I Spit On Your Graves by Boris Vian

I recently read a crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and I came across the name of another writer Boris Vian in the process. I wanted to read a Vian novel, and after reading the brief synopses of a couple, I decided to give I Spit On Your Graves a go. So one thing led to another, and before long, I had a copy of Vian’s I Spit On Your Graves sitting in front of me.  After all, that title alone is a hook and it echoes all the nuances of the exploitation genre.

I spit on your gravesWell….I Spit On Your Graves is a peculiar novel. Boris Vian was a Frenchman who wrote the novel as the result of a bet. The novel was supposedly written by an American black man, Vernon Sullivan , who published the book in France as “no American editor dared publish” it. In 1946, at the time of its publication, Vian claimed to be the translator, and so the charade brought translating work to his lap. I Spit On Your Graves was a sensation when it was published and its notoriety grew after a copy was found with passages marked at the scene of a murder. The role of the book in the murder rapidly became one of those AC/DC Made-Him-Do-It scenarios. The novel was banned in 1949, and of course, a banned novel gains even more attention.

The introduction, from James Sallis explains that in 1959 while watching the screening of the film version of the film, Boris Vian became so enraged that he had a heart attack and died. It’s the stuff of legends, and as the old saying goes, you couldn’t make this stuff up. But now to the book….

The novel begins with the protagonist, 26-year-old Lee Anderson travelling to the North as the result of some sort of trouble. As the novel develops, exactly what that trouble was becomes clear. Anderson is a blond, blue-eyed black man who passes for white. Anderson’s brother has been murdered–lynched by a mob of white men, and now Anderson is driven only by one thing–revenge, and his goal is to seduce and murder white women.  Anderson arrives in the small Northern town of Buckton to run a  bookshop and within a matter of days, and with the help of a  few bottles of whiskey, he’s hanging out with a group of local teenagers.

According to the novel, this peculiar corner of America is full of uninhibited teenage nymphos so before you get out your maps to plan a trip, I have to dampen any enthusiasm and say that I Spit on Your Graves is not a bit realistic in its setting or in its characterisations and instead seems more of a curiosity than anything else.

In terms of sadistic content, I Spit On Your Graves could very well be the prototype for the equally distasteful Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. But the problem is that Vian’s portrayal of American society is just off, and the result is a rather bizarre novel in which Vian imagines that every American female is sex-starved, ready to rip her knickers off, cavort on the grass,  throw herself on the back seat of the car, and embark on an endless succession of orgies with whichever male is handy. Well you get the idea. And then to add to the madness, Anderson has a thing for young girls:

“Girls of fifteen, with little pointed breasts under their tight sweaters–they do it on purpose, the little witches. And their socks, bright yellow and red and green sox, sticking out of their flat-heeled shoes. And flared skirts, and round knees. And always sitting on the ground with their legs spread so you could see their fresh undies. Yes, I liked their looks, the bobby-soxers.”

Anderson seems to think that females have been placed on the planet to drive him insane. Wait…I take that back. He’s already insane. When he’s not having sex with 12 year-old prostitutes, Anderson is obsessed with girls’ “boxes” and attracted to their sweaty armpits.

I don’t usually write reviews of novels I didn’t enjoy, but I certainly didn’t enjoy I Spit On Your Graves. Great title but apart from that…more than a little odd. Did Vian really imagine America this way? With a teenage nympho ready to leap out at any passing man? Or didn’t it matter?

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “I Spit On Your Graves by Boris Vian

  1. Pretty interesting stuff about this book. I saw this interesting title years ago, while working on Mary Whipple’s review of HEARTSNATCHER. But had forgotten about the background stuff until now.

    Anyway, I added a link to this review from the MF Boris Vian page…. I don’t know how many people visit that author page, but IF they do, I hope they find your interesting review.

  2. Guy A. Savage

    Thanks Judi: I really wanted to like this novel….

  3. Nick

    I haven’t read this one yet, but from another one I’ve read (l’Arrache-Coeur // Heartsnatcher), it seems he likes unrealistic absurd universes. I rather enjoyed it.

  4. Guy A. Savage

    Well that would explain it. This is the first Vian I’ve read and it’ll be my last. Just not to my taste, but there you are….

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. Guy A. Savage

    Don’t know if you will read this, Nick, but I went and had a look at a review of Heartsnatcher. Part of the review referred to the Old People’s Fair where old people are sold for abuse. That reminded me of a Russian film called The Confidant in which a Russian man is employed to be the family ‘listener’ but in reality that means being the recipient of all of the family’s squabbling and bad treatment.

  6. Nick

    Mind, only Glory has to work to redeem the village shame. The other old people are just sold to be abused of.

    The movie sounds interesting, but probably because I like the idea of tradable guilt/shame. I’ll definitively watch it if I come accross it, thanks.

  7. Guy A. Savage

    I’m not familiar with Heartsnatcher at all, but the old people for sale (for abuse) just rang a bell.

    In The Confidant, there’s one scene with the family sitting around the dinner table and everyone has all these seething feelings of resentment towards one another. The Listener gets all the displaced abuse while the family carries on with their normal relationships. He takes the job, by the way, because he’s unemployed and it pays 5,000 roubles a month. The job sounds good until he moves in with the family supposedly as a ‘listener’ to listen to their problems. But in reality he just soaks up the abuse so that the family can carry on as normal. It was really quite funny.

  8. A novel about a black guy who looks white and whose goal is to rape white women?

    Filled then with fantasies about underage girls?

    It’s good he wasn’t aiming to shock or anything.

    It sounds to me like it’s trying too hard, Walter Moseley addresses issues of the incongruity between constructions of race and appearance to great effect in at least one of his novels to great effect. While doing so though, he also gives credible characters, a convincing sense of time and place, and a real engagement with social issues.

    This sounds more like it’s trying to be provocative, but genuinely disturbing works tend to be subtler. He Died with his Eyes Open, or The Stranger, those disturb and make us question ourselves, but far more subtly than it sounds like this does.

    Even American Psycho has points to make about surface gloss, corporate life and empathy.

    It seems to me the problem with this, on your description, isn’t the violence or the sex or any of the content, it’s that none of it is to any great end. No greater point being made. Couple that with a lack of conviction and a lack of success as simple entertainment, and I start to wonder what the point is.

  9. Guy A. Savage

    The book can’t touch He Died With His Eyes Open.

    I don’t know what I expected when I read this..something better, something a bit odd.

    Nick mentioned that Vian creates unrealistic absurd universes. I can’t comment on that as this is my sole Vian novel.

    The point seems to be the revenge twist–but it was all rather unsavoury and yes, no greater point being made.

    The Westlake novel (Somebody Owes Me Money) doesn’t exactly have a point but it’s wonderfully entertaining.

  10. Pim Higginson

    Hi all,
    I spit on your graves was never meant to be a serious novel. It was written as a spoof, on a bet. And Vian won the bet since the French thought it had indeed been written by a Black American (in English). The story around the novel is incredible and Vian is an extraordinary writer. As for the violcence, sex, etc. IT IS A SPOOF. So if you took it seriously, you were just as gullible as the 500,000 French people who bought the novel and continued to believe that Vernon Sullivan (the pen name that Vian used) actually existed. All of the stereotype as SUPPOSED to be stereotypes. And in that, Vian was brilliant.
    As for his serious books, Heartsnatchers etc, they are extraordinary works that have made him a cult figure in France. They are deeply disturbing, dark, brooding, and yet wonderfully creative surreal texts for which there are no adequate translations in English–but read the ones that exist, They are well worth. In any case, if you are going to write a review, do a little more research. Oh yea, the English version of the text was the English “original” that Vian had to write to keep the hoax going when he had been brought to trial on obscenity charges and was still trying to claim that he was only the translator of his text. It is an amazing story from start to finish. And if you understand that it is a send-up of French notions of American blackness, the novel is pretty good as well–though Vian himself never took it seriously.

    • Don’t see what else I am supposed to ‘research’ before writing a review. Yes, I read the intro & read the explanation about the bet. Just didn’t care for the book. No more. No less.
      Thanks for the comment.

  11. PH: Just wanted to add that I read reviews of HEARTSNATCHER after I bought and read I Spit On Your Graves.

    Thanks to the reviews of HEARTSNATCHER I know I wouldn’t like that one either. Just wish I’d read the review BEFORE I bought ISOYG.

  12. Personally, I tend to think if a book needs an explanation of its philosophy separate to the book itself, it’s not that great a book.

    Besides, it may have been an interesting exercise in satire, or performance art even, but that doesn’t make it an interesting novel. It’s interesting for what surrounds it, if it is, not for the text.

  13. I keep some books and I give others away to friends or to charity. This one, I’m not sure what to do with it….

  14. If you still have it I’ll take it! Sounds hilarious.

  15. I’m late on this discussion, I’m clicking on your blog tonight.

    Please, don’t think that the Vian you read is a good sample of his work.
    L’Ecume des jours is a beautiful book, very poetic and unusual.

    Something that may interest you : Boris Vian was the French translator of The Big Sleep by Chandler.

  16. Thanks BATC. My expectations were high for this one.

    I am happy to see more French books making it into translations. Don’t hesitate to send recommendations my way.

  17. Taz Butler

    read ISONYG years ago & thought it quite raw & often distasteful. Wish I’d known supposed to be a spoof. Will have to reread!

  18. Taz: I knew that it was written as a bet/spoof but still found it distasteful….(your choice of word. BTW, but it fits my reaction to the book)

  19. Hello, Guy,
    I’ve enjoyed visiting your blog today–tremendously. I’ll add you to my “Blogs of Substance” list. I have far too many comments for any number of your blog posts with no time today, but I’ll be back.

    It’s funny, but I can’t seem to peg your nationality. But with the extraordinary David Godine listed as one of your top publisher faves, I might make a guess you’re American, and possibly from the Northeast. (Please excuse me if I’ve blundered!)

    David Godine is a favorite of mine, and hails from my traditional territory (Boston), although I now live in northern New York.

    Thank you for creating such an inspiring blog!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)