Cendrars, Blaise (Pseudonym of Frédéric-Louis Sauser-Hall)
Cendrars, Blaise (Pseudonym of Frédéric-Louis Sauser-Hall) 1887–1961
Cendrars was a French-Swiss poet, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and editor. A tireless world traveler, he transmuted his adventures into lyric poetry and picaresque novels remarkable for their exuberant imagery and vigorous characters. Among the many stories surrounding his life and career, none has caused more debate than whether his first poem, Easter in New York, significantly influenced Apollonaire. His efforts to adapt the techniques of musical composition to writing poetry, along with other formal innovations, made him an important figure in French letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Blaise Cendrars's reputation as a poet will, undoubtedly, rest upon one poem, "Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France." This is a meager residue from a body of work that fills 269 pages in the 1957 edition of the collected poems, but it is the one poem in which his basic inspiration, consisting, as it does, of autobiographical themes, fuses with his free poetic line to produce a work rich in technique and in meaning. The range of emotional coloring, the rhythms responding now to the impulsive movement of the train, now to his feeling of kinship with Jeanne and the humble creatures of this world, give it a more than personal significance. The dislocated rhythms of the modern world, that world to which he is so resolutely dedicated, are communicated in an exact and incisive language, capable of considerable beauty. It is a long poem, but its length is sustained by an emotional drive, immediate and intense, that is not exhausted until the concluding lines, when the poet, reviewing the images of the poem, translates his exhaustion into the slow, measured cadences of the finale. (p. 321)
In Cendrars's "Prose du Transsibérien," the sections concerning Jeanne are quiet lyrical pauses in the relentless onrush of the train. Cendrars's poem can thus be seen as a kind of poetic inversion of [Alfred de Vigny's] "La Maison du Berger," with the modern world's ferocity and power, captured in the train, dominating the mood of...
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My first taste of [Cendrars] in his own language came at a time when my French was none too proficient. I began with Moravagine, a book by no means easy to read for one who knows little French. It was like reading a phosphorescent text through smoked glasses. I had to divine what he was saying, Cendrars, but I got it. If he had written it in Tegalic I would have gotten it. Everything is written in blood, but a blood that is saturated with starlight. Cendrars is like a transparent fish swimming in a planetary sperm; you can see his backbone, his lungs, his heart, his kidneys, his intestines; you can see the red corpuscles moving in the blood stream. You can look clean through him and see the planets wheeling. The silence he creates is deafening. It takes you back to the beginning of the world, to that hush which is engraved on the face of mystery. (pp. vii-viii)
He has been accused of writing trash. It is true that he did not always write on the same level—but Cendrars never wrote trash. He was incapable of writing trash. His problem was not whether to write well or badly, but whether to write or not to write. Writing was almost a violation of his way of living. He wrote against the grain, more and more so as the years went on. If, on the impulse of the moment, or through dire necessity, he took the notion to do a piece of reportage, he went through with it with good grace. He went about even the most trivial task with pains,...
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Mary Ann Caws
Of all the poets of his time, Blaise Cendrars concerned himself to the most extreme degree with the life of adventure and with the recounting of that adventure. The rough surface of his writing is an uncalculated witness to the rapidity and variety of his experience and to his genuine passion for life, often at the expense of what we usually call literature. The question which arises at various times in his work as to why in fact it should be important to transcribe the events one lives or observes is less interesting than the question as to what sort of transcription might be valid. For the poet of movement, only words in motion are acceptable; for the man of adventure, a cinematic language is more fitting than a language of mere picture. (p. 345)
The epic "Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France" (1913) encompasses a physical journey of the same complexity, scope, and melancholy as the spiritual journey of his "Pâques à New York" of a year earlier. In the highly poetic "Prose," Cendrars repeatedly laments that in his "ardent and foolish" adolescence, he was a bad poet, not knowing how to push to the limits of the possible. In the present, he can say of his life that it is, and has always been, in perpetual motion, that it has been measured out by train tracks. (p. 346)
Three essential psychological and esthetic attitudes are present [in "Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles"] as Cendrars...
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Cendrars always deals with a unified core of concerns or themes, and interweaving … is a necessary technique for searching out an elusive and complex centre. In the case of [Les Pâques] something of the reverse seems to obtain, for the diverse images appear to be flung away from the central image of Christ, as if he can no longer control them. (p. 92)
The centre of Les Pâques is the difficulty of resurrecting the faith we already had. While it is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the modern world, New York, goes about its crass and deepeningly oppressive business…. There is no especial grudge against the modern world, and the poem is more concerned with the plight of the poor, which has no doubt never been much different; but New York is particularly saddening to the poet because it brings together many different peoples, by implication all people. They have come to the city of money for salvation, and Christ along with the poet may be as lost as any of them. (pp. 92-3)
The poem as a whole is a litany and throughout is medieval in tone, at least to modern ears, from the epigraph to the apparent awkwardness, the repetitions and the simple bluntness of many lines and expressions…. Les Pâques has little sound of the Church in its prayer, no exaltation, no polish at all it seems. All of its religious tone is contained in the mundane events and objects of daily, despairing...
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Cendrars cannot be considered apart from his biography. To read anything that he has written is to be implicated, present at the joining point of life and art. 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. And yet there will be those who will undertake to find their way in, for there is something in Cendrars that matters greatly and that is not to be found elsewhere. It is a vision fresh and authentic from a man who tunneled his way through considerable despair, who lived all aspects of life to the extreme, and who, for that reason alone, has more to tell us than the sort of academic epigone who seems to dominate the literature of our time….
Some biography seems to flow more or less evenly from circumstance; in other cases, it is wrested forth with much turmoil, imagination, and daring, and this is the case with Cendrars….
Prose of the Trans-Siberian sent out shock waves when it first appeared. The poem made use of salad techniques: very long lines punctuated with lines of one or two words, abrupt transitions,...
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