Review published on January 20, 2018.
This novel was written 70 years ago and yet remarkably it still has the power to shock. I Spit on Your Graves, as the title makes it clear, is not cosy crime territory. The novel also has a fascinating story behind it and that is why I chose it as the first in a new series about forgotten masterpieces.
Sadly, French author Boris Vian died in 1959 at the age of 39. He had a heart attack at a screening of a film version of I Spit on Your Graves, which he hated for diverting and watering down his story. Vian is a man who can genuinely be referred to as a polymath; jazz musician and critic, composer and songwriter, singer, playwright, novelist, translator and journalist (the list goes on by the way!). He wrote under a number of pseudonym: Bison Ravi, Baron Visi, and Brisa Vion. His literary novels now widely respected were revered in the 1960s as original and inspirational.
I am interested in Vian’s 1946 translation of Vernon Sullivan’s novel into French. I Spit on Your Graves was embroiled in a three-year legal wrangle over publishing such an explicit novel, resulting in Vian being fined FF100,000, but by 1950 it had sold half a million copies in France. Sullivan was purported to be a black American writer who couldn’t get published in his own country due to the sensational nature of the subject and racial prejudice. The French, ever interested in the issue of race in the US, were fascinated by the controversy and no doubt this boosted sales. However, a bigger controversy arose during the trial, finally Vian was forced to admit in 1951 that there was no Sullivan. Although he went on to write three more crime novels he was in fact another of Vian’s pseudonyms.
In response to a bet with his wife and some guests over dinner (Vian loved a party!), he undertook to write bestseller in ten (maybe 15) days. What emerged was a parody of the crime genre but also a genuinely hard-boiled thriller. At the moment he took the bet I doubt Vian had any idea of the fuss launching Sullivan’s career would cause. Or, how much of his life would be taken over by this alternative identity. There was yet more controversy when a year after the publication of J’irai Cracher sur vos Tombes a man strangled his mistress in a seedy hotel in Montparnasse, it became labelled as a ‘copy cat’ killing because of a similar passage in the novel. The book was prominent on the bedside table, the tragedy adding to the fast growing legend. Off the back of translating this novel, Vian received a lot of work from the US translating Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock and the work of James M. Cain.
So what was all the fuss about?
Scientists tell us there is no such thing as absolute black but is there such a thing as absolute noir? If there is then this is a contender.
I Spit on Your Graves tells the story of a “white negro” who avenges his murdered brother with a series of killings in a small town in the deep south. That alone should tell you why an American publisher would not have touched the novel were it really by someone of African American descent.
The story (this section contains spoilers), goes like this. We learn early on that Lee Anderson’s brother has been murdered. Good-hearted Tom, a school teacher, has organised a protest at the beatings handed out by the white citizens and the police to the black people trying to register to vote during the election. Tom also received a beating for his trouble. Lee offers to sort things out but Tom talks him down, shortly afterwards he is killed. Lee turns up in the small southern town to take over the local bookshop. It’s hot and sticky and he soon get in with the kids rebelling against their parents. Revenge is his motivation. What happens is shocking and frightening and all too real.
The story is nihilistic and amoral, a wrong is never righted by another wrong and the way Lee Anderson behaves takes vengeance to another level. He is bent out of shape, out of control. He wants to manipulate his victims, psychologically humiliate them, hurt them before reeking the ultimate revenge. As he is the narrator we see the horrible things he does from his view point. Lee is damaged he thrives on the pain he causes, is excited by the violence, he is a psychopath.
Vian plays on all the worst fears of the racists about black people, mocking the stereotypical views. Lee exploits sex as a means of revenge as well as murder. This is a fast-paced pithy read, tense and witty, sharp prose. Perceptive of the human condition. Utilising the tropes, lone wolf, obsession and situations that gets out of control to subvert the genre.
The modern controversy?
You can read books with hindsight and I am sure a lot of people would be uneasy at the idea of a white writer passing himself off as black but you do need to be aware of the book in the context of it’s time. It’s a parody, the irony of a white man claiming to be a black author writing about a black man pretending to be white was not lost on the audience. Vian intended to puncture some of the vile racism of the South. He faced issues of race that otherwise were not being tackled so directly and sadly that no African American author would have been able to approach.
The way the violence against women is handled is at times brutal but then so are men. By the standard of the times it’s explicit you are not left wondering if they had sex, if a nasty thing happened.
Why does it matter?
The fact that it is dark and was controversial in its day is not enough to make the novel important in the genre. But here’s what Vian did for readers of crime fiction; he toughened up the Americans and gave a new edge to hard-boiled. He tackled the erotic and the private more directly. As James Wallis puts it in his superb introduction to the 2001 Canongate Crime edition, Vian did not lead us through an open gate or front door but right through the bedroom window. He gave French crime writing a character that has influenced so many writers ever since and keeps it unique and distinctive. The fact that Vian wrote a parody of the crime novel that turned out to be a classic of the genre has given writers a new angle to approach their art. There is sometimes more truth in a parody than a simply told tale. It makes crime writing a learning art form and now every one of the finest exponents have a knowing eye. Vian also made the point that it really would have been impossible for a black writer to write this novel and publish in the US or Britain for that matter at the time (with this kind of confrontational fiction). Now the idea seems anathema but bearing the times in mind, I think Vian was able to make a statement about race in America. For me, the best crime says something about society, about the individual – just like literary fiction.
If we just stick to French crime writing, there is no need to go looking for I Spit on Your Graves, the spirit of his writing is alive and well in the novels of Fred Vargas, Pascal Garnier, Jean Echenoz, Philippe Georget and Jean-Claude Izzo.
If you are a connoisseur or collector of crime literature and its history I urge you to track down a copy of Vian’s crime masterpiece, it’s an indelible part of the history and the growth of the genre.
Paul Burke 5/4
I Spit on Your Graves by Boris Vian
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