Books in Review: Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

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.”


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