Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The novel’s first four brief sections, which portray Sutter in Europe, are narrated in the past tense. Once he crosses the Atlantic, however, his veritable life begins (what the French subtitle calls “the marvelous history of General Johann August Sutter”), and the remainder of the novel is in the present tense. The effect is to simulate the immediacy of cinema, a young art form that held great appeal for Cendrars. Much of Sutter’s Gold seems not so much narrated as filmed, using visual techniques similar to the flashbacks, closeups, and dissolves common to the films that Cendrars admired and on which he collaborated.

Sutter’s Gold is constructed of seventeen chapters, each subdivided into one or more sections. In all, there are seventy-four sections in the entire novel. The sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of the book are strikingly brief. Chapter 7, for example, consists of only one section, and section 65 consists of only one paragraph. Many of Cendrars’ paragraphs contain only one sentence and some sentences only one, monosyllabic word. In its terse style and structure, Sutter’s Gold seems less akin to the traditional novel than to the screenplays that Cendrars was also writing.

Designed to show more than to tell, it is a text fraught with spectacular scenic effects reminiscent of director Abel Gance, under whom Cendrars worked as an assistant. Sutter’s arrival at the frenetic docks of New York, his trek across the American wilderness, his stepping ashore, alone, from an Alaskan schooner onto the deserted California coast, the sudden death of Anna at the very moment of reunion with her famous husband, the torching of the Sutter mansion by a crazed mob, his collapse on the vast steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—all are such stuff as that of which the epics of the silent screen were made or the novels that would emulate these visual effects. The novel’s severe verbal economy intensifies the sense of an implacable fate, the inevitability of defeat for its overreaching hero.