Friday, 23 May 2014

Book Review: Mood Indigo by Boris Vian

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1846689449/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1846689449&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21After the enjoyable experience with Linn Ullmann’s Before You Sleep (»»» read my review of past Friday) I thought that it might be a good idea to really plunge into surrealism for a change. Since the origins of the literary movement lie in France it also gives me the perfect opportunity to make another contribution to the Books on France 2014 reading challenge. My choice for today’s review is Mood Indigo by Boris Vian, a French modern classic which was first published in 1947 and translated into English several times under varying titles. Like most of this author’s literary work it achieved cult status and found its way into the French canon only after his death, namely in the 1960s and 1970s.

Boris Vian was born in the Parisian suburb Ville-d'Avray, France, in March 1920. As a child he went through serious illnesses which left him with a weak heart. After high school he became an engineer, but he also got involved in the Jazz scene of Paris in the late 1930s and soon worked as a trumpeter and songwriter. In 1943 he turned his attention to literature as well and wrote Turmoil in the Swaths (Trouble dans les andains) which appeared as a book only in 1966. The years after World War II saw the publication of the author’s surrealist novels Vercoquin and the Plankton (Vercoquin et le plankton: 1946), Mood Indigo (L'Écume des jours: 1947; also translated as Froth on the Daydream and Foam of the Daze) and Autumn in Peking (L'automne à Pékin: 1947) which all sold poorly, though. Boris Vian adopted the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan brought out four crime parodies, most famous among them I Spit on Your Graves (J'irai cracher sur vos tombes: 1946). The again surrealist novels Red Grass (L'Herbe rouge: 1950) and Heartsnatcher (L'Arrache-coeur: 1953) attracted little attention. From then on he concentrated on plays and music, song writing and singing in particular. Boris Vian died from sudden heart failure in Paris, France, in June 1959.

In the beginning of Mood Indigo life is like a pleasant dream for its twenty-two-year-old protagonist Colin. Thanks to an inheritance he leads a carefree existence in his own spacious as well as sun splashed apartment which he has furnished with all thinkable comforts including a pianocktail, an instrument that translates the music played on it into savoury cocktails. Actually, Colin is an sensualist in more than just this one respect. He loves good meals which accounts for the presence of Nicolas, a proud cook and man-servant of twenty-nine with a passion for the culinary creations of Jules Gouffé who turns into a true friend as the story advances. Colin also adores music, most of all Jazz by Duke Ellington, and he has a distinct sense for fashion and style. Beauty in all its forms is important to him, but so is friendship. His best friend is Chick, an engineer of his own age, who has a hard time making ends meet with his meagre salary. Colin helps him best he can inviting him for dinner and making him presents every so often. The encounter with Chick’s attractive girlfriend Alise awakens in him a great desire for love which soon finds its subject: during a party Colin is introduced to beautiful Chloë. It’s inevitable that the two fall in love, soon get married in the most bombastic wedding ceremony and leave for their honeymoon in the south. To share his happiness Colin gives Chick one quarter of his money which will allow him to marry Alise. Alas, it isn’t meant to be. Instead of marrying Alise, Chick spends everything on books and memorabilia of the philosopher Jean Sol Partre (easily identifiable as Jean Paul Sartre) whose obsessive fan he is. Also Colin’s life is going downhill because during the honeymoon Chloë catches a dangerous infection: a water lily is growing in her lung. The only cure is the perfume of fresh flowers which are so expensive that Colin’s fortune is soon used up and he has to look for a job to save his love’s life.

The plot of Mood Indigo tells a rather simple, if not trivial story of love and friendship, but it’s set in a world obeying other natural laws and social conventions than we are used to. Sun rays behave like living creatures that shy from hidden or unpleasant corners and seek open or beautiful places. An apartment (and everything in it including Nicolas) responds to the protagonist’s emotions: it turns increasingly sombre and shrinks as the worries of Colin about Chloë’s deteriorating health grow. With the exception of Colin and his friends people are treated like lifeless objects that can be disposed of like rubbish when they are in the way or somehow damaged. My personal favourite is the final scene with the mouse committing suicide by begging a rather reluctant cat to bite its neck. Many other bizarre scenes and images fill this novel, but never to an extent that would make the basic plot difficult to follow or to see through. As fits a surrealist writer, Boris Vian also salted his novel with lots of word plays which I reckon must be awfully difficult to translate into English. The passionate musician in him included many references to music as well, especially to a song called Chloë, and different English translators thought it appropriate to give the novel the title of Duke Ellington’s Jazz standard Mood Indigo instead of translating the original one. All things considered, it’s a read that requires some attention in order not to lose the thread and a mind set to thinking about hidden meanings.

Although in general I’m not very attracted by the bizarre and the absurd, I enjoyed Mood Indigo by Boris Vian very much. It was an interesting read with many fascinating ideas about life shining through the lines which makes me wonder what this author’s other works may be like. And of course, I recommend the novel for reading!

8 comments:

  1. So they've abandoned Foam of the Daze as a title for L'écume des jours? I love this book for its unique universe.

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    1. Emma, it seems that US-editions have always been titled Mood Indigo and most screen adaptations, too. Foam of the Daze was just the ingenuous idea of one translator from the U.K., but obviously it didn't have much of an impact. Certainly Mood Indigo has a higher recall value in its favour thanks to the lasting popularity of Duke Ellington's music.
      Thanks for your comment!

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  2. wow, I had never seen the title in English. and when I saw Mood Indigo, I could not guess which title it was! odd, I think. Thanks for your review, I enjoyed it a lot too in my younger days

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    1. Yes, the link between L'écume des jours and Mood Indigo isn't quite obvious. Well, translators (or publishers?) do that all the time - inventing new titles for great books, I mean. Thanks for your comment!

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  3. I have never read anything like this before. I usually read True Crime! Having read this and really enjoying it, I hoped to read something similar. Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. Well, you certainly made a side step! True crime and a surrealist novel, that's quite a contrast.

      Unfortunately, I'm at a loss for book suggestions because I don't usually read novels like Mood Indigo. However, I reckon that Boris Vian's Autumn in Peking, Red Grass and Heartsnatcher could be in the same line although I must admit that I haven't read either. Emily Temple suggests 10 Essential Surrelist Books for Everyone on FLAVORWIRE (see http://flavorwire.com/313636/10-essential-surrealist-books-for-everyone/view-all), but I don't know any of those...

      However, I'm happy to know that my review inspired you to read a book that wasn't True Crime. Thank you very much for your comment!

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  4. I came across this review by going to your other blog. I loved this book! I read it because a movie, called Mood Indigo, came out in 2014, so I both read the book and saw the movie. It was a thrilling experience for me. Here is the link to my review:http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2014/09/mood-indigo.html

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    1. I vaguely remember that preparing this review I read about the movie, but I must admit that I'm not much of a cineast (which account for the pretty short list of reviewed screen adaptations on this blog) and I never saw this one. I reckon that outside France Mood Indigo is quite a hidden literary gem and I'm not surprised that you don't know anybody else who read it. Maybe in your corner Boris Vian is better known for his "mainstream" novels written under the pen name Vernon Sullivan?

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