Alistair Rolls is bringing overdue recognition to the literary brilliance of a misunderstood French novelist.
Associate Professor Alistair Rolls was a language undergraduate working as a teaching assistant in Bordeaux when he first came across the enigmatic French writer Boris Vian.
"A fellow teacher at the school asked me if I had read any Vian and gave me a couple of his books," Rolls recalls. "I was immediately drawn to him. I used to sit in my little demountable classroom reading Vian between classes."
That was the humble beginning of what has become a lifelong fascination and career-defining interest in the Parisian writer for Rolls, who admits the man he found so difficult to classify 20 years ago still captivates and at times bemuses him.
"He has a deeply ironic, very black sense of humour but his writing also has this almost playful, satirical edge to it," he says. "He is not just an existentialist, or a surrealist - you really can't put him in any one literary box."
Rolls has published extensively on Vian since devoting his PhD to the work of the writer and has in recent years been acknowledged as the leading English-speaking scholar in the field. He was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the first major Vian academic conference, held at the Sorbonne in 2007, and gained a noteworthy listing in the bibliography of the first collected works of the author, published in 2010.
Vian is something of a cult literary figure in France. Rolls compares him to the Australian folk singer Paul Kelly inasmuch as he is highly regarded and popular within his own country but little-known outside it.
A prodigiously talented individual who wrote novels, short stories, poetry, plays and songs and was also a an accomplished jazz musician, Vian's literary standing was hindered by a melodramatic personal life that Rolls argues overshadowed his creative achievements. He died young, courted controversy, was an unwitting participant in a love triangle with his wife and Jean-Paul Sartre, and kept the company of famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
Vian became best known not for the sharp, witty writing of his early novels but for a series of books hastily written in the 1940s under the pen name Vernon Sullivan, which included parodies of the detective genre popular at the time. He was hounded by the morals brigade over a copycat incident that connected a scene in one of the books with the actual murder of a woman by strangulation and ultimately lost his enthusiasm for writing novels.
Rolls has consistently argued that Vian deserves weightier consideration alongside the leading French literary figures of his time, on the strength of his early publications.
"I have been part of a group who have worked against the cult of the man in order to bring due recognition to the text," he says. "The quality of research on Vian has yet to catch up to his notoriety as an individual."
Rolls' international standing as a Vian scholar has been a drawcard for postgraduate students with an interest in French literature and has helped cement the reputation of the Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle as a French studies research hub. He also has active research interests in French crime fiction, existentialism and translation studies, but always returns to his first literary love.
"Vian remains a source of interest and mystery," he says, "so I never let a year go by without coming back to his work."