Blaise Cendrars 1887–1961
(Given name Fréderic Louis Sauser-Hall) Swiss-born French poet, novelist, autobiographer, editor and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Cendrars's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 18.
It is necessary to add the labels "traveler" and "adventurer" to the list of Cendrars's credits to begin to describe him, for they are as much a part of his life and work as the descriptions "poet" and "novelist." From the day he ran away from home at age fifteen until his confinement due to illness, his extensive travels were the source and subject of his work. A prolific writer, his collected works in the original French fill eight hefty volumes. His best known works in English translation are the long poems Prose du transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (1913; Prose of the Transsiberian with Little Jean of France) and Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles (1918; Panama or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles) and the novels L'Or (1925; Sutter's Gold), which was filmed in 1936, and Moravagine (1926). Although there is considerable critical disagreement on the literary importance of Cendrars's writing, his influence on both his contemporaries and many subsequent writers is widely recognized.
Cendrars was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland on September 1, 1887, to a Swiss father and Scottish mother. His father, an inventor-businessman, traveled extensively in pursuit of various business ventures; consequently, Cendrars spent his childhood in Alexandria, Naples, Brindisi, Neuchâtel, and other places. A rebellious child, Cendrars was expelled from numerous boarding schools. By his own accounts, at age fifteen he literally escaped his family by climbing out of a fifth story window (with the family silver) and began his own life of travel. Cendrars journeyed from St. Petersburg across Siberia to China, working a variety of jobs before returning to St. Petersburg, then briefly settling in Paris, which became his adopted home. There he married his first wife, Fela, and fathered two sons, Rémy and Odilon, both killed in World War II, and a daughter, Miriam.
Cendrars traveled to New York and there wrote his first major work, Les Pâques à New York (1912; Easter in New York), and adopted the name Blaise Cendrars. The poem was written in one long session, interrupted only by brief periods of exhausted sleep. Cendrars considered the poem an epiphany, a phoenix-like rebirth, and created the name "Blaise Cendrars" out of a loose anagram of the French words for fire (braise), cinders (cendres) and art (ars). He returned to Paris, where the work was published and he was acknowledged as a significant new writer; Prose of the Transsiberian with Little Jean of France was published the next year. When World War I broke out, Cendrars enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, the branch of the French army that accepted non-citizens. In September 1915, he was injured in battle and lost his right arm. He was despondent and enraged until he learned that on the same day of his injury, his idol Rémy de Gourmont had been killed in action. Cendrars returned to Paris, where his disability made it difficult to find work. For a while he was reduced to begging for alms. After traveling for a while with a group of gypsies, he returned to Paris and to writing, producing his third and final long poem, Panama, or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles.
In 1924 Cendrars went to Brazil. This was another major turning point in his life. Cendrars was impressed by what he saw as a powerful cultural synthesis taking place in the country. For the next twenty years he traveled frequently between Europe and South America. Engaging in several business ventures, Cendrars made and lost several fortunes. It was also during this period that his writing career began to shift from poetry to prose. The pace of Cendrars's writing slowed in the late 1950s as his health failed, and he died in January of 1961.
Cendrars's first major work was the long poem Easter in New York. Stylistically innovative, it was described by Sven Birkerts as "one of the first poems in the modernist canon" and by Richard Sieburth, referring to Allen Ginsberg's famous work, as "the Howl of its generation." It is a poem of dark, gnostic theology, mixing Christian imagery with the vulgar world of the lower East Side. Cendrars's second major poem, Prose of the Transsiberian, uses the extended image of a long train ride and the scenes outside the window to present a vision of the modern world. Cendrars's view of the world as being simultaneously larger and smaller as a result of the advances in transportation is further refined in his last long poem, Panama, or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles. The poem, in a style described as "fractured" and "without a direct narrative," tells the story of the narrator's far-flung relations, capturing the idea of dissolution of relationships within its style. His first (and most commercially successful) novel, Sutter's Gold, is the story of Johann Sutter, on whose California plantation gold was discovered in 1848, touching off the California Gold Rush. Although much of the narrative is historical fact, Cendrars changed certain major events to increase the dramatic effect of the story. The changing of history for effect is noted in the other biographies Cendrars wrote of historical figures, and created some suspicion among critics of the accuracy of events in his autobiographical novels, including L'Homme foudroyé (1945; The Astonished Man, La Main coupée (1946; Lice), and Bourlinguer (1948; Planus. The title character of the novel Moravagine would not be out of place in modern popular fiction. A psychotic genius with an obsession for disemboweling young women, Moravagine leaves a wake of death in his trans-world wanderings. The narrator of the story, Raymond La Science, is a psychiatrist who helped Moravagine escape from an asylum and accompanies him on his journeys. The doctor is motivated by his radical belief that sickness and health, both mental and physical, are ordinary phases in a life, and that it is therefore unnatural to punish them with confinement. The heroine of Emmènemoi au bout du monde (1956; To the End of the World) is Emmène, an octogenarian libertine who has been reduced to buying her sexual favors. Once a theatrical rival of Sarah Bernhardt, Emmène is enjoying a second chance on stage in an avant-garde production. Totally naked, she stands alone on stage reciting Villon's lament for vanished beauty, "Ballade des dames du temps jadis." Her revival is marred by a murder and the subsequent investigation. The book was described as a roman à clef, and there is some debate about the actual events to which it might refer.
The works of Blaise Cendrars have elicited a broad range of critical response. At one end of the spectrum is Cendrars's friend and perhaps most ardent supporter, Henry Miller. Miller wrote, "Worshiping life and the truth of life, he comes closer than any author of our time to revealing the common source of word and deed." Near the other end, Frank McGuinness, in a review of To the End of the World, remarked, "As savagely contemptuous of bourgeois timidity and reserve as Henry Miller himself, Cendrars is of the school that believes it salutary to rub the reader's nose in dirt, outrage his susceptibilities at every turn and open his eyes to how much more dynamic life is in those insalubrious regions where the rate of copulation among the layabouts, pimps and bohemians far exceeds the Kinsey average and an atmosphere of amoral and stimulating vitality constantly prevails." The diversity of his critical reception may be in part related to the diversity of the man himself. Most critics find a common ground with the idea that Cendrars's life and work are mirrors of each other, each influencing the other, and that his work is at several levels a journal of his life. Birkerts noted, "the fact is that Cendrars cannot be considered apart from his biography…. The two are intimately interfused. The writings have to be read as a footnote to the life, as an interlinear, if you will. It is as if to make this process even more forbidding and complex that Cendrars chose to write poetry, novels, reportage, criticism, autobiography, film scripts, radio plays—apart from which he also anthologized and translated. He could not have set his gift at the heart of a labyrinth any more artfully had he tried." Of Cendrars's work, William Rose Bennett commented: "This poetry is the poetry of adventure, of the search for new lands and new skies; new sensations; of constantly moving about; ocular poetry, pictorial description, poetry bright with color and telegraphic in its presentation of impressions." Matthew Josephson favorably reviewed Cendrars, but added that "his poems seldom touch a great music which would hypnotize us into reading them over and over again. They compose rather the journal of a modern poet; they give us his nostalgias and his visions, often penetrating, violent, yet as bewildering and neutralizing in their total effect as prolonged sight-seeing from an observation car." Paul Zweig echoed that sentiment, adding an explanation: "Cendrars was not a great poet. He was too much of an innovator for that. He could never stop long enough on any ground to conquer it. After it was staked out, he moved on." Of his innovation, John Porter Houston said, "Cendrars abandoned symbolist free-verse patterns, with their many echoes of conventional metrics—'Prufrock' is an English example—for a more visual kind of effect: he was among the first to mingle type-faces, exploit non-horizontal word sequences and, in general, to incorporate into poetry the varied lay-outs of advertising." The anti-heroes and nihilistic plots in some of Cendrars's novels, Moravagine and To the End of the World, for example, garnered praise from some critics and disapproval from others. Speaking of the death of the heroine Emmène at the conclusion of To the End of the World, Peter Sourian said, "That she dies almost as a pointless footnote may be part of the point. But if it's pointless on purpose, then the writer ought to be passionately pointed about the pointlessness. There is a flatness, a lack of remorse, a thinness of desire." Other critics saw the cruel, cold world of Cendrars's fiction as visionary. "Cendrars was one of the first to embrace 'the modern' in the full sense of the term. He saw clearly where the age was headed: toward speed, machinery, violence," observed Birkerts. John Harding, in an essay on the recurring themes shown in Cendrars's protagonists, stated, "the Cendrarsian hero is both a cosmopolitan and an outsider. His cosmopolitanism has two main stimuli, one being his desire to escape restriction, and the other being the sheer fascination of travel, with its influence on the development of the world. Both, when linked to his strong love/hate relationship with home, make him an eternal outsider in a world where conformity is ever the norm, and individuality is viewed with suspicion or hostility."
Les Pâques à New York [Easter in New York] (poetry) 1912
Séquences (poetry) 1912
Prose du transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France [Prose of the Transsiberian with Little Jean of France] (poetry) 1913
Profond aujourd'hui (poetry) 1917
Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles [Panama, or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles] (poetry) 1918
Dix-neuf Poèmes élastiques [Nineteen Elastic Poems] (poetry) 1919
L'Anthologie nègre [Negro Anthology] (poetry) 1921
∗Kodak (poetry) 1924
L'Or [Sutter's Gold] (novel) 1925
Moravagine (novel) 1926
†Le Plan de l'aiguille [Antarctic Fugue] (novel) 1927
†Les Confessions de Dan Yack [The Confessions of Dan Yack] (novel) 1929
Rhum (novel) 1930
Hollywood, la mecque du cinéma [Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies] (journal) 1936
La Vie dangereuse [The Dangerous Life] (novel) 1938
L'Homme foudroyé [The Astonished Man] (autobiographical novel) 1945
La Main coupée [Lice] (autobiographical novel) 1946
Bourlinguer [Planus] (autobiographical novel) 1948
Emmène-moi au bout du monde [To the End of the World] (novel) 1956
∗This work is also known as Documentaire.
†These novels were published in a single-volume edition in 1946,...
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SOURCE: "California Gold," in New Republic, Vol. XLVIII, No. 619, October 13, 1926, p. 227.
[In the following review, Maris provides some of the historical background for Cendrars's novel Sutter's Gold.]
In Sutter's Gold Blaise Cendrars has once more turned to America, a literary field that has kindled his imagination many times before, and to what was perhaps the most thrilling, as certainly it was the most convulsive, period the New World has known—the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Blaise Cendrars, like Valéry Larbaud, Paul Morand and Jean Giraudoux, possesses a cosmopolitan outlook and has done not a little to fructify French culture by introducing France to some of her more and less remote neighbors. It is the more remote peoples that chiefly interest M. Cendrars. He is a world traveler and adventurer and is rarely observed in the haunts of Parisian writers, save when he reappears, like a literary colporteur, from some far-away country with the material for a new anthology of folk lore, or a volume of sketches or poems. His nostalgia for the primitive became evident with the appearance of his admirable Anthologie Nègre, of which a second volume is now in preparation. His love for the flora, fauna and human species of the tropics has given color, ardor and an exotic warmth to virtually everything that he has written.
Impudent poet and incorrigible...
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SOURCE: "Homer of the Transsiberian," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, No. 12, October 16, 1926, pp. 202-22.
[Below, novelist and poet Dos Passos offers an interpretive discussion of Cendrars's poetry.]
At the Paris exposition of 1900—but perhaps this is all a dream, perhaps I heard someone tell about it; no it must have happened at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900—somewhere between the Eiffel tower and the Trocadero there was a long shed. In that shed was a brand new train of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, engine, tender, baggage coach, sleeping cars, restaurant car. The shed was dark, and girdered like a station. You walked up wooden steps into the huge dark varnished car. It was terrible. The train was going to start. As you followed the swish of dresses along the corridor the new smell gave you gooseflesh. The train smelt of fresh rubber, of just bought toys, of something huge and whirring and oily. The little beds were made up, there were mirrors, glittering washbasins, a bathtub. The engine whistled. No don't be afraid, look out of the window. We are moving. No outside a picture is moving, houses slipping by, bluish-greenish hills. The Urals. Somebody says names in my car. Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Siberia, Yanktse, Mongolia, pagodas, Peking. Rivers twisting into the bluish-greenish hills and the close electric smell of something varnished and whirring and oily, moving hugely,...
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SOURCE: "The Irony of Life," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, No. 14, October 30, 1926, p. 253.
[In the following review, Werner provides some of the facts behind the fiction of L'Or, Cendrars's account of Johann Sutter's life.]
The romantic mind of a French poet has conceived a superb book concerning the Swiss adventurer who was the first enthusiast for California, and who ended his days at Washington as a penniless petitioner for his rights. Blaise Cendrars's L'Or, carefully and intelligently translated by Henry Longan Stuart, is one of the most fascinating biographical studies that has been published since Lytton Strachey published his "Eminent Victorians."
The author of that extraordinary poem, "Le Panama ou les Aventures des Mes Septs Oncles," has found a large outlet for his keen poetic imagination in the ironic story of Johann August Sutter. Unfortunately for the sense of the dramatic with which M. Cendrars is so powerfully endowed, the facts are sometimes somewhat different from those he presents concerning Captain Sutter, but the liberties he has taken for the sake of coloring are minor liberties. His scene in which Sutter's wife, after the perilous journey in 1848 from France to California via Panama, drops dramatically dead at the feet of her millionaire husband at the moment of her arrival at his hacienda is less stirring when one discovers from...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)
SOURCE: "A Neo-Romantic Poet," in The Nation, Vol. 133, No. 3465, December 2, 1931, pp. 616-17.
[In the following review, Josephson summarizes Cendrars's work as lacking the long-term appeal of great poetry.]
John Dos Passos has made a felicitous translation of a group of poems by Blaise Cendrars, at least one of which, the long Prosody of the Transsiberian, has been a famous example of modern poetry for almost a generation. Dos Passos has much in common with Cendrars; he has the same vibrant revolutionary spirit, the same overwhelming interest in the actual world with all its characteristic sores, the same love of travel, the same effect of speed in writing combined with indifference to musical perfection. Nevertheless, the appearance of Cendrars's poems in English tempts one to reconsider the whole twentieth-century school of poets with which the versatile Swiss Parisian is identified.
Cendrars is one of a number of writers and painters who used to gather about Guillaume Apollinaire in Paris and who absorbed much of that fertile man's instructions as well as his gift for pleasantries. Through Apollinaire, toward 1910, the cubist movement in painting grew articulate; in the reviews he founded, Blaise Cendrars, André Salmon, Max Jacob, and many others were launched or relaunched upon the public. Later the dadaists, or super-realists, such as Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon,...
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SOURCE: "Round about Parnassus," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VIII, No. XXI, December 12, 1931, pp. 378-9.
[In the following excerpt, Benet favorably reviews John Dos Passos's translation of Cendrars's Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles.]
The most living and original work before me this week is undoubtedly John Dos Passos's translation from the French of certain poems of Blaise Cendrars. The translator has also illustrated his book with twelve excellent drawings in color. While I cannot criticize this poetry in English by comparing it with the poetry in the original, I think it sufficient to quote Mr. Dos Passos in this connection. He says very sensibly, in part, "I think it has been worth while to attempt to turn these alive, informal, personal, everyday poems of Cendrars into English, in spite of the obvious fact that poetry by its very nature can't be lifted out of the language in which it was written. I only hope it will at least induce people to read the originals." Certainly Mr. Dos Passos's translation should do this, for Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles is brilliant and sensitive in the English version. It has been made into a most attractive large paper-bound volume by Harper & Brothers. It contains "Prosody of the Transsiberian and of Little Jeanne of France," "Panama, etc.," "Two Rivers," from Kodak Documentaire, "Elephant Hunt," from...
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SOURCE: "Cendrars," in Poetry, Vol. XXXIX, No. IV, January, 1932, pp. 224-27.
[In the essay below, Zabel discusses Dos Passos's translations of Cendrars and Cendrars's place in the evolution of French literature.]
The enthusiasm of Mr. Dos Passos' project is well warranted. although his Foreword succeeds in being little more than an exhibition of sore-headed commiseration to which its sprinkle of misprints and historical lapses does little injustice. He has, at the outset, an inheritor's fitness to be Cendrars's translator: the rapid verbal and imaginative impulse of Les Pûques à New-York, La prose du Transsibérien, Panama, and Kodak documentaire is likewise the fever in the nerves of Orient Express, Rosinante, and Manhattan Transfer, and it remains largely intact in these lucid versions from three of Cendrars's books. Dos Passos has also retained from the years of his own apprenticeship a keen memory of the ardor of discovery that ran through French and American writing twenty years ago. He has invested his English Cendrars with the tone and impudence, the sprawling arrogance and splendor, which bloomed on the pages of twentieth-century poetry in its first conscious rejection of foregoing conventions and, more specifically, of the formal and intellectual disciplines of Symbolism. The translation here may likewise count in its favor an actual experience as close to...
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SOURCE: An interview in American Poetry Review, translated by Bertrand Mathieu, May/June 1980, pp. 40-44.
[In the following interview, originally broadcast on April 25, 1950, Cendrars ruminates on the artists and authors of his time.]
Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961) is one of the giants of modern literature. In addition to poetry, he wrote novels, travel books, biographies, autobiographies, film scenarios, letters, translations, essays, operas, and ballet choreographies. Yet hardly any of Cendrars's writings have been translated into English.
Bertrand Mathieu has already published a number of Cendrars's translations: his translations of Rimbaud's Illuminations and A Season in Half have been published by BOA Editions. He has also written a book on Henry Miller and a volume of his own poetry.
This interview was broadcast on April 25, 1950. The translation was completed in 1974.
[Manoll:] Do you really believe that the poets are fifty years ahead of the painters?
[Cendrars:] As far as the poets of today are concerned, there isn't shred of doubt. The painters still haven't discovered Rimbaud. Do you know a single good illustrator of Rimbaud's Illuminations?
Rimbaud's genius seems to me absolutely one-of-a-kind.
So one-of-a-kind that all the commentaries...
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SOURCE: "Blaise Cendrars," in The Henry Miller Reader, edited by Lawrence Durrell, New Directions Books, 1959, pp. 327-52.
[Henry Miller (1891–1980) was an American novelist and critic. In the following essay, first published in 1952, he presents a warm and personal look at Cendrars's life and work.]
[Miller's introduction, written for the 1959 collection:] Against the advice of editor and publisher, I have insisted on the inclusion of this piece—as a substitution for passages on "Mona" of the Tropics. It was suggested that the essay called "Balzac and his Double" be used instead of this. But Balzac is long dead, and the halo which surrounds his name is still untarnished. Cendrars is still living, though gravely ill now and confined to a wheel-chair. Alive or dead, he is, to my mind, vastly more important to our generation than Balzac ever could be.
For no contemporary author have I struggled harder to obtain a hearing than for Blaise Cendrars. And all my efforts have been in vain. I consider it a shame and a disgrace that no American publisher has shown the least interest in this undisputed giant of French letters. All we have of him, in translation, to my knowledge, are several poems, the novel called Sutter's Gold (an early work), the African Anthology (a collection of African poems translated into French, by Cendrars) and the Antarctic Fugue,...
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SOURCE: "Cooey-Booey Cubist," in The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1966, pp. 4, 20.
[Rexroth is a poet, critic, and translator. In the following review, he presents a mixed opinion of Cendrars's poetic contribution.]
The greatest poet of the Cubist epoch was Pierre Reverdy, because he had distinguished emotions. The next was Gertrude Stein, because she had none. Both had perfect ears and impeccable style. Blaise Cendrars, (1887–1961), like Max Jacob, was a professional personality of the same period, rather than an artist. Henry Miller, who writes a brief preface to this collection, has written about Cendrars extensively elsewhere and admires him greatly. They have a good deal in common.
Both Cendrars and Miller present themselves to the public as livers rather than artists, and both have a talent for engaging implausibility, which sometimes catches them short. Actually this sort of thing is just as literary as Walter Pater or Henry James. It's just a different pitch, and it depends for its effectiveness on its literary convincingness. Blaise Cendrars portrays himself in his poetry as a more picaresque and more robust and very French Whitman, a nonchalant knockabout who had been for to see and for to admire in all the most remote and exciting parts of the world.
It is interesting to go back and read some of the things that made him his reputation—the...
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SOURCE: A review of To the End of the World, in London Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 11, February, 1967, pp. 114-18.
[In the following excerpt, McGuinness presents a negative review of the book.]
On the evidence of To the End of the World, the first of his works to be translated into English, it would hardly seem that we have been deprived to any great extent by the continued neglect of the twenty odd other books written by Blaise Cendrars in the countless years he has been prominent in French literary circles. As savagely contemptuous of bourgeois timidity and reserve as Henry Miller himself, Cendrars is of the school that believes it salutary to rub the reader's nose in dirt, outrage his susceptibilities at every turn and open his eyes to how much more dynamic life is in those insalubrious regions where the rate of copulation among the layabouts, pimps and bohemians far exceeds the Kinsey average and an atmosphere of amoral and stimulating vitality constantly prevails. In consequence, his book is loaded with the sort of crapulous incident that the avant-garde writer almost invariably serves up when he sets out to be shocking. Of course, this may well what the appetites of those doddering crusaders who still imagine that the publication of any lewd word is a further blow against the prurient and taboo-ridden conventions of a society that virtually crumbled away twenty years ago, the period...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
SOURCE: "French Chronicle," in Poetry, Vol. 111, No. 2, November, 1967, pp. 124-28.
[In the following excerpt, Zweig provides a mixed, but generally favorable, review of the volume Blaise Cendrars, Selected Writings. He is, however, critical of the quality of translation.]
Blaise Cendrars was a monument. He spent his life crossing and recrossing the world as if it might collapse beneath him when he stopped, like those glossy insects that scoot endlessly over a pond, held up by "surface tension". Except that Cendrars drew the tension out of his own mind. In his preface to the New Directions volume, Henry Miller describes the man: "I see his slouch hat and battered mug beneath it. I see him 'revolutionizing' because there is nothing else to do…. He was not a rebel, he was an absolute traitor to the race, and as such I salute him. The salute is wasted of course, because Cendrars didn't give a damn whether you saluted him or not."
Words, jagged phrases, lists of objects leaping on each other's backs; the rhythm of railroad wheels, of boats, of feet tramping in Panama and in New York: these were his itineraries. They both were, and they recorded, the connection he spent his life making between places, images, and headlines. The face on the cover of the Selected Writings tells all that. It is a face eaten from inside by decades of imperfectly expended energy, with eyes that...
(The entire section is 519 words.)
SOURCE: "The Rage of Paris," in The New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1968, p. 28.
[In the following review of To the End of the World, Sourian is of the opinion that the only saving grace of the novel is the poetic language of Cendrars's original French, which he feels was lost in the translation.]
One of Blaise Cendrars's 20 books is called Too Much Is Too Much, and that might be said of this one, the first of his novels to be published in English. On the other hand it could also be said that too much does not amount to enough. There is a lot of adventure, yet not much happens; a regular tiger of color comes on ferocious but lies down flat. There are many exclamation points (over a dozen on some pages) but little in the way of feeling; much too much is bizarre and not enough is truly strange.
Cendrars, who died in 1961, six years after writing To the End of the World at the age of 68, had perhaps always overdone things. He'd climbed down the side of a building to run away from home at 15, and traveled the Orient as a jewel merchant; he'd lost an arm as a corporal in the Foreign Legion, and been a movie-maker, a loner and a family man, and a prolific member of the group of writers and painters who frequented the Lapin Agile in the early 1900's, including Picasso, Max Jacob and Modigliani. A French publishing house, in its biographical series, categorizes...
(The entire section is 788 words.)
SOURCE: "Cendrars Revived," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3498, March 13, 1969, p. 262.
[The following is a brief review of Cendrars's novel Moravagine.]
A certified lunatic leaps over a Swiss asylum wall to the car of the psychiatrist abetting his escape. In his hand there is a bloody knife. He has just disembowelled a girl. "Everywhere Moravagine left one or more female corpses behind him. Sometimes out of fun."
Moravagine's misogynic sense of humour takes him to Berlin, Moscow, the United States, South America and back to Europe to join in the fun of the First World War. Under the clinical observation of his fascinated psychiatrist rescuer he shows what you can do to upset the bourgeois applecart if you really try. He becomes Germany's own Jack the Ripper, Russian revolutionary and terrorist, music student, pilot, prospector, explorer, potential sacrifice of a tribe of Orinoco Indians and then their god—a cerebral superman and emotional Zombie: a monster who keeps his cool.
There is a strange paradox in the anarchic and headlong career of this Quixotic pair from continent to continent. They look for life in action, "the transvaluation of all social values and of life itself". Yet action, the only form of truth for Moravagine, invariably takes the form of destruction, murder, disembowelling—affirmationthrough nihilism. It is very tempting to gather up the...
(The entire section is 373 words.)
SOURCE: "Aztec Alphabet," in The Listener, March 5, 1970.
[In the following excerpt, Plante provides a favorable summary of The Astonished Man.]
The whole world seems to have belonged to Blaise Cendrars: the steppes of Russia, the jungles of South America, New York, artistic and intellectual Paris between the wars. He knew the best whore-houses in Peking, the opium dens in Marseilles, the richest Mexicans, the poorest fishermen; he directed movies, was a capitalist businessman, a jewel-peddler, a poet, a novelist. Even his losses were gains: though he lost an arm serving in the Foreign Legion during the First World War, he could add to his possessions the war itself and a host of legionaries, among them gypsies who later adopted him as one of their own. He must have thought he could, if not order, at least account for, the entire world in terms of places visited and people met.
The Astonished Man is a kind of heightened memoir: its images, taken from his life, act as mysterious and evocative emblems. There is the wealthy Mexican woman, Paquita, married five or six times, living just outside Paris in 'a château in splendid Louis XIV Baroque', with a 'gold and ebony gondola that brought one to the main gate', who meticulously fashions small waxwork figures of characters from Flaubert and Dickens, teaches Cendrars the complex Aztec alphabet, and gives half her fortune to the...
(The entire section is 352 words.)
SOURCE: "Cendrars's Modernism," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, April, 1970, pp. 561-65.
[Below, Houston reviews several of Cendrars's poems from the volume Selected Writings of Blaise Cendrars.]
After a recent spate of good biographies and translations of Apollinaire, the English-speaking reader is now presented (in a bilingual text for the poems) with selected works of Blaise Cendrars, Apollinaire's contemporary in remaking French poetry. Cendrars was a minor poet, and not a very productive one at that, but he occupies a significant place in the development of a modernist poetic style on the eve of World War I.
The modernism of Cendrars involves both subject and form. His poems reject the old humanism in favor of celebrating an age of large-scale industry, of speed and consumption. "Advertising=Poetry" is the title of one of his occasional essays, and he felt life to be enhanced by the new sense of movement embodied in cinema, Cubist painting, tall buildings, and economic expansion. From the point of view of form, Cendrars's verse reflects the acute dilemma facing poets in the early decades of the century, essentially the problem of innovation confronted, to various degrees, by Whitman and Claudel, Pound and Williams. Feeling that poetry must reject metrics, if not rhythm, as well as traditional poetic vocabulary and syntax, they nonetheless wanted the resulting verse to have...
(The entire section is 1330 words.)
SOURCE: "Down to the Sea," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3659, April 14, 1972, p. 408.
[The following is a mixed review of the translation of Planus, providing some description of the structure of the novel.]
An "edited" version of Blaise Cendrars such as this poses many problems. The original of Planus was Bourlinguer, the third volume of the four "autobiographies" which Cendrars—poet, adventurer, business man and marvellous writer—published between 1945 and 1949. Bourlinguer is the one that combines real or fantasied autobiography with travelogue. The titles of its eleven sections are all great sea or river-ports: Naples, Antwerp, Rotterdam, etc, and finally Paris—"Port-de-Mer." Nina Rootes's editing has, at her publishers' request, reduced Bourlinguer from the 440 pages of its French (paperback) edition to a mere 220 pages in English. Is this wise? Is it justified? In a frank and useful "Translator's Note" she tells us the principles on which she did this hatchet-job, apologizes to the ghost of Cendrars for tampering with his work, and hopes that "this shortened version will introduce many readers to the delights of his writing, who perhaps would have been deterred by a longer and more discursive book."
It is true that Cendrars did tend to go on and on, to diverge, to divagate, to meander, but this is part of his charm and our interest....
(The entire section is 661 words.)
SOURCE: "Going West," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4166, February 4, 1983, p. 116.
[In the following review, Bowles praises Cendrars's Gold.]
In the spring of 1834, Johann August Suter, a thirty-one-year-old bankrupt Swiss papermaker, deserted his wife and four children and set sail for America. Penniless and without prospects, his "professional contacts" were restricted to the fellow fugitives, swindlers and n'er-do-wells he was to meet on his journey. Through a combination of cunning or crooked business deals, prowess as an Indian fighter, indefatigable effort and extraordinary good luck, less than ten years later John Augustus Sutter had become America's first millionaire and multi-millionaire, the most prosperous landowner in the United States, and the founder of a new country which he patriotically christened New Helvetia. Coming to join her husband at last, Anne Sutter hears him described by strangers: "He is a king; he is an emperor. He rides on a white horse. The saddle is made of gold, the bit is gold, the stirrups, the spurs and even the horseshoes are of gold." By the time she arrives in Panama, one lock of her hair has turned white. John Sutter had been the poorest of men; he is now among the richest. Frau Sutter dies, of exhaustion and amazement, on her husband's doorstep.
Well on his way to becoming "the richest man in the world", Sutter is ruined in January 1848,...
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SOURCE: "Blaise Cendrars," in An Artificial Wilderness, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1987, pp. 143-55.
[In the essay below, Birkerts provides a detailed summary of Cendrars's life and major works.]
In the last phase of his career, when he was already in his sixties, Blaise Cendrars wrote and published a series of autobiographical works that are as singular as anything in literature. Coming after a lifetime of publications, these books—available in England as The Astonished Man (1970), Planus (1972), and Lice (1973)—form a kind of entryway through which we pass to meet a rare, titan-scale individual. The life we encounter is as vast and variously textured as a composition by Stravinsky, and is as difficult to assimilate at first contact. Here is Cendrars in his full amplitude: wanderer, sailor, scholar, collector, entrepreneur, anarchist, soldier, pivotal figure in the Paris avant-garde, trickster, intimate of Picasso, Apollinaire, Stravinsky, Dos Passos (who translated him), Modigliani (who painted him), Duchamp (who probably played chess with him), Le Corbusier, Eisenstein, Satie, Chagall … The ellipses are rightfully suggestive. In these works we have him in many locales of his nomadic life: Africa, Russia, China, the Americas, the heartland of France, not to mention the great capital cities of the world. We have so much, and yet it feels like we are chasing...
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SOURCE: A review of Moravagine, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. II, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 278-79.
[Below, Kennison presents an emphatically positive review of Moravagine.]
Moravagine is that rare novel that sticks in your soul like a new gospel, written in blood in the last days, lost to us till now after having echoed only secretly through the last millennium to us here in the New World. It stabs the heart with grace, traces the paths of our lives bowing down before our demon selves in order to reveal the flesh worth redeeming. It believes what it tells us.
Moravagine is one of the many wounds of road trod by the legendary Blaise Cendrars in a life as extraordinary as any novel. Cendrars leaped out of his bedroom window in Switzerland at the age of fifteen and never looked back. He was a poet even before he lost his right arm in World War I. Like Céline and Apollinaire, he caught himself up in the Great War and it became a battleground for his life and art until he died in 1961.
Cendrars's narrator in his novel Moravagine—as in all his work, a man in many ways not unlike himself—is a physician in a Swiss asylum who befriends a terminal patient named Moravagine, and finds him to be a human specimen of exceptional constitution. They fall in as fellow outsiders and escape together to wander the world, encountering the depth of...
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SOURCE: "The Burning Phoenix," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4769, August 26, 1994, pp. 9-10.
[Below, Foden gives a comprehensive review of Cendrars's body of poetry.]
Fighting in the First World War as a Swiss national in "la Marocaine", the original Foreign Legion, Blaise Cendrars lost an arm during the assault on the Navarin Farm in Champagne on September 28, 1915. It was his writing arm that went, "planté dans l'herbe comme une grande fleur épanouie, un lys rouge, un bras humain tout ruisselant de sang, un bras droit sectionné au-dessus du coude et dont la main encore vivant fouissait le sol des doigts comme pour y prendre racine …" (La Main coupée).
Cendrars himself never took root. Right from the start, travel was his subject and the making of him; it gave him the opportunity to "make" his own sprawling biography (itinerant poet, novelist-adventurer, "style" journalist, bohemian business schemer), sometimes in the spirit of fictional invention, sometimes as a charming but down-right lie. So it is hard to answer his own question: "à qui était cette main, ce bras droit, ce sang qui coulait comme la sève?"
Born Frédéric Louis Sauser in the same year and place as Le Corbusier (La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 1887), Cendrars used to say he was born at the Hôtel des Etrangers on the Left Bank, the building where the Roman de la Rose was...
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SOURCE: A review of Correspondance 1934–1979; 45 ans d'amitié, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. 359.
[In the following review, Brown praises the compilation and editing of the correspondence between the Cendrars and American author Henry Miller.]
A group of three collaborators prepared this scrupulously edited and richly documented correspondence between Blaise Cendrars and Henry Miller [entitled Correspondance 1934–1979; 45 ans d'amitié]. Cendrars's daughter Miriam supervised the edition and contributed a preface. Frédéric-Jacques Temple, who knew both correspondents, wrote an account of their friendship and their many contacts with the international avant-garde. Detailed notes on each letter (sometimes longer than the letters themselves) were prepared by Jay Bochner.
A chronological listing reveals that the correspondence was somewhat one-sided. Miller's letters are numerous, detailed, often three to four pages in length. Cendrars's correspondence, in comparison, seems laconic, almost telegraphic. The numerous photographs are also copiously annotated. The "annexes" include Cendrars's text on Miller's poem "Alraure," presented on French radio in 1952; Miller's preface to L'homme foudroyé; the English originals of Miller's letters to Cendrars, Miriam, and others; a chronological listing of the letters; and a résumé of the...
(The entire section is 720 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies, in The French Review, Vol. 69, No. 6, May, 1996, pp. 1033-34.
[In the following review, Lampert-Greaux finds Cendrars's journal of his trip to Hollywood still relevant sixty years later.]
Hollywood has always held a fascination for the French, much to the dismay of French filmmakers who shake their berets at the supremacy of American movies in their cinemas. Blaise Cendrars's journal, Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies, proves that as early as 1936 there was already a healthy appetite in France for news of the American movie capital.
A popular French poet, novelist, essayist, and sometime newspaper man, Cendrars spent two weeks in Hollywood in 1936, installed in the luxury of the Roosevelt Hotel. On assignment for the daily newspaper Paris-Soir, Cendrars filed lively dispatches describing the activity along the palm-lined boulevards, and at the gates to the great studios. While circling the lives of the rich and famous, Cendrars proved to be a perceptive reporter, and his brief chronicle of Hollywood captured both the essence of the city and the imagination of his readers. Serialized in the newspaper as The Secrets of Hollywood, Cendrars's collected reports were published in France by Grasset in August 1936.
The University of California edition of Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies has been...
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SOURCE: "One Hand Clapping," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 21, Nos. 1 & 2, 1996, pp. 78-89.
[In the following essay, Sieburth offers an overview of Cendrars's writings and their translations.]
After you have taken in the battered old boxer's mug and the inevitable Gauloise glued to the lower lip, the thing you most notice about Blaise Cendrars in the old photos is his missing hand. The left hand writes, smokes, drinks, eats; but from above the elbow down, the right arm just hangs there, all sleeve.
Cendrars lost his right hand to a mortar shell at the Ferme Navarin in 1915. As he would later describe it, part of him lay there by his side, "planted in the grass like a great spreading flower, a red lily, a human arm streaming with blood, a right arm severed above the elbow, its hand, still alive, digging its fingers into the soil as if to take root." From the killing fields of the Marne, the hand then rose up into the sky to become the constellation Orion:
It's my star
It's in the form of a hand
It's my hand gone up into the sky
During the entire war I saw Orion through a lookout slit
When the zeppelins came to bomb Paris they always came from
I have it above my head today
The main mast...
(The entire section is 3433 words.)
Bickel, Beatrice. "African Folk-Lore." The Nation 115, No. 2990 (25 October 1922): 442-43.
Brief background on the African folklore in Cendrars's Anthologie Nègre.
Chefdor, Monique. "Blaise Cendrars's Americas: From World to Text, From Text to World." Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985, pp. 216-26.
Traces the geographical connections in Cendrars's work.
Harding, John. "The Cendrarsian Hero-Cosmopolitan Outsider." Swiss French Studies III, No. 2 (November 1982): 6-23.
Offers a perspective on the common qualities of the central characters of Cendrars's fiction.
Kellerman, Steven G. "Blaise Cendrars's L'OR as Cinematic Novel." Post Script 4, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 1985): 16-28.
Analysis of the cinematic structure of L'Or in light of its adaptation as the film Sutter's Gold.
Miller, Henry. "Reading Blaise Cendrars." Mademoiselle 77, No. 6 (October 1977): 58, 62.
Personal account in which Miller discusses the impact he felt from Cendrars's writing....
(The entire section is 188 words.)