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Formula-driven works of crime fiction, and particularly the mystery novel, have often been cast as those versions of the genre that are the least adaptable to new forms of enquiry, or the least permeable to the influence of the major issues of their day. This judgement was certainly given some authority by the rules of the mystery novel that were drafted by practitioners like S.S. Van Dine (1928) and by the writers whose popular success was built upon the respect of the traditions of the genre. However, rules are meant to be broken, especially in the criminal sphere (Dubois 1992: 157), and nowhere is this more apparent than in the forms of the genre that were practised in France by Maurice Leblanc and Gaston Leroux. Far from being narrowly driven by the resolution of enigmas, their novels present multiple layers of meaning that work to undermine the sense of closure they appear to promise. Theirs is a dynamic and shifting world that is much more in tune with the complexities of real-life concerns than might first be suspected. The reasons both writers opened their works, if not overtly to social or political commentary, at least to the tensions and undercurrents of contemporary life, can be attributed to the momentous times in which they exercised their craft. This was the France of the dawn of the twentieth century, a period of stark contrasts, characterized by boundless energy and dark despair.
For those who had lived through the Great War, the decades that immediately preceded it took on retrospectively the aura of a Golden Age. The belle époque, as this period was nostalgically named, was indeed a time of prosperity and progress. Thanks to the extended peace that followed the Franco–Prussian War (1870–71), Europe’s economy eventually recovered from the depression of the final decades of the nineteenth century, and by the middle of the 1890s a new-found confidence began to emerge. This was fuelled by the technological marvels of the time: moving pictures, flying machines, motor cars, underground rail transport and the mastery of electricity.
The link between scientific discovery and empire building was never more evident than in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. During that time, as Mary Louise Pratt has noted, the ‘international scientific expedition’ became ‘one of Europe's proudest and most conspicuous instruments of expansion’. For Pratt, this period coincided with the emergence of a new version of Europe's ‘planetary consciousness’ — one which was characterised by ‘the construction of global-scale meaning through the descriptive apparatuses of natural history’.
Empirical observations of the natural world were indeed indispensable to the European Enlightenment ambition of obtaining a complete and taxonomic knowledge of the globe — and thereby gaining mastery over it. At this time, too, there was a growing realisation that the visual could play just as valuable a part in that process as the verbal. Accordingly, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become common practice for professional artists to be included on scientific expeditions. Their role was to keep a pictorial record of the places visited, the peoples encountered and the specimens of flora and fauna that were collected or otherwise examined. The natural history drawings, ethnographic portraits, coastal profiles and landscapes that they produced, together with the various maps and hydrographic charts that the officers and geographers compiled, formed a rich store of iconographic material that became just as important to the imperial project as the discursive observations to be found in the logbooks and journals that their fellow travellers kept.
This development had profound implications, for both the sciences and the arts. As Bernard Smith has argued, progress in the arts not only paralleled scientific progress but also assisted it by providing scientists with ever more accurate and reliable visual material for analysis. Conversely, the increase in scientific knowledge of the world constituted an ‘enduring challenge to the supremacy of neo-classical values in art and thought’. The artist was henceforth required to depict nature accurately, not enhance or idealise it as the Renaissance had programmatically set out to do. The visual imagery that scientific travellers compiled had to conform to a new ideal of objectivity, as illusory as we now understand that ambition to have been. The pursuit of scientific knowledge thus influenced the development of artistic practices as much as art served and impacted upon science.
Introducing Boris Vian to an Anglo-Saxon audience presents something of a challenge, principally because he is so well known in his native France that it is difficult to imagine how he could have escaped the attention of the rest of the world. And yet, Vian remains almost unknown outside academic circles in countries such as Great Britain and the United States, where so many other prominent figures of the French cultural and intellectual landscape of the 1940s and 1950s — most of whom Vian frequented and counted as his friends — remain a subject of enduring fascination. Whereas other figures of that heady period such as Georges Perec, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have long been granted a place in the pantheon of world literature, Vian remains obstinately in the shadows. In terms of public impact, then, we might say that Boris Vian is one of France's most surprising export failures.
Why surprising? Because Vian's involvement in the Parisian intellectual life of the post-war period and the eclectic nature of his artistic pursuits — which ranged from hard-boiled crime writing to science fiction and jazz — give him the kind of profile that would seem tailor-made to appeal to a wider public, and particularly to the English-speaking world. It is nevertheless the case that his life and work have not yet found that broader resonance.
In two posthumously published collections of short stories, translated for the first time in English in this volume, the France of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is seen through Vian's idiosyncratic and often rather madcap lens. And alongside them there is another voice entirely, a side of Vian that blends his dry irony with deep, at times startling, emotion. His poems, again published in English here for the first time, give a counter-point to the public figure loved throughout France but never quite admitted into the Pantheon of her great artists. For those who may have read L’Écume des jours or J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, or heard someone singing 'Le Déserteur' on the Paris Métro, or for those who are discovering him for the first time, here are both sides of the incomparable and never quite self-coinciding Boris Vian.
It was not until the eighteenth century that France began sending mariners to the southern oceans on a regular basis, and by that time a new maritime power had begun to emerge: Great Britain. Together, these two nations would play a decisive role in determining the configuration of these little known parts of the globe, and particularly of the Pacific, which had for so long been the almost exclusive preserve of Spain.
When Nicolas Baudin returned to France in June 1798 following his successful expedition to the West Indies, the Director of the Paris Museum, Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, was moved to write to the Minister of Marine and the Colonies recommending that another scientific mission be entrusted to this “excellent mariner” so that the nation might benefit further from his talents. In his enthusiasm, Jussieu declared that “the experience of the past and the knowledge of his former achievements make us believe that he follows worthily in the steps of Bougainville, La Pérouse and d'Entrecasteaux, and that he will be more fortunate than the last two.” Just under two years later, Jussieu would be granted his wish: in April 1800, the First Consul, Bonaparte, signed off on a proposal for a new voyage of discovery to the Southern Lands, under the command of Nicolas Baudin. The fates—or as one member of Baudin's team would have it, Clio, the Muse of History in person—seemed to have smiled upon the newly commissioned captain.
Despite Jussieu's firm belief, however, the captain was not to enjoy a happier fate than La Pérouse or d'Entrecasteaux, nor did Clio's patronage extend to the voyage itself. For Baudin had enemies, and they were so successful in blackening his reputation that they managed to cast a shadow over the entire undertaking.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean became the distant stage on which various European powers played out their struggle for dominion. The Spanish had been masters of this region of the globe since Ferdinand Magellan's memorable crossing at the beginning of the sixteenth century. A succession of Spanish ships followed in Magellan's wake, discovering in the process a number of the Pacific Ocean's island groups and, most importantly for Spain, paving the way for what would prove to be an enduring and lucrative trade route between Mexico in the east and the Philippines in the west. The renowned Manila galleons that plied this route provided Spain with considerable economic benefits. They also gave a degree of substance to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the 1529 Agreement of Saragossa that had granted Spain putative sovereignty over the Pacific. For well over two hundred years, then, and notwithstanding the occasional foray into this region by privateers or state-sponsored vessels of other nations, the Pacific Ocean remained essentially the preserve of the Spanish.
As far as the rest of Europe was concerned, this great ocean, representing roughly one third of the earth's surface, was afforded little more than peripheral status during this extended period. That situation changed dramatically over the course of the eighteenth century, as other European nations, spurred on by a variety of often intertwined motives (commercial, strategic, scientific…), began to venture into the Pacific.