Book Of A Lifetime: Foam of the Daze, By Boris Vian

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The Independent Culture

When I was a film-school student in Beijing in the early 1990s, I had randomly picked a French novel in a bookshop – the Chinese translation of Foam of the Daze. I was 20; I had never left China, I had never met any Westerner, and I had never tasted red wine either.

So I was reading that novel in those barbecue stalls in the streets of Beijing - no cafes around at that time, no Starbucks either - and I got the impression that the book was about melancholy French youth in the 1940s. The translation was not bad.

What I understood was that the author tried to paint a picture of youth. It starts childishly and beautifully, but then youth becomes ravaged and swallowed by time and society.

I loved the water lily that grows in the girl's chest in the novel. She is dying, but the doctor can only diagnose a flower growing in her chest, and can do nothing to help her suffering. The boy starts to lose his smiles and grows poor because his girl is losing her life, and the society is demanding that he be a "man".

After reading the novel, I thought, "I must go to Paris, and I would like to meet those beautiful sad young men in France. One day!" I indeed left China, only 10 years later. I came to Europe, trying to escape all my problems with the city of Beijing: dusty dry weather, noisy industrial buildings, a government work-unit job; basically, a rusty youth - a youth without much imagination or distance towards my reality in concrete Beijing. Coming to Europe was a second chapter of my life.

Then, in London, I bought the English translation of Foam of the Daze – 15 years after first reading it in Chinese, after drinking thousands of cups of coffee, tasting hundreds of glasses of wine, after travelling through the whole of Europe, after seeing my own youth fading away from working too much and thinking too hard.

In a foreign bed, I reread the novel, and it killed me. My tears flew when I tried to read the ending as slowly as possible – the little mouse puts his head into the cat's mouth, in order to die with the briefest pain.

The world of Boris Vian: the prince of Saint Germain – a great novelist, a jazz singer, a party drinker and, essentially, a great child who refuses to grow up in a ugly and complicated society. He died before he hit 40.

Foam of the Daze is perhaps Vian's most innocent work. The innocence of youth is drawn in such an elegant way, and its darkness and profound melancholy when the human innocence fades away, and gets lost in a blur of the political world.

Xiaolu Guo's new novel is 'UFO in Her Eyes' (Chatto & Windus); her latest film, 'She, a Chinese', is due for release this year

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