The Rear View Mirror – L’écume des jours (1947)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Boris Vian was a polymath, a writer, actor and inventor, but he is most remembered nowadays for his novel L’écume des jours (literal translation: froth of days), published in 1947. To say that it is a weird read is an understatement: there are eels clogging water pipes and peeking out of faucets, only coming out of there if you lure them out with pineapple. There are naked men lying on mounds of earth hatching gun parts, a job for the war effort that cannot be done by women because their breasts make even body warmth distribution impossible. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The key to the novel and to a lot of Vian’s work is that he is one of the foremost surrealists. He uses obscure discussions, wordplay, distortions of space and time, and other things to tell a story. There is, for instance, a writer and philosopher called Jean Sol-Partre, who gives his lecture out of a giant pipe that hovers over his fans. There is also a woman named Chloé who has swallowed a water-lily in her sleep and now must be surrounded by flowers in order to become better again. There is also a large room full of typewriters gliding past writers so that each of them can only type a few words, and then the machine glides away and underneath the next pair of hands, like in dadaism. If you are looking for a love story based in real life, you have come to the wrong place.

The explanation for the introduction of a small mouse or of a cook who gives you cooking advice from every cupboard, stove and oven you have in your kitchen is probably that there is a certain dream logic to it all. Let’s say you wake from a vivid dream, the remnants of which spill over into your morning thoughts. That is the froth of days, somehow mixing dream and reality. The baseline in the novel is that Vian tells the love stories of two couples, but tells it in such a shrewd way that his bag of inventions never seems to be empty. He knows what he is doing. He can bring on the most outrageous spread – as long as the bread fills your belly. I have sat through too many postmodern plays to assume that any story can take in just any kind of v-effect. There must be something for the audience to latch onto. Vian got that right, but he tells it through a thousand ideas. If you want to be surprised at every turn, then you might give this novel a try, but be warned: it can feel like being trapped in an elevator with a storyteller on too much sugar, telling his story loud and with 240 words a minute.

The novel has been made into a film in 2013, with Michel Gondry directing. I can see a direct kinship between Vian’s narrative inventiveness and Gondry’s visual style. The love story is pretty basic, but it is how it is presented to us that makes it interesting. With a running time of over two hours, it is really rather long, but Vian’s novel wants to be so darned visual, Gondry could have easily gone up to three hours.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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