the complete review - fiction
Froth on the Daydream
general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author
- French title: L'écume des jours
- Translated by Stanley Chapman
- Originally published as Froth on the Daydream; new (movie tie-in) re-issue published as Mood Indigo
- Also translated by John Sturrock, as Mood Indigo (1968)
- Also translated by Brian Harper, as Foam of the Daze (2003)
- Film version released in 2013, directed by Michel Gondry and starring Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou
- Return to top of the page -
B+ : neatly playful and twisted
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The Harvard Crimson*||.||18/3/1969||Nina Bernstein|
|Independent on Sunday||.||3/8/2014||David Evans|
|The LA Times*||.||1/2/2004||James Sallis|
|The NY Times Book Rev.*||.||26/1/1969||Robert Phelps|
|Rev. of Contemp. Fiction*||.||Summer/2004||Thomas Hove|
|Sunday Times||.||12/11/1967||John Whitley|
|The Times||.||4/11/1967||Ruby Millar|
|TLS||.||2/11/1967||John Sturrock|* review is of a different translation of this work
From the Reviews:
- "Mood Indigo is not an anarchic collection of magic notions; what disturbs us from the beginning is a sense of the fantasy's internal coherence (.....) Vian maintains a kind of baroque humor throughout, but puns and word games (unfortunately badly translated) shade into black humor which at the novel's end becomes a Kafkaesque surrealism that we find frightening rather than funny." - Nina Bernstein, The Harvard Crimson
- "Stanley Chapman�s fine translation captures Vian�s language, with its bubbly musicality and surreal similes (...). Quite what it all means is anyone�s guess � but this is a mad, moving, beautiful novel." - David Evans, Independent on Sunday
- "There have been two previous English translations (...) Chapman's is by far the superior, admirably transposing Vian's rhythms into English and finding equivalents for his multi-level puns and wordplay. But Brian Harper's hip new translation, edged toward the modern U.S. reader, may well become the standard. (...) This is a great novel, mind you." - James Sallis, The Los Angeles Times
- "The novel reads like a combination of Lewis Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, and sometimes Vian's absurdist style creates an emotionally distant effect. But its final chapters sustain a powerful note of sadness for two young loves ruined by mortality, rival intellectual obsessions, and a repressive work ethic." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "(I)t is as timeless as Le Grand Meaulnes or even La Princesse de Clèves." - John Whitley, Sunday Times
- "This is a book in which every line has a bite (.....) Stanley Chapman, the translator, is to be commended for preserving the liveliness and ingenuity of the style." - Ruby Millar, The Times
- "(S)urely the most consistent and balanced of all of Boris Vian's novels. (...) The fact that such a profound bitterness about the ways of creation can exist alongside so transparent a delight in verbal and logical play gives L'écume des jours a central ambivalence which is much more disturbing than those exercises in the absurd that rely on mystification and on the multiplicity of possible interpretations." - John Sturrock, Times Literary Supplement
- "The title is a wretched choice and a blot on Stanley Chapman's translation, which has been done with a kindly ingenuity that more than justifies his membership of the Collège de Pataphysique. (...) Like all of Boris Vian's best work, Froth on the Daydream starts with fun and ends, literally here, with funerals." - John Sturrock, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
Note: This review refers to Stanley Chapman's translation of L'écume des jours, originally published as Froth on the Daydream (1967, rev. 1970) and recently re-issued as Mood Indigo (UK: Serpent's Tail, 2013; US: FSG, 2014) -- but not to be confused with John Sturrock's translation, originally published as Mood Indigo (Grove Press, 1968).
Froth on the Daydream is a vivid mix of bright and dark, a light romance with some very dark edges. Where even to begin ? Perhaps with the end, a closing paragraph that gives about as clear an idea of Vian's writing, tenor, and imagination as any single passage:
The voices of eleven little girls, coming in a crocodile from the Orphanage of Pope John the Twenty-third, could be heard getting nearer. They were singing. And they were blind.The world of the novel is semi-fantastical -- the local unit of currency is 'doublezoons', the laws of nature seem rather more flexible -- and much that happens is slightly surreal. This is a world of which Vian can write, with a straight face: "The square was perfectly round", and where there are enormous underground aviaries, where, for example: "the Civic Controllers stored their spare pigeons for Public Squares and Monuments" -- and:
There were also resting places for weary sparrows, nesting places for rearing sparrows, and testing places for cheering sparrows.Yes, it's also a novel full of wordplay. 'Mood Indigo' may capture the feel of the novel, but Chapman's original title-in-translation, 'Froth on the Daydream' , come slightly closer to the actual meaning; Brian Harper's more recent translation opts for 'Foam of the Daze', which manages a decent pun on jours ('days'). Oulipo-member Chapman gamely tries his best in his 'anglicized' (as he calls it) version, though he errs in making some of the allusions more contemporary -- mention of film-maker Jacques Goon Luddard (i.e. Jean-Luc Godard) further unbalances a book that is already a tightrope act (and, despite floating in a freely imagined world, is otherwise subtly anchored in contemporary (anno 1946) culture).
The central recognizable figure is Jean Pulse Heartre (author of, among others, Breathing and Stuffiness), a thinly-disguised Jean-Paul Sartre (meaning, of course, that 'the Marchioness de Mauvoir' lurks nearby). Colin is the young central figure of the novel, and his good friend Chick has lost himself entirely to the cult of Heartre, as he spends every doublezoon he gets his hand on on the master's work. As to what Vian thinks of Heartre's fanatical followers, a scene where the philosopher speaks publicly gives a good idea; as to what Vian thinks of Heartre's ideas ... well:
Heartre had stood up and was showing the audience some samples of petrified vomit. The prettiest, containing sweetbreads, sauerkraut and cider, was an outstanding success.Petrified vomit ... not a ringing endorsement of the master's philosophy.
Froth on the Daydream is, on one of its many levels, a love story, with Colin swept away by Chloe, the two madly in love and then, briefly, happily married -- but Chloe is a tragic heroine, felled by a devastating (and very odd) affliction.
Froth on the Daydream isn't mere satire, though one can find enough of that throughout it. However, Vian layers on a great deal more: reveling in the possibilities of the fantasy-world he invents the story shifts easily from the realistically grounded to the absurd. Similarly, Vian (and Chapman) revel in word-play -- to the extent that some of the ideas and episodes seem driven merely by the verbal contortions they enable. Logical coherence remains a secondary concern, so most anything goes -- but Vian follows through sufficiently with his main characters to sustain an actual novel (rather than just collecting fantastical bits): there is certainly more than enough story here.
This is the sort of fiction one has to be 'open' to, accepting that the author plays by a different (and not readily recognizable) set of rules and enjoying the ride. It has charm, poignancy, a lot of clever bits, and a great deal that is a lot of (strange) fun -- worth giving yourself into.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2014
- Return to top of the page -
Links:Froth on the Daydream: Reviews(* refers to a different translation): Mood Indigo - the film: Boris Vian: Other books by Boris Vian under review: Other books of interest under review:
- Return to top of the page -
About the Author:
French author Boris Vian lived 1920 to 1959.
- Return to top of the page -
© 2014 the complete review
Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links
Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.
– George Gershwin
Imagine trying to describe a colour. Orange. What mix of words could give a blind man an idea of what orange looks like? Now take music. Yeah you could say it’s a bunch of sounds that feel good to hear, but that’s a cop-out, to put it mildly.
Boris Vian’s not alone in having tried to pin the feel of jazz music down on the page. F. Scott Fitzergerald’s got Tales of the Jazz Age and Toni Morrison had Jazz, but Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (translated: Froth on the Daydream) — reckoned to be his masterpiece and recognized as one of France’s greatest 20th century novels — does something special by both being all about jazz and nothing about it at the same time.
For a start, this is not story about music at all really. There’s a thousand and one references to jazz in the book, with characters obsessed with it and dancing to it all the way through, but strictly speaking it’s about two pairs of couples, how they fall in love and how things go wrong in them and around them. The book’s main character, Colin, has a deceptively simple story to tell: he wants to be in love, falls in love and then has to fight to keep his love alive when she falls ill.
But even writing that down, there’s so much of the book that’s being missed. The style here is light, warm and violent. Think Tom and Jerry, where frothy conversations about dating are interrupted by ice skaters slamming into the nearby walls, and it’s typical to lay the table with knife, spoon, fork and catapult. It’s full of completely irrelevant detail, such as step-by-step descriptions of recipes or technical explanations of dancing styles, and a lot of the dialogue toes the line between innocence (no one has sex, they just blushingly share a bad) and knowing. Like when Colin describes Isis,
She was pretty. But Colin knew her parents very well.
The friendly onslaught of distracting little details is oddly fitting. One of the things that makes jazz jazz is that it’s always feels fresh and improvised, even when the sound’s been machine-tooled tireless. How can you keep that improvised, scatty and warm feeling alive on the page? Words don’t improvise.
Vian’s tack here is both to keep the reader constantly caught off guard. You’re not meant to get all the jokes or all the descriptions or all the detail, in the same way that you shouldn’t be picking out each note a saxophonist is playing. If you stop to notice on your first read that all of the women at one time or another wear the same clothes (yellow skirt, white top), you’ll have lost the rhythm.
But at the same time, the writing wants to be noticed, with many description beats, like on the first page where Colin combs his hair: “his amber hairbrush divided the silky bulk into long orange lines, like the farrows that the happy worker draws with a fork in apricot jam”. A mix of pushing forward without needing to stop to take it all in, just enjoy what you immediately enjoy, and slowing down into well written beauty.
On top of this, the universe itself is a world of happy and unhappy coincidence rather than following some masterplan. As Colin goes from stoned happy in the first half of the book to desperate and depressed in the second, everything changes. His luxurious and spacious flat becomes an ever-shrinking maze of corridors, sunlight can no longer get in and the tiles are covered in black soot. Emotions are everything here: cook Nicola literally ages 10 years in 6 months just because Colin is unhappy, in a way that’s both naive and hard. In L’Écume, emotions and tone are all consuming, much like the state you’re in when listening to music: when you’re in you’re never in halfway.
And it’s this line that L’Écume treads so well – the same line jazz runs along: deep melancholy and who-cares frivolity. The love story itself is made fun of, Colin falls in love with Chloé after deciding he wants to fall in love and after being taught some new dance moves to music “in the style of Chloé as arranged by Duke Ellington”. The characters aren’t meant to be real. But it’s also devastating when the novel central tragedy strikes – that all too real feeling of an unjust world that takes away as easily as it gives, and of people trying as hard as they can to be happy despite it.
One of Vian’s best inventions in L’Écume is the pianocktail: a piano that creates cocktails based on the song you play. As Colin’s friend Chick plays “Loveless Love”, a blues song by W.C. Handy, their exchange neatly captures the spirit of the age:
“I was worried,” said Colin, “at one point you played a false note, luckily it fitted the harmony.”
“It takes the harmony into account?” said Chick.
“Not at all,” replied Colin. “That would be too complicated. It’s just there are a few constraints. Drink and come eat.”