Tony O’Neill at The Guardian has a nice recap of the hoax and controversy surrounding Boris Vian’s I Shall Spit on Your Graves, which was originally published back in 1947 and is still one of the greatest (and most tragic) literary hoaxes.
In late 1946 Vian announced that he had found the perfect American novel to kick-start his friend’s new publishing house (Editions du Scorpions). He claimed that J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves) was his translation of an underappreciated young black author whose work was banned in his native country. Vernon Sullivan, it was claimed, was now an expatriate, living in France to escape racism and censorship in the US. Vian wrote the book in a two-week burst, and concocted the story of Sullivan as a way to get it published.
The book is still fairly shocking, centering on Lee Anderson, a black man who can pass for white, who eventually takes revenge on society for the lynching of his brother, which results in Anderson being lynched himself.
“Vernon Sullivan’s” I Shall Spit on Your Graves was enormously successful when it was released, especially after being denounced by the Cartel d’Action Sociale et Morale.
Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse:
The original book proceeded to grow even more controversial, being linked quite directly to a real-life murder. A man had strangled his mistress, and left an open copy of the book on the bedside table with the following passage circled and underlined: “I again felt that strange sensation that ran up my back as my hand closed on her throat and I couldn’t stop myself; it came; it was so strong that I let her go . . .”
The book went into reprints and sold more than 500,000 copies, but the case against it had gathered too much momentum: Vian was tried for translating “objectionable material” (funnily enough, the author was still nowhere to be found), fined 100,000 francs, and in the summer of 1950 the French government banned further sales of the book.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the book basically ended up killing Vian at the age of 39:
He died, ironically enough, at a 1959 screening of the movie adaptation of I Shall Spit On Your Graves. He had already disowned the film, and asked to have his name removed from it. Ten minutes into the film, Vian is reputed to have sneered, “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” before collapsing back into his seat, suffering a fatal heart attack.
Vian’s other books are also worth checking out, especially Heartsnatcher and Foam on the Daze, which includes a hilarious dig at Jean-Paul Sartre in the form of “Jean Sol-Patre,” the “author of a book exploring the hermeneutics of neon signs.”
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