Thursday, May 8, 2014

FFB: Foam of the Daze - Boris Vian

Tam Tam Books ed., English translation
Currently in its 3rd printing
The fantastical world of Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (1946) -- punnily translated as Foam of the Daze by Mark Harper -- is populated with kitchen mice that act as miniature housekeepers; deadly tools of assassination like the cop-killer and the heart-snatcher; and a mind boggling invention called a pianocktail, a combination robotic bartender and musical instrument that mixes, blends, and delivers potent potables by simply playing a tune on the keyboard. And Vian’s invention is not only limited to bizarre machines and anthropomorphic animals. The writer, also an accomplished musician, composer and friend of 1940s Parisian jazz and literary elite, was a lover of linguistic trickery and wordplay. Translating his many puns and jokes must’ve been a challenge to Harper who does an admirable job trying to capture the playfulness and humor that, as with most foreign language puns, are often untranslatable. For much of its brief but densely filled 220 pages the story is one of Vian’s most exuberant and joyous works.

Foam of the Daze is an unapologetic romance, a surreal fairy tale, and a literary satire all wrapped up in one delightful package. The story, however, is not all hearts and flowers though those two images feature heavily in the story. Vian scales the heights of delirious newfound love and plummets into the depths of despair when a mysterious illness threatens to end the ecstasy of a young couple’s honeymoon.

Wide eyed jazz lover Colin lives a carefree life enjoying cocktails and playing Duke Ellington records with his musician friend Chick who quickly meets and falls in love with the beautiful Alise. Colin is immediately jealous and longs for his own Alise. No sooner does he make his wish then he meets Chloe, as equally wide-eyed and optimistic as he is. It’s no coincidence that she bears the same name as a popular Duke Ellington song. There are no real coincidences at all in Vian’s world. Every action, every word of dialog has a purpose and is interconnected to every object and character in the story.

Boris Vian, circa 1940s
The most remarkable thing about this love story is the way illness is depicted. So often people talk about how their lives fall apart when a loved one is suffering a terminal illness. That is literally what happens to Colin’s world. His house begins to deteriorate, the ceiling crumbles, glass windows and tiles shatter, rooms shrink and doorways become almost inaccessible. All because Chloe has succumbed to an inexplicable malady, a miracle illness. Somehow a water lily has begun to grow around her lungs and heart. It’s not possible to operate and remove the plant without killing her. The only treatment method is to surround her with flowers and plants, tend and care for them so that in their beauty the water lily is shamed into withering and disappearing from Chloe’s body.

Filled with a soundtrack of Ellington’s music, multiple references to New Orleans and Memphis style jazz, and a subplot involving a satirical jibe at Vian’s good friend Jean-Paul Sartre who appears in the book as pop sensation Jean-Sol Partre, author of Vomit and other works of existentialist bestseller-dom, Foam of the Daze is like no other book I have ever read. Practically unclassifiable in the way it absorbs so many genres Vian's novel is bewitching and strange and hysterical and ultimately deeply moving. It’s an assault on the senses and the intellect. Imagine entering a floral shop crammed full of exotic plants and breathing in the mix of heady scents, taking in the wide array of colors and shapes, all while drinking an unnameable, rainbow hued cocktail with an indescribable yet utterly intoxicating flavor. This is what it’s like to read Vian’s novel.

Graphic novel adapted by Benoît Preteseille
His writing can be hilarious as in the sections making fun of collector mania. When Chick is not satisfied with owning Sartre’s books a wily bookseller coerces the musician into buying the writer’s fingerprints and old pants convincing him the items will increase in value as much as the writer’s books. Only a few pages later Vian tugs at our heartstrings in relating Colin’s desperate attempts to become gainfully employed often humiliating himself in the process so that he can earn enough money to keep buying plants and flowers that will help in his wife’s strange treatment plan. Not only do Colin and Chloe and their house suffer as the water lily infiltrates everyone and everything, but Chick and Alise undergo a rift in their relationship that leads to a surprisingly violent climax.

L’Ecume des Jours has been adapted into a movie by French director Michel Gondry and retitled aptly enough Mood Indigo, after the Ellington jazz standard, starring Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris as Chloe and Colin. The movie has already appeared throughout Europe at a variety of film festivals and will be shown at the Music Box Theater here in Chicago Sunday, May 11, 2014 as part of the Chicago Film Critics Film Festival. The movie has been picked up by Drafthouse Films and should appear in a limited release at art house cinemas sometime in the summer and eventually be released on DVD. A paperback tie-in edition is being released in the summer under the movie’s title. Anyone too impatient to wait for that edition can order Foam of the Daze directly from Tam Tam Books or any on-line retailer right now.


  1. I love the sound of a pianocktail! Definitely have to see the movie if it hits these shores soon - thanks chum, it sounds peculiar and appealing ... :)

  2. Hope the movie comes there. What a strange title. Can see why they changed it to MOOD INDIGO.

  3. Replies
    1. Even if it doesn't make it to the Detroit area Drafthouse Films will be releasing the movie on DVD. You should be able to see it sometime in the late summer/early fall.

  4. John, I liked the premise behind the story, the miracle illness, and it'd be interesting to see how the story has been adapted to film.

  5. As I was reading this post, first I thought ... oh, no, this book is not for me, but along the way it sounded better and better. Very complex and unusual. The movie sounds good too.