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.
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.
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.
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."