Red Grass by Boris Vian, Trans. by Paul Knobloch – Why This Book Should Win
Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in January 2015. Her essay chapbook, Things I Told My Mother, was published by Von Zos this past fall. Other fiction, criticism and personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other journals. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
Here’s why Boris Vian’s Red Grass should win the Best Translated Book Award: the odds are stacked against it. It’s not the second volume in a six-volume epic; it doesn’t have the sex appeal of Sauvageot; nor does it have the audience a Marias novel is guaranteed; nor the counter-culture appeal of Krasznahorkai; and Vian himself enjoyed limited authorial success during his lifetime. Red Grass is strange, and Vian is, and has always been, just outside of what’s easily co-opted by “cool.” But this book is unrivaled in its inventiveness.
Lysergic and science fictional, psychological and sexually uncomfortable, Red Grass follows Wolf, an engineer who has invented a machine to erase memory, through phase after phase of painful self-exploration and deletion. Simultaneously, Wolf’s mechanic partner, Saphir Lazuli, confronts his inability to make love to his wife; a talking dog talks himself into enlightenment; and Wolf’s and Lazuli’s wives find themselves having to cover up a strange disappearance. It all takes place in a world not quite our own, somewhere in a time long after ours or in an alternate present day, where the grass is blood red and the sky is within reach, and the seams of the known world are strained to the point of breaking. Adults are childishly naïve but able to carry out acts of government, and assemble complicated apparatuses with which to perform impossible tasks. Death is seeping in from all corners, threatening a world not unlike a futuristic Oz.
Lest we forget that we’re here discussing an award for translation, I’d like to take a minute to tip my beret to Paul Knobloch, Red Grass’s translator. Vian combines and invents words, and is at all times vivid, his tone vacillating within the intersection of imminent tragedy and wit, unimaginable pain and fear, and delight, and wonder:
From superior regions fell vague tracks of brilliant and elusive dust, and the imaginary sky palpitated endlessly, pierced by beams of light. Wolf’s face was sweaty and cold.
Outside, the wind began to stir. Little vortexes of dust rose obliquely from the ground and ran through the weeds. The wind caressed the beams and angles of the roof and at each curve left behind a living screech, a sonorous spiral. The window in the hallway suddenly slammed down without warning. The tree in front of Wolf’s office shook and sung incessantly.
And in fact, Wolf couldn’t answer right away. He swung his club and amused himself by decapitating the grimacing fartflowers that popped up here and there along the rednecking field. From each decapitated stem oozed a black sap that formed into a little black and gold monogrammed bubble.
Every part of this world is alive and moving, struggling, begging. Of all of Vian’s novels, Red Grass is the most uncharacteristically dark. When he wrote it, he was in the midst of a serious marital crisis that would ultimately end in separation. And unlike the success he had achieved with previous novels, Red Grass would not find publication until several years after it was written, and only then with a small, unknown publisher. Vian’s career as an author would never recover from this.
As an added note about his life, which might shed light on the personality behind the incredible book that is Red Grass and Vian’s many, many other works: he called himself not only novelist, but also poet, jazz musician, singer, actor, screenwriter, translator, critic, and inventor. He was the protégé of Raymond Queneau, the translator of Raymond Chandler and others, the one-time friend of Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre (before his wife’s infamous affair with the philosopher, which ultimately ended their marriage), the first French rock-and-roll songwriter, and, as if that weren’t enough, he ghost-wrote in the persona of an African-American author while masquerading as his translator, penning a book that would become a cult classic in its day.
I know the stakes for the Best Translated Book Award are high this year. I also know that, in only a few days, I’ll have to write another one of these posts, arguing that a different book should win, and I’ll mean it then, too. But let’s not forget that Red Grass is ready for an audience who will read and appreciate it, and feel disappointment when some heavyweight comes along and again takes what is Vian’s. No one else wrote like him, and the task of a translator is unlike any other when he is translating Vian. For my part, my vote lies with him.