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Excerpt: Mood Indigo

Boris Vian
Translated by Stanley Chapman

Mood Indigo by Boris Vian

The story is simple: Boy meets girl; boy marries girl; girl falls ill on their honeymoon with a water lily on the lung, which can only be treated by being surrounded by flowers; boy goes broke desperately trying to keep his true love alive.

First published in 1947, Mood Indigo perfectly captures the feverishly creative, melancholy romance of mid-century Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Recently voted number ten on Le Monde’s list of the 100 Books of the Century (the top ten also included works by Camus, Proust, Kafka, Hemingway, and Steinbeck), Boris Vian’s novel has been an icon of French literature for fifty years—the avant-garde, populist masterpiece by one of twentieth-century Paris’s most intriguing cultural figures, a touchstone for generations of revolutionary young people, a jazz-fueled, science-fiction-infused, sexy, fantastical, nouveau-decadent tear-jerker that has charmed and beguiled hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. With the help of Michel Gondry and Audrey Tautou, it is set to seduce many, many more, as the movie based on the book premieres in the U.S. this summer.


Chapter 1

Mood Indigo by Boris Vian
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Colin finished his bath. He got out and wrapped himself in a thick woolly towel with his legs coming out at the bottom and his top coming out at the top. He took the oil from the glass shelf and sprayed its pulverized perfume on to his yellow hair. His golden comb separated the silky mop into long honeyed strands like the furrows that a happy farmer ploughs through apricot jam with his fork. Colin put back his comb and, seizing the nail-clippers, beveled the corners of his eggshell eyelids to add a touch of mystery to his appearance. He often had to do this because they grew again so quickly. He put on the little light over the magnifying mirror and went up close to it to examine the condition of his epidermis. A few blackheads were sprouting at the sides of his nose near his nostrils. When they saw themselves in the magnifying mirror and realized how ugly they were, they immediately jumped back under the skin. Colin put out the light and sighed with relief. He took the towel from his middle and slipped a corner of it between his toes to dry away the last signs of dampness. In the glass it became perfectly clear that he was exactly like a fair-headed Jean Bellpull Rondeau in a film by Jacques Goon Luddard. His face was smooth, his ears small, his nose straight and his complexion radiant. He was always smiling, as innocently as a baby, and through having done it so often a dimple had grown into his chin. He was reasonably tall and slim-hipped; he had long legs and was very, very nice. The name Colin suited him almost ideally. He talked to girls with charm and to boys with pleasure.

He was nearly always in a good mood—and the rest of the time he slept.

He emptied his bath by boring a hole in the bottom of the tub. The light yellow ceramic clay tiles of the bathroom floor sloped in such a way that the water was orientated into an orifice situated directly above the study of the tenant in the flat below. But only a few days previously, without saying a word to Colin, the position of the study had been changed. Now the water went straight into the larder underneath.

Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris star in Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo, Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

He slipped his feet into sandals made from the skins of spotted dogfish, and put on an elegant staying-in suit—trousers of deep Atlantic-green corduroy and a jacket of walnut-brown wild taffeta. He hung the towel on the towelrail and put the bathmat on the edge of the bath. Then he sprinkled it with rock salt to bring out any water that might still be in it. The mat was soon covered in juicy clusters of little soapy bubbles.

He came out of the bathroom and went to the kitchen to cast an eye over the last touches that were being put to the meal. Chick was coming for dinner as he did every Monday evening. He lived just round the corner. It was still only Saturday, but Colin felt he wanted to see Chick and let him sample the menu that his new cook Nicholas had been working on with such joyful serenity. Chick, a bachelor too, was the same age as Colin—twenty-two. He had the same tastes in literature—but less money. Colin’s fortune was large enough for him to live in comfort without having to work for other people. But Chick had to go to see his uncle at the Ministry once a week and borrow money from him because he did not earn enough at his job as an engineer to be able to keep up with the workers he was in charge of—and it’s hard to be in charge of people who are better dressed and better fed than you are. Colin helped him as much as he could and asked him round to dinner as often as he dared, but Chick’s pride forced Colin to be careful and not make it obvious that he was trying to help him by doing favours too frequently.

The corridor leading to the kitchen was light because it had windows on both sides of it, and a sun shining behind each of them because Colin was fond of bright things. There were metal taps, brilliantly polished and gleaming, all over the place. The suns playing on the taps produced fairylike effects. The kitchen mice liked to dance to the sounds made by the rays of the suns as they bounced off the taps, and then run after the little bubbles that the rays burst into when they hit the ground like sprays of golden mercury. Colin stroked one of the mice as he went by. It was sleek and grey, with a miraculous sheen and long black whiskers. The cook gave them plenty to eat, but made sure that they did not get too fat. The mice kept very quiet during the day and played nowhere else but in the corridor.

Colin pushed open the gleaming kitchen door. Nicholas, the cook, was studying his control-panel. He was sitting at a no less gleaming bright yellow desk covered in dials corresponding to every piece of culinary apparatus that lined the walls. The hand for the electric cooker, set for the roast turkey, hovered between ‘Almost Ready’ and ‘Perfectly Done’. It was nearly time to take it out. Nicholas pressed a green button which released the testing needle. It slipped in, met no resistance at all, and the hand immediately shot to ‘Perfectly Done’. Nicholas clicked off the current to the cooker and switched on the plate-warmer.

Mood Indigo by Boris Vian‘Is it going to be good?’ asked Colin.

‘Mr Colin can be assured that it is, sir!’ confirmed Nicholas.

‘The turkey is done to a turn.’

‘And what have we got to start with?’

‘Good Lord,’ said Nicholas, ‘I didn’t like to create anything original so soon, sir. I’ve stuck to plagiarizing ffroydde.’

‘You could have chosen a worse master!’ remarked Colin.

‘And which masterpiece from his complete works are you going to reproduce?’

‘I found it on page 638 of his Cookery and Household Management. I’ll read Mr Colin the passage in question, sir.’

Colin sat on a stool upholstered in dunlopillo and oiled silk, the same colour as the walls, as Nicholas began to read.

‘First line a dish with light puff pastry. Then slice a large eel into sections about an inch thick. Place these in a saucepan and cover with white wine to which has been added a sliced onion, some chopped parsley, a sprig of thyme, a bailiff ’s bay leaf, a four-leaved clove-hitch of garlic and a pinch of salt and pepper . . . I couldn’t pinch as much salt and pepper as I’d have liked, sir,’ said Nicholas. ‘The jemmy is wearing out.’

‘I’ll get you a new one,’ said Colin.

Nicholas went on reading. ‘Simmer slowly. Take the eel from the pan and put under the grill. Pass the remaining liquor through butter muslin and reduce until it begins to adhere to the spoon. Sieve once again, pour over the eel and cook for two more minutes. Arrange the eel in the puff pastry with a border of grilled mushrooms. Decorate the centre with soft carp’s roes. Garnish with the rest of the sauce that you have kept back.’

‘Sounds delicious,’ nodded Colin. ‘I think Chick ought to enjoy that.’

‘I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mr Chick yet, sir,’ concluded Nicholas, ‘but if he doesn’t like it, then I’ll make something different next time and that will help me to plot more accurately an approximate graph of his likes and dislikes.’

‘Hrumm . . . !’ said Colin. ‘I’ll let you get on with it, Nicholas. I’ll be laying the table.’

He went back through the corridor in the other direction, crossed the hall and ended up in the dining-room-cum-studio, whose pale blue carpet and pink beige walls were a treat for sore eyes.

The room, approximately twelve feet by fifteen, had two wide bay windows overlooking Armstrong Avenue. Large panes of glass kept the sounds of the avenue from the room, but let in the breath of springtime when it appeared outside. A limed oak table filled one corner of the room. There were wall seats at right angles to each other on two sides of it, and matching chairs with blue morocco upholstery on the other two sides. There were two other long low cupboards in the room—one fitted up as a record-player and record container with all the latest gadgets, and the other, identical with the first, containing catapults, cutlery, plates, glasses and other implements used by civilized society for eating.

Colin selected a light blue tablecloth to match the carpet. He decorated the centre of the table with a pharmaceutical jar in which a pair of embryonic chickens seemed to be dancing Nijinsky’s choreography for The Spectre of the Rose. Around it he arranged some branches of bootlace mimosa—the gardener who worked for some friends of his had cultivated this by grafting strips of those black liquorice ribbons sold by haberdashers when school is over onto ordinary bobbled mimosa. Then for himself and his guest he took some white china plates with filigree designs in gold and stainless steel knives and forks with perforated handles inside each of which a stuffed ladybird, floating between two layers of perspex, brought good luck every time they were used. He added crystal goblets and serviettes folded into bishops’ mitres; this took him quite a time. He had hardly finished all this when the bell sprang off the wall to let him know that Chick had arrived.

Colin smoothed out an imaginary crease in the tablecloth and went to open the door.

‘How are you?’ asked Chick.

‘How are you?’ replied Colin. ‘Take off your mac and come and see what Nicholas has made for us.’

‘Is he your new cook?’

‘Yes,’ said Colin. ‘I swapped him at the pawnbroker’s for a couple of pounds of Algerian coffee and the old one.’

‘And is he any good?’ asked Chick.

‘He seems to know what he’s doing. He swears by ffroydde.’

‘What have sex and dreams got to do with cooking?’ asked Chick, horrified. His lush black moustache began to droop at a tragic angle.

‘No, you idiot, I’m talking about Saint Clement, not Monsignor Sigmund!’

‘Oh, sorry!’ said Chick. ‘But you know I never read anything except Jean Pulse Heartre.’

He followed Colin into the tiled corridor, stroked the mice and casually scooped up a handful of sundrops to pop into his lighter.

‘Nicholas,’ said Colin as he went in, ‘this is my friend Chick.’

‘How do you do, sir?’ said Nicholas.

‘How do you do, Nicholas?’ replied Chick. ‘Haven’t you got a niece called Alyssum?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Nicholas. ‘And a very pretty girl too, if I may be allowed to say so.’

‘She looks very much like you,’ said Chick. ‘Although there are one or two differences around the bust . . .’

‘I’m fairly broad, sir,’ said Nicholas, ‘but she is better developed in a perpendicular direction, if Mr Chick will permit the precision.’

‘Well,’ said Colin, ‘it’s almost a family reunion. You never told me you had a niece, Nicholas.’

‘Ah! My sister went wrong, sir,’ said Nicholas. ‘She took up philosophy. It isn’t the kind of thing we like to talk about outside the family . . .’

‘Hm . . .’ said Colin, ‘I suppose you’re right. At any rate, I see what you mean. Now, let’s have a look at your Stilettoed Eel . . .’

‘It would be fatal to open the cooker now,’ warned Nicholas.

‘By introducing air with a less rich water content than that already in the oven, desiccation would almost certainly take place.’

‘I’d rather,’ said Chick, ‘have the pleasure of seeing it for the first time on the table.’

‘Mr Chick’s patience meets with my entire approval, sir,’ said Nicholas. ‘May I be allowed to beg Mr Colin’s leave, sir, to continue with my good work?’

‘Do carry on, please, Nicholas!’

Nicholas went back to the job he was doing when they had interrupted him. He was taking fillets of sole in truffled aspic out of their moulds. Their ultimate fate was to garnish the seafood hors d’oeuvres.

‘Would you like a drink first?’ asked Colin. ‘I’ve finished my clavicocktail and we could try it out.’

‘Does it really work?’ asked Chick. ‘Or do you have to wind it up with a harpsicorkscrew first?’

‘Of course it works. I had a hard job getting it right, but the finished result is beyond my wildest dreams. When I played the “Black and Tan Fantasy” I got a really crazy concoction.’

‘How does it work?’ asked Chick.

‘For each note,’ said Colin, ‘there’s a corresponding drink—either a wine, spirit, liqueur or fruit juice. The loud pedal puts in egg flip and the soft pedal adds ice. For soda you play a cadenza in F sharp. The quantities depend on how long a note is held—you get the sixteenth of a measure for a hemidemisemiquaver; a whole measure for a black note; and four measures for a semibreve. When you play a slow tune, then tone comes into control too to prevent the amounts growing too large and the drink getting too big for a cocktail—but the alcoholic content remains unchanged. And, depending on the length of the tune, you can, if you like, vary the measures used, reducing them, say, to a hundredth in order to get a drink taking advantage of all the harmonics by means of an adjustment on the side.’

‘Sounds a bit complicated,’ said Chick.

‘The whole thing is controlled by electrical contacts and relays. I won’t go into all the technicalities because you know all about them anyway. And, anyway, the keyboard itself can work independently.’

‘It’s wonderful!’ said Chick.

‘Only one thing still worries me,’ said Colin, ‘and that’s the loud pedal and the egg flip. I had to put in a special gear system because if you play something too hot, lumps of omelette fall into the glass, and they’re rather hard to swallow. I’ve still got a few modifications to make there. But it’s all right if you’re careful. And if you feel like a dash of fresh cream, you add a chord in G major.’

‘I’m going to try an improvisation on “Loveless Love”,’ said Chick. ‘That should be fantastic.’

‘It’s still in the junk room that I use as my workshop,’ said Colin, ‘because the guard plates aren’t screwed down yet. Come in there with me. I’ll set it for two cocktails of about seventy-five milligallons each to start with.’

Chick sat at the instrument. When he’d reached the end of the tune a section of the front panel came down with a sharp click and a row of glasses appeared. Two of them were brimming with an appetizing mixture.

‘You scared me,’ said Colin. ‘You played a wrong note once. Luckily it was only in the harmonization.’

‘You don’t mean to say that that comes into it too?’ said Chick.

‘Not always,’ said Colin. ‘That would make it too elaborate. So we just give it a few passing acknowledgements. Now drink up—and we’ll go and eat.’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38ugyccL5zU

BORIS VIAN was a novelist, poet, jazz trumpeter, singer, translator, critic, actor, inventor, and engineer. He was the emblematic figure of the postwar Paris cultural milieu: friend to Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre (until Sartre seduced his wife); the Parisian champion of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis; the inspiration for and mentor to Serge Gainsbourg; the French translator of Raymond Chandler. Vian, who had suffered a pulmonary edema in 1956, died of cardiac arrest in 1959, at age thirty-nine, during a screening of a Hollywood adaptation of one of his novels, outraged at the American interpretation of his novel, set in America, where he had never been. His last words were reportedly: “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!”

STANLEY CHAPMAN was a British architect, designer, writer, and translator, most notably of Vian and Raymond Queneau. He was the founder of Outrapo and a member of Oulipo, the Collège de ’Pataphysique (of which Vian was also a member), and the Lewis Carroll Society. He died in 2009.

  1. […]   Read the first chapter of Mood Indigo… […]

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  2. […] A new translation by Stanley Chapmen of Boris Vian’s L’Écume des jours, now titled Mood Indigo, is out now from FSG. You can read an excerpt here. […]

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  3. […] A new translation by Stanley Chapmen of Boris Vian’s L’Écume des jours, now titled Mood Indigo, is out now from FSG. You can read an excerpt here. […]

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