Study Guide

Blaise Cendrars

by Frédéric Louis Sauser

Blaise Cendrars Essay - Cendrars, Blaise

Cendrars, Blaise

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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...

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Criticism

Faith Maris (review date 13 October 1926)

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...

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John Dos Passos (review date 16 October 1926)

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...

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M. R. Werner (review date 30 October 1926)

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...

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Matthew Josephson (review date 2 December 1931)

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...

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William Rose Benet (review date 12 December 1931)

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...

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Morton Dauwen Zabel (essay date January 1932)

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...

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Blaise Cendrars with Michel Manoll (interview date 25 April 1950)

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...

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Henry Miller (essay date 1952)

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...

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Kenneth Rexroth (review date 9 October 1966)

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....

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Frank McGuinness (review date February 1967)

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...

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Paul Zweig (essay date November 1967)

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...

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Peter Sourian (review date 4 August 1968)

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...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 13 March 1969)

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...

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David Plante (review date 5 March 1970)

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...

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John Porter Houston (review date April 1970)

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...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 14 April 1972)

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,...

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Patrick Lindsay Bowles (review date 4 February 1983)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1987)

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...

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Don Kennison (review date Fall 1991)

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...

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Giles Foden (essay date 26 August 1994)

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...

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John L. Brown (review date Spring 1996)

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...

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Ellen Lampert-Gréaux (review date May 1996)

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...

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Richard Sieburth (essay date 1996)

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,...

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