, his heart stopped beating. He was pronounced dead a short while after. The rumor has it that his last words were, as he was commenting on the beginning of the film: "These guys are supposed to be American? my ass!"... So died Boris Vian, in a fit of anger, at the age of thirty-nine.
When he wrote J'irai cracker sur vos tombes , he had already written two long tales, two novels, and over one hundred sonnets, but nothing was yet published. We may assume then, that, while he was infusing his true sentiments regarding blatant racism against Blacks
The Dark Side of Boris Vian
in the United States into his own literary production, and given his eagerness to be published, he did want to shake the coconut-tree. This is what he wrote in one of his numerous jazz-chronicles that he published weekly in Jazz-Hot No. 22, April 1948, my translation.
Today, as a result of the initiative of TamTam Books, the false translation signed by one of the most brilliant writers of post-war France is at last accessible to the American public. And it only took fifty years!
It was in July 1946 that Jean d'Halluin met Sullivan at a sort of Franco-American meeting. Two days later, Sullivan showed him his manuscript.
In the meantime, he told him that he considered himself more as a nigger than a white man, in spite of having passed the "line"; we know that every year, several thousand Negroes (thus designated by law), disappear from the census lists and pass to the opposite camp. His preference for Negroes inspired Sullivan with a sort of contempt for "good nigger", those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature. He had the idea that one can imagine and also meet Negroes just as "tough" as white men. This is what he had personally tried to demonstrate in this short novel of which Jean d'Halluin acquired the complete publication rights as soon as he heard about it through a friend. Sullivan did not hesitate about leaving his manuscript in France, all the more so as his American publishers had just shown him the timidity of any attempt to publication in his country.
Here, our well-known moralists will
reproach certain pages their... reaUsm a Uttle advanced. It seems to us interesting to emphasize the main difference existing between these and the stories of Miller; this latter does not hesitate, in any case, to use the most vivid vocabulary; on the contrary it seems that Sullivan thinks more of suggesting by a turn of expression and construction of a sentence than by the crude word. In this respect, he comes nearer to a more Latin erotic tradition.
We meet, besides, in these pages, the extremely clear influence of Cain (in spite of the fact that the author does not seek to justify, by an artifice, written or otherwise, the use of the first person, of which the writer mentioned proclaims the necessity in the curious preface of "Three of a kind", a collection of three short stories recently assembled in America in one book and translated here by Sabine Beritz); and one by the equally ultra-modern Chase and other supporters of what is shocking. In this respect we must acknowledge that Sullivan shows himself really much more of a sadist than his illustrious predecessors; it is not surprising that his book should have been refused in America : we wager it would be banned the day following its publication. As for its back-ground, one must see a manifestation of a desire for revenge in a race still, what
ever one may say, over-worked, badly treated, and terrorized, a sort of temptation of exorcism, against the domination of "real whites", in the same manner that paleolithic men painted bisons transperced with arrows to allure their prey to the traps, a quite considerable contempt for the probability and also the concessions of the public tastes.
Alas, America, land of cockayne, is also the chosen land of puritans, of drunkards, and of those people who say "bear that well in mind"; and if in France, we strive to more originality, on the other side of the Atlantic, no anxiety is felt in exploiting unblushingly a formula which has proved its value. In all sincerity it is as good a way as any other of selling one's writings....
I Spit on Your Graves
Nobody knew me at Buckton. That's why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn't had a flat, I didn't have enough gas to go any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem's letter, and that's all. There wasn't a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let's not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid's little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter. It was still in his pocket when the sheriff came to tell us to take the body away to bury it. I've got to say that I counted on Clem's letter more than on everything else. It ought to work, it just had to work. I looked at my hands on the steering wheel, at my fingers, my nails. Nobody would find anything wrong there. No risk on that score. Maybe I'd get away with it.
My brother Tom had known Clem at the University. Clem never treated him like he did the other students. He was glad to talk to him. They drank together, went out together in Clem's Cadillac. It was because of Clem that people put up with Tom. When he left to take his father's place at the head of his factory, Tom had to decide to leave too. He came back
to US. He'd learned a lot and didn't have much trouble getting an appointment as a teacher in the new school.
That's why my brother gave me the letter to Clem. I couldn't stay in that town any longer and he wrote to Clem to find me something.
Not too far away, so he could see me once in a while, but far enough so nobody would know me. He thought that with my face and my personality I wouldn't get into trouble. Maybe he was right, but I still couldn't forget the kid. Buckton Bookstore manager - that was my new job. I was to get into touch with the present manager and learn the job in three days. He was getting a new managership, a better one, and wanted to make a name for himself.
It was nice and sunny. The street's name had been changed to Pearl Harbor Street. Clem probably didn't know it. You could still see the old name on the signs. The store's number was 270. I stopped the Nash right in front of the door. The manager was sitting behind the register, copying some num-
I Spit on Your Graves
bers into an account-book. He was about 40 years old, with hard blue eyes and light blond hair, as I noticed when I opened the door. I said hello.
"How do you do! Can I help you?"
"Yes, this letter is for you."
"Oh, so you're the one I'm supposed to break in here. Let's see the letter."
He took it, read it, turned it over, and gave it back to me.
"It isn't very complicated," he said. "There's the stock (he made a sweeping motion with his arm). The accounts will be straight tonight. As far as selling and advertising and everything else, follow the suggestions of the inspectors from the main office and the circulars you'll get."
"This is a chain-outlet?"
"O.K." I said, "What do you sell most of?"
"Oh, novels. Bad novels, but that isn't our affair. Religious books, pretty fair, and text-books too. Not many children's books, nor any serious stuff either. I never tried to build up that line."