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Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories.

The prolific and versatile French writer Boris Vian cut a rambunctious figure on the Paris intellectual scene of the '40s and '50s. A novelist, playwright, translator, and famous literary prankster, Vian lived only the meagerest sliver of a life (he died in 1959 at thirty-eight), but he managed to produce a large and astonishingly varied oeuvre. The consummate eclectic, Vian was an accomplished jazz musician, acted in films, and wrote a column for Sartre's Les Temps modernes. All this while making his living off of mysteries: writing his own Vernon Sullivan series of mysteries (which readers thought were the translated work of an American writer), and translating the works of Raymond Chandler, Kenneth Fearing, Nelson Algren, James M. Cain, and others.

Blues for a Black Cat will serve as an excellent introduction to Vian for American readers. The collection, first published in French in 1947, gives us ten of Vian's early short stories, all of which show the tendencies that would lead Vian to an active role in the College de 'Pataphysique alongside Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Queneau, Eugene Ionesco, and others. (Pataphysics, "the science of imaginary solutions," was inspired by Alfred Jarry's Dr. Faustroll and has informed the spirit of many literary movements, most recently OuLipo.)

These stories are riotous, vintage Vian: full of exquisite Pataphysical bawdry, any number of superfluous characters, and a delicious disdain for the logic of the Cartesian universe. In the title story, a charming and cynical cat is rescued from a sewer by a passerby, then buys everyone a cognac and makes a pass at a prostitute. "Pins and Needles," a surrealistic account of World War II, is told with a bitter mockery worthy of Celine. Some of the same characters drift from story to story: devastating, dissolute women (some of them only imaginary), hopelessly befuddled men, and talking animals, all caught up in their own peculiar adventures, unemployment, and the froth and spittle of unrestrained sexuality.

Strangely, Vian knew his life would be brief, and predicted his own death almost to the year. He died while watching the film version of his novel I Shall Spit On Your Graves (which Louis Malle, in his foreword, frankly calls "a really bad film" ) - an absurd circumstance that might have been out of one of Vian's own tales, composed quickly to the deluxe riffs of an Ellington solo.
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Author:DeRossitt, James
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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