Blaise Cendrars seemed incapable of divorcing his colorful life from his fiction. Even his first novel, Sutter’s Gold, ostensibly a historical novel about John Augustus Sutter, the Swiss émigré whose discovery of gold in California precipitated the 1849 gold rush, becomes a personal statement, molded into a myth with small regard for historical details.
Early in his life, Cendrars became familiar with Sutter’s story. According to Hugues Richard, Cendrars and his brother first read of Sutter in a local Swiss almanac, Le Messager boiteux, that was used as toilet paper in the Sauser home. Richard also asserts that the immediate source of the novel was a monograph written in 1868 by a Swiss clergyman and state counsellor who cared for Sutter’s children after he had fled Switzerland. Cendrars read voraciously in libraries wherever he traveled and undoubtedly had pursued his interest in Sutter for some time. Perhaps the most important impetus for the novel was Cendrars’s meeting with August Sutter, grandson of John Sutter, in Basel around 1905. They renewed their friendship in 1910 in Paris, where August Sutter had gone to become a sculptor. August introduced him to various artists, including poet Siegfried Lang.
Monique Chefdor speculates that the frantic development of the Brazilian wilderness reminded Cendrars of the gold rush and contributed largely to his choosing to write the novel when he did. Sutter’s story certainly provided Cendrars with the opportunity to exploit all of his favorite devices in a novel. Sutter is depicted as a crafty underminer of conventional society. He abandons his wife and children; he falsifies travel documents; he forges, cheats, steals, and deals in slaves. Whatever heroism there is in Sutter is matched by rascality, but Cendrars manages to turn Sutter into a tragic figure. The liberties that Cendrars takes with historical facts in the novel serve to enhance the stature of Sutter—for example, making him die the victim of a child’s trick on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., instead of in a bed in Pennsylvania.
Sutter is in the grip of forces he cannot control. His story is that of a man driven, by his own ambitions and obsessions, to being a multimillionaire in a place that happens to have gold, “the Antichrist,” which will provoke other people’s ambitions and obsessions to destroy him. Sutter becomes victim, not so much of people, but of gold. Cendrars had previously written on the corrupting power of money in much of his poetry, especially in relation to his experiences as an outsider in New York. This coincides with the common literary view in the 1920’s that civilization had been broken by World War I and was in the process of being replaced by a shoddy, corrupt industrial society.
The style of Sutter’s Gold is very stark. As Bochner observes, none of Cendrars’s prose, before or after, was as terse and bare as the language of this novel, which resembles that of Cendrars’s poetry in Kodak and Le Formose (1924). All of his other work, even his journalism, is very baroque, image heaped on image. In Sutter’s Gold, however, the adamant forward thrust of the action serves to accentuate the feeling that Sutter is caught up and being carried along by his destiny. He has virtually no opportunity for introspection, or to attempt to modify his course. When he attempts to resist the gold fever, it results in his impoverishment and destruction. This single driving force is presented in prose stripped of imagery, similar to what Hemingway was developing at the time. Written in the present tense, the novel makes no commentary upon the morality or character of Sutter, except by implication through action. This straightforwardness in plot and style undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of Sutter’s Gold, which has gone through more than fifteen editions in French and has been translated into such languages as Czech, Flemish, Russian, Portuguese, and Swedish, in addition to other European languages. This same simplicity, however, makes Sutter’s Gold a work with few nuances and not much depth, a novel that may provide great pleasure on a first reading but has little more to offer on a second.
Cendrars’s Moravagine is far more complex than Sutter’s Gold in both style and theme. Miller was among the writers who praised it highly. The radicalism of Moravagine made a strong impression on Miller and contributed to freeing up his own prose. Miller read the novel before he was fluent in French and said it was “like reading a phosphorescent text through smoked glasses,”...
(The entire section is 1925 words.)