Frédéric Louis Sauser Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although he later claimed that he was born in Paris, at the celebrated hotel on rue Saint-Jacques, Blaise Cendrars (sahn-drahr) was, in fact, born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1887, the son of a restless, peripatetic Swiss clock merchant. Truth and fancy, fact and myth, are inextricably blended in the narratives of his life, as in his poetry and fiction. This worldwide adventurer, who was called “one of the greatest liars of all time,” a “Marco Polo of the twentieth century,” and the “Homer of the Transsiberian,” never lost sight of the fact that art is the lie that tells the truth.{$S[A]Sauser, Frédéric Louis;Cendrars, Blaise}

Before he was out of his teens, Frédéric Louis Sauser had spent several years in St. Petersburg, in the ferment of pre-revolutionary Russia. By 1911, he was in New York and had chosen the name Blaise Cendrars. His pseudonym suggests a major motif of his life and work: the combination of cendres (ashes), ars (art), and “Blaise” (which he identified as a transmutation of braise (embers) and which has a homophonic suggestion of “blaze”) encapsulates his lifelong insistence that “to write is to burn alive.” Before World War I, after the publication of Easter in New York, he was established as a central figure in the Paris avant-garde. The lyrical incantatory quality of his innovative poetry left its mark on such writers as Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as on the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the cubists. The Trans-Siberian Express, for example, was printed in multicolored type on folded two-meter sheets with illustrations by Sonia Delaunay. With 150 copies printed, Cendrars announced, in a typical gesture, that his poem soared as high as the Eiffel Tower. Yet for all of his involvement with the various schools and “isms” of modernist art, Cendrars insisted that he stood apart from all movements.

True to his philosophy of immersion in experience and, as a foreigner, true to France, Cendrars enlisted in the Foreign Legion; in the fall of 1915 he was wounded by shell fire, and his right arm was amputated. Shattered by the war, physically and spiritually, Cendrars in his work increasingly recorded an...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Frédéric Louis Sauser Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Blaise Cendrars so mythologized his life and experiences that scholars have had a difficult time culling the exaggerations and outright lies from his many exercises in autobiography. As Ernest Hemingway comments in A Moveable Feast (1964), “When [Cendrars] was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly.” The difficulty is further compounded by Cendrars’s ceaseless traveling from continent to continent. Even the true circumstances of his birth were not known until Jean Buhler published his 1960 biography.

Contrary to Cendrars’s claim in a 1917 poem that he was born in Paris in the Hôtel des Etrangers, he was actually born in the Swiss village of La Chaux-de-Fonds under the name of Frédéric Louis Sauser. Escaping La Chaux-de-Fonds seems to have been one of the major ambitions of its natives (Le Corbusier and Louis Chevrolet are among the more famous who left) and Cendrars’s father, Georges, was no exception. He had come to the city as a teacher of mathematics but was listed in the city registry as a clock merchant at the time of Cendrars’s birth. He restlessly immersed himself in financial dealings and was responsible for his son’s early initiation into travel. The family went to Egypt and into the hotel business when Cendrars was about two years old. This venture soon failed, however, and Cendrars began his chaotic education at the Scuola Internazionale in Naples in 1891 or 1892. In 1897, he entered the Basel Gymnasium (college-preparatory secondary school); he also attended boarding schools in Germany. In 1902, he registered at the École de Commerce in Neuchâtal, a business school, evidently after failing his college examinations.

Cendrars spent the years from 1904 to 1907 in Russia as a watch salesman and was there during the 1905 Revolution, which plays such a large part in his novel Moravagine; he may have traveled in Siberia and China as well. He had his first love affair with a Russian woman, “Hélène,” and in her honor wrote his first poem, “Alea” (later rewritten as Moganni Nameh, 1922) under the pseudonym Freddy Sausey. After his return, he moved frequently, raising bees near Paris, studying medicine at the University of Bern, working as a comedian in Brussels, working as an extra in the opera Carmen, falling in love with Fîla Poznanska, a Polish student, and following her to New York. All of this time, he was writing, undergoing in his poetry a transformation from his early heavy Romanticism, through neo-Symbolism to the startling modernism for which he would become famous. He made some money with his writing, doing translations and writing essays on art and literature. He translated Stanisaw Przybyszewski’s Totenmesse (1893) as La Messe des morts, which is considered a direct source for Moravagine, and the poem Die Verwandlungen der Venus (1907) by Richard Dehmel. He may have collaborated with Guillaume Apollinaire on Les Onze Mille Verges (1911), a pornographic novel.

Publishing under the name Blaise Cendrars, he stunned the Paris literary scene with Easter in New York. He claimed that the poem was written after he had left a...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)