Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1925
Blaise Cendrars seemed incapable of divorcing his colorful life from his fiction. Even his first novel, Sutter’s Gold, ostensibly a historical novel about John Augustus Sutter, the Swiss émigré whose discovery of gold in California precipitated the 1849 gold rush, becomes a personal statement, molded into a myth with small regard for historical details.
Early in his life, Cendrars became familiar with Sutter’s story. According to Hugues Richard, Cendrars and his brother first read of Sutter in a local Swiss almanac, Le Messager boiteux, that was used as toilet paper in the Sauser home. Richard also asserts that the immediate source of the novel was a monograph written in 1868 by a Swiss clergyman and state counsellor who cared for Sutter’s children after he had fled Switzerland. Cendrars read voraciously in libraries wherever he traveled and undoubtedly had pursued his interest in Sutter for some time. Perhaps the most important impetus for the novel was Cendrars’s meeting with August Sutter, grandson of John Sutter, in Basel around 1905. They renewed their friendship in 1910 in Paris, where August Sutter had gone to become a sculptor. August introduced him to various artists, including poet Siegfried Lang.
Monique Chefdor speculates that the frantic development of the Brazilian wilderness reminded Cendrars of the gold rush and contributed largely to his choosing to write the novel when he did. Sutter’s story certainly provided Cendrars with the opportunity to exploit all of his favorite devices in a novel. Sutter is depicted as a crafty underminer of conventional society. He abandons his wife and children; he falsifies travel documents; he forges, cheats, steals, and deals in slaves. Whatever heroism there is in Sutter is matched by rascality, but Cendrars manages to turn Sutter into a tragic figure. The liberties that Cendrars takes with historical facts in the novel serve to enhance the stature of Sutter—for example, making him die the victim of a child’s trick on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., instead of in a bed in Pennsylvania.
Sutter is in the grip of forces he cannot control. His story is that of a man driven, by his own ambitions and obsessions, to being a multimillionaire in a place that happens to have gold, “the Antichrist,” which will provoke other people’s ambitions and obsessions to destroy him. Sutter becomes victim, not so much of people, but of gold. Cendrars had previously written on the corrupting power of money in much of his poetry, especially in relation to his experiences as an outsider in New York. This coincides with the common literary view in the 1920’s that civilization had been broken by World War I and was in the process of being replaced by a shoddy, corrupt industrial society.
The style of Sutter’s Gold is very stark. As Bochner observes, none of Cendrars’s prose, before or after, was as terse and bare as the language of this novel, which resembles that of Cendrars’s poetry in Kodak and Le Formose (1924). All of his other work, even his journalism, is very baroque, image heaped on image. In Sutter’s Gold, however, the adamant forward thrust of the action serves to accentuate the feeling that Sutter is caught up and being carried along by his destiny. He has virtually no opportunity for introspection, or to attempt to modify his course. When he attempts to resist the gold fever, it results in his impoverishment and destruction. This single driving force is presented in prose stripped of imagery, similar to what Hemingway was developing at the time. Written in the present tense, the novel makes no commentary upon the morality or character of Sutter, except by implication through action. This straightforwardness in plot and style undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of Sutter’s Gold, which has gone through more than fifteen editions in French and has been translated into such languages as Czech, Flemish, Russian, Portuguese, and Swedish, in addition to other European languages. This same simplicity, however, makes Sutter’s Gold a work with few nuances and not much depth, a novel that may provide great pleasure on a first reading but has little more to offer on a second.
Cendrars’s Moravagine is far more complex than Sutter’s Gold in both style and theme. Miller was among the writers who praised it highly. The radicalism of Moravagine made a strong impression on Miller and contributed to freeing up his own prose. Miller read the novel before he was fluent in French and said it was “like reading a phosphorescent text through smoked glasses,” but he went on to write that the “silence [Cendrars] creates is deafening. It takes you back to the beginning of the world, to that hush which is engraved on the face of mystery.” Moravagine is one of those books that seems clear from sentence to sentence and is profoundly affecting yet violates so much of what readers have come to expect in a novel that its overall purpose is bewildering. It accomplishes what the best of the Surrealist works do, reaching a reality beyond conventional reality and then collapsing in the despair of being unable to grasp it fully.
The character Moravagine is a homicidal lunatic and heir to the Hungarian throne who is befriended by Raymond, a psychiatrist who helps him escape, then accompanies him through an eerie series of adventures around the world. Periodically, Moravagine will butcher a woman for no reason except diversion, and Raymond makes no attempt to stop him. As Sven Birkerts observes, Cendrars has taken human extremity as his subject. The pained language carries the reader “through revolution, terror, and a zone of sexual and moral nihilism.” Nothing like it, except Lautréamont’s Les Chants du Maldoror (1868; The Lay of Maldoror, 1924), had appeared in literature before. The only parallels, Birkerts adds, are in the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Samuel Beckett. Moravagine is a being without culture, without the values inculcated by civilization. There is not a shred of human sentiment in him. The novel is profoundly pessimistic, Birkerts concludes, “but in view of the atrocities Cendrars had witnessednot pure fabrication.”
One of the most astonishing things about Moravagine is that many of the scenes that seem most incredible were based on actual events, in some cases experiences of Cendrars. Bochner points out, for example, that, as impossible as it might seem, it is possible to sail up the Orinoco river system into the Amazon, without portage, thus bringing into question the whole dreamlike quality of the South American adventure. Raymond, who suffers from malaria through much of the trip, can be seen as giving a realistic interpretation of his experiences there. The story seems incredible and strange but is not necessarily unrealistic. Bochner also mentions Moravagine’s mad bombing of Vienna during World War I: The episode bears considerable resemblance to an actual event in 1916, when Lieutenant Marchal flew thirteen hundred kilometers to bomb Berlin.
Bochner further links Moravagine to Otto Gross, a psychoanalyst who preached anarchy. (Gross may have influenced a host of artists, including D. H. Lawrence, Max Weber, and Franz Kafka, as well as Cendrars.) Gross’s having been committed to an asylum after having provided the means of suicide for two of his female patients and his subsequent escape also bears resemblance to the story of Moravagine. The treatment of Gross by Carl Jung also has some parallels in Raymond’s attitudes. Further possible sources include the life of Azev, a notorious Russian spy and assassin, the 1905 Revolution, and the story of Jack the Ripper, particularly as exploited in horror films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Waxworks (1924). The narrator’s name is taken from that of Raymond-la-Science, a gang member executed in 1913.
Cendrars later wrote that Moravagine was inside him; his character was like a parasite occupying Cendrars’s body. “That’s why all beautiful books are alike,” wrote Cendrars. “They are all autobiographical.” There are a number of parallels between Cendrars’s life—the dates he stayed in Russia, his time in Paris—and the travels of Moravagine, but this is not to say that Cendrars engaged in any of the atrocious activities ascribed to hisprotagonist. It is Raymond who is injured as Cendrars was in World War I, and Cendrars’s relation to Moravagine is more like that of an entranced observer than that of an alter ego.
The disparate elements that make up the novel evoke the chaos of the twentieth century: Moravagine escapes from the asylum in the symbolic year 1900 and unleashes bloody anarchy on the world. Raymond, in the name of science, observes Moravagine, whose name means “death to the vagina,” as he engages in a calculated destruction of all nineteenth century values (perceived as “feminine”); clearly, whether Raymond admits it or not, he is fascinated, perhaps even delighted, by the destruction. He, too, participates in the revolutionary terrorism and ends up a regicide who has supposedly sent his story to the author Cendrars.
The novel expresses Cendrars’s fascination and delight with the new century, mingled with a sense of horror and metaphysical guilt at the destruction of a stable moral order. The curious fictional connection of Moravagine to Raymond to Cendrars seems to imply they are all aspects of one another in some mysterious, fundamental, psychological way. In this and many other respects, Moravagine anticipates a host of later experimental novels, such as those by John Hawkes, José Donoso, and William Burroughs, in which pathological behavior is used to explore the question of identity.
Dan Yack novels
Cendrars went on to write several other novels. Dan Yack, the main character of Antarctic Fugue and Les Confessions de Dan Yack, is regarded by some critics as the most human of Cendrars’s protagonists and the most fully developed. He has also been seen as a positive counterpart to Moravagine; exactly what was Cendrars’s intent, however, is neither as clear as in Sutter’s Gold nor as uncomfortably evocative as in Moravagine. For this reason, neither volume of Les Confessions de Dan Yack is considered as successful as the previous novels.
The novel Rhum bears resemblances to Sutter’s Gold in its treatment of the hero and its use of an inanimate substance as a driving force. The historical Jean Galmot, on whose experiences the novel was based, was a fascinating person, and Cendrars, as he did with Sutter, creatively reshaped the historical material, yet there is little in this fictionalization. Cendrars himself seemed to sense that he had reached an artistic dead end and did not write a novel again for many years.
The Astonished Man, Lice, Planus, and Le Lotissement du ciel anticipate the “nonfiction novel” of the 1960’s and 1970’s by falling somewhere between fiction and autobiography. They are interesting for their commentaries on the nature of writing and for the incredible stories they tell, many of them total fabrications; Cendrars could not resist embellishing his life story.
With To the End of the World, Cendrars promised a novel in which he would not appear. Nevertheless, he asserts in the preface that it is a roman à clef. Its collection of strange people, sexual explicitness, and extraordinarily bizarre events infuriated critics on its publication; Chefdor argues that it is a forerunner of postmodernism in its attempt to create a hedonism of the text, an erotics of writing. Perhaps this judgment will be borne out by future criticism, although Moravagine seems likely to remain Cendrars’s most lasting contribution to the novel.
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