SOURCE: "California Gold," in New Republic, Vol. XLVIII, No. 619, October 13, 1926, p. 227.
[In the following review, Maris provides some of the historical background for Cendrars's novel Sutter's Gold.]
In Sutter's Gold Blaise Cendrars has once more turned to America, a literary field that has kindled his imagination many times before, and to what was perhaps the most thrilling, as certainly it was the most convulsive, period the New World has known—the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Blaise Cendrars, like Valéry Larbaud, Paul Morand and Jean Giraudoux, possesses a cosmopolitan outlook and has done not a little to fructify French culture by introducing France to some of her more and less remote neighbors. It is the more remote peoples that chiefly interest M. Cendrars. He is a world traveler and adventurer and is rarely observed in the haunts of Parisian writers, save when he reappears, like a literary colporteur, from some far-away country with the material for a new anthology of folk lore, or a volume of sketches or poems. His nostalgia for the primitive became evident with the appearance of his admirable Anthologie Nègre, of which a second volume is now in preparation. His love for the flora, fauna and human species of the tropics has given color, ardor and an exotic warmth to virtually everything that he has written.
Impudent poet and incorrigible romantic that he is, Blaise Cendrars is not without respect for historical records and documents when he chooses a theme with an historical basis. Sutter's Gold is a sufficiently accurate account of the life and adventures of John Augustus Sutter, the Swiss emigrant who sought his fortune in America, and who, after stirring adventures in various parts of the United States and the South Seas, became the founder of Sutter Fort and the owner of the agricultural colony of New Helvetia in the Sacramento Valley. The discovery of gold on his property brought the world to Sutter's gates; eager gold-seekers invaded his fields, trampled his vineyards, laid waste his crops, and left fire and destruction behind them. Ruined, the doughty pioneer sought restitution, and the famous Sutter suit against the United States government and the state of California was inaugurated. After years of heartbreaking litigation, a favorable verdict, indemnifying Sutter for his losses, was reached only to be quickly overthrown by political forces in Washington. Penniless, and now actuated by a religious passion for obtaining justice, the pitiful old man wandered from one bureau to another in a final effort to overcome official inertia and regain his rights; then came death in the protective fold of a religious brotherhood in Pennsylvania.
Such in brief are the facts upon which Blaise Cendrars has built his story. What matter if he has changed names and places, if he has added a fictive touch of color or of drama here and there? It is true that his description of life at Sutter Fort in the era of peace and plenty before the discovery of gold reads like life on the estate of some governor of a particularly rich Roman province. He fills it with a suavity and grace that is more south-European than Californian. Nevertheless, he manages to express the spirit and life of the country during that period of unparalleled expansion and exploitation with almost uniform fidelity. The tale is an epic of American life; and reviewing the career of Sutter, even in this romantic form, one comes to understand and even to go far toward forgiving the whole from-outcast-to-millionaire genre of fiction, for, after all, it has been rooted in reality.
Blaise Cendrars 1887–1961
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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."
SOURCE: "Homer of the Transsiberian," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, No. 12, October 16, 1926, pp. 202-22.
[Below, novelist and poet Dos Passos offers an interpretive discussion of Cendrars's poetry.]
At the Paris exposition of 1900—but perhaps this is all a dream, perhaps I heard someone tell about it; no it must have happened at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900—somewhere between the Eiffel tower and the Trocadero there was a long shed. In that shed was a brand new train of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, engine, tender, baggage coach, sleeping cars, restaurant car. The shed was dark, and girdered like a station. You walked up wooden steps into the huge dark varnished car. It was terrible. The train was going to start. As you followed the swish of dresses along the corridor the new smell gave you gooseflesh. The train smelt of fresh rubber, of just bought toys, of something huge and whirring and oily. The little beds were made up, there were mirrors, glittering washbasins, a bathtub. The engine whistled. No don't be afraid, look out of the window. We are moving. No outside a picture is moving, houses slipping by, bluish-greenish hills. The Urals. Somebody says names in my car. Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Siberia, Yanktse, Mongolia, pagodas, Peking. Rivers twisting into the bluish-greenish hills and the close electric smell of something varnished and whirring and oily, moving hugely, people in boats, junks, Yellow Sea, pagodas, Peking.
And the elevator boy said the trains in the Metro never stopped, you jumped on and off while they were going, and they showed magic lantern slides and cinematograph pictures in the Grande Roue and at the top of the Eiffel Towel … but that must have been years later because I was afraid to go up.
I've often wondered about the others who had tickets taken for them on that immovable train of the Trans-Siberian in the first year of the century, whose childhood was also full of "Twenty Thousand Leagues" and Jules Verne's sportsmen and globetrottairs (if only the ice holds on Lake Baikal) and Chinese Gordon stuttering his last words over the telegraph at Khartoum; and Carlotta come back mad from Mexico setting fire to the palace at Terveuren full of Congolese curiosities, fetishes of human hair, ithiphallic idols with shells for teeth and arms akimbo, specimens of crude rubber in jars; and those magnates in panama hats shunted slowly in private cars reeking with mint and old Bourbon down new lines across the Rio Grande, shooting jackasses, prairie dogs, and an occasional greaser from the platform, and the Twentieth Century and Harvey lunchrooms and Buffalo Bill and the Indians holding up the stage and ocean greyhounds racing to Bishop's Rock and pictures of the world's leading locomotives on cigarette cards. O, Thos. Cook and Son, here's meat for your hopper. Uniformed employees meet all the leading trains. Now that Peary and Amundsen have sealed the world at the top and the bottom and there's an American bar in Baghdad and the Grand Llama of Thibet listens in on Paul Whiteman ragging the Blue Danube and the caterpillar Citroëns chug up and down the dusty streets of Timbuctoo, there's no place for the Rover Boys but the Statler hotels and the Dollar Line (sleep every night in your own brass bed) round the world cruises.
That stationary Trans-Siberian where the panorama unrolled Asia every hour was the last vestige of the Homeric age of railroading. Now's the time for the hymns and the catalogues of the ships. The railsplitting and the hacking and hewing, the great odysseys are over. The legendary names that stirred our childhood with their shadows and rumble are only stations in small print on a time table. And still … Or is it just the myth humming in our drowsy backward turned brains?
Does anything ever come of this constant dragging of a ruptured suitcase from dock to railway station and railway station to dock? All the sages say it's nonsense. In the countries of Islam they know you're mad.
In the countries of Islam they know you're mad, but they have a wistful respect for madness. Only today I was fed lunch, beef stewed in olives and sour oranges, couscous and cakes, seven glasses of tea and a pipe of kif, by the extremely ugly man with a cast in his eye and a face like a snapping turtle who hangs round the souks buying up fox skins, in the company of his friend the tailor, a merry and philosophic individual like a tailor in the Arabian Knights, all because I'd been to Baghdad, the burial place of our lord Sidi Abd el Kadr el Djilani (here you kiss your hand and murmur something about peace and God's blessing); for they feel that even a kaffir passing by the tomb may have brought away a faint whiff of the marabout's holiness. So a pilgrim has a certain importance in their eyes.
They may be right, but more likely this craze for transportation, steamboats, trains, motorbuses, mules, camels, is only a vicious and intricate form of kif, a bad habit contracted in infancy, fit only to delight a psychoanalyst cataloguing manias. Like all drugs you have to constantly increase the dose. One soothing thought; while our bodies are tortured in what Blaise Cendrars calls the squirrel cage of the meridians, maybe our childish souls sit quiet in that immovable train, in the dark-varnished new-smelling trans-Siberian watching the panorama of rivers and seas and mountains endlessly unroll.
Now's the time for the Homeric hymns of the railroads, Blaise Cendrars has written some of them already in salty French sonorous and direct as the rattle of the Grands Express Européens. Carl Sandburg has written one or two. I'm going to try to string along some hastily translated fragments of Cendrars Prose du Trans-Siberien et de la Petite Jeanne de France. It fits somehow in this hotel room with its varnished pine furniture and its blue slop-jar and its faded dusteaten window curtains. Under the balcony are some trees I don't know the name of, the empty tracks of the narrow gauge, a road churned by motor trucks. It's raining. A toad is shrilling in the bushes. As the old earth-shaking engines are scrapped one by one, the myth-makers are at work. Eventually they will be all ranged like Homer's rambling gods in the rosy light of an orderly Olympus. Here's the hymn of the Trans-Siberian.
I think I should not have known what to make of her performance, of her first number indeed, if I had never seen the pictures of Manet, Picasso, Cezanne and other moderns, far and near from us in time and place. I should have recognized of course the presence of design. But the language of this design would have been strange to me without the training of modern painting…. What she creates is never dependent on the music…. The completeness of Miss Enters's achievement consists in what very artist's achievement must consist in when it is successful: the whole translation of every element employed into her art. In those days I was still a youngster Only sixteen and already I couldn't remember my childhood I was sixteen thousand leagues away from my birthplace I was in Moscow, in the city of a thousand and three belfries and seven railroad stations And the seven railroad stations and the thousand and three belfries were not enough for me For my youth was then so flaming and so mad That my heart sometimes burned like the temple of Ephesus, and sometimes like the Red Square at Moscow At sunset. And my eyes lit up the ancient ways. And I was already such a bad poet That I never knew how to get to the last word. I spent my childhood in the hanging gardens of Babylon Played hockey in railway stations in front of the trains that were going to leave Now, all the trains have had to speed to keep up with me Bale-Timbuctoo I've played the races too at Auteuil and Long-champs Paris-New York Now, I've made all the trains run the whole length of my life Madrid-Stockholm And I've lost all my bets And there's only Patagonia, Patagonia left for my enormous gloom, Patagonia and a trip in the South Seas. I'm travelling I've always been travelling I'm travelling with little Jehanne of France The train makes a perilous leap and lands on all its wheels The train lands on its wheels. "Say Blaise are we very far from Montmartre?" We are far, Jeanne, seven days on the rails. We are far from Montmartre, from the Butte that raised you, from the Sacred Heart you huddled against Paris has vanished and its enormous flare in the sky. There's nothing left but continual cinders Falling rain Swelling clouds And Siberia spinning The rise of heavy banks of snow The crazy sleighbells shivering like a last lust in the blue air The train throbbing to the heart of lead horizons And your giggling grief…. "Say Blaise are we very far from Montmartre?" The worries Forget the worries All the cracked stations raticomered to the right of way The telegraph wires they hang by The grimace of the poles that wave their arms and strangle them The earth stretches elongates and snaps back like an accordion tortured by a sadic hand In the rips in the sky insane locomotives Take flight In the gaps Whirling wheels mouths voices And the dogs of disaster howling at our heels….
And so he goes on piling up memories of torn hurtling metal, of trains of sixty locomotives at full steam disappearing in the direction of Port Arthur, of hospitals and jewelry merchants, memories of the first great exploit of the Twentieth Century seen through sooty panes, beaten into his brain by the uneven rumble of the broad-gauge Trans-Siberian. Crows in the sky, bodies of men in heaps along the tracks burning hospitals, an embroidery unforeseen in that stately panorama unfolding rivers and lakes and mountains in the greenish dusk of the shed at the Exposition Universelle.
Then there's Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Septs Oncles, seven run-away uncles, dedicated to the last Frenchman in Panama, the barkeep at Matachine, the death place of Chinamen where live oaks have grown up among the abandoned locomotives, where every vestige of the [de Lesseps] attempt is rotten and rusted and overgrown with lianas except a huge anchor in the middle of the forest stamped with the arms of Louis XV.
It is about this time too, that I read the history of the earth-quake at Lisbon.
But I think The Panama panic is of a more universal importance Because it turned my childhood topsyturvy. I had a fine picture-book And I was seeing for the first time The whale The big cloud The walrus The Sun The great walrus The bear the lion the chimpanzee the rattlesnake and the fly The fly The terrible fly "Mother, the flies, the flies and the trunks of trees!" "Go to sleep, child, go to sleep." Ahasuerus is an idiot It's the Panama panic that made me a poet! Amazing All these of my generation are like that Youngsters Victims of strange ricochets We don't play any more with the furniture We don't play any more with antiques We're always and everywhere breaking crockery We ship Go whaling Kill walrus We're always afraid of the tse-tse fly Because we're not very fond of sleep….
Fantastic uncles they are; one of them was a butcher in Galveston lost in the cyclone of '95, another washed gold in the Klondike, another one turned Buddhist and was arrested trying to blow up the Britishers in Bombay, the fourth was the valet of a general in the Boer War, the fifth was a cordon bleu in palace hotels, number six disappeared in Patagonia with a lot of electromagnetic instruments of precision; no one ever knew what happened to the seventh uncle.
It was uncle number two who wrote verse modelled on Musset and read in San Francisco the history of General Sutor, the man who conquered California for the United States and was ruined by the discovery of gold on his plantation. This uncle married the woman who made the best bread in a thousand square kilometers and was found one day with a rifle bullet through his head. Aunty disappeared. Aunty married again. Aunty is now the wife of a rich jam manufacturer.
And Blaise Cendrars has since written the history of General Johann August Sutor, L'Or, a narrative that traces the swiftest leanest parabola of anything I've ever read, a narrative that cuts like a knife through the washy rubbish of most French writing of the present time, with its lemon-colored gloves and its rosewater and its holywater and its policier-gentleman cosmopolitan affectation. It's probably because he really is, what the Quai d'Orsai school pretended to be, an international vagabond, that Cendrars has managed to capture the grandiose rhythms of America of seventy-five years ago, the myths of which our generation is just beginning to create. (As if anybody really was anything. He's a good writer, leave it at that.) In L'Or he's packed the tragic and turbulent absurdity of '49 into a skyrocket. It's over so soon you have to read it again for fear you have missed something.
But the seven uncles. Here's some more of the hymn to transportation that runs through all his work, crystallizing the torture and delight of a train-mad, steamship-mad generation.
I'm thirsty Damn it Goddamn it to hell I want to read the Feuille d'Avis of Neuchatel or the Pamplona Courrier In the middle of the Atlantic you're no more at home than in an editorial office I go round and round inside the meridians like a squirrel in a squirrel cage Wait there's a Russian looks like he might be worth talking to Where to go He doesn't know either where to deposit his baggage At Leopoldville or at the Sedjerah near Nasareth, with Mr. Junod or at the house of my old friend Perl In the Congo in Bessarabia on Samoa I know all the time tables All the trains and their connections The time they arrive the time they leave All the liners all the fares all the taxes It's all the same to me Live by grafting I'm on my way back from America on board the Volturno, for thirty-five francs from New York to Rotterdam.
Blaise Cendrars seems to have a special taste for the Americas, in the U.S. preferring the sappier Southern and Western sections to the bible-worn hills of New England. Here's poem about the Mississippi, for which Old Kentucky must have supplied the profusion of alligators, that still is an honorable addition to that superb set of old prints of sternwheel steamboats racing with a nigger or on the safety valve.
At this place the stream is a wide lake Rolling yellow muddy waters between marshy banks. Water-plants merging into acres of cotton Here and there appear towns and villages carpeting the bottom of some little bay with their factories with their tall black chimneys with their long wharves jutting out their long wharves on piles jutting out very far into the water Staggering heat The bell on board rings for lunch The passengers are rigged up in checked suits howling cravats vests loud as the incendiary cocktails and the corrosive sauces We begin to see alligators Young ones alert and frisky Big fellows drifting with greenish moss on their backs Luxuriant vegetation announces the approach of the tropical zone Bamboos giant palms tulip-trees laurel cedars The river itself has doubled in width It is sown with floating islands from which at the approach of the boat water-birds start up in flocks Steamers sailboats barges all kinds of craft and immense rafts of logs A yellow vapor rises from the too warm water of the river It's hundreds now that the 'gators play round us You can hear the dry snap of their jaws and can make out very well their small fierce eyes The passengers pass the time shooting at them with rifles When a particularly good shot manages to kill or mortally wound one of the beasts Its fellows rush at it and tear it to pieces Ferociously With little cries rather like the wail of a new-born baby.
In Kodak there are poems about New York, Alaska, Florida, hunting wild turkey and duck in a country of birchtrees off in the direction of Winnipeg, a foggy night in Vancouver, a junk in a Pacific harbor unloading porcelain and swallows' nests, bamboo tips and ginger, the stars melting like sugar in the sky of some island passed to windward by Captain Cook, elephant hunting in the jungle roaring with torrents of rain; and at the end a list of menus featuring iguana and green turtle, Red River salmon and shark's fins, suckling pig with fried bananas, crayfish in pimento, bread-fruit, fried oysters, and guavas, dated en voyage 1887–1923. 1887 must be the date of his birth.
Dix-Neuf Poémes Elastiques. Paris. After all, Paris, whether we like it or not has been so far the center of unrest, of building up and the tearing down of this century. From Paris has spread in every direction a certain esperanto of the arts that has "modern" for its trademark. Blaise Cendrars is an itinerant Parisian well-versed in this as in many other dialects. He is a kind of medicine man trying to evoke the things that are our cruel and avenging gods. Turbines, triple-expansion engines, dynamite, high tension coils, navigation, speed, flight, annihilation. No medicine has been found yet strong enough to cope with them, but in cubist Paris they have invented some fetishes and grisgris that many are finding useful. Here's the confession of an enfant du siêcle, itinerant Parisian.
I am the man who has no past.—Only the stump of my arm hurst,— I've rented a hotel room to be all alone with myself. I have a brand new wicker basket that's filling up with manuscript. I have neither books nor pictures, not a scrap of aesthetic bric-a-brac. There's an old newspaper on the table. I work in a bare room behind a dusty mirror, My feet bare on the red tiling, playing with some balloons and a little toy trumpet I'm working on THE END OF THE WORLD.
I started these notes on the little sunny balcony at Marrakesh with in front of me the tall cocoa-colored tower of the Koutoubia surmounted by three high balls banded with peacock-color, gilded each smaller than the other, and beyond the snowy ranges of the high Atlas; I'm finishing it in Mogador in a shut-in street of houses white as clabber where footsteps resound loud above the continual distant pound of the surf. It's the time of afternoon prayer and the voice of the meuzzin flashes like brace from the sky announcing that there is no god but God and that Mahomet is the prophet of God; and I'm leaving at six in the morning and there's nothing ahead but wheels and nothing behind but wheels. O, Thomas Cook and Son, who facilitate travel with their long ribbons of tickets held between covers by an elastic, what spells did you cast over the children of this century? The mischief in those names: Baghdad Bahn, Cape to Cairo, Transsiberian, Compagnie des Wagons Lits et des Grands Expresses Internationals, Christ of the Andes, the Panama Canal, mechanical toy that Messrs. Roosevelt and Goethals managed to make work when everyone else had failed; a lot of trouble for the inhabitants of the two Americas you have dammed up within your giant locks. The flags, the dollars, and Cook's tours marching round the world till they meet themselves coming back. Here in Morrocco you can see them hour by hour mining the minaret where the muezzin chants five times a day his superb defiance of the multiple universe.
If there weren't so many gods, tin gods, steel gods, gods of uranium and manganese, living gods—here's Mrs. Besant rigging a new Jesus in Bombay, carefully educated at Oxford for the rôle—red gods of famine and revolution, old gods laid up in libraries, plaster divinities colored to imitate coral at Miami, spouting oil gods at Tulsa Okla., we too, might be able to sit on our prayer carpets in the white unchangeable sunshine of Islam. The sun of our generation has broken out in pimples, its shattered light flickers in streaks of uneasy color. Take the train, they're selling happiness in acre lots in Florida. So we must run across the continents always deafened by the grind of wheels, by the roar of aeroplane motors, wallow in all the seas with the smell of hot oil in our nostrils and the throb of the engines in our blood. Out of the Babel of city piled on city, continent on continent, the world squeezed small and pulled out long, bouncing like a new rubber ball, we get what? Certainly not peace. That is why in this age of giant machines and scuttleheaded men it is a good thing to have a little music. We need sons of Homer going about the world beating into some sort of human rhythm the shrieking hullaballo, making us less afraid.
Les Pâques à New York [Easter in New York] (poetry) 1912Séquences (poetry) 1912Prose du transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France [Prose of the Transsiberian with Little Jean of France] (poetry) 1913Profond aujourd'hui (poetry) 1917Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles [Panama, or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles] (poetry) 1918Dix-neuf Poèmes élastiques [Nineteen Elastic Poems] (poetry) 1919L'Anthologie nègre [Negro Anthology] (poetry) 1921 ∗Kodak (poetry) 1924L'Or [Sutter's Gold] (novel) 1925Moravagine (novel) 1926 †Le Plan de l'aiguille [Antarctic Fugue] (novel) 1927 †Les Confessions de Dan Yack [The Confessions of Dan Yack] (novel) 1929Rhum (novel) 1930Hollywood, la mecque du cinéma [Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies] (journal) 1936La Vie dangereuse [The Dangerous Life] (novel) 1938L'Homme foudroyé [The Astonished Man] (autobiographical novel) 1945La Main coupée [Lice] (autobiographical novel) 1946Bourlinguer [Planus] (autobiographical novel) 1948Emmène-moi au bout du monde [To the End of the World] (novel) 1956
∗This work is also known as Documentaire.
†These novels were published in a single-volume edition in 1946, which was translated and published as Antarctic Fugue in 1948.
SOURCE: "The Irony of Life," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, No. 14, October 30, 1926, p. 253.
[In the following review, Werner provides some of the facts behind the fiction of L'Or, Cendrars's account of Johann Sutter's life.]
The romantic mind of a French poet has conceived a superb book concerning the Swiss adventurer who was the first enthusiast for California, and who ended his days at Washington as a penniless petitioner for his rights. Blaise Cendrars's L'Or, carefully and intelligently translated by Henry Longan Stuart, is one of the most fascinating biographical studies that has been published since Lytton Strachey published his "Eminent Victorians."
The author of that extraordinary poem, "Le Panama ou les Aventures des Mes Septs Oncles," has found a large outlet for his keen poetic imagination in the ironic story of Johann August Sutter. Unfortunately for the sense of the dramatic with which M. Cendrars is so powerfully endowed, the facts are sometimes somewhat different from those he presents concerning Captain Sutter, but the liberties he has taken for the sake of coloring are minor liberties. His scene in which Sutter's wife, after the perilous journey in 1848 from France to California via Panama, drops dramatically dead at the feet of her millionaire husband at the moment of her arrival at his hacienda is less stirring when one discovers from other accounts of Sutter that Madame Sutter lived to go to General Sutter's funeral. And the assurance with which Mr. Cendrars burns alive Sutter's sons in the fire that the mob started to destroy his property seems somewhat excessive when it is a fact that J.A. Sutter, Jr., for one, was for many years United States Consul at Acapulco, Mexico, and lived to produce many grandchildren, in whom the General is alleged by another biographer to have taken a great interest.
Johann August Sutter, who was born in the Grand-Duchy of Baden of Swiss parentage in 1803, left his wife and four children in Switzerland in 1834, managed to get to Paris without starving, where Cendrars has him forge a letter of credit with which to make his way from Havre to New York by the new steamer, Esperance.
In the New York of 1834 Sutter is alleged to have earned his living as a runner among immigrants for an innkeeper, messenger, packer, and bookkeeper for Hegelstroem, the inventor of Swedish matches, as draper's, druggist's, delicatessen keeper's assistant, as Rumanian peddler's partner, and as ringmaster in a circus, blacksmith, dentist, and taxidermist. Cendrars gives sundry other picturesque occupations too numerous to mention. But New York could not hold Sutter, for he had already heard of the opportunities in the great West, and he was soon afterwards a farmer on fertile land at the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. But this was the terminus for all stories of the greater, farther West which were brought back by those few men who had seen or heard of its wonders, and Sutter sold his farm to join a company of traders who were going West.
Before he could reach California Sutter had to go to Vancouver and the Sandwich Islands, but he did not lose time, for his dream of dominion had already formed in his mind, and, being a practical man he made arrangements in Honolulu for shanghaiing bands of Kanakas, who were to labor on his lands.
The prosperity of the Franciscan missions of California was beginning to decline when Sutter arrived. He established himself in the valley of the Sacramento with his first shipment of Kanakas and nineteen well-armed white men. Governor Alvarado, the Mexican Governor of California, granted a temporary concession of all the land he required. Sutter's labor was efficient under his capable management, and California was amazingly fertile. He was able to manipulate his sympathies in such a way that he was friend of all the factions then fighting for control of California, and he received from the Mexicans additional grants of land, expressed in the picturesque, but fortunately indefinite phrase, "twelve hours square." His settlement was known as New Helvetia. Cendrars imagines this scene meeting the eye of Captain Fremont when he visited California:
Countless herds of pedigree cattle were at pasture in the meadows. The orchards were loaded with fruit. In the truck gardens, vegetables of the Old World grew side by side with those of tropical countries. Wells and irrigation ditches were everywhere. The Kanaka villages were neat and orderly. Everyone was at work. Alleys of magnolias, palms, banana, and orange trees traversed the cultivated area, converging toward the settlement. The walls of the hacienda almost disappeared under climbing roses, geraniums, and bougainvilleas. The great door of the master's house was shaded by a curtain of sweet-smelling jasmine.
The table was splendidly set; hors d'oeuvres; trout and salmon from near-by brooks; ham, roasted a l'ecossaise; wood-pigeons; haunch of venison, bear's paws; smoked tongue; suckling-pig stuffed with mincemeat and powdered with tapioca; green vegetables, cabbage palms, and salads of crocodile pears; every variety of fruit, fresh and candied; mountains of pastry. The viands were washed down with Rhine wine and certain old bottles from noted French cellars which had been carried, with infinite precautions against breakage, from the other side of the world.
The guests were served by young women from the Sandwich Isles or half-caste Indian girls, who came and went with imperturbable gravity, carrying each course enveloped in linen napkins of dazzling whiteness. A Hawaiian orchestra played throughout the meal, rendering the "Berne March" with a drum accompaniment upon the skin of its guitars, or imitating the trumpet music of the "Marseillaise" by sonorous chords drawn upon their strings. The table was laid with ancient Spanish silver, massive, graceless, and stamped with the royal arms.
Sutter presided, surrounded by his partners. Among the guests was the governor, Alvarado.
Sutter was one of the richest men in America in 1847, and Cendrars imagines him sending for his three sons and his daughter, even for his wife, and also for a grand piano from Pleyel in Paris. Then James W. Marshall, one of Sutter's workmen, discovered gold on Sutter's land. Sutter knew what would happen, but he was powerless to stop the avalanche of fortune hunting that was going to wreck his own fortunes. Unlike Brigham Young, he could not keep his followers from digging for gold by promises of riches in the world to come and threats of damnation if they disobeyed. Presently, in Sutter's own sentence, "All were washing for gold, which they exchanged for liquor." This is the picture of Sutter's estate given by Colonel Masson, the new American governor, on July 3, 1848, six months after Marshall found the first nugget:
On July 3d we arrived at Fort Sutter. The mills were standing idle. Immense droves of oxen and horses had broken through the fences and were eating the standing corn and maize. The barns were falling into ruin and the smell from them was very offensive. At the fort itself we observed much activity. Barges and pinnaces were discharging and taking on a great quantity of merchandise. Convoys of covered wagons were parked round the walls. Others were coming and going. For the smallest room one hundred dollars a month is paid. For a miserable cottage with one floor, five hundred dollars. Sutter's blacksmith, and farrier, who are still with him, earn fifty dollars a day. For five miles round, the sides of the hills are white with tents. The country swarms with people. All are busy washing for gold.
All of these people who were washing for gold were using Sutter's land, and all of Sutter's laborers were washing for gold. A Sutterville, Sutter's Creek, and Sutter County sprang up, but Sutter himself was ruined. His name became world famous, but it was no longer good for unlimited credits in Paris and London and New York. There was no law in California except that which told each man to grasp what he could get. However, Sutter decided to start his suit, "a lawsuit that stirred California to its depths and which even put the existence of the newly formed state in peril." Sutter claimed all the land in which the cities of San Francisco, Venicia, Sacramento, and Riovista are located. He estimated their value at $200,000,000. He also demanded damages from 17,221 individuals who had trampled on his property in their search for gold. He also asked $25,000,000 from the state of California for confiscating his property for roads, bridges, and other public works. He also demanded an indemnity of $50,000,000 from the federal government because it had failed to protect his rights and his royalties in the gold that had been minted already. And the inhabitants of San Francisco retaliated by burning down the offices of Sutter's son, Emile, where the deeds from Governors Alvarado and Michel-Torena were guarded. Then Captain Sutter was honored above all men by the same inhabitants at the celebration of the fifth anniversary of the founding of San Francisco. They even made him a general. The orator of the day, the Mayor, remarked in the peroration of his speech:
In days to come, gentlemen, when the state that is our home has become one of the greatest and most powerful countries in the world, and when the historian of the future seeks to trace its origin and foundation back through the misery and privations of its early beginnings, and to recount the epic beginnings of the fight for liberty in the great West, one name will outshine all others—the name of our distinguished guest—the immortal SUTTER! (Loud and prolonged applause.)
The following spring Judge Thompson of the highest court in the state decided that Sutter was the rightful owner of "the immense territories on which so many towns and villages have been built." And in answer to this decision the inhabitants of San Francisco decided that it was time to burn down The Hermitage, Sutter's home, and all his remaining workshops, saw-mills, and factories. They also hanged Sutter's Kanakas, Indians, and Chinese….
[Sutter] was granted a pension of $3,000 a year by the state of California. He became a member of a German communist sect, the Herrenhutters, and he paid considerable attention to the Book of Revelations. This is Cendrars's image of Sutter's interpretation of that Book:
The Great Harlot who was given birth upon the Sea is Christopher Columbus, discovering America.
The Angels and the Stars of St. John are in the American flag. With California, a new star, the Star of Absinthe, has been added.
Anti-Christ is Gold….
Johann August Sutter was seventy-three years old when he died in the city of Washington.
SOURCE: "A Neo-Romantic Poet," in The Nation, Vol. 133, No. 3465, December 2, 1931, pp. 616-17.
[In the following review, Josephson summarizes Cendrars's work as lacking the long-term appeal of great poetry.]
John Dos Passos has made a felicitous translation of a group of poems by Blaise Cendrars, at least one of which, the long Prosody of the Transsiberian, has been a famous example of modern poetry for almost a generation. Dos Passos has much in common with Cendrars; he has the same vibrant revolutionary spirit, the same overwhelming interest in the actual world with all its characteristic sores, the same love of travel, the same effect of speed in writing combined with indifference to musical perfection. Nevertheless, the appearance of Cendrars's poems in English tempts one to reconsider the whole twentieth-century school of poets with which the versatile Swiss Parisian is identified.
Cendrars is one of a number of writers and painters who used to gather about Guillaume Apollinaire in Paris and who absorbed much of that fertile man's instructions as well as his gift for pleasantries. Through Apollinaire, toward 1910, the cubist movement in painting grew articulate; in the reviews he founded, Blaise Cendrars, André Salmon, Max Jacob, and many others were launched or relaunched upon the public. Later the dadaists, or super-realists, such as Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon, blossomed under Apollinaire's friendly offices. Even certain (recently deceased) Russian poets, such as Yessenine and Maiakovsky, hark back to the same source; while younger American poets have not escaped the influence of this school, received either at first or second hand. These various writers, though differing in personal accent and style, do exhibit a perceptibly common point of view upon the affairs of the twentieth century, and as a group oppose themselves to the literature of the neo-Catholics, or neo-classicists, whose philosophies, according to the foreword by Dos Passos, "are vaguely favorable to fascism, pederasty, and the snob-mysticism of dying religion."
Cendrars, who certainly shares some of Apollinaire's honors as a forerunner, reflects both the more adventurous artistic qualities and the weaknesses of his school. Broadly speaking, his poetry is "neo-romantic" in its feeling; and we perceive this best when we compare him to Valéry or the later T.S. Eliot. Like Apollinaire he found himself at odds with the mechanized and rather brutal society of the early twentieth century. He set about expressing his contempt, not too solemnly, and praying for the downfall of this society. (Later the dadaists would be hatching fantastic conspiracies to "demoralize all the bourgeois" through a propaganda of anarchy.) But Cendrars and Apollinaire before the World War, both feeling themselves outside society, had instinctively embraced a Bohemian tradition; Bohemianism seems to keep art alive in capitalist democracies. They were also deeply impressed by the revolutions in the plastic arts which followed the work of Cézanne and which they witnessed at close hand from the cafe tables of Montmartre. African sculpture had been discovered; the primitive Italians had been discovered. Their friends Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall had all become primitives. The poets too tried to develop a new palette of colors; they too sought the primitive note. Cendrars found it in an altered, Manchester-like Europe of factories and slums, a new Europe of trans-continental trains, revolutions, immigrant steamships. He looked for the primitive as far as Abyssinia (in the footsteps of Rimbaud), Siberia, and America. The world into which he was born had already lost its values; it had lost all the refinements of aristocratic society; its salient traits were instability and confusion. Hence there is bitterness in the laughter of Cendrars.
But the sense of life was strong in these new poets. They were more deeply prompted than the classicists to return to a fresh observation of the actual, vulgar world about them in process of transformation. They anticipated drastic changes in our arts and culture; they were ready to attempt new forms for the theater, the movies, the press; they courted the novel and the exotic as all romantics have done.
Cendrars was not a man to retire into the shuttered depths of a monastery. He was seized with the restlessness which was an effect of his age. He must be a globe-trotter, galloping about the world.
Paris—New York Now I've made all the trains race the whole length of my life … I'm traveling I've always been traveling I'm traveling with little Jehanne of France The train makes a perilous leap and lands on all its wheels The train lands on its wheels The train always lands on all its wheels
These poems of eighteen years ago have the quality of motion pictures taken from a shaking express train, a quality which Cendrars tried for deliberately. Was he not cultivating the two hemispheres as his garden patch? His pages are peopled with allusions to, rather than pictures of, tropical seaports, Oriental deserts, locomotives, revolutions, skyscrapers, wars. Moreover, his poems date from a period in French literature when it was a fashionable affectation to use the names of outlandish places like Mississippi or Timbuktu, or foreign words like "cocktail" and "policeman." The effectiveness of such tricks sometimes disappears in translation; but the overwhelming effect of mobility, of breathless speed, is successfully captured.
"Forgive me for not knowing the antique game of verse," the poet says. His verse is to be free, discursive, profane. Or now it may be in the form of telegraphic jottings, or Whitmanesque catalogues of places and sights and people. But 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. Cendrars's deficiencies, I have always felt, result from his own poetic limitations. Apollinaire and Soupault, with much the same approach, have remained artists. The poems of Cendrars leave us but the notebook of a colorful and itinerant modern personality who has come to know all the trains by the sound of their wheels.
I've deciphered all the muddled texts of the wheels and collected a few elements of violent beauty …
He has looked for everything under the sun and has found fatigue. His last station is Paris: "Central terminal, transfer station of the will, crossroad of unrest."
Bickel, Beatrice. "African Folk-Lore." The Nation 115, No. 2990 (25 October 1922): 442-43.
Brief background on the African folklore in Cendrars's Anthologie Nègre.
Chefdor, Monique. "Blaise Cendrars's Americas: From World to Text, From Text to World." Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985, pp. 216-26.
Traces the geographical connections in Cendrars's work.
Harding, John. "The Cendrarsian Hero-Cosmopolitan Outsider." Swiss French Studies III, No. 2 (November 1982): 6-23.
Offers a perspective on the common qualities of the central characters of Cendrars's fiction.
Kellerman, Steven G. "Blaise Cendrars's L'OR as Cinematic Novel." Post Script 4, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 1985): 16-28.
Analysis of the cinematic structure of L'Or in light of its adaptation as the film Sutter's Gold.
Miller, Henry. "Reading Blaise Cendrars." Mademoiselle 77, No. 6 (October 1977): 58, 62.
Personal account in which Miller discusses the impact he felt from Cendrars's writing.
Stenhouse, Charles. "Cinema Literature." Close-Up VII, No. 5 (November 1930): 335-40.
Discusses the influence of Cendrars on French cinematographer Abel Gance.
SOURCE: "Round about Parnassus," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VIII, No. XXI, December 12, 1931, pp. 378-9.
[In the following excerpt, Benet favorably reviews John Dos Passos's translation of Cendrars's Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles.]
The most living and original work before me this week is undoubtedly John Dos Passos's translation from the French of certain poems of Blaise Cendrars. The translator has also illustrated his book with twelve excellent drawings in color. While I cannot criticize this poetry in English by comparing it with the poetry in the original, I think it sufficient to quote Mr. Dos Passos in this connection. He says very sensibly, in part, "I think it has been worth while to attempt to turn these alive, informal, personal, everyday poems of Cendrars into English, in spite of the obvious fact that poetry by its very nature can't be lifted out of the language in which it was written. I only hope it will at least induce people to read the originals." Certainly Mr. Dos Passos's translation should do this, for Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles is brilliant and sensitive in the English version. It has been made into a most attractive large paper-bound volume by Harper & Brothers. It contains "Prosody of the Transsiberian and of Little Jeanne of France," "Panama, etc.," "Two Rivers," from Kodak Documentaire, "Elephant Hunt," from Kodak Documentaire, and "Notes on the Road: The SS. Formosa." Lewis Galantière, as I cannot, could explain to you the exact position Cendrars occupies in modern French poetry, but in the "Translator's Foreword" there is enough to give us a hint of this. It begins, "The poetry of Blaise Cendrars was part of the creative tidal wave that spread over the world from the Paris of before the last European war." And the translator cites such manifestations as the music of Stravinsky and Prokovieff, Diageleff's Ballet, the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, skyscraper furniture, the Lenin Memorial in Moscow, and the paintings of Diego Rivera in Mexico as part of this same movement. In the America of today he feels that poetry has "subsided again into parlor entertainment for high school English classes. The stuffed shirts have come out of their libraries everywhere and rule literary taste." There we take issue with him, though it is certain that American poetry is no longer, as a general phenomenon, in nearly so exciting or stimulating a condition as it was in 1914. Certainly the translation of Cendrars's "Prosody of the Transsiberian" gives us back some of that exhilaration of youthful observation, that contagious excitement at a world freshly perceived through all the senses. 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. Its manner is casual and colloquial and always autobiographical. One does not remember separate phrase or line, one reads it as one would listen to a brilliant narrator of an active life, who had accumulated myriad impressions and possessed the gift of words to make them vivid to the auditor. Cendrars begins by saying, "I was a youngster in those days, hardly sixteen," adds "I was a pretty poor poet, I never knew how to get to the end of things," and proceeds to tell how he left Moscow, on fire for adventure, "as assistant to a jewelry salesman who was going to Harbin."
I was happy without a thought in the world, I thought I was playing brigands; We'd stolen Golconda's treasure And we were fleeing on the Trans-siberian to bury it on the other side of the world.
Next he dwells on his girl, Jeanne, "the poor poet's flower," who is always asking, "Say, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?" Somehow, in his descriptions of Jeanne, the vision of De Quincey arises,—no such traveller as Cendrars but with the same power over language, the same sensitive pity. Dos Passos, vivid poet himself, does well with the adaptation of the best passages of the poem. Here is one:
I've seen the silent trains, the black trains coming back from the Far East that passed like haunts And my eye like the red light on the rear car still speeds behind those trains. At Talga one hundred thousand wounded dying for lack of care; I went through all the hospitals of Krasnoyarsk And at Khilok we passed a long hospital train full of soldiers that had gone mad; I saw the dressing stations the widening gashes of wounds bleeding at full throb And amputated limbs dance fly off into the shrieking wind. Conflagration flared in every face in every heart, Idiot fingers beat a tattoo on every windowpane And under the pressure of fear stares burst like ulcers. In every station they'd set the rollingstock on fire, And I've seen I've seen trains of sixty locomotives fleeing at full steam cut off by howling horizons with flocks of crows flying desperately after Disappear In the direction of Port Arthur.
As we have said this is principally the poetry of "I have seen." "The Adventures of My Seven Uncles" begins delightfully with Cendrars's memory of his mother telling him as a child of the adventures of her seven brothers. Letters from these marvellous, almost mythical, creatures, fed the young Cendrars's romantic imagination. One uncle "disappeared in the cyclone of '95"; one, as a prospector in Alaska, had three fingers frozen, and so on. Small wonder that the schools and the college to which Cendrars was sent seemed as nothing to the boy compared with that fascinating school of the wide world in which he might learn all manner of dangerous and exciting things. Though a minor refrain of a few lines is introduced at the end of all the uncles' communications;
Then there was something else too Gloom Homesickness.
The poet never saw but one of his uncles. He came home to go crazy and to be shut up in an asylum. Another was a master chef whose "menu cards are the new prosody." This poem has real fascination,—though just why a page pronouncement of the Denver Chamber of Commerce is introduced on page 65 one may be given leave to wonder. One uncle, for whom Cendrars waited a year in the tropics, went off with an astronomical expedition to Patagonia and never did turn up. Also "in the fjords of the Land of Fire On the fringes of the world" he
fished out protozoic mosses drifting between two tides in the glimmer of electric fish collected aeroliths of peroxide of iron. One Sunday morning You saw a mitered bishop rise up out of the waters, He had a tail like a fish and sprinkled you with signs of the cross; You ran off into the hills howling like a wounded lemur.
What uncles to have! It is the vast fantasticality of the world at large, as well as its beauty and drama and terror that the poet celebrates. His attitude toward love is stated later, in a poem entitled "Thou Art Lovelier than the Sky and Sea," and immediately perversely beginning
When you're in love you must get out Leave your wife leave your children Leave your boyfriend leave your girlfriend Leave the woman you love leave the man you love When you're in love you must get out.
Among the shorter poems, some of which become rather too telegraphic toward the end of the volume, there is one superb description, in "The Bubus," of French colonial negro women. In general it is easy to see why the French poet has attracted his American translator. He has the same painter's eye and the same roving foot. Dos Passos has brought to the translation a few of his own verbal peculiarities, but it is not the worse for that. He has made the poet speak to us like a man alive.
SOURCE: "Cendrars," in Poetry, Vol. XXXIX, No. IV, January, 1932, pp. 224-27.
[In the essay below, Zabel discusses Dos Passos's translations of Cendrars and Cendrars's place in the evolution of French literature.]
The enthusiasm of Mr. Dos Passos' project is well warranted. although his Foreword succeeds in being little more than an exhibition of sore-headed commiseration to which its sprinkle of misprints and historical lapses does little injustice. He has, at the outset, an inheritor's fitness to be Cendrars's translator: the rapid verbal and imaginative impulse of Les Pûques à New-York, La prose du Transsibérien, Panama, and Kodak documentaire is likewise the fever in the nerves of Orient Express, Rosinante, and Manhattan Transfer, and it remains largely intact in these lucid versions from three of Cendrars's books. Dos Passos has also retained from the years of his own apprenticeship a keen memory of the ardor of discovery that ran through French and American writing twenty years ago. He has invested his English Cendrars with the tone and impudence, the sprawling arrogance and splendor, which bloomed on the pages of twentieth-century poetry in its first conscious rejection of foregoing conventions and, more specifically, of the formal and intellectual disciplines of Symbolism. The translation here may likewise count in its favor an actual experience as close to that of Cendrars's contemporaries as the post-war years are able to supply. Of the four American poets who have shown some ability in handling contemporary French verse (the task thus far remains inconceivable in an Englishman's hands), Dos Passos easily merits the honor of introducing Cendrars to American readers, because his own excursions and protests, like Cendrars's, have had their inception in the confusion of contemporary civilization.
I go round and round inside the meridians like a squirrel in a squirrel cage.
As with Cendrars, this has been his lot, but out of confusion he has rescued the vitality and energy which a creative criticism demands if the resources of an excessive experience are to be extracted, and ultimately ordered, by the critical mind inside it.
Cendrars's work began in a gratuitous demolition of the order and method of his immediate forerunners. Among the first to signalize the exhaustion of material resources which Mallarmé's and Verlaine's successors encountered, he started by launching an ambitious explorative campaign and thus helped to instigate the French insurgence of 1910–14. By that time the symbolist technique which a half-century before had appeared purely arbitrary in its allegorical assumptions and impulsive in its technical canons, had become almost as rigorous a system of poetic ideas as the doctrinaire classicism which it had come to reject; the time was ready for another of those revitalizing conquests of the actual, or of the creatively adaptable, which have become habitual in French art. Other literatures pass through these periods of rehabilitation with gusto and fervor, but usually with a more or less complete aloofness from technical responsibilities. Of the French it may generally be said that the value of reform or experiment is implicit in the strength or weakness of the technical innovation required to express it; that innovation of matter, to be complete, requires a concurrent and corresponding innovation in form. In painting and sculpture as in poetry, from symbolism itself through surréalisme, the terminology of recent innovation is largely technical, and it is well to observe in the case of Cendrars and his contemporaries—Apollinaire, Salmon, Max Jacob, and later Cocteau, Mac-Orlan, Fargue, and Radiguet—that any novelty of conception or association was aimed at through some adequate refinement or revision of technical approach. Obviously the technique may be as suspect as the creative aim or material with which it coincides: if these poets merely "ecrivirent comme des médiums," in M. Porché's phrase, or "s'ils ont manqués de clarté" with results that have played havoc in the camps of dadaisme and surréalisme, their work might even now appear as little more than an overwrought episode in the life of wartime Europe. And with them it would pass not only the more remarkable elements in Picasso, Léger, Miro, Satie, and Antheil, but the more generally criticized—and unread—parts of Pound and Joyce.
These men, however, refuse to be dismissed. It is their dye that stains the sea of contemporary feeling and expression. The discipline that reaches its climax in pure form invariably reveals the sterility of purely intellectual processes in art. The intellectual process has seldom had as logical and as exhaustive a demonstration of its possibilities as in recent creative work, but running counter to the anesthetic and elegiac tendencies of recent intellectual pessimism has been an extraordinary inventive enthusiasm which may ultimately be our period's most important manifestation. This invention has followed various lines: socio-geographical canvases as in Apollinaire and Cendrars; historical analogues as in Chirico, Salmon, and Pound; detailed objective analysis as in Léger, Picasso, Eliot, and Miss Moore; the development of myth as in Lewis, Döblin, Joyce. Mr. Dos Passos praises in Cendrars "virility" and "meaning in everyday life." Had he seen these merely as the basis of the literature which Cendrars did much to instigate, he might, through greater appreciation for the work of Cendrars's followers, have spared himself much of the excited irritation with which his translation is launched. It is neither in mere "everyday life" nor in psychological delusion and trance that a permanent esthetic concept is wrought, but in a discipline which encompasses the vital elements of the two, and which, had he mastered it more fully, would have made Cendrars a greater poet.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dos Passos has given, in the right colloquial key and with the spontaneity of deep sympathy, his brilliant translations of some of Cendrars's best work, adding to the volume his lively designs in color. His work will remind current writers of an inheritance of which they might profitably be more conscious.
SOURCE: An interview in American Poetry Review, translated by Bertrand Mathieu, May/June 1980, pp. 40-44.
[In the following interview, originally broadcast on April 25, 1950, Cendrars ruminates on the artists and authors of his time.]
Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961) is one of the giants of modern literature. In addition to poetry, he wrote novels, travel books, biographies, autobiographies, film scenarios, letters, translations, essays, operas, and ballet choreographies. Yet hardly any of Cendrars's writings have been translated into English.
Bertrand Mathieu has already published a number of Cendrars's translations: his translations of Rimbaud's Illuminations and A Season in Half have been published by BOA Editions. He has also written a book on Henry Miller and a volume of his own poetry.
This interview was broadcast on April 25, 1950. The translation was completed in 1974.
[Manoll:] Do you really believe that the poets are fifty years ahead of the painters?
[Cendrars:] As far as the poets of today are concerned, there isn't shred of doubt. The painters still haven't discovered Rimbaud. Do you know a single good illustrator of Rimbaud's Illuminations?
Rimbaud's genius seems to me absolutely one-of-a-kind.
So one-of-a-kind that all the commentaries that've been devoted to Rimbaud, from Claudel and Arthur Rimbaud's sister, Madame Paterne Berrichon, right down to the very latest of the zealots or bench-warmers, you know what I mean? are an appalling hodge-podge because Rimbaud himself took off and never said boo. Just look at him in that "table corner" by Fantin-Latour, that marvelous little hoodlum sitting there, leaning on his elbows and impatiently biting his fingernails with eagerness to shove off, to say to these Proper Gentlemen: SHIT! Now where do you think he was living at that period?
He was living at the Senate. He'd been taken in by Leconte de Lisle who was librarian at the Senate. You can understand his eagerness to buzz off, huh? Even Leon Bloy hadn't caught on to a thing, he kept putting down the little delinquent: "Rimbaud's just a brat who's pissing on the Himalayas!" Aside from "le pauvre Lelian" (Verlaine), all Paris had taken him for a young pervert, a faggot. It's unbelievable …!
You've said that your own coming-of-age dates from 1917 when you "understood that the poetry which was beginning to appear was basically a misunderstanding which was going to overrun the entire country and then spread throughout the world." What were you trying to say exactly? Why a misunderstanding?
I've told you already. In 1917, I left Paris determined not to come back after having nailed the manuscript of At The Heart of the World in a crate. Like a woman who wants to have a child, has it, then leaves the man and takes away her treasure to coddle it, to spoil it, make it smile and watch it grow up in solitude and keeps though by devoting herself to it with a blind devotion and a limitless tenderness (it's a rare thing, but I've known some who've done it and who're happy), I was happy. I was in love. Love's exclusive.
"When you love you've got to leave …"
So I left Paris. I'd taken a break from Poetry. I was happy. I'd come out of the war alive and I wanted to live. I'm talking to you about poetry. About the misunderstanding of modern poetry. About the surrealists. There isn't a single one of those young mothers' sons who produced anything new. They're a flea market. Everything the surrealists have brought out since the jail-house of Dada you can find the sources of in Les Soirees de Paris, whose last number is dated August 1914. Personally, I've been waiting in vain for something from them, something original, something really new Like everybody else, I've always given the young credit. "Youth is a priesthood … But it's youth that says so," as Baudelaire puts it, that disillusioned man. The surrealists were supposed to start from scratch. They said so a hundred times. They were bursting with talent, the buggers. Nothing came of it. When that smiling old bogeyman Anatole France died, they spat on his corpse which was being paraded through the streets of Paris, and they were all carried away by their own daring because in addition to their talent, they had connections, these scions of families, and on the same day they threw themselves down on hands and knees to pay homage to André Gide, who was nothing but a living corpse. In fact, Gide's popularity really begins on that day. Devil take him …
That's a bit strong, Cendrars.
You think so? Well, that's the way I really feel.
What else do you want me to tell you about the surrealists? I've never associated much with that crowd. At the start, they came to see me in my attic on the rue de Savoie: the sweet Phillippe Soupault, a very lovely guy, who was bashful and has become a trifler to put it mildly: a flincher. The high and mighty André Breton, who already had that Ubu-esque air of the great man from the provinces to whom, someday, the fatherland WOULD BE grateful, and who has never been able to rid himself of that tremendous burden of premortem glory. Louis Aragon, with whom I nearly became friends, by far the most intelligent of the three, the most sensitive, the smartest, but also the most fragile because I could hear the pulse of poetry beating just beneath his feverish words, a rebel who's tripped himself into hysteria. Soupault, who'd dragged the other two over to my place, wanted me to give a lecture to the Dames de France. I put him in touch with Guillaume Apollinaire, who he'd never heard of, and Apollinaire appeared delighted at the opportunity to show himself off and make a speech in his lieutenant's uniform before the lovely ladies of the world of big business and industry all tricked out as nurses. The whole thing was a farce. But how could you hold it against poor Guillaume, eh? Ever since his trepanning, his personality'd become unrecognizable and Apollinaire had become childishly vain. But when André Breton prides himself on having known Guillaume Apollinaire intimately and having "visited him regularly in 1917 and 1918" the way he allows them to put it in his latest biographical notice, in order to derive some glimmering of glory out of it, I laugh in his face and say he's lying …
Is that so?
Sure, and it's a shame! Anyway, the attitude of the surrealists disgusts me and I would never've permitted myself such a diatribe except that despite Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and many other dead poets who can't speak out, André Breton still insists on an absolute monopoly on Rimbaud and Lautrémont, and I keep asking myself how such a thing could've happened in a country like France where he's been allowed to dish out Passes and Fails in the free Republic of Letters? People put up with it. It's really side-splitting! We were much more free-wheeling at the Soirées de Paris. We'd shake up the coconut tree and there'd always be a few poets who'd make fun of everything, of one and all. Respect for officialdom didn't muzzle us, and nobody took himself as seriously as they all do today. We knew how to laugh …
And what do you think of Jean-Paul Sartre?
I've got no opinion on him, Sartre doesn't send me his books. As for existentialism …? When it comes to philosophical doctrines, it's Schopenhauer who put me on guard against the professors of philosophy who, after getting the "official line," meditate, write, think, regurgitate, compose manifestos—and Sartre is a professor. Philosophical plays are a bore on the stage, and Sartre dramatizes his theses for the theater. Novels are either well or badly written, Sartre's are middling. I see some of the young people of today all the time since I've come back to Paris and I ask myself in what way they're existentialist, exactly? Is it because they disguise themselves every night to go to Saint-Germaindes-Prés the way their parents dressed up every night to slip in among society people or get past the door of a private club?? It's a fashion that'll pass, that's already passed … I don't understand this fuss about display all over the place. How bored people must be …! Movies, radio, television …? The truth is few people know how to live and those who accept life as it is are even rarer …
I don't know what can be said about this epidemic of professors of literature, but one thing that's certain is that Jean-Paul Sartre's movement hasn't produced any poets. They didn't turn out poets. No poet managed to come out of that.
Your view's probably right. Among the surrealists, I'd make only one exception: Robert Desnos. Robert was a really nice guy with whom I had lots of good times and used to have a drink with in a bar where we'd meet, which I'd baptized The Eye of Paris, because it was located on the rue de Rivoli, under the arcades, a stone's throw from the Concorde and you could see all Paris passing by without budging from your stool, a place which Robert had maliciously nick-named Madame Lots O'Eyes because of the women who'd come in to go down to the toilet and come back out without so much as looking at us so as not to diminish their dignity as pissers, which used to make us burst out, since we were being ogled by the cherries dipped in brandy which we kept emptying from the glasses, spitting the pits at the backs of the anonymous furclad ladies swishing past us who'd just finished touching up their good looks with a little make-up. Youki had no cause to be jealous. Robert was a marvelous pal. We didn't talk about automatic writing, and the two or three times I tried to question him about that fatal gift they've tried to badger him with, he simply winked at me and smiled in a funny way, like someone who knows too much! That's why I've never believed in Desnos the Medium, any more than in Max Jacob the Mystic. Robert Desnos was a great poet. A real one. Read Quartier Saint-Merri again. It's in the same vein as Villon. One was from the quartier Saint-Jacques, the other from Saint-Martin. Left bank, right bank. Same difference. Drinking at the source. The little bistros of Paris …
And what do you have to say about the young people of 1950?
The young are desperate. They're now writing to me! When I was young, the young weren't writing to me—rightly, because I was young myself. The reason the young are writing to me today is that they take me for an old-timer, and that saddens me despite my age. But anyway, let's continue … I swear to you there's a whole generation of very young poets who haven't been published yet who write to me. I get three or four deliveries of poems a day and, every once in a while, a little book. Unknowns …
People with talent?
Like life. Some young people with talent, some young people without talent, some people with genius, some people without genius. It moves me deeply and I always answer them. But if they're turning to me with the intention of choosing a master of their own, they've got the wrong address. I'm not the leader of a movement. I'm not that old … That's senility …
But even though you don't accept this role of master, you yourself have your own ancestors, there are writers who've been profoundly important to you, poets by whom you were influenced. Baudelaire is usually considered the father of modern poetry. From him two roads branched out, one which shaped artists of the Word such as Mallarmé and Valéry, the other poets that moved in the direction of an adventurous conquest of the modern world …
I'll pass on Mallarmé, but Paul Valéry, that epigone who received all the honors due to his master, even a state funeral! And the surrealists didn't even protest?! As for Baudelaire, certainly I was influenced by him. He's a very great poet, but he's especially a profoundly catholic spirit in his critique of modern life. As a critic he was even a stunning type, way ahead of his time and I'm convinced that for a long time to come, let's say until the end of the twenty-second century, he'll be an influence on young people through his criticism and his dandyism. His most beautiful poems date already. I place myself under the sign of François Villon.
Another one who seems to me to've left his mark on you—insofar as it's possible to leave a mark on a man like yourself, because you're not a man who's been influenced so much as a man who's influenced others, and many contemporary writers have been influenced by you …
That scares me to death!
There's nothing you can do about it. "The Easter in New York", the "Transsiberian," the "Panama," the …
How long've they been talking about'em, tell me?
… the 19 Elastic Poems … They've been talking about them, and they cite them, for the simple reason that those poems are the very basis of modern poetry, they're at the roots of modern lyric style …
It's very nice of you, Manoll, to tell me such pleasant things …
But after all, you're famous, Cendrars!
Well, like the cuckolded husband, I'm the last one to believe it! No, no, not at all, I'm the basis of nothing at all. It's the modern world which is the basis, "immense and delicate" like the Middle Ages. And the root is Villon. If they ever publish the letters of Max Jacob, you'll discover all kinds of roots and bases and points of departure and arrival. Now there's one who knew how to shake up the coconut tree and make the phoney geniuses and the real, the authentic and the inauthentic, fall out helter-skelter! And he had as sharp a tongue as you could wish for, and he wriggled like a devil in holy water.
What's that? Even the good ones?
He peels them up with a burst of laughter. You'll see! It's a riot.
I can hardly believe it.
Poets no longer have any fun. That's what frightens me most these days when I look around and see how seriously they take themselves.
It's true we don't know how to laugh, and very few things still actually amuse us. I hate to admit it, but my whole generation's like that: we don't laugh. But the reason for this is that there are obvious social problems, economic problems …
You think our life was a picnic in the old days?
My dear Manoll, in the Good Old Days writers of copy were paid a penny a line on the newspapers, and a man like Apollinaire had to wait for months and years before he could sign his own copy and count on a steady paying job. That's why he published erotic books, to earn a bite. You can't begin to imagine how the doors were closed to us. It's my impression that today they're much more hospitable, I meet young people everywhere, on the newspapers, in radio, at the movie studios. Before '14, those who were desperate enough showed up real early in line at the door, even at the entrance which was always kept locked. The others did their guzzling whenever they'd had the good fortune to get blood out of a stone, in the streets. We didn't give a fuck. We laughed. Paris girls are nice …
Our generation also swallowed quite a bit …!
Everybody's eaten some, that's the way it is with younger generations. It's good thing the bloody stones exist and that they haven't started packing them in tin cans and exporting them like K-rations or corned-beef. They're saving them for the younger generation so that it'll remain a nice, resourceful generation. One word of advice: when you see an open door—newspaper, radio, theater, movie studio, bank—well, stay out! Otherwise you'll be gaga by the time you're thirty, because the laughter's always got to be checked at the door. That's been my experience. Poetry's out in the streets. It goes arm-in-arm with Laughter. It takes it out for a drink, at the source, in the neighborhood bistros, where the laughter of ordinary people is so tasty and the language that flows from their lips is so beautiful.
"The gift of the gab's gift of the streets …"
Blaise, tell me a bit more about Guillaume Apollinaire.
Well, what else do you want me to tell you about poor Guillaume?
To begin with, why do you always call him "poor" Guillaume?
Because he's on the wrong side …
What do you mean by the "wrong side?"
The realm of the shades …
The realm of the dead …
No, what I said is the realm of the shades … That's why I don't like to talk about Guillaume Apollinaire …
Why not? Weren't you at his funeral?
That's the reason. I had such an experience at his funeral that after thirty-two years it's hard for me to believe he's dead …
What are you talking about, Cendrars?
Are you one of those people who believe in his death?
Well of course, unfortunately!
Then, Manoll, you've simply never read The Decaying Spellbinder.
The Decaying Spellbinder …?
Read it. It's the book that's the key to Apollinaire, the book that contains all the secrets of poor Guillaume …
The secrets of his genius, of his evocative power, of his double, his triple nature!
But what on earth happened to you at Apollinaire's funeral that you should suddenly be talking to me about him in that tone?
I'll tell you. The absolution had just been given, you see?
And through the portico of Saint Thomas Aquinas, out came Apollinaire's coffin which they placed in the hearse, draped with a flag, where Guillaume's lieutenant's képi on top of the Tricolor was visible among the wreaths and the flowers. The guard of honor, a halfsquad of troopers with weapons slung over their shoulders, was taking its place and the cortège was slowly getting under way, the family right behind the hearse, his mother, his wife, in their funeral veils, poor Jacqueline who'd just barely escaped the epidemic of Spanish influenza which'd now taken Guillaume, still convalescing and completely broken up, Apollinaire's closest friends, Prince Yaztrebzoff, Serge, his sister, Baroness von Oettingen, Max Jacob, Picasso, all of Guillaume's other friends, including Pierre-Albert Birot and his wife who'd broken their backs to stage The Breasts of Tiresias at the Théâtre Maubel, the whole of literary Paris, the arts and the press, but as soon as we turned the corner at the Boulevard-Saint-Germain, the cortège was suddenly besieged by the huge howling mobs that had broken loose from the crowds that were celebrating the Armistice, men and women, arm-in-arm, who were singing, dancing, hugging each other, and deliriously bawling out the refrain of the famous French war song:.
"No, you really shouldn't have gone Guillaume,No, you really shouldn't have gone!"
It was unbelievably sad. And right behind me, I could overhear the tiresome glories of the dead-end of symbolism, all those immortal poets who're forgotten today, clucking and arguing among themselves about the future of Poetry, asking themselves what would become of the young poets now that Apollinaire was dead, and having a good time, as if they'd just won the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns. It was nightmarish. And I could feel anger, indignation, getting the better of me. So to avoid making a scene, I got out of the ranks at the intersection of Boul' Mich' and left the cortège, along with my wife Raymone and the painter Fernand Léger, to go drink a really hot toddy at the nearest bistro, to warm us up a bit and keep from catching influenza ourselves. After drinking the toddy standing up, we jumped into a taxi and as it turned out, when we arrived at Perè-Lachaise, the funeral, which had gone on foot, had made better time than we had, despite the congestion of the Armistice crowds which were demonstrating at every street corner, and the ceremony had already taken place at the cemetery and Apollinaire's friends had completely scattered. I asked Paul Fort where it had been and following his vague, extremely vague directions, we started groping among the grave-sites, Raymone, Fernand Léger and me. We bumped into two freshly dug graves. The gravediggers were shoveling in the dirt. We asked them which was the grave of Apollinaire? They didn't know. "You realize, with this influenza, with the war, they don't tell us the names of the dead we lower into the hole. There's too many. Try the management. We haven't got time. We're dead tired." "But he's a lieutenant," I said, "Lieutenant Apollinaire or Kostrowitsky. They must've fired a salvo on his grave!" "My poor fellow," the foreman said to me, "they fired two salvos. They're both lieutenants. We have no idea which one you're looking for. Look yourselves!" We leaned over the graves. They were half-filled. Nothing to identify them. The flowers, the bouquets, had already vanished, ripped off by the bargain-sellers who make new bouquets and sell the flowers from the Paris cemeteries, at night, in the métro. We were about to leave when I noticed a lump of earth with a little grass at the bottom of one of the graves. "Look," I said to Raymone and Fernand Léger, "look, it's incredible! It's just like the head of Apollinaire …!" The lump of solid earth fallen at the bottom of the hole had exactly the shape of Guillaume's head and the grass was planted like his hair was, when he was alive, around the scar of his trepanning. There was no question of gazing too long at that eerie look-alike. As usual when an inanimate object starts becoming radiant to the point of being about to take on, of reassuming life, the psychic charge which it emits is too intense, you can't believe your eyes. We beat a retreat, staggered. Raymone was crying. Fernand bit his lips. I waited till I was out of the cemetery, where already a glacial fog was smothering the shrubs and monuments, before I said: "It was him, all right. We've seen him. Apollinaire's not dead. Pretty soon, he's bound to show up. Remember what I've just told you …" And during our whole way back, I recited to Ramone and Fernand whole tatters of The Decaying Spellbinder, which were coming back to me in pieces, depending on the jolts and changes of speed of the bus that charged down from Ménilmontant the way Lord Blackguard's coach and horses used to come down from Courtille on a day of fiesta in times gone by! It was fantastic. Paris was celebrating a victory. Apollinaire had lost. I was in the dumps. It was absurd. I kept turning around, often, to examine the aisle of our bus. In what guise was Guillaume going to come aboard, along the way, to take part in the great Paris holiday? Fernand Léger had a date. Raymone was acting in a play at the theater in Belleville that evening. I prowied around until midnight on the rue de Belleville, the rue de Crimée, the Place des Fêtes, sticking close to people to see them better, then I went to plant myself in front of the stage-entrance at the far end of the deadend. When Raymone came out, we went back home sneakily. Where was I living then? At the Hôtel Mirabeau, on rue de la Paix, and I stayed in Paris another eight days, in Apollinaire's place, to correct the proofs and prepare to bring out his Loiterer on the Two Banks which I was publishing at Sirène. And then I went to Nice where they were waiting for me to finish a film I was making. The wheel turns fast. Poor Guillaume. The following year, in 1919, I was still publishing him at the Sirène, the limited edition of Bestiary, or The Cortège of Orpheus with little woodcuts by Dufy. But what's really left me heartbroken is that I wasn't able to publish Guillaume Apollinaire's last book which we'd talked about together for a long time, which he'd finally written and couldn't find a title for. It consisted—collected in a single volume, entirely revised, recast, corrected, linked up, organized and carefully tuned up and improved so as to form a continuous whole, rolling along like the current of a stream rushing headlong—of the prefaces, the notes, the biographical sketches he'd been able to publish hastily, even carelessly, in the collection Masters of Love of the Bibliotheque des Curièux, on the rue Furstenberg. It was a prodigious book, which went way beyond ordinary strangeness and erudition. It wasn't an erotic book but a poet's book. It was a book that dazzled me out of my mind, a book for which I'd found a title: The Styx: after the river in Hell, which flows around it seven times. That's what that book was: a dark river, full of tar and sulphur. It still hasn't been published, but it's hard for me to believe that the manuscript's never going to show up—I mean, show up for the people of today. It probably lost its way towards the rue de Condèe or the rue Furstenberg. Unless it's fallen into someone's hands, into the hands of someone who can't give good directions, which I doubt. Then there'd still be some hope. I'm on the lookout.
SOURCE: "Blaise Cendrars," in The Henry Miller Reader, edited by Lawrence Durrell, New Directions Books, 1959, pp. 327-52.
[Henry Miller (1891–1980) was an American novelist and critic. In the following essay, first published in 1952, he presents a warm and personal look at Cendrars's life and work.]
[Miller's introduction, written for the 1959 collection:] Against the advice of editor and publisher, I have insisted on the inclusion of this piece—as a substitution for passages on "Mona" of the Tropics. It was suggested that the essay called "Balzac and his Double" be used instead of this. But Balzac is long dead, and the halo which surrounds his name is still untarnished. Cendrars is still living, though gravely ill now and confined to a wheel-chair. Alive or dead, he is, to my mind, vastly more important to our generation than Balzac ever could be.
For no contemporary author have I struggled harder to obtain a hearing than for Blaise Cendrars. And all my efforts have been in vain. I consider it a shame and a disgrace that no American publisher has shown the least interest in this undisputed giant of French letters. All we have of him, in translation, to my knowledge, are several poems, the novel called Sutter's Gold (an early work), the African Anthology (a collection of African poems translated into French, by Cendrars) and the Antarctic Fugue, published in England, this being only part of a longer work, Dan Yack.
Yes, this chapter from The Books in My Life was written here in Big Sur and it was written from the heart. Cendrars is not easy reading—to an American like myself whose French is far from perfect. But he has been the most rewarding, to me, of all contemporary French writers. If, in the early stages of my career, it was Knut Hamsun whom I idolized, whom I most desired to imitate, in the latter stage it has been Cendrars. With the exception of John Cowper Powys, no writer I have come in contact with, gives more than he. He gives and he sends. He is inexhaustible. Among all living writers he is the one who has lived the most, lived the fullest. Beside him, for example. Ernest Hemingway is a Boy Scout.
And this is the writer we have chosen to neglect and ignore. I don't understand it. I refuse to understand it. Those who criticize me for being too eulogistic have never read him—they have only dipped into him.
This is no commentary, this is an exordium. Read him! I say. Read him, even if at the age of sixty you have to begin to learn French. Read him in French, not in English. Read him before it is too late, for it is doubtful if France will ever again produce a Cendrars.
Cendrars was the first French writer to look me up, during my stay in Paris, and the last man I saw on leaving Paris. I had just a few minutes before catching the train for Rocamadour and I was having a last drink on the terrasse of my hotel near the Porte d'Orléans when Cendrars hove in sight. Nothing could have given me greater joy than this unexpected last-minute encounter. In a few words I told him of my intention to visit Greece. Then I sat back and drank in the music of his sonorous voice which to me always seemed to come from a sea organ. In those last few minutes Cendrars managed to convey a world of information, and with the same warmth and tenderness which he exudes in his books. Like the very ground under our feet, his thoughts were honeycombed with all manner of subterranean passages. I left him sitting there in shirt sleeves, never dreaming that years would elapse before hearing from him again, never dreaming that I was perhaps taking my last look at Paris.
I had read whatever was translated of Cendrars before arriving in France. That is to say, almost nothing. My first taste of him 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. I read it slowly, with a dictionary by my side, shifting from one café to another. It was in the Café de la Liberté, corner of the Rue de la Gaieté and the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, that I began it. I remember well the day. Should Cendrars ever read these lines he may be pleased, touched perhaps, to know that it was in that dingy hole I first opened his book.
Moravagine was probably the second or third book which I had attempted to read in French. Only the other day, after a lapse of about eighteen years, I reread it. What was my amazement to discover that whole passages were engraved in my memory! And I had thought my French was null! Here is one of the passages I remember as clearly as the day I first read it. It begins at the top of page 77 (Editions Grasset, 1926).
I tell you of things that brought some relief at the start. There was also the water, gurgling at intervals, in the watercloset pipes … A boundless despair possessed me.
(Does this convey anything to you, my dear Cendrars?)
Immediately I think of two other passages, even more deeply engraved in my mind, from "Une Nuit dans la Forêt," which I read about three years later. I cite them not to brag of my powers of memory but to reveal an aspect of Cendrars which his English and American readers probably do not suspect the existence of.
- I, the freest man that exists, recognize that there is always something that binds one: that liberty, independence do not exist, and I am full of contempt for, and at the same time take pleasure in, my helplessness.
- More and more I realize that I have always led the contemplative life. I am a sort of Brahmin in reverse, meditating on himself amid the hurly-burly, who, with all his strength, disciplines himself and scorns existence. Or the boxer with his shadow, who, furiously, calmly, punching at emptiness, watches his form. What virtuosity, what science, what balance, the ease with which he accelerates! Later, one must learn how to take punishment with equal imperturbability. I, I know how to take punishment and with serenity I fructify and with serenity destroy myself: in short, work in the world not so much to enjoy as to make others enjoy (it's others' reflexes that give me pleasure, not my own). Only a soul full of despair can ever attain serenity and, to be in despair, you must have loved a good deal and still love the world.
These last two passages have probably been cited many times already and will no doubt be cited many times more as the years go by. They are memorable ones and thoroughly the author's own. Those who know only Sutter's Gold, Panama and On the Trans-siberian, which are about all the American reader gets to know, may indeed wonder on reading the foregoing passages why this man has not been translated more fully. Long before I attempted to make Cendrars better known to the American public (and to the world at large, I may well add), John Dos Passos had translated and illustrated with water colors Panama, or the adventures of my seven uncles.
However, the primary thing to know about Blaise Cendrars is that he is a man of many parts. He is also a man of many books, many kinds of books, and by that I do not mean "good" and "bad" but books so different one from another that he gives the impression of evolving in all directions at once. An evolved man, truly. Certainly an evolved writer.
His life itself reads like the Arabian Nights' Entertainment. And this individual who has led a super-dimensional life is also a book-worm. The most gregarious of men and yet a solitary. ("O mes solitudes!") A man of deep intuition and invincible logic. The logic of life. Life first and foremost. Life always with a capital L. That's Cendrars.
To follow his career from the time he slips out of his parents' home in Neufchâtel, a boy fifteen or sixteen, to the days of the Occupation when he secrets himself in Aix-en-Provence and imposes on himself a long period of silence, is something to make one's head spin. The itinerary of his wanderings is more difficult to follow than Marco Polo's, whose trajectory, incidentally, he seems to have crossed and recrossed a number of times. One of the reasons for the great fascination he exerts over me is the resemblance between his voyages and adventures and those which I associate in memory with Sinbad the Sailor or Aladdin of the Wonderful Lamp. The amazing experiences which he attributes to the characters in his books, and which often as not he has shared, have all the qualities of legend as well as the authenticity of legend. 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. He restores to contemporary life the elements of the heroic, the imaginative and the fabulous. His adventures have led him to nearly every region of the globe, particularly those regarded as dangerous or inaccessible. (One must read his early life especially to appreciate the truth of this statement.) He has consorted with all types, including bandits, murderers, revolutionaries and other varieties of fanatic. He has tried at no less than thirty-six métiers, according to his own words, but, like Balzac, gives the impression of knowing every métier. He was once a juggler, for example—on the English music-hall stage—at the same time that Chaplin was making his debut there; he was a pearl merchant and a smuggler; he was a plantation owner in South America, where he made a fortune three times in succession and lost it even more rapidly than he had made it. But read his life! There is more in it than meets the eye.
Yes, he is an explorer and investigator of the ways and doings of men. And he has made himself such by planting himself in the midst of life, by taking up his lot with his fellow creatures. What a superb, painstaking reporter he is, this man who would scorn the thought of being called "a student of life." He has the faculty of getting "his story" by a process of osmosis; he seems to seek nothing deliberately. Which is why, no doubt, his own story is always interwoven with the other man's. To be sure, he possesses the art of distillation, but what he is vitally interested in is the alchemical nature of all relationships. This eternal quest of the transmutative enables him to reveal men to themselves and to the world; it causes him to extol men's virtues, to reconcile us to their faults and weaknesses, to increase our knowledge and respect for what is essentially human, to deepen our love and understanding of the world. He is the "reporter" par excellence because he combines the faculties of poet, seer and prophet. An innovator and initiator, ever the first to give testimony, he has made known to us the real pioneers, the real adventurers, the real discoverers among our contemporaries. More than any writer I can think of he has made dear to us "le bel aujourd'hui."
Whilst performing on all levels he always found time to read. On long voyages, in the depths of the Amazon, in the deserts (I imagine he knows them all, those of the earth, those of the spirit), in the jungle, on the broad pampas, on trains, tramps and ocean liners, in the great museums and libraries of Europe, Asia and Africa, he has buried himself in books, has ransacked whole archives, has photographed rare documents, and, for all I know, may have stolen invaluable books, scripts, documents of all kinds—why not, considering the enormity of his appetite for the rare, the curious, the forbidden?
He has told us in one of his recent books how the Germans (les Boches!) destroyed or carried off, I forget which, his precious library, precious to a man like Cendrars who loves to give the most precise data when referring to a passage from one of his favorite books. Thank God, his memory is alive and functions like a faithful machine. An incredible memory, as will testify those who have read his more recent books—La Main Coupée, l'Homme Foudroyé, Bourlinguer, Le Lotissement du Ciel, La Banlieue de Paris.
On the side—with Cendrars it seems as though almost everything of account has been done "on the side"—he has translated the works of other writers, notably the Portuguese author, Ferreira de Castro (Forêt Vierge) and our own Al Jennings, the great outlaw and bosom friend of O. Henry. What a wonderful translation is Hors-la-loi which in English is called Through the Shadows with O. Henry. It is a sort of secret collaboration between Cendrars and the innermost being of Al Jennings. At the time of writing it, Cendrars had not yet met Jennings nor even corresponded with him. (This is another book, I must say in passing, which our pocket-book editors have overlooked. There is a fortune in it, unless I am all wet, and it would be comforting to think that part of this fortune should find its way into Al Jennings' pocket.)
One of the most fascinating aspects of Cendrars's temperament is his ability and readiness to collaborate with a fellow artist. Picture him, shortly after the First World War, editing the publications of La Sirène! What an opportunity! To him we owe an edition of Les Chants de Maldoror, the first to appear since the original private publication by the author in 1868. In everything an innovator, always meticulous, scrupulous and exacting in his demands, whatever issued from the hands of Cendrars at La Sirène is now a valuable collector's item. Hand in hand with this capability for collaboration goes another quality—the ability, or grace, to make the first overtures. Whether it be a criminal, a saint, a man of genius, a tyro with promise, Cendrars is the first to look him up, the first to herald him, the first to aid him in the way the person most desires. I speak with justifiable warmth here. No writer ever paid me a more signal honor than dear Blaise Cendrars who, shortly after the publication of Tropic of Cancer, knocked at my door one day to extend the hand of friendship. Nor can I forget that first tender, eloquent review of the book which appeared under his signature in Orbes shortly thereafter. (Or perhaps it was before he appeared at the studio in the Villa Seurat.)
There were times when reading Cendrars—and this is something which happens to me rarely—that I put the book down in order to wring my hands with joy or despair, with anguish or with desperation. Cendrars has stopped me in my tracks again and again, just as implacably as a gunman pressing a rod against one's spine. Oh, yes, I am often carried away by exaltation in reading a man's work. But I am alluding now to something other than exaltation. I am talking of a sensation in which all one's emotions are blended and confused. I am talking of knockout blows. Cendrars has knocked me cold. Not once, but a number of times. And I am not exactly a ham, when it comes to taking it on the chin! Yes, mon cher Cendrars, you not only stopped me, you stopped the clock. It has taken me days, weeks, sometimes months, to recover from these bouts with you. Even years later, I can put my hand to the spot where I caught the blow and feel the old smart. You battered and bruised me; you left me scarred, dazed, punch-drunk. The curious thing is that the better I know you—through your books—the more susceptible I become. It is as if you had put the Indian sign on me. I come forward with chin outstretched—"to take it." I am your meat, as I have so often said. And it is because I believe I am not unique in this, because I wish others to enjoy this uncommon experience, that I continue to put in my little word for you whenever, wherever, I can.
I incautiously said: "the better I know you." My dear Cendrars, I will never know you, not as I do other men, of that I am certain. No matter how thoroughly you reveal yourself I shall never get to the bottom of you. I doubt that anyone ever will, and it is not vanity which prompts me to put it this way. You are as inscrutable as a Buddha. You inspire, you reveal, but you never give yourself wholly away. Not that you withhold yourself! No, encountering you, whether in person or through the written word, you leave the impression of having given all there is to give. Indeed, you are one of the few men I know who, in their books as well as in person, give that "extra measure" which means everything to us. You give all that can be given. It is not your fault that the very core of you forbids scrutiny. It is the law of your being. No doubt there are men less inquisitive, less grasping, less clutching, for whom these remarks are meaningless. But you have so refined our sensitivity, so heightened our awareness, so deepened our love for men and women, for books, for nature, for a thousand and one things of life which only one of your own unending paragraphs could catalogue, that you awaken in us the desire to turn you inside out. When I read you or talk to you I am always aware of your inexhaustible awareness: you are not just sitting in a chair in a room in a city in a country, telling us what is on your mind or in your mind, you make the chair talk and the room vibrate with the tumult of the city whose life is sustained by the invisible outer throng of a whole nation whose history has become your history, whose life is your life and yours theirs, and as you talk or write all these elements, images, facts, creations enter into your thoughts and feelings, forming a web which the spider in you ceaselessly spins and which spreads in us, your listeners, until the whole of creation is involved, and we, you, them, it, everything, have lost identity and found new meaning, new life …
Before proceeding further, there are two books on Cendrars which I would like to recommend to all who are interested in knowing more about the man. Both are entitled Blaise Cendrars. One is by Jacques-Henry Levèsque (Editions de la Nouvelle Critique, Paris, 1947), the other by Louis Parrot (Editions Pierre Seghers, Paris, 1948), finished on the author's deathbed. Both contain bibliographies, excerpts from Cendrars's works, and a number of photographs taken at various periods of his life. Those who do not read French may glean a surprising knowledge of this enigmatic individual from the photographs alone. (It is amazing what spice and vitality French publishers lend their publications through the insertion of old photographs. Seghers has been particularly enterprising in this respect. In his series of little square books, called Poètes d'Aujourd'hui, he has given us a veritable gallery of contemporary and near contemporary figures.)
Yes, one can glean a lot about Cendrars just from studying his physiognomy. He has probably been photographed more than any contemporary writer. In addition, sketches and portraits of him have been made by any number of celebrated artists, including Modigliani, Apollinaire, Léger. Flip the pages of the two books I just mentioned—Levèsque's and Parrot's; take a good look at this "gueule" which Cendrars has presented to the world in a thousand different moods. Some will make you weep; some are almost hallucinating. There is one photo of him taken in uniform during the days of the Foreign Legion when he was a corporal. His left hand, holding a butt which is burning his fingers, protrudes from beneath the cape; it is a hand so expressive, so very eloquent, that if you do not know the story of his missing arm, this will convey it unerringly. It is with this powerful and sensitive left hand that he has written most of his books, signed his name to innumerable letters and post cards, shaved himself, washed himself, guided his speedy Alfa-Romeo through the most dangerous terrains; it is with this left hand that he has hacked his way through jungles, punched his way through brawls, defended himself, shot at men and beasts, clapped his copains on the back, greeted with a warm clasp a long-lost friend and caressed the women and animals he has loved. There is another photo of him taken in 1921 when he was working with Abel Gance on the film called La Roue, the eternal cigarette glued to his lips, a tooth missing, a huge checkered cap with an enormous peak hanging over one ear. The expression on his face is something out of Dostoievski. On the opposite page is a photo taken by Raymone in 1924, when he was working on l'Or (Sutter's Gold). Here he stands with legs spread apart, his left hand sliding into the pocket of his baggy pantaloons, a mégot to his lips, as always. In this photo he looks like a healthy, cocky young peasant of Slavic origin. There is a taunting gleam in his eye, a sort of frank, good-natured defiance. "Fuck you, Jack, I'm fine … and you?" That's what it conveys, his look. Another, taken with Levèsque at Tremblay-sur-Maulne, 1926, captures him square in the prime of life. Here he seems to be at his peak physically; he emanates health, joy, vitality. In 1928 we have the photo which has been reprinted by the thousands. It is Cendrars of the South American period, looking fit, sleek almost, well garbed, his conk crowned by a handsome fedora with its soft brim upturned. He has a burning, faraway look in the eyes, as if he had just come back from the Antarctic. (I believe it was in this period that he was writing, or had just finished, Dan Yack, the first half of which [Le Plan de l'Aiguille] has only recently been issued in translation by an English publisher.) But it is in 1944 that we catch a glimpse of le vieux Légionnaire—photo by Chardon, Cavaillon. Here he reminds one of Victor McLaglen in the title role of The Informer. This is the period of l'Homme Foudroyé, for me one of his major books. Here he is the fully developed earth man composed of many rich layers—roustabout, tramp, bum, panhandler, mixer, bruiser, adventurer, sailor, soldier, tough guy, the man of a thousand-and-one hard, bitter experiences who never went under but ripened, ripened, ripened. Un homme, quoi! There are two photos taken in 1946, at Aix-en-Provence, which yield us tender, moving images of him. One, in which he leans against a fence, shows him surrounded by the urchins of the neighborhood: he is teaching them a few sleight of hand tricks. The other catches him walking through a shadowed old street which curves endearingly. His look is meditative, if not triste. It is a beautiful photograph, redolent of the atmosphere of the Midi. One walks with him in his pensive mood, hushed by the unseizable thoughts which envelop him … I force myself to draw rein. I could go on forever about the "physiognomic" aspects of the man. His is a mug one can never forget. It's human, that's what. Human like Chinese faces, like Egyptian, Cretan, Etruscan ones.
Many are the things which have been said against this writer … that his books are cinematic in style, that they are sensational, that he exaggerates and deforms à outrance, that he is prolix and verbose, that he lacks all sense of form, that he is too much the realist or else that his narratives are too much the infinitum. Taken altogether there is, to be sure, a grain of truth in these accusations, but let us remember—only a grain! They reflect the views of the paid critic, the academician, the frustrated novelist. But supposing, for a moment, we accepted them at face value. Will they hold water? Take his cinematic technique, for example. Well, are we not living in the age of the cinema? Is not this period of history more fantastic, more "incredible," than the simulacrum of it which we see unrolled on the silver screen? As for his sensationalism—have we forgotten Gilles de Rais, the Marquis de Sade, the Memoirs of Casanova? As for hyperbole, what of Pindar? As for prolixity and verbosity, what about Jules Romains or Marcel Proust? As for exaggeration and deformation, what of Rabelais, Swift, Céline, to mention an anomalous trinity? As for lack of form, that perennial jackass which is always kicking up its heels in the pages of literary reviews, have I not heard cultured Europeans rant about the "vegetal" aspect of Hindu temples, the façades of which are studded with a riot of human, animal and other forms? Have I not seen them twisting their lips in distaste when examining the efflorescences embodied in Tibetan scrolls? No taste, eh? No sense of proportion? No control? C'est ça. De la mesure avant tout! These cultured nobodies forget that their beloved exemplars, the Greeks, worked with Cyclopean blocks, created monstrosities as well as apotheoses of harmony, grace, form and spirit; they forget perhaps that the Cycladic sculpture of Greece surpassed in abstraction and simplification anything which Brancusi or his followers ever attempted. The very mythology of these worshipers of beauty, whose motto was "Nothing to the extreme," is a revelation of the "monstrous" aspect of their being.
Oui, Cendrars is full of excrescences. There are passages which swell up out of the body of his text like rank tumors. There are detours, parentheses, asides, which are the embryonic pith and substance of books yet to come. There is a grand efflorescence and exfoliation, and there is also a grand wastage of material in his books. Cendrars neither cribs and cabins, nor does he drain himself completely. When the moment comes to let go, he lets go. When it is expedient or efficacious to be brief, he is brief and to the point—like a dagger. To me his books reflect his lack of fixed habits, or better yet, his ability to break a habit. (A sign of real emancipation!) In those swollen paragraphs, which are like une mer houleuse and which some readers, apparently, are unable to cope with, Cendrars reveals his oceanic spirit. We who vaunt dear Shakespeare's madness, his elemental outbursts, are we to fear these cosmic gusts? We who swallowed the Pantagruel and Gargantua, via Urquhart, are we to be daunted by catalogues of names, places, dates, events? We who produced the oddest writer in any tongue—Lewis Carroll—are we to shy away from the play of words, from the ridiculous, the grotesque, the unspeakable or the "utterly impossible"? It takes a man to hold his breath as Cendrars does when he is about to unleash one of his triple-page paragraphs without stop. A man? A deep-sea diver. A whale. A whale of a man, precisely.
What is remarkable is that this same man has also given us some of the shortest sentences ever written, particularly in his poems and prose poems. Here, in staccato rhythm—let us not forget that before he was a writer he was a musician!—he deploys a telegraphic style. (It might also be called "telesthetic.") One can read it as fast as Chinese, with whose written characters his vocables have a curious affinity, to my way of thinking. This particular technique of Cendrars's creates a kind of exorcism—a deliverance from the heavy weight of prose, from the impedimenta of grammar and syntax, from the illusory intelligibility of the merely communicative in speech. In "l'Eubage," for example, we discover a sibylline quality of thought and utterance. It is one of his curious books. An extreme. Also a departure and an end. Cendrars is indeed difficult to classify, though why we should want to classify him I don't know. Sometimes I think of him as "a writer's writer," though he is definitely not that. But what I mean to say is that a writer has much to learn from Cendrars. In school, I remember, we were always being urged to take as models men like Macaulay, Coleridge, Ruskin, or Edmund Burke—even de Maupassant. Why they didn't say Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, I don't know. No professor ever believed, I dare say, that any of us brats would turn out to be writers one day. They were failures themselves, hence teachers. Cendrars has made it clear that the only teacher, the only model, is life itself. What a writer learns from Cendrars is to follow his nose, to obey life's commands, to worship no other god but life. Some interpreters will have it that Cendrars means "the dangerous life." I don't believe Cendrars would limit it thus. He means life pure and simple, in all its aspects, all its ramifications, all its bypaths, temptations, hazards, what not. If he is an adventurer, he is an adventurer in all realms of life. What interests him is every phase of life. The subjects he has touched on, the themes he has pursued, are encyclopedic. Another sign of "emancipation," this all-inclusive absorption in life's myriad manifestations. It is often when he seems most "realistic," for example, that he tends to pull all the stops on his organ. The realist is a meager soul. He sees what is in front of him, like a horse with blinders. Cendrars's vision is perpetually open; it is almost as if he had an extra eye buried in his crown, a skylight open to all the cosmic rays. Such a man, you may be sure, will never complete his life's work, because life will always be a step ahead of him. Besides, life knows no completion, and Cendrars is one with life. An article by Pierre de Latil in La Gazette des Lettres, Paris, August 6, 1949, informs us that Cendrars has projected a dozen or more books to be written within the next few years. It is an astounding program, considering that Cendrars is now in his sixties, that he has no secretary, that he writes with his left hand, that he is restless underneath, always itching to sally forth and see more of the world, that he actually detests writing and looks upon his work as forced labor. He works on four or five books at a time. He will finish them all, I am certain. I only pray that I live to read the trilogy of "les souvenirs humains" called Archives de ma tour d'ivoire, which will consist of: Hommes de lettres, Hommes d'affaires and Vie des hommes obscurs. Particularly the last-named…
I have long pondered over Cendrars's confessed insomnia. He attributes it to his life in the trenches, if I remember rightly. True enough, no doubt, but I surmise there are deeper reasons for it. At any rate, what I wish to point out is that there seems to be a connection between his fecundity and his sleeplessness. For the ordinary individual sleep is the restorative. Exceptional individuals—holy men, gurus, inventors, leaders, men of affairs, or certain types of the insane—are able to do with very little sleep. They apparently have other means of replenishing their dynamic potential. Some men, merely by varying their pursuits, can go on working with almost no sleep. Others, like the yogi and the guru, in becoming more and more aware and therefore more alive, virtually emancipate themselves from the thrall of sleep. (Why sleep if the purpose of life is to enjoy creation to the fullest?) With Cendrars, I have the feeling that in switching from active life to writing, and vice versa, he replenishes himself. A pure supposition on my part. Otherwise I am at a loss to account for a man burning the candle at both ends and not consuming himself. Cendrars mentions somewhere that he is of a line of longlived antecedents. He has certainly squandered his hereditary patrimony regally. But—he shows no signs of cracking up. Indeed, he seems to have entered upon a period of second youth. He is confident that when he reaches the ripe age of seventy he will be ready to embark on new adventures. It will not surprise me in the least if he does; I can see him at ninety scaling the Himalayas or embarking in the first rocket to voyage to the moon.
But to come back to the relation between his writing and his sleeplessness … If one examines the dates given at the end of his books, indicating the time he spent on them, one is struck by the rapidity with which he executed them as well as by the speed with which (all good-sized books) they succeed one another. All this implies one thing, to my mind, and that is "obsession." To write one has to be possessed and obsessed. What is it that possesses and obsesses Cendrars? Life. He is a man in love with life—et c'est tout. No matter if he denies this at times, no matter if he vilifies the times or excoriates his contemporaries in the arts, no matter if he compares his own recent past with the present and finds the latter lacking, no matter if he deplores the trends, the tendencies, the philosophies and behavior of the men of our epoch, he is the one man of our time who has proclaimed and trumpeted the fact that today is profound and beautiful. And it is just because he has anchored himself in the midst of contemporary life, where, as if from a conning tower, he surveys all life, past, present and future, the life of the stars as well as the life of the ocean depths, life in miniscule as well as the life grandiose, that I seized upon him as a shining example of the right principle, the right attitude towards life. No one can steep himself in the splendors of the past more than Cendrars; no one can hail the future with greater zest; but it is the present, the eternal present, which he glorifies and with which he allies himself. It is such men, and only such men, who are in the tradition, who carry on. The others are backward lookers, idolaters, or else mere wraiths of hopefulness, bonimenteurs. With Cendrars you strike ore. And it is because he understands the present so profoundly, accepts it and is one with it, that he is able to predict the future so unerringly. Not that he sets himself up as a soothsayer! No, his prophetic remarks are made casually and discreetly; they are buried often in a maze of unrelated material. In this he often reminds me of the good physician. He knows how to take the pulse. In fact, he knows all the pulses, like the Chinese physicians of old. When he says of certain men that they are sick, or of certain artists that they are corrupt or fakes, or of politicians in general that they are crazy, or of military men that they are criminals, he knows whereof he speaks. It is the magister in him which is speaking.
He has, however, another way of speaking which is more endearing to me. He can speak with tenderness. Lawrence, it will be remembered, originally thought of calling the book known as Lady Chatterley's Lover by the title "Tenderness." I mention Lawrence's name because I remember vividly Cendrars's allusion to him on the occasion of his memorable visit to the Villa Seurat. "You must think a lot of Lawrence," he said questioningly. "I do," I replied. We exchanged a few words and then I recall him asking me fair and square if I did not believe Lawrence to be overrated. It was the metaphysical side of Lawrence, I gathered, that was not to his liking, that was "suspect," I should say. (And it was just at this period that I was engrossed in this particular aspect of Lawrence) I am sure, at any rate, that my defense of Lawrence was weak and unsustained. To be truthful, I was much more interested in hearing Cendrars's view of the man than in justifying my own. Often, later, in reading Cendrars this word "tenderness" crossed my lips. It would escape involuntarily, rouse me from my reverie. Futile though it be, I would then indulge in endless speculation, comparing Lawrence's tenderness with Cendrars's. They are, I now think, of two distinct kinds. Lawrence's weakness is man, Cendrars's men. Lawrence longed to know men better; he wanted to work in common with them. It is in Apocalypse that he has some of the most moving passages—on the withering of the "societal" instinct. They create real anguish in us—for Lawrence. They make us realize the tortures he suffered in trying to be "a man among men." With Cendrars I detect no hint of such deprivation or mutilation. In the ocean of humanity Cendrars swims as blithely as a porpoise or a dolphin. In his narratives he is always together with men, one with them in deed, one with them in thought. If he is a solitary, he is nevertheless fully and completely a man. He is also the brother of all men. Never does he set himself up as superior to his fellow man. Lawrence thought himself superior, often, often—I think that is undeniable—and very often he was anything but. Very often it is a lesser man who "instructs" him. Or shames him. Lawrence had too great a love for "humanity" to understand or get along with his fellow man.
It is when we come to their respective fictional characters that we sense the rift between these two figures. With the exception of the self portraits, given in Sons and Lovers, Kangaroo, Aaron's Rod and such like, all Lawrence's characters are mouthpieces for his philosophy or the philosophy he wishes to depose. They are ideational creatures, moved about like chess pieces. They have blood in them all right, but it is the blood which Lawrence has pumped into them. Cendrars's characters issue from life and their activity stems from life's moving vortex. They too, of course, acquaint us with his philosophy of life, but obliquely, in the elliptic manner of art.
The tenderness of Cendrars exudes from all pores. He does not spare his characters; neither does he revile or castigate them. His harshest words, let me say parenthetically, are usually reserved for the poets and artists whose work he considers spurious. Aside from these diatribes, you will rarely find him passing judgment upon others. What you do find is that in laying bare the weaknesses or faults of his subjects he is unmasking, or endeavoring to unmask, their essential heroic nature. All the diverse figures—human, all too human—which crowd his books are glorified in their basic, intrinsic being. They may or may not have been heroic in the face of death; they may or may not have been heroic before the tribunal of justice; but they are heroic in the common struggle to assert and uphold their own primal being. I mentioned a while ago the book by Al Jennings which Cendrars so ably translated. The very choice of this book is indicative of my point. This mite of a man, this outlaw with an exaggerated sense of justice and honor who is "up for life" (but eventually pardoned by Theodore Roosevelt), this terror of the West who wells over with tenderness, is just the sort of man Cendrars would choose to tell the world about, just the sort of man he would uphold as being filled with the dignity of life. Ah, how I should like to have been there when Cendrars eventually caught up with him, in Hollywood of all places! Cendrars has written of this "brief encounter" and I heard of it myself from Al Jennings' own lips when I met him by chance a few years ago—in a bookshop there in Hollywood.
In the books written since the Occupation, Cendrars has much to say about the War—the First War, naturally, not only because it was less inhuman but because the future course of his life, I might say, was decided by it. He has also written about the Second War, particularly about the fall of Paris and the incredible exodus preceding it. Haunting pages, reminiscent of Revelation. Equaled in war literature only by St. Exupéry's Flight to Arras. (See the section of his book, Le Lotissement du Ciel, which first appeared in the revue, Le Cheval de Troie, entitled: Un Nouveau Patron pour l'Aviation.) In all these recent books Cendrars reveals himself more and more intimately. So penetrative, so naked, are these glimpses he permits us that one instinctively recoils. So sure, swift and deft are these revelations that it is like watching a safecracker at work. In these flashes stand revealed the whole swarm of intimates whose lives dovetail with his own. Exposed through the lurid searchlight of his Cyclopean eye they are caught in the flux and surveyed from every angle. Here there is "completion" of a sort. Nothing is omitted or altered for the sake of the narrative. With these books the "narrative" is stepped up, broadened out, the supports and buttresses battered away, in order that the book may become part of life, swim with life's currents, and remain forever identical with life. Here one comes to grips with the men Cendrars truly loves, the men he fought beside in the trenches and whom he saw wiped out like rats, the Gypsies of the Zone whom he consorted with in the good old days, the ranchers and other figures from the South American scene, the porters, concierges, tradesmen, truck drivers, and "people of no account" (as we say), and it is with the utmost sympathy and understanding that he treats these latter. What a gallery! Infinitely more exciting, in every sense of the word, than Balzac's gallery of "types." This is the real Human Comedy. No sociological studies, à la Zola. No satirical puppet show, à la Thackeray. No pan-humanity, à la Jules Romains. Here in these latter books, though minus the aim and purpose of the great Russian, but perhaps with another aim which we will understand better later, at any rate, with equal amplitude, violence, humor, tenderness and religious—yes, religious—fervor, Cendrars gives us the French equivalent of Dostoievski's outpourings in such works as The Idiot, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov. A production which could only be realized, consummated, in the ripe middle years of life.
Everything now forthcoming has been digested a thousand times. Again and again Cendrars has pushed back—where? into what deep well?—the multiform story of his life. This heavy, molten mass of experience raw and refined, subtle and crude, digested and predigested, which had been lodging in his entrails like a torpid and amorphous dinosaur idly flapping its rudimentary wings, this cargo destined for eventual delivery at the exact time and the exact place, demanded a touch of dynamite to be set off. From June, 1940, to the 21st of August, 1943, Cendrars remained awesomely silent. Il s'est tu. Chut! Motus! What starts him writing again is a visit from his friend Edouard Peisson, as he relates in the opening pages of l'Homme Foudroyé. En passant he evokes the memory of a certain night in 1915, at the front—"la plus terrible que jai vécue." There were other occasions, one suspects, before the critical visit of his friend Peisson, which might have served to detonate the charge. But perhaps on these occasions the fuse burned out too quickly or was damp or smothered under by the weight of world events. But let us drop these useless speculations. Let us dive into Section 17 of Un Nouveau Patron Pour l'Aviation …
This brief section begins with the recollection of a sentence of Rémy de Gourmont's: "And it shows great progress that, where women prayed before, cows now chew the cud …" In a few lines comes this from Cendrars's own mouth:
Beginning on May 10th, Surrealism descended upon earth: not the works of absurd poets who pretend to be such and who, at most, are but sou-realistes since they preach the subconscious, but the work of Christ, the only poet of the sur-real …
If ever I had faith, it was on that day that grace should have touched me …
Follow two paragraphs dealing in turbulent, compressed fury with the ever execrable condition of war. Like Goya, he repeats: "J'ai vu." The second paragraph ends thus:
The sun had stopped. The weather forecast announced an anti-cyclone lasting forty days. It couldn't be! For which reason everything went wrong: gear-wheels would not lock, machinery everywhere broke down: the dead-point of everything.
The next five lines will ever remain in my memory:
No, on May 10th, humanity was far from adequate to the event. Lord! Above, the sky was like a backside with gleaming buttocks and the sun an inflamed anus. What else but shit could ever have issued from it? And modern man screamed with fear …
This man of August the 21st, 1943, who is exploding in all directions at once, had of course already delivered himself of a wad of books, not least among them, we shall probably discover one day, being the ten volumes of Notre Pain Quotidien which he composed intermittently over a period of ten years in a château outside Paris, to which manuscripts he never signed his name, confiding the chests containing this material to various safety vaults in different parts of South America and then throwing the keys away. ("Je voudrais rester l'Anonyme," he says.)
In the books begun at Aix-en-Provence are voluminous notes, placed at the ends of the various sections. I will quote just one, from Bourlinguer (the section on Genoa), which constitutes an everlasting tribute to the poet so dear to French men of letters:
Dear Gerard de Nerval, man of the crowd, night-walker, slang-ist, impenitent dreamer, neurasthenic lover of the Capital's small theatres and the vast necropoli of the East: architect of Solomon's Temple, translator of Faust, personal secretary to the Queen of Sheba, Druid of the 1st and 2nd class, sentimental vagabond of the Ile-de-France, last of the Valois, child of Paris, lips of gold, you hung your-self in the mouth of a sewer after shooting your poems up to the sky and now your shade swings ever before them, ever larger and larger, between Notre-Dame and Saint-Merry, and your fiery Chimaeras range this square of the heavens like six disheveiled and terrifying comets. By your appeal to the New Spirit you for ever disturbed our feeling today: and nowadays men could not go on living without this anxiety:
'The Eagle has already passed: the New Spirit calls me …' (Horus, str. III, v. 9)
On page 244, in the same body of notes, Cendrars states the following: "The other day I was sixty and it is only today, as I reach the end of the present tale, that I begin to believe in my vocation of writer …" Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you lads of twenty-five, thirty and forty years of age who are constantly bellyaching because you have not yet succeeded in establishing a reputation. Be glad that you are still alive, still living your life, still garnering experience, still enjoying the bitter fruits of isolation and neglect!
I would have liked to dwell on many singular passages in these recent books replete with the most astounding facts, incidents, literary and historic events, scientific and occult allusions, curiosa of literature, bizarre types of men and women, feasts, drunken bouts, humorous escapades, tender idylls, anecdotes concerning remote places, times, legends, extraordinary colloquies with extraordinary individuals, reminiscences of golden days, burlesques, fantasies, myths, inventions, introspections and eviscerations … I would have liked to speak at length of that singular author and even more singular man, Gustave Le Rouge, the author of three hundred and twelve books which the reader has most likely never heard of, the variety, nature, style and contents of which Cendrars dwells on con amore; I would like to have given the reader some little flavor of the closing section, "Vendetta," from l'Homme Foudroyé, which is direct from the lips of Sawo the Gypsy; I would like to have taken the reader to La Cornue, chez Paquita, or to that wonderful hideout in the South of France where, hoping to finish a book in peace and tranquility, Cendrars abandons the page which he had slipped into the typewriter after writing a line or two and never looks at it again but gives himself up to pleasure, idleness, reverie and drink; I would like to have given the reader at least an inkling of that hair-raising story of the "homunculi" which Cendrars recounts at length in Bourlinguer (the section called "Gènes"), but if I were to dip into these extravaganzas I should never be able to extricate myself.
I shall jump instead to the last book received from Cendrars, the one called La Banlieue de Paris, published by La Guilde du Livre, Lausanne. It is illustrated with one hundred and thirty photographs by Robert Doisneau, sincere, moving, unvarnished documents which eloquently supplement the text. De nouveau une belle collaboration. (Vive les collaborateurs, les vrais!) The text is fairly short—fifty large pages. But haunting pages, written sur le vif. (From the 15th of July to the 31st of August, 1949.) If there were nothing more noteworthy in these pages than Cendrars's description of a night at Saint-Denis on the eve of an aborted revolution this short text would be worth preserving. But there are other passages equally somber and arresting, or nostalgic, poignant, saturated with atmosphere, saturated with the pullulating effervescence of the sordid suburbs. Mention has often been made of Cendrars's rich vocabulary, of the poetic quality of his prose, of his ability to incorporate in his rhapsodic passages the monstrous jargon and terminology of science, industry, invention. This document, which is a sort of retrospective elegy, is an excellent example of his virtuosity. In memory he moves in on the suburbs from East, South, North, and West, and, as if armed with a magic wand, resuscitates the drama of hope, longing, failure, ennui, despair, frustration, misery and resentment which devours the denizens of this vast belt. In one compact paragraph, the second in the section called "Nord," Cendrars gives a graphic, physical summary of all that makes up the hideous suburban terrain. It is a bird's-eye view of the ravages which follow in the wake of industry. A little later he gives us a detailed description of the interior of one of England's war plants, "a shadow factory," which is in utter contrast to the foregoing. It is a masterful piece of reportage in which the cannon plays the role of vedette. But in paying his tribute to the factory, Cendrars makes it clear where he stands. It is the one kind of work he has no stomach for. "Mieux vaut être un vagabond," is his dictum. In a few swift lines he volplanes over the eternal bloody war business and, with a cry of shame for the Hiroshima "experiment," he launches the staggering figures of the last war's havoc tabulated by a Swiss review for the use and the benefit of those who are preparing the coming carnival of death. They belong, these figures, just as the beautiful arsenals belong and the hideous banlieue. And finally, for he has had them in mind throughout, Cendrars asks: "What of the children? Who are they? Whence do they come? Where are they going?" Referring us back to the photos of Robert Doisneau, he evokes the figures of David and Goliath—to let us know what indeed the little ones may have in store for us.
No mere document, this book. It is something I should like to own in a breast-pocket edition, to carry with me should I ever wander forth again. Something to take one's bearings by …
It has been my lot to prowl the streets, by night as well as day, of these God-forsaken precincts of woe and misery, not only here in my own country but in Europe too. In their spirit of desolation they are all alike. Those which ring the proudest cities of the earth are the worst. They stink like chancres. When I look back on my past I can scarcely see anything else, smell anything else but these festering empty lots, these filthy, shrouded streets, these rubbish heaps of jerries indiscriminately mixed with the garbage and refuse, the forlorn, utterly senseless household objects, toys, broken gadgets, vases and pisspots abandoned by the poverty-stricken, hopeless, helpless creatures who make up the population of these districts. In moments of high fettle I have threaded my way amidst the bric-a-brac and shambles of these quarters and thought to myself: What a poem! What a documentary film! Often I recovered my sober senses only by cursing and gnashing my teeth, by flying into wild, futile rages, by picturing myself a benevolent dictator who would eventually "restore order, peace and justice." I have been obsessed for weeks and months on end by such experiences. But I have never succeeded in making music of it. (And to think that Erik Satie, whose domicile Robert Doisneau gives us in one of the photos, to think that this man also "made music" in that crazy building is something which makes my scalp itch.) No, I have never succeeded in making music of this insensate material. I have tried a number of times, but my spirit is still too young, too filled with repulsion. I lack that ability to recede, to assimilate, to pound the mortar with a chemist's skill. But Cendrars has succeeded, and that is why I take my hat off to him. Salut, cher Blaise Cendrars! You are a musician. Salute! And glory be! We have need of the poets of night and desolation as well as the other sort. We have need of comforting words—and you give them—as well as vitriolic diatribes. When I say "we" I mean all of us. Ours is a thirst unquenchable for an eye such as yours, an eye which condemns without passing judgment, an eye which wounds by its naked glance and heals at the same time. Especially in America do "we" need your historic touch, your velvety backward sweep of the plume. Yes, we need it perhaps more than anything you have to offer us. History has passed over our scarred terrains vagues at a gallop. It has left us a few names, a few absurd monuments—and a veritable chaos of bric-a-brac. The one race which inhabited these shores and which did not mar the work of God was the redskins. Today they occupy the wastelands. For their "protection" we have organized a pious sort of concentration camp. It has no barbed wires, no instruments of torture, no armed guards. We simply leave them there to die out …
But I cannot end on this dolorous note, which is only the backfire of those secret rumblings which begin anew whenever the past crops up. There is always a rear view to be had from these crazy edifices which our minds inhabit so tenaciously. The view from Satie's back window is the kind I mean. Wherever in the "zone" there is a cluster of shabby buildings, there dwell the little people, the salt of the earth, as we say, for without them we would be left to starve, without them that crust which is thrown to the dogs and which we pounce on like wolves would have only the savor of death and revenge. Through those oblong windows from which the bedding hangs I can see my pallet in the corner where I have flopped for the night, to be rescued again in miraculous fashion the next sundown, always by a "nobody," which means, when we get to understand human speech, by an angel in disguise. What matter if with the coffee one swallows a mislaid emmenagogue? What matter if a stray roach clings to one's tattered garments? Looking at life from the rear window one can look down at one's past as into a still mirror in which the days of desperation merge with the days of joy, the days of peace, and the days of deepest friendship. Especially do I feel this way, think this way, when I look into my French backyard. There all the meaningless pieces of my life fall into a pattern. I see no waste motion. It is all as clear as "The Cracow Poem" to a chess fiend. The music it gives off is as simple as were the strains of "Sweet Alice Ben Bolt" to my childish ears. More, it is beautiful, for as Sir H. Rider Haggard says in his autobiography: "The naked truth is always beautiful, even when it tells of evil."
My dear Cendrars, you must at times have sensed a kind of envy in me for all that you have lived through, digested, and vomited forth transformed, transmogrified, transubstantiated. As a child you played by Vergil's tomb; as a mere lad you tramped across Europe, Russia, Asia, to stoke the furnace in some forgotten hotel in Pekin; as a young man, in the bloody days of the Legion, you elected to remain a corporal, no more; as a war victim you begged for alms in your own dear Paris, and a little later you were on the bum in New York, Boston, New Orleans, Frisco … You have roamed far, you have idled the days away, you have burned the candle at both ends, you have made friends and enemies, you have dared to write the truth, you have known how to be silent, you have pursued every path to the end, and you are still in your prime, still building castles in the air, still breaking plans, habits, resolutions, because to live is your primary aim, and you are living and will continue to live both in the flesh and in the roster of the illustrious ones. How foolish, how absurd of me to think that I might be of help to you, that by putting in my little word for you here and there, as I said before, I would be advancing your cause. You have no need of my help or of anyone's. Just living your life as you do you automatically aid us, all of us, everywhere life is lived. Once again I doff my hat to you. I bow in reverence. I have not the right to salute you because I am not your peer. I prefer to remain your devotee, your loving disciple, your spiritual brother in der Ewigkeit.
You always close your greetings with "ma main amie." I grasp that warm left hand you proffer and I wring it with joy, with gratitude, and with an everlasting benediction on my lips.
SOURCE: "Cooey-Booey Cubist," in The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1966, pp. 4, 20.
[Rexroth is a poet, critic, and translator. In the following review, he presents a mixed opinion of Cendrars's poetic contribution.]
The greatest poet of the Cubist epoch was Pierre Reverdy, because he had distinguished emotions. The next was Gertrude Stein, because she had none. Both had perfect ears and impeccable style. Blaise Cendrars, (1887–1961), like Max Jacob, was a professional personality of the same period, rather than an artist. Henry Miller, who writes a brief preface to this collection, has written about Cendrars extensively elsewhere and admires him greatly. They have a good deal in common.
Both Cendrars and Miller present themselves to the public as livers rather than artists, and both have a talent for engaging implausibility, which sometimes catches them short. Actually this sort of thing is just as literary as Walter Pater or Henry James. It's just a different pitch, and it depends for its effectiveness on its literary convincingness. Blaise Cendrars portrays himself in his poetry as a more picaresque and more robust and very French Whitman, a nonchalant knockabout who had been for to see and for to admire in all the most remote and exciting parts of the world.
It is interesting to go back and read some of the things that made him his reputation—the volume called Kodak, the poem "Far West," most emphatically pronounced "Fahvest," as you discover on reading it. San Bernardino, Calif., is built in the center of a verdant valley, watered by a multitude of little brooks from the neighboring mountains. Trout pullulate in these brooks; innumerable herds graze in the fat fields and the shepherds stuff themselves with the local fruits, which include pineapples. Game abounds. The lapin à queue de coton called "cottontail" and the hare with long ears called "jackass," the chat sauvage and le serpent à sonnette "rattlesnake," but there aren't any more pumas nowadays. So it goes on. Hilaire Hiler used to read the whole poem, ad-libbing all sorts of French-pronounced Westernisms with hilarious effect on the select audience in the old Jockey on Boulevard Montparnasse.
As a cowboy poet, Cendrars is, I'm afraid, only a cooey-booey. As a poet of tourism, he is less convincing than Valery Larbaud and his world-wandering, world-weary billionaire, A. O. Barnabooth. Yet convincing he is, not for what he pretends to be, but for what he is. He is the poet of the lumpen demimonde, of the sword-swallowers, escape-artists and street-corner acrobats in the cheap hotels back of the Gaité, of the worn and innocent whores of the Passage du Départs with runs in their stockings and holes in their shoes. It's not just that he writes about them, although when he does he's very good indeed, but that he thinks like them and speaks in their very voices.
This is not true of other poets of the métier, who sublimate the idiom with their own sentiment. This is the sort of thing that translators seem unable to catch. The desperate insouciance that underlies the rhythms of Cendrars's verse and the twists of his syntax are inaccessible to American professors of French who get foundation grants.
Yet Cendrars was also intellectual and the introduction to these translations makes much of his writing on poetics. His ideas are pretty much the orthodoxy of the Cubist period and now have the musty smell of dead cafe conversation. Our principal emotion on reading Cendrars today is nostalgia for him and his friends and the beautiful epoch in which they came to maturity, and this is greatly reinforced by the fact that nostalgia is also close to being his own principal subject. Far away at the ends of the earth he meets a wandering tart on a transcontinental train and all the sordid purgatorial excitement of the streets of Paris lit with prostitutes floods back on him. The Far West or the Argentine pampas, which he probably never saw, are symbols of lost innocence and glamour.
One of Cendrars's most important contributions to French literature is his prosody. He began writing vers libre in Vielé-Griffin's sense, which is not to be translated "free verse," but which in Cendrars's case was a kind of rushing, sprung alexandrine or hexameter or hendecasyllable. In his first long poem, this approaches the impetuous rocking rhythm of Apollinaire's "Zone." Cendrars, although he always denied discipleship, was a very obvious continuator of one aspect of Apollinaire, as person, poet and prosodist. Soon he was writing free verse in the English sense, a little like the early, best poetry of Carl Sandburg or even more like the long swaying rhythms of Robinson Jeffers.
His translators do not manage to transmit these virtues. I think the reason is that poetry like Cendrars's, for all its surface blustery extroversion, is really very intimate. To translate him successfully, it would be necessary to have either shared his background and his attitude toward it or to be a consummate actor able to project oneself imaginatively into almost complete identification with his personality. However, this book contains the French texts on facing pages, and the English is usually not too far off to serve as a pony.
The youngest generation of American poets should find Cendrars stimulating. It's a long time since poetry like this, as good as this, has been written in America. Nothing less like the imitation Jacobean verse of the older Establishment and the Pound-Williams-Olson verse of the new Establishment could be imagined. People are trying to write like this again and Cendrars could be of help—although the world of the working-class Bohemia of the slums of Paris that gives his poetry its special quality is utterly vanished from the earth.
SOURCE: A review of To the End of the World, in London Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 11, February, 1967, pp. 114-18.
[In the following excerpt, McGuinness presents a negative review of the book.]
On the evidence of To the End of the World, the first of his works to be translated into English, it would hardly seem that we have been deprived to any great extent by the continued neglect of the twenty odd other books written by Blaise Cendrars in the countless years he has been prominent in French literary circles. 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. In consequence, his book is loaded with the sort of crapulous incident that the avant-garde writer almost invariably serves up when he sets out to be shocking. Of course, this may well what the appetites of those doddering crusaders who still imagine that the publication of any lewd word is a further blow against the prurient and taboo-ridden conventions of a society that virtually crumbled away twenty years ago, the period in which the novel is set. They won't be disappointed. Nevertheless, authors and their publishers should get wise to the changing scene. At a time when even clerics flirt with adultery, and fornication at last shows signs of becoming old hat, we may be approaching the point where a successful novel will have to be something more than a string of erotic escapades involving characters whose only claim to our attention is their promiscuity. This is where To the End of the World flops. The blurb may pontificate about this legendary figure who, together with Apollinaire and Max Jacob, founded the modern movement in literature etc, but stripped of its titillating and scabrous trappings the book has little to offer.
Its bizarre and raddled heroine is Thérèsa Églantine, a garrulous ex-beauty with three husbands and innumerable lovers behind her, but now reduced to paying for her pleasure in the seamier quarters of Paris. Close on eighty but still as game as they come, the opening chapter finds her in bed with her latest pick-up, a drunken deserter from the Legion, much tatoo'd and homicidal. The author dwells on the scene at some length and it sets the tone of the book. Punctuating his labour with continual cries of 'Pox', the man takes her Turk-fashion, 'turning her this way and that, making her gyrate again and again on its axis as though she were impaled on a pivot' until she loses her false teeth with a blow from his naked heel and achieves an orgasm while he is content to vomit in her lap. Such is the bliss that at once binds her to him, offering everything she possesses and finally sealing the incongruous match in a blood-letting ceremony in a subterranean hideout thirty yards beneath Radio-Télèvision Française. But Thérèsa is more than a debauched and washed-up voluptuary. A one-time rival of Bernhardt, she has been rescued from obscurity by a percipient critic and now reigns as the uncrowned queen of the theatre, shortly to star in a play in which she will shake Paris to its foundations by appearing in all her wrinkled and sagging nudity to recite verses from Villon. Lavishly staged and dressed, it is to be a fitting vehicle for her farewell, a performance that will render her supreme and immortal. She herself when not actually naked will wear a spectacular gown studded with jewels borrowed from her closest friend, a legless woman who was once the pride of a harem only to be rescued by a legionary and exhibited in sideshows before being saved again, this time by a Colonel who left her a fortune. All this seems likely to come to nought when she is implicated in the sudden and violent death of a local barkeeper, and her half-crazed sister, incessantly plotting her downfall, denounces her to the police as the culprit. The situation looks grave but the way in which this bold and flamboyant old woman turns even this threat to her own advantage provides what little plot there is in a book that is sometimes funny, more often irritating and frequently tedious as the characters become increasingly grotesque and their behaviour more bewildering and capricious.
SOURCE: "French Chronicle," in Poetry, Vol. 111, No. 2, November, 1967, pp. 124-28.
[In the following excerpt, Zweig provides a mixed, but generally favorable, review of the volume Blaise Cendrars, Selected Writings. He is, however, critical of the quality of translation.]
Blaise Cendrars was a monument. He spent his life crossing and recrossing the world as if it might collapse beneath him when he stopped, like those glossy insects that scoot endlessly over a pond, held up by "surface tension". Except that Cendrars drew the tension out of his own mind. In his preface to the New Directions volume, Henry Miller describes the man: "I see his slouch hat and battered mug beneath it. I see him 'revolutionizing' because there is nothing else to do…. He was not a rebel, he was an absolute traitor to the race, and as such I salute him. The salute is wasted of course, because Cendrars didn't give a damn whether you saluted him or not."
Words, jagged phrases, lists of objects leaping on each other's backs; the rhythm of railroad wheels, of boats, of feet tramping in Panama and in New York: these were his itineraries. They both were, and they recorded, the connection he spent his life making between places, images, and headlines. The face on the cover of the Selected Writings tells all that. It is a face eaten from inside by decades of imperfectly expended energy, with eyes that are like the cigarette in his mouth, still glowing but covered by a long, unshaken ash. 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. Thus his fine poem "Les Paques à New York"—perhaps the best long poem he wrote, along with the "Transsibérien"—creates a mood which Apollinaire was able to learn from, especially in Zones, yet it is Apollinaire's poem which is by far the more memorable. The erratic and often violent associations of the early travel poems, the Nineteen Elastic Poems and others preceded and influenced the spirit of Dada and Surrealism. Yet Cendrars by the 1920's had moved beyond even this. He turned to publishing—we owe to his care the first re-edition of Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror—, then to the cinema, and finally to endless globetrotting, novels, and autobiographic prose. Those who admire the wordy travel fantasies of Ginsberg and Kerouak would do well to read Cendrars, who should be a hero of today's Beat wanderers.
Unfortunately the New Directions volume does Cendrars something of a disservice. The translations are clumsy, turning Cendrars's already prosy line into a kind of sub-prose. One also wonders why the very long and boring poem Panama or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles is included, when its place could well have been taken by a more ample selection from Cendrars's interesting prose works. Still the volume is worthwhile, if only because it gives access to the French on facing pages, and is, I believe, the only Cendrars we have in print in America.
SOURCE: "The Rage of Paris," in The New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1968, p. 28.
[In the following review of To the End of the World, Sourian is of the opinion that the only saving grace of the novel is the poetic language of Cendrars's original French, which he feels was lost in the translation.]
One of Blaise Cendrars's 20 books is called Too Much Is Too Much, and that might be said of this one, the first of his novels to be published in English. On the other hand it could also be said that too much does not amount to enough. There is a lot of adventure, yet not much happens; a regular tiger of color comes on ferocious but lies down flat. There are many exclamation points (over a dozen on some pages) but little in the way of feeling; much too much is bizarre and not enough is truly strange.
Cendrars, who died in 1961, six years after writing To the End of the World at the age of 68, had perhaps always overdone things. He'd climbed down the side of a building to run away from home at 15, and traveled the Orient as a jewel merchant; he'd lost an arm as a corporal in the Foreign Legion, and been a movie-maker, a loner and a family man, and a prolific member of the group of writers and painters who frequented the Lapin Agile in the early 1900's, including Picasso, Max Jacob and Modigliani. A French publishing house, in its biographical series, categorizes Cendrars as a témoin, along with Adenauer and Simone Weil, rather than as a classique with Claudel, Valéry and Malraux.
Some writers do seem more important as witnesses, figures or influences than as writers. Though Villiers de l'Isle Adam preferred writing to living and Proust preferred it to breathing, and Faulkner, while pretending otherwise, preferred it to moseying around, Hemingway may have preferred fighting to writing, Oscar Wilde liked to talk, and Norman Mailer has wanted to be President.
A pioneer of Whitmanesque freedom in French verse, Cendrars may be most important for having directly influenced Apollinaire. His dynamic long poem, Easter in New York, written in 1915, early claimed the modern industrial and urbanized world for art, taking the ritual of the mass by the hair and dragging it through 20th-century streets. Gaetan Picon says that in Cendrars telephone operators have replaced the goddesses of Olympus. Yet it is Apollinaire who has lasted as a poet, whose free-lined "Zone" is enough but not too much. Cendrars made a career out of writing poetry, without regard to rules, in a language whose genius demands them; a lot of it seems like automatic writing, set down in the belief that whatever comes to the poet's mind must automatically be good. Such an attitude, as an influence, was importantly liberating. As a credo, the reader may not wish to take Communion.
The strident, thinnish and mildly haunting book of an old man, To the End of the World rattles with careless bravado through the last bravura years in the life of a fantastically vigorous, amoral and clever old actress, Thérèse Eglantine, who at 80 becomes the rage of postwar Paris by exposing her aged, shrunken body on a stage nightly and nightly reciting Villon's lament for vanished beauty.
It quickmarches through her last love, for a tattooed deserter from the Legion who gives her black eyes. A minor character is murdered, and for a time the reader supposes he is reading a somewhat inept mystery, but the murder is never solved. The author's flailing hand, breaking charcoal all over the place, sketches a gallery of raffish Paris types: a beautiful quadruple amputee, a pimp bartender, an effeminate stage designer, a tongueless Negro, a police chief in love with a dumb ingenue, wealthy old gentlemen, critics, black marketeers. Then Thérèse dies.
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.
The bookjacket states that this is a roman à clef, and indeed we keep feeling that it is referring to something happening somewhere else, outside of the book. We are informed that people are madly in love, informed that a performance is great, informed that someone is beaten up. Characters don't talk to each other, they deliver long set speeches.
Some part of the difficulty also lies with the translation. Cendrars was a poet, and there is a nice slangy flavor to the writing in French, which is the novel's most pungent virtue, but which is hard to render in English.
SOURCE: "Cendrars Revived," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3498, March 13, 1969, p. 262.
[The following is a brief review of Cendrars's novel Moravagine.]
A certified lunatic leaps over a Swiss asylum wall to the car of the psychiatrist abetting his escape. In his hand there is a bloody knife. He has just disembowelled a girl. "Everywhere Moravagine left one or more female corpses behind him. Sometimes out of fun."
Moravagine's misogynic sense of humour takes him to Berlin, Moscow, the United States, South America and back to Europe to join in the fun of the First World War. Under the clinical observation of his fascinated psychiatrist rescuer he shows what you can do to upset the bourgeois applecart if you really try. He becomes Germany's own Jack the Ripper, Russian revolutionary and terrorist, music student, pilot, prospector, explorer, potential sacrifice of a tribe of Orinoco Indians and then their god—a cerebral superman and emotional Zombie: a monster who keeps his cool.
There is a strange paradox in the anarchic and headlong career of this Quixotic pair from continent to continent. They look for life in action, "the transvaluation of all social values and of life itself". Yet action, the only form of truth for Moravagine, invariably takes the form of destruction, murder, disembowelling—affirmationthrough nihilism. It is very tempting to gather up the titbits of Cendrars's philosophy that sugar the narrative in an attempt to put them into a general interpretation of this action idea, without regard to their basic implausibility. Cendrars is not an ideas man, a novelist philosopher. A good many of his intellectual generalizations, while entertaining, are embarrassing to read on a serious level.
Whatever the real or supposed conceptions that may lie beneath the narrative, they certainly make a good formula for rip-roaring fiction, imaginative adventuring on all planes of experience. Moreover, the long overdue translation loses as little as possible of the original. The lush descriptions of the Orinoco, the cool and involved medical digressions, the breathless enumerations and even the slightly stilted style of Cendrars's French are still there. Above all, however, it has not lost the real significance of the so-called philosophy of action, which lies not in any explicit and tangible interpretation, but in its overwhelming dynamism.
SOURCE: "Aztec Alphabet," in The Listener, March 5, 1970.
[In the following excerpt, Plante provides a favorable summary of The Astonished Man.]
The whole world seems to have belonged to Blaise Cendrars: the steppes of Russia, the jungles of South America, New York, artistic and intellectual Paris between the wars. He knew the best whore-houses in Peking, the opium dens in Marseilles, the richest Mexicans, the poorest fishermen; he directed movies, was a capitalist businessman, a jewel-peddler, a poet, a novelist. Even his losses were gains: though he lost an arm serving in the Foreign Legion during the First World War, he could add to his possessions the war itself and a host of legionaries, among them gypsies who later adopted him as one of their own. He must have thought he could, if not order, at least account for, the entire world in terms of places visited and people met.
The Astonished Man is a kind of heightened memoir: its images, taken from his life, act as mysterious and evocative emblems. There is the wealthy Mexican woman, Paquita, married five or six times, living just outside Paris in 'a château in splendid Louis XIV Baroque', with a 'gold and ebony gondola that brought one to the main gate', who meticulously fashions small waxwork figures of characters from Flaubert and Dickens, teaches Cendrars the complex Aztec alphabet, and gives half her fortune to the Mexican Revolution. There is the beautiful, sharp-witted American virgin, Diana, whom Cendrars rescues when her Buick breaks down in North Africa. There is La Mère, the matriarch of a vast gypsy community, marked by infibulation, yet wife to 14 dispensable husbands. Long after the book has been read one goes on seeing details that are so vivid—a hoard of wild pigs chasing a car in the jungles of Paraguay, a defect in a gypsy's eye 'known in medical terms as a colomba, a defect in the iris in the shape of a keyhole'—that they seem like letters in a rich alphabet (like the letters in the Aztec alphabet) which Cendrars has fashioned to describe an astonishing world.
SOURCE: "Cendrars's Modernism," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, April, 1970, pp. 561-65.
[Below, Houston reviews several of Cendrars's poems from the volume Selected Writings of Blaise Cendrars.]
After a recent spate of good biographies and translations of Apollinaire, the English-speaking reader is now presented (in a bilingual text for the poems) with selected works of Blaise Cendrars, Apollinaire's contemporary in remaking French poetry. Cendrars was a minor poet, and not a very productive one at that, but he occupies a significant place in the development of a modernist poetic style on the eve of World War I.
The modernism of Cendrars involves both subject and form. His poems reject the old humanism in favor of celebrating an age of large-scale industry, of speed and consumption. "Advertising=Poetry" is the title of one of his occasional essays, and he felt life to be enhanced by the new sense of movement embodied in cinema, Cubist painting, tall buildings, and economic expansion. From the point of view of form, Cendrars's verse reflects the acute dilemma facing poets in the early decades of the century, essentially the problem of innovation confronted, to various degrees, by Whitman and Claudel, Pound and Williams. Feeling that poetry must reject metrics, if not rhythm, as well as traditional poetic vocabulary and syntax, they nonetheless wanted the resulting verse to have the peculiar stamp of poetry. 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 early theorist of this kind of modernism was Marinetti, the leader of the Italian Futurists, but in Cendrars's case, we must also remember that he frequented Cubist circles, where visual surprise was an important aesthetic principle.
Cendrars's most characteristic style is rich in juxtaposed images, the syntax tending to be loose and mostly paratactic:
It's raining electric light bulbs Montrouge Gare de L'Est Metro North-South tourist-boats world All is shrouded in halos Impenetrable On the Rue de Buci they're hawkingL'Intransigeant and Paris-Sports The celestial airport is now, in flames, a painting by Cimabue While in the foreground Men are Long Dark Sad And smoking, factory chimneys ("Contrasts")
The laconic disposition of the words on the page succeeds in creating intensity while in no way suggesting the rhythm of prose. There is a chaste spareness in the lines that French metrical verse rarely attained. Unfortunately Cendrars did not always achieve such sharpness of outline; often the words and phrases isolated on the page do not seem worthy of such singling out. And in long poems there almost always occur passages in which inspiration flags and the typography seems merely a gimmick.
Nearly all of Cendrars's important poetry was produced between 1912 and 1914, and we know little of what prompted his vocation. He was born Frédéric-Louis Sauser in 1887 in Switzerland; after an eccentric early life with eccentric parents, he became something of an adventurer, traveling widely and trying his hand at various jobs. "Easter in New York" (1912), his first generally known poem, draws on liturgical tradition and has the rather monotonous movement of litany. More interesting is "Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Jeanne of France" (1913), with which Cendrars reached his mature style. This long, uneven poem (the title-word "prose" is taken in the medieval Latin sense of a sequence of rhythmic lines) evokes a railway journey across Russia, which is at the same time a journey into the self:
I was in Moscow, city of the one thousand and three bell towers and the seven stations And I was not satisfied with the seven stations and the one thousand and three bell towers Because my adolescence was so intense and so insane That my heart, in turn, burned like the temple at Ephesus or like the Red Square of Moscow When the sun is setting.
The poet is accompanied by a prostitute ("She is quite naked, has no body—she is too poor") who, by her name, Jeanne [d'Arc], suggests France. Actually she seems to represent the poet's stable moorings as she constantly asks, "Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?" He consoles her by describing tropical paradises beneath and beyond Siberia: real geography assumes quite anagogical meanings in the poem.
The unifying images of "Prose" are those of movement, pain, and fire:
If I were a painter I would spill great splashes of yellow and red over the end of this trip Because I am quite sure we were all a little mad And that a raging delirium was bloodying the lifeless faces of my traveling companions As we approached Mongolia Which roared like a bonfire.
Rather than on tropical islands, the journey ends at Harbin, "just as they set fire to the offices of the Red Cross."
Like certain poems of Apollinaire's which it closely resembles, "Prose" is shaped by a frankly autobiographical sequence, formal structuring elements (Jeanne's Montmartre refrain, for example, or "Still, I was a very bad poet"), and shifting moods and time planes. It concludes with an abrupt change to a present which is also a partial return to the past:
I would like I would like never to have taken my trips This evening an intense love torments me And in spite of myself I think of little Jehanne of France It was on an evening filled with sadness that I wrote this poem in her honor ... Paris
City of the incomparable Tower of the Rack and the Wheel The Eiffel Tower (which also obsessed Cocteau and Apollinaire) serves as an end point to the horizontal journey across Russia, and the reader senses more acutely the metaphorical dimensions of Red Square and crossing Siberia. Paris is the figurative center of the world, and journeys from its nostalgia-filled reality become harrowing quests into a land of fire and spinning motion, of demonic violence. No illumination comes of the quest, however, and the poet finds himself back in the city, brooding on Jeanne, dead apparently like his youth in Russia, and contemplating the sinister image of the Tower, at once a point of stability and a reminiscence of the torturous journey. The various parts of "Prose" are ingeniously linked in a way which isolated quotations can but meagerly suggest.
After "Prose of the Transsiberian" Cendrars wrote, besides the Nineteen Elastic Poems, from which my first quote comes, one more long poem, "Panama or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles" (presented in this volume in John Dos Passos' spirited translation). "Panama" is even more diffuse than "Prose," but it has a greater degree of colloquial verve and allusiveness:
What the hell Aren't there any more good yarns?The Lives of the SaintsDas Nachtbuechlein von SchumanCymballum mundiLa Tariffa delle Puttane di Venegia …
Despite splendid sections, however, the wanderings of the speaker's seven uncles fail to create a progression in theme or mood, and one also becomes unpleasantly aware of the facile exoticism which was Cendrars's most dangerous pitfall as a poet.
Cendrars's poetic gifts lasted only a brief season; by the end of World War I, in which he was wounded, his production of verse had dwindled off, never again to attain its first brilliance. Furthermore, literary life had begun to disgust him: the Surrealists, in particular, struck him as derivative rather than fresh. He continued to write, nonetheless, but now in prose: a great mass of essays, novels, and autobiographical works came forth, among which the latter are the last and most important. But Cendrars's prose is at best more curious than enduring. Samples of it are included in the present volume.
Walter Albert's introduction is perceptive and thorough; the translations from his hand (including "Prose of the Transsiberian," Nineteen Elastic Poems, and most of the prose works) are of a high order. Henry Miller's Preface is what one might expect of him.
SOURCE: "Down to the Sea," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3659, April 14, 1972, p. 408.
[The following is a mixed review of the translation of Planus, providing some description of the structure of the novel.]
An "edited" version of Blaise Cendrars such as this poses many problems. The original of Planus was Bourlinguer, the third volume of the four "autobiographies" which Cendrars—poet, adventurer, business man and marvellous writer—published between 1945 and 1949. Bourlinguer is the one that combines real or fantasied autobiography with travelogue. The titles of its eleven sections are all great sea or river-ports: Naples, Antwerp, Rotterdam, etc, and finally Paris—"Port-de-Mer." Nina Rootes's editing has, at her publishers' request, reduced Bourlinguer from the 440 pages of its French (paperback) edition to a mere 220 pages in English. Is this wise? Is it justified? In a frank and useful "Translator's Note" she tells us the principles on which she did this hatchet-job, apologizes to the ghost of Cendrars for tampering with his work, and hopes that "this shortened version will introduce many readers to the delights of his writing, who perhaps would have been deterred by a longer and more discursive book."
It is true that Cendrars did tend to go on and on, to diverge, to divagate, to meander, but this is part of his charm and our interest. Miss Rootes tells us that she has "tried to omit whole sections which are self-contained in the French original rather than nibble piecemeal at the text." In general, she has indeed omitted what might be considered the less interesting sections (though this means that "Venice," "Bordeaux," "Brest," "Toulon" and the original "Naples" are lost)—but she has also indulged in quite extensive nibbling. Two or three lines disappear here, odd parentheses there (particularly in "Hamburg"). Cendrars's grandfather is left out of the comic description of his relations (again: real or imagined—for how many of the seven uncles in Panama ou la véritable histoire de mes sept oncles ever saw the light of non-fiction?) We lose also the droll paragraphs about the Eiffel Tower which, Cendrars claimed, was so rotten that it was about to collapse on the Parisians at any moment. These brought him an indignant letter from La Société de la Tour Eiffel, in answer to which Cendrars wrote, in November 23, 1948:
c'est bien l'aventure la plus incroyable qui pouvait m'arriver que de subir aujourd'hui les foudres de la Société de la Tour Eiffel … moi, que les journaux de Paris ont surnommé depuis bientôt quarante ans "le poète de la Tour Eiffel."
In producing what amounts almost to a work of popularization, Miss Rootes has to a certain extent ironed out the boastful, lying, exaggerating, but immensely human, humorous and erudite Cendrars, and made his writing follow an atypically logical pattern. What we surely need is an English biography of Cendrars—Henry Miller's short, lyrical appreciation, published in 1951, is not nearly enough—and then perhaps the reading public here will be more than eager to accept him in his entirety.
In general Miss Rootes has succeeded extraordinarily well in the extraordinarily difficult task of translating Cendrars. She has reproduced his style much more exactly than she did in her translation of his "L'Homme foudroyé, though there is still the odd phrase where French slang simply won't turn into English slang. There is the occasional enormity—a woman likened to a truie informe (a shapeless sow) turns into a "knowing sow"—but one or two such examples seem, without exception, to be inevitable in every translation. Miss Rootes fails with the poems, but her choice of title cannot be faulted. Bourlinguer, as she tells us, means "to knock about the world, to lead an adventurous life." She gives us Planus. Cendrars, on page forty-five of the present edition, tells us that, according to "the scholarly Canon Cristiani," Pliny uses the word in the sense of a buffoon, but it also means vagabond or adventurer. This is Cendrars tout craché.
SOURCE: "Going West," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4166, February 4, 1983, p. 116.
[In the following review, Bowles praises Cendrars's Gold.]
In the spring of 1834, Johann August Suter, a thirty-one-year-old bankrupt Swiss papermaker, deserted his wife and four children and set sail for America. Penniless and without prospects, his "professional contacts" were restricted to the fellow fugitives, swindlers and n'er-do-wells he was to meet on his journey. Through a combination of cunning or crooked business deals, prowess as an Indian fighter, indefatigable effort and extraordinary good luck, less than ten years later John Augustus Sutter had become America's first millionaire and multi-millionaire, the most prosperous landowner in the United States, and the founder of a new country which he patriotically christened New Helvetia. Coming to join her husband at last, Anne Sutter hears him described by strangers: "He is a king; he is an emperor. He rides on a white horse. The saddle is made of gold, the bit is gold, the stirrups, the spurs and even the horseshoes are of gold." By the time she arrives in Panama, one lock of her hair has turned white. John Sutter had been the poorest of men; he is now among the richest. Frau Sutter dies, of exhaustion and amazement, on her husband's doorstep.
Well on his way to becoming "the richest man in the world", Sutter is ruined in January 1848, when an employee, James W. Marshall, discovers gold on Sutter's property. Within months, squatters from all over the world have come to his vast El Dorado to prospect. A few months more and New Helvetia has evaporated, Sutter's Garden of Eden has become the City of San Francisco. His house is burned down and his lands are taken over by mud-covered men with strange accents. One of his sons is murdered, another commits suicide. A pauper, Sutter will spend the next thirty years of his life vainly trying to obtain some kind of compensation from the federal government in Washington. Irony and rage kill him on June 17, 1880 at the age of seventy-eight.
The vertiginous extremes of Sutter's life-history place it squarely alongside a number of other "higher horror" stories: those, notably, of Job and Midas. But his is also a quintessentially American tragedy, and Gold itself is perhaps best regarded as an American novel. No other figure of the nineteenth century—not even Lincoln—and few others in American history, can have lived the American dream more literally or incarnated it more gloriously than did Sutter. The pathfinder and the pioneer, the rugged individualist, the self-made man and the natural aristocrat all come together in the person of this insignificant Swiss immigrant.
Certain details of the story—Sutter's Platonic self-image, his Heimweh, his demented Biblical exegeses, his membership of a wealthy communist religious sect at the end of his life—bear a superficial resemblance to the odyssey that has so often been traced by American royalty, from Jay Gatsby and Citizen Kane to Daniel K. Ludwig and Bob Dylan, whose absolute wealth and freedom have fuelled an already burning hatred of mere metaphorical existence and turned them towards religion and babyhood. Howard Hughes, subsisting at the end on a child's diet of ice cream and biscuits; Elvis Presley, who died wearing diamonds and nappies; H. L. Hunt (the model for Dallas's J. R.), who, padding around his office on all fours, once confided to a reporter, "I'm crazy about crawling"—each is an exemplary American career.
But few individuals can have lived the American nightmare more pitifully than Sutter. He was left in the cold, a moral and material wreck. He died, like all poor people, wrong in the eyes of justice. His story is thus less like that of a Ford or a Rockefeller than a Lemuel Pitkin, whose dismantling Nathanael West recounts in A Cool Million. Indeed Sutter remains a major exhibit in what West called the American Museum of Hideosities.
No one could have been better suited to tell Sutter's story than his fellow-countryman and adventurer Blaise Cendrars, whose jeweller's eye was finely focused on all that glistens. (One of Cendrars's most compelling, if elusive dreams was "de rouler en Cadillac, d'avoir des poules à perlouzes et zibeline, et de boire des scotchs sans soda dans des boites de nuit à strip-tease.") The startling incongruity of the mock-naive tone in which Cendrars recounts this long, cruel joke is supremely effective. First published in 1925, or four years before American riches to rags stories were to become commonplace, Cendrars's first novel remains a minor master-piece. This fine new translation should give it its rightful place on the golden periphery of American letters.
SOURCE: "Blaise Cendrars," in An Artificial Wilderness, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1987, pp. 143-55.
[In the essay below, Birkerts provides a detailed summary of Cendrars's life and major works.]
In the last phase of his career, when he was already in his sixties, Blaise Cendrars wrote and published a series of autobiographical works that are as singular as anything in literature. Coming after a lifetime of publications, these books—available in England as The Astonished Man (1970), Planus (1972), and Lice (1973)—form a kind of entryway through which we pass to meet a rare, titan-scale individual. The life we encounter is as vast and variously textured as a composition by Stravinsky, and is as difficult to assimilate at first contact. Here is Cendrars in his full amplitude: wanderer, sailor, scholar, collector, entrepreneur, anarchist, soldier, pivotal figure in the Paris avant-garde, trickster, intimate of Picasso, Apollinaire, Stravinsky, Dos Passos (who translated him), Modigliani (who painted him), Duchamp (who probably played chess with him), Le Corbusier, Eisenstein, Satie, Chagall … The ellipses are rightfully suggestive. In these works we have him in many locales of his nomadic life: Africa, Russia, China, the Americas, the heartland of France, not to mention the great capital cities of the world. We have so much, and yet it feels like we are chasing quicksilver, or, better yet, like we are in the hands of a Scheherazade, a teller of tales with an ever-changing repertoire, a repertoire that will never be exhausted.
Cendrars is obscure. Few literate people will recognize the name. This is as unfortunate as it is comprehensible, for reputations flourish and wither in the hands of critics and litterateurs, and these types have always had a hard time with renegades. The situation is aggravated further by Cendrars's penchant for invention and exaggeration. Were it not that the life and writings are so intertwined—the two halves of a grand and mysterious destiny—this would not matter so much. But the fact is that Cendrars cannot be considered apart from his biography. To read anything that he wrote 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.
Cendrars: "No, no, no, no, not at all, you won't find me in it, I shall write a novel-novel, and I won't appear in it, because they don't see but one character in all my books: Cendrars: L'Or is Cendrars; Moravagine is Cendrars; Dan Yack is Cendrars—I'm annoyed with this Cendrars!"
—Paris Review interview
In treating the life and writings of Cendrars, the main task is to establish the context of myth and self-creation. 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.
"Blaise Cendrars" is a pseudonym for Frédéric Louis Sauser, who was born in 1883 in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. (Le Corbusier was born in the same little village just one month later.) The restlessness that would infect him lifelong was already present in the gene pool. His father, an inventor but also a man of many careers and aspirations, dragged the family from Switzerland to Egypt, then to Naples. It is no accident, especially in view of his late escapades, that Cendrars's poetic trademark became the listing of places—ports, cities, destinations.
Cendrars reports that his adolescence was wild, his character intractable. He was sent to one boarding school after another. In each he resisted, racked up absences. Then, when he was fifteen, he stole the family silver and made his escape out the window. For a time his career resembles that of Rimbaud. He wandered Europe, riding trains, hiking, finally ending up in St. Petersburg. There, the story goes, he met up with a jewel merchant named Rogovine, who took him into his employ. They rode the Trans-Siberian into Asia. In 1904—the testimony here, as everywhere, being as reliable as Cendrars—he worked stoking furnaces in Peking. Two years later, by whatever circuitous route, he was back in St. Petersburg.
It is hard to avoid making all this picturesque. The settings are right, the movement is swift and dramatic. But we must not forget that Cendrars/Sauser is only in his teens. Present, too, are his fear, his loneliness, his homesickness. These elements, compressed and matured, will show up later in his two long poems: Prose of the Trans-Siberian and Panama, or, The Adventures of My Seven Uncles. He will write:
And beyond, the Siberian plains the lowering sky and the tall shapes of the Silent Mountains that rise and fall I am ourled up in a plaid shawl Motley Like my life And my life doesn't keep me any warmer than this Scotch Shawl And the whole of Europe seen through the windcutter of an Express racing ahead at full speed Is no richer than my life My poor life … —Prose of the Trans-Siberian
There are more imponderable events. In St. Petersburg Cendrars falls in love with a young woman. She dies in a hotel fire. Nothing further is known of this. Cendrars, heartbroken, moves to Paris. The chronology is vague. Forty years later, writing in Planus, he states that his anguish and rage drove him to Finland, that he spent a summer manufacturing bombs for terrorists. A cryptic passage with much left unexplained, but the facts do correlate, at least imaginatively, with events in his doomsday novel Moravagine.
It is in Paris, in 1907, that Sauser rebaptizes himself Blaise Cendrars. He makes a compact with himself that he will henceforth be a writer, a poet. (He has produced a few fledgling pieces while in St. Petersburg.) But the wanderlust is undimmed. In the next four years he moves from Paris to Bern (where he takes up medicine for a year), then to St. Petersburg again. In 1911 he is in New York City, on the bum, starving. In one delirious night he writes Les Pâques à New York (Easter in New York), one of the first poems in the modernist canon, a work distinguished by its intensity and urban torsions. With this explosion his stay in New York ends. He returns to Paris via cattle boat and throws himself into the artistic life of the city.
Les Pâques foreshadows the Trans-Siberian and Panama, both of which were written in 1913. By that time Cendrars was already at the spearpoint of the avant-garde, consorting with Léger, Stravinsky, Apollinaire, Picasso, appearing in public attired in a demolished chair, or one of his painted suits. (Roger Shattuck gives a fascinating portrait of this era in The Banquet Years.) 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. The basis of human relationships was changing, and this change called for a new way of writing poetry. He responded. He wanted to do for poetry what the cubists were doing for painting. But where they worked spatially, looking for means by which to transmit all visual aspects of an object, Cendrars was concerned with time and events: he was after simultaneity, situations registered from all geographic and temporal perspectives.
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, shifting tenses, and imagery that anticipated the surrealists. By setting the narrative on a moving train, Cendrars was able to explore nuances of sound and tempo. This he did with the skilled ear of a jazz musician. The poem was, in fact, dedicated to "the musicians." (Cendrars had studied music, and he claims somewhere in his writings that he very nearly became a composer instead of a poet.) The format of the poem was unprecedented: it was printed on a single sheet seven feet long, folded up like a railroad timetable. Sonia Delaunay painted an abstract accompaniment on the left-hand side of the sheet. Cendrars then announced that the full first edition of the poem, unfolded, laid end to end, would match exactly the height of the Eiffel Tower. If "the modern" was a religion in Paris, then the Eiffel Tower was its altar.
There was some controversy in academic circles as to whether Cendrars or Apollinaire was the first to write the modernist poem. No settlement was ever reached, though publication dates are in Cendrars's favor. There is no real point in arguing one way or the other. From a book like Shattuck's we get a clear picture of the cross-pollination that went on from one end of Paris to the other. Cendrars later professed indifference to the whole question of precedence. The war years were to bring decisive changes in his outlook.
The war saved me by dragging me away and throwing me amongst the people in arms, one anonymous number amongst millions of others. No. 1529. What intoxication!… It takes a long experience of life, and many a tot of rotgut in the low dives Zola wrote about, amongst the common people, to relearn how to love your fellow man as a brother.
In 1914, calling upon his fellow poets to follow him, Cendrars rushed off to join the fighting. After many months in the trenches at the front lines, in September of 1915—a decisive date in his personal chronology—he was wounded by a mortar shell. His right arm had to be amputated. The injury threw him into despair. There are accounts of Cendrars refusing his prosthesis, pounding the walls of the hospital with his stump. It was not until he learned that his idol Rémy de Gourmont had died that same day that he was able to interpret his loss as a symbolic figure in his destiny. He will refer to this conjunction of events time and again.
The injury was to become a major turning point for Cendrars. Practically, it made it difficult for him to find work when he returned to Paris. For a period he begged aims in the streets, but that was not to be endured, and he fied the city. (Before the war, Cendrars had made a hasty marriage, a mistake. His wife, Fela, had borne him two sons, Rémy and Odilon. He left the family behind—an episode about which little is known.) In Cendrars's mythology this move was of great consequence. He was breaking with the past, leaving behind all literary and artistic circles, all family responsibilities. Henceforth he was to identify himself as a solitary, a member of no school, a man whose true home was among the poor and oppressed. He spent a part of the next year living and traveling with a band of gypsies, an experience that would later supply him with much of the narrative for The Astonished Man.
Cendrars was never one to occupy a place or a life-pattern for very long. In the epoch following the war he went through a number of careers. The personal changes, the motives, are only partially illuminated by his writings—once again the specific gravity of the man is hard to calculate. In 1917, for example, he announces that he is through with poetry. Two years later he reverses himself and issues the collection Dixneuf Poèmes Elastiques. He has taken his techniques to new extremes—the lines are now short, the imagery sharp, concrete, the leaps rapid-fire and unpredictable. But Cendrars is right in one respect: poetry is no longer to be his major avocation. Five years later, with the appearance of Kodak and Feuilles de Route, his poetic vector reaches its terminus. Kodak is by far the more innovative. Cendrars pointed out, after publication, that every line in every poem had been lifted from a novel by Gustave Le Rouge.
During this period the poetic energies were deployed along other fronts. Cendrars was working as editor of Editions de la Sirène, publishing, among other things, a reissue of Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, a work that had been inaccessible for many years, and that was soon to generate a powerful influence on the surrealists. He also published his own Anthologie Nègre, a compilation and translation of African tales. But this was just one of his activities. In 1921 Cendrars was working with the film director Abel Gance on The Wheel, and was directly responsible for the montage sequences (which were said to influence Eisenstein). Afterward, continuing his involvement with film—which he celebrated as the modern art form par excellence—Cendrars went to Italy and formed his own film company, a venture that made him a fortune. The fortune disappeared shortly afterward in an international banking scandal. His last escapade in cinema was to be in 1924, the year that he went to Africa to film elephants. He would later spend time in Hollywood in a different capacity, supervising the work on the film version of his novel Sutter's Gold.
The next major epoch—if we can so divide a life (Cendrars himself spoke in terms of personal epochs)—came in 1924 with his first trip to Brazil. He discovered an immediate affinity with the South American geography, and for the next twenty years was to travel constantly between Europe and Brazil. During this long period Cendrars was conducting a number of highly mysterious business transactions, involving the import of motor fuel. He was also buying and operating a plantation in Brazil, and writing, but novels, not poetry. The publications continue: L'Or in 1925, Moravagine in 1926, Le Plan de l'Aiguille and Les Confessions de Dan Yack in 1929, as well as nearly a dozen volumes of reportage, translation, and anthology. Of the lot, L'Or, translated as Sutter's Gold (1926), scored the greatest popular success.
Sutter's Gold is the easiest of Cendrars's novels to assimilate. It deals in a compressed, minimalist prose with the epic downfall of his countryman August Sutter, the man who made the mistake of discovering gold on his property. The message of the book is as old as language itself: what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world …? The tempo and simplicity of the work gained it a wide audience in many languages.
Moravagine, which did not appear in English until 1969, presents a wholly different side of Cendrars. Where Sutter's Gold is trim, concise, a parable, Moravagine represents inversion, excess—it is clearly the product of a tormented, even sadistic temperament.
Moravagine stakes out human extremity as its subject matter. The language is pained, exacerbated. Long, telescopic sentences carry us through revolution, terror, a zone of sexual and moral nihilism. To call the book depraved is to soft-pedal the issue. Nothing on that order, excepting Lautréamont, had appeared before. Moravagine seeks damnation and extinction with a glee unequaled in literature. The only parallels that come to mind are with Céline and Beckett. We can imagine an energized Molloy with limbs that function and a bomb in his pocket. Not a drop of sentimentality is to be found. Moravagine is projected as human nature stripped of culture and civilization—pessimistic, yes, but in view of the atrocities that Cendrars had witnessed (and of which he writes so well in Lice) not pure fabrication.
Le Plan de l'Aiguille and Les Confessions de Dan Yack both appeared in 1929. The former was published in English as Antarctic Fugue in 1948 and is unobtainable. The two were intended as consecutive novels, the latter meant to explain and fulfill the former—an effect never achieved in English since Dan Yack was never translated. Taken together, or separately, they are probably the least successful of Cendrars's writings. They represent an all too private working out of obsession. The settings and symbol constructions are fantastic—fascinating as well—but are not calculated to reach any but the most loyal partisans.
In the character of Dan Yack (the "hero" of both books), Cendrars gives us the polarities of his own nature: Yack is torn between his solitude and mysticism and his love of the world and activity among men, his self-sufficiency and his romantic will, his intellect and his senses. His realizations, accompanied by catastrophe and pain, come to him in the desolate silence of the Antarctic. In the course of the narrative he comes to terms with his past, his many selves, his loves, and, in an action of supreme self-transcendence, listens in to the way of the world. The message is not unlike Wittgenstein's "The world is everything that is the case." Yack has come to grips with renunciation and assent. The resolution, after so much of the fantastic, is his acceptance of the recognized proportions of things.
Cendrars did not find his ideal expression in the novel. The fact is that Cendrars was at his best when he worked either in loose associative verse forms, as in Trans-Siberian or Panama, both of which stand up as virtuoso performances; or when he worked in the autobiographical vein. The shorter poems, those of Kodak and Dix-neuf Poèmes Elastiques, strike us with their quickness and modernity, but hardly comprise a major testament.
In 1940, after a year or so as a war correspondent for the French press, disgusted by the reaction of his countrymen to the world situation, Cendrars withdraw to Aix-en-Provence and stopped writing. He once again drew the curtain on his literary career. What did he do, think? No one knows. Reports from friends and visitors had him meditating in an unheated kitchen. It was a period of sorrow for Cendrars. He was to learn from two separate telegrams that his sons, Rémy and Odilon, had been killed. Though his marriage had been brief and long since dissolved, Cendrars had felt close, at least spiritually, to the two boys.
The career does not end here, however. As before, Cendrars's pronouncements that he is "through" are reversed. After three years of silence his picks up his pen once again, this time to deliver a series of autobiographical chronicles. They are to be his major achievement. In a footnote to one of the volumes, Bourlinguer, translated as Planus, he writes: "The other day was my sixtieth birthday, and it is only today, as I draw towards the end of the present work, that I begin to believe in my vocation as a writer…." Says Henry Miller, in his essay on Cendrars, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you lads of twenty-five, thirty and forty years of age…."
What was it that detonated the man? Cendrars supplies one kind of answer in a dedication to his friend Edouard Peisson, who had come to visit him in his seclusion:
If, in my desire to share that burden of responsibility, I ask myself how it is that your brief visit this morning triggered something in me so forcibly that I immediately started writing…. I am not too sure how to answer. What you told me about your experience last night, the sky, the moon, the landscape and the silence must have rekindled similar reminiscences in me, stirred as I was by the reverberations of the war which seemed to echo through the bitter thoughts you had…. Or do you not believe, quite simply, that sailors, like poets, are too sensitive to the magic of moonlight and to the destiny that seems to come down to us from the stars, on sea, on land, or between the pages of a book when at last we lower our eyes from the heavens, you the sailor and I the poet, and that when you and I write, we are prey to an obsession or victims of the distortions of our vocation?
Today I am sixty years old, and the gymnastics and juggling I once indulged in to beguile the ship's boy, I now perform in front of a typewriter, to keep my body in training and my spirits lively, for it is years now since I went out; I no longer move, no longer travel, no longer see anyone, sliding my life under the roller of my typewriter, like a sheet of carbon between two sheets of white paper, and I type and type, recto and verso, and re-read like a somnambulist, intercalating the direct image with the reflection, which can only be deciphered in reverse, mirror-wise; I am master of my life, dominating time, for I have succeeded in dislocating and disarticulating it, sliding relativity into my sentences like a substratum, using it as the very mainspring of my writing…. It may be the literary novelty of the 20th century, the skill and art of applying the analytic procedures and mathematical deductions of an Einstein to the essence, the structure, the propagation of light in the technique of the novel!
Cendrars's return to literature at the age of sixty, his subsequent productivity, and the excellence and singularity of the works are matters for rejoicing. The three volumes, The Astonished Man, Lice, and Planus, originally L'Homme Foudroyé (published in French in 1945), La Main Coupée (1946), and Bourlinguer (1948), are not diminished by mention of Rousseau or Montaigne, though in their savor and energy they might more aptly be compared with Villon or Rabelais.
The content of these three works is at first glance diffuse. The diffusion is probably the major obstacle to Cendrars, but it is also a mark of his genius. The works are Cendrars, to the limit of the meaning of such a pronouncement. Adventure and reflection interpenetrate. Chapters, even paragraphs, even single sentences, zigzag back and forth through time. Nor are the sequences made any more accessible by Cendrars's penchant for rambling anecdotes, lengthy asides, footnotes, and the like. It is the content that excuses all the confusion. Familiarity with the voice and its owner provoke fascination. And as the reader submits to this fascination, the chronological jumble takes on a different aspect. He starts to experience the narrative with the acuity of one following a thread through a labyrinth. The time sense, the demand for sequence, are cast aside. The narrative, like the life, like any life, reveals that its true character is referential. A memory from childhood interlocks with an episode from later life—only a writer who has penetrated to the core of his being can offer us experience at this level.
Cendrars's life, I will not tire of repeating, was epic, the appetites gargantuan. The Astonished Man is a perfect title, for at the heart of this network is the figure of Cendrars—stripping himself of myth, layering himself with myth, we are never sure which—the astonishment of being alive always in his voice.
Miller again: "There were times when reading Cendrars—and this is something which happens to me rarely—that I put the book down to wring my hands with joy or despair…."
The content? Cendrars's life. The volumes can be read in any order. They are simply tales, events, and encounters that Cendrars saw fit to put on paper. Reading them, picking up hints at every turn of stories and events not related, we wish there were more, but we find ourselves grateful, too, for what he has given.
There is no point in trying to invent a summary. What matters is not the content, but the man, our sense of his spirit and its amplitude. The spirit of the narrative voice is what alters a set of casually narrated tales into literature. Our sense of this spirit grows as we read and remains with us after we are finished. The reader who has persevered may find that Cendrars has become a taste, and, past that, an emblem for a whole way of looking at the world.
Cendrars was in his early sixties when the last of the chronicles was completed. In 1950 he returned to Paris from Aix. He was once again a married man; the rejuvenation he had experienced led him to cement a relationship that had been going on for some thirty years. This was with Raymone, the one true love to whom he alludes ever so discreetly in his works.
For the next ten years Cendrars was mainly active in radio work. His literary output diminished, consisting mainly of interviews and occasional pieces. One last novel, Emmènemoi au Bout du Monde, was published in 1956. It was translated into English as To the End of the World (1966). While it does not represent a major literary event, it was controversial upon publication—Cendrars took some well-aimed shots at Parisian society figures.
The last five years of his life were not happy. A deteriorative disease stopped his wanderings, confined him to a wheelchair. The writing stopped. In January 1961, three days after being awarded his only literary prize, Cendrars died. Had he been able to script it, he would probably have chosen a more dramatic exit. Perhaps something in the matter of Lord Mountbatten. Otherwise, though, he had less to regret than most. The life was rich. His testament is there for anyone who wants to find it.
Postscript: There is one major mystery yet to be solved. Cendrars stated many times that he had consigned a large number of manuscripts, unsigned, to various strongboxes in South American banks. He may have been exaggeration-prone, but he was not a liar. To date none of these manuscripts has been found.
SOURCE: A review of Moravagine, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. II, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 278-79.
[Below, Kennison presents an emphatically positive review of Moravagine.]
Moravagine is that rare novel that sticks in your soul like a new gospel, written in blood in the last days, lost to us till now after having echoed only secretly through the last millennium to us here in the New World. It stabs the heart with grace, traces the paths of our lives bowing down before our demon selves in order to reveal the flesh worth redeeming. It believes what it tells us.
Moravagine is one of the many wounds of road trod by the legendary Blaise Cendrars in a life as extraordinary as any novel. Cendrars leaped out of his bedroom window in Switzerland at the age of fifteen and never looked back. He was a poet even before he lost his right arm in World War I. Like Céline and Apollinaire, he caught himself up in the Great War and it became a battleground for his life and art until he died in 1961.
Cendrars's narrator in his novel Moravagine—as in all his work, a man in many ways not unlike himself—is a physician in a Swiss asylum who befriends a terminal patient named Moravagine, and finds him to be a human specimen of exceptional constitution. They fall in as fellow outsiders and escape together to wander the world, encountering the depth of human function on a planet temporarily called home. They leave a violently scintillating and spirit-crushing trail from Paris to Berlin to the Russian steppes and the washes of the Amazon in a series of adventures as extravagant and unpredictable as a biblical epic.
Too, theirs is a story of friendship, a friendship from sickness through pain and betrayal to questionable redemption. A necessary travail. As a doctor of mental health, the narrator informs his reader from the start: "Diseases are a transitory, intermediary, future state of health. It may be that they are health itself…. What convention calls health is, after all, no more than this or that passing aspect of a morbid condition, frozen into an abstraction, a special case already experienced, recognized, defined, finite, extracted and generalized for everybody's use." Moravagine, a human vessel of extraordinary presumptions, is the disease made manifest. It is this physician's task, he states unequivocally, to see Moravagine, "this human wild animal," into the wide world once more and convince all skeptics—victims and executioners both—that he is indeed Life itself in all its guises, contradictory and immutable. A truer tale of devotion (if not persuasion) has rarely been told.
Cendrars's prose leaps off the page like live jewels. His is a poetry of a breathing variety, bred in the world before it reaches the page. Moravagine is great fun to read. Its idea and images and insights are so numerous that it merits at least several readings. My last desire would be to read the book in its original French. In the meantime, I am grateful for this new edition of a classic of modern lit—as alive in the nineties as we imagine it must've been in the twenties, when it was originally published.
SOURCE: "The Burning Phoenix," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4769, August 26, 1994, pp. 9-10.
[Below, Foden gives a comprehensive review of Cendrars's body of poetry.]
Fighting in the First World War as a Swiss national in "la Marocaine", the original Foreign Legion, Blaise Cendrars lost an arm during the assault on the Navarin Farm in Champagne on September 28, 1915. It was his writing arm that went, "planté dans l'herbe comme une grande fleur épanouie, un lys rouge, un bras humain tout ruisselant de sang, un bras droit sectionné au-dessus du coude et dont la main encore vivant fouissait le sol des doigts comme pour y prendre racine …" (La Main coupée).
Cendrars himself never took root. Right from the start, travel was his subject and the making of him; it gave him the opportunity to "make" his own sprawling biography (itinerant poet, novelist-adventurer, "style" journalist, bohemian business schemer), sometimes in the spirit of fictional invention, sometimes as a charming but down-right lie. So it is hard to answer his own question: "à qui était cette main, ce bras droit, ce sang qui coulait comme la sève?"
Born Frédéric Louis Sauser in the same year and place as Le Corbusier (La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 1887), Cendrars used to say he was born at the Hôtel des Etrangers on the Left Bank, the building where the Roman de la Rose was written. He may have been in Egypt as a child; we know that his family (his father was a dealer in clocks and timepieces) was in Naples by the time he was eight. He left his parents in his early teens (fleeing them, in his embroidered version, by climbing down from a fifth-floor balcony), journeying across Germany and Russia, where he ended up in St. Petersburg. There—probably, in fact, by his father's intervention—he worked for H.A. Leuba, a Swiss watch merchant, from 1904 to 1907, during which time, Jay Bochner writes in his excellent introduction to Ron Padgett's translation of the Complete Poems, he established "a lifelong pattern of alternating travel with long sessions in libraries".
Cendrars certainly ventured to Russia, Germany, Poland, Britain, the United States and Brazil. His poems and memoirs imply that he traveled even more widely. On the way, he worked. He claimed, as Barbara Wright wrote in a review of a translation of his novel L'Homme foudroyé (TLS, February 26, 1971), "to have fait 36 métiers, including those of farm worker, tractor driver, big-game hunter, prospector, juggler, smuggler…. In his bread-and-butter activities during the 1920s he seems to have been some sort of business agent, making and losing (or spending) fortunes with the greatest nonchalance."
For all his own capitalist activity, in his Russian period Cendrars forged a lifelong attachment to anarchism (there are some Poundian attacks on usury in the poems). Meanwhile, he gathered material for his most famous novel, Moravagine (published in 1926 but set against the background of pre-revolutionary insurrections in St. Petersburg), and the long railway poem, The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France (published in Paris in 1913 and printed as a 2-metre-high, multi-inked, multitypefaced "simultaneous" objet along with his friend Sonia Delaunay's abstract silk-screen painting). "A projected 150 copies were advertised as equaling", says Bochner, "at two metres a copy, the height of the Eiffel Tower, which is invoked in the last line of the poem and at the very bottom of the painting."
During his early travels, as a (half-serious) medical student at Berne University, Cendrars met Féla Poznanska, the Polish student who was to become his first wife and the mother of Miriam Cendrars. (The latter it is who has produced Blaise Cendrars, a substantial and comprehensive, if slightly eccentric, biography-memoir, which, as one would expect, is full of fascinating material. Even Miriam's tendency to mimic her father's direct, quasi-imagist, "telegraphic" style, and her propensity for flashbacks and "flash-forwards," grow on you after a while. Given the personal connection, this was always, after all, going to be an idiosyncratic book, though it is scholarly too, with a useful bibliography.)
Between October 1910 and March 1911, Cendrars was in Paris with Féla. The following year he produced his first great poem, Easter in New York, the fruit of a six-month, poverty-stricken stay in the city, from where Féla, staying with her sister, had sent him a ticket. It was in New York (where the young modernist found himself "desperate to find a way past" the retrograde European neo-symbolism that was wowing the American avant-garde at the time) that Freddy Sauser took on the name of Blaise Cendrars. This burning phoenix rose, Bochner tells us—by way of Saint Blaise, braise, cendres and the Latin ars—out of "a few smouldering lines" of Nietzsche: "And everything of mine turns to mere cinders / What I love and what I do".
Back in Paris by the middle of 1912, Cendrars was introduced into the more exciting European avant-garde—literary and artistic—by Apollinaire, to whom he had sent a manuscript copy of Easter in New York, which is supposed by some critics to have had a dramatic effect on the senior poet's style in "Zone". For all that, Cendrars's relationship with other artists was never solely professional; the idea of "the career artist" was, anyway, anathema to him. As well as the Delaunays and Apollinaire, he knew Chagall, Braque, Léger, Modigliani (one of his closest friends, who painted his portrait several times), Picabia, Soutine, Arthur Cravan (Oscar Wilde's nephew, a poet and boxer), Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Arthur Honegger, Poulenc, Satie, Cocteau and the film-maker Abel Gance. They must have been heady, as well as hard, times: with Cravan and the Delaunays, Cendrars would go to "Bal Bullier dances in 'modern' attire dipped in painters' colours". And then there were more worshipful attachments, like that to Remy de Gourmont, his literary hero and friend, who died, Cendrars was upset to hear, on the day he lost his arm. Gourmont's beautiful version of Venantius Fortunatus' Pange lingua (part of the medieval Latin liturgy) provides the epigraph to Easter in New York, which is also addressed to Christ on the cross, though in a more problematic, socialized and splintered way. This is the Gourmont extract, in Padgett's translation:
Bend your branches, tall tree, relax your deep tension And let your natural hardness give way, Don't tear off the arms of the highest King….
And here is Cendrars below:
Lord, the poor masses for whom you made the Sacrifice Are here, penned in, heaped up, like cattle, in poorhouses. Huge dark ships come in around the clock And dump them off, pell-mell, onto the dock … Lord, I'm in the neighborhood of vagrants, Good thieves, bums and fences. I think of the two thieves who shared your torture. I know you deign to smile on their misfortune, Lord, one wants a rope with a noose on the end, But they aren't free, ropes, they cost a couple of cents. This old robber talked like a philosopher. I gave him some opium so he'd get to heaven faster. I think also of the street singers. The blind violinist, the one-armed organ-grinder, The straw-hat, paper-rose singer; surely These are the ones who sing throughout eternity. (Easter in New York, 1912)
By 1916, Cendrars was turning his own remaining hand, with which he had had to learn to write again, more and more to prose, producing some of the bouleversant surrealist pieces assembled in Modernities and Other Writings, in translations by Esther Allen. By 1920, he had dabbled in publishing (with Cocteau) and film-making (with Gance); in 1923, he collaborated on a ballet, La Création du Monde, with Léger and Darius Milhaud. By 1924, he had almost stopped writing poetry altogether. Over the next six years, starting his long journeys again, he combined five trips to South America with the production of his three greatest novels: Sutter's Gold, Moravagine and the two-part Dan Yack. From then, through the Second World War (during which, until the fall of France, he was correspondent with the British forces) until his death in 1961, he produced a steady but diminishing stream of volumes: of reportage (on the underworlds of Paris and Marseille, on Al Capone), travel-writing (Hollywood), a four-volume, phantasmagoric, fictionalized memoir (L'Homme foudroyé, 1945, La Main coupée, 1946, Bourlinguer, 1948, Le Lotissement du ciel, 1949), and sporadic fiction.
Even in death, in his own sepulchral ode, the geographical theme resurfaces—sparkling, too, where Pound's and Yeats's equivalent poems ("Pour l'élection de son sépulchre" and section six of "Under Ben Bulben") are full of bile and world-weariness respectively:
Là-bas git Blaise Cendrars Par latitude zéro Deux ou trois dixièmes sud Une deux, trois douzaines de degrés Longitude ouest Dans le ventre d'un cachalot Dans un grand cuveau d'indigo.
Altogether, Cendrars's was a very considerable body of work that was to earn him, in those last years (though his fame was much eclipsed and came rather late in the day), a number of prizes from his adoptive country. There is something rather pathetic about the idea of André Malraux visiting, in 1958, the apartment of the paralysed Cendrars (who had suffered two strokes) to give him the award of Commander of the Légion d'Honneur, as if those formative lines of Nietzsche had been realized.
Looking at the poetry more closely, though, you wouldn't think so. Elastic (his first collection proper was actually called Nineteen Elastic Poems), resisting abstraction, grounded on the quotidian and on the conversational tones of their imagined speaker, full of "found, cubist, assemblage and collage techniques" (Bochner) and—what is rare in this type of avant-garde formalism—full of colour and lived experience, Cendrars's poems are anything but burnt out. Just as most of his prose is concerned with the life of the adventurous male, so the verse (straightforwardly rendered by Padgett, with an appendix of the French texts), eschewing the interior life, is about, and goes out into, the physical world. The "Prose" in The Prose of the Trans-Siberian, Cendrars explained, springs from the low Latin prosa—projection, or speaking forth.
Fulfilling a bridging role between different poetic traditions, Cendrars now seems a very contemporary poet; it is, for example, worth comparing the lines from Easter in New York above with Geoffrey Hill's "Crucified Lord, you swim upon your cross / And never move"; or The Trans-Siberian with Amy Clampitt's "Babel Aboard The Hellas International Express"; or Cendrars's Tonga-talk poem "Mee Too Buggi" with Craig Raine's "Gauguin." Cendrars did, after all, always make much "of the mania of being so self-possessed and up-to-date", as one critic has put it.
But the tradition, mainly American, in which he is most at home—that of the longish-lined, expansive but quirky poem of everyday life, rhetorical but streetwise, sometimes street-talking—as articulated by, say, Frank O'Hara or John Ashbery—was one extant in his own life-time, and one that he sought out. Whitman's Leaves of Grass, translated into French in 1909, had a tremendous effect on French poets of the time. Cendrars, Miriam tell us, characteristically "fait à Guillaume [Apollinaire] un fantastique récit des funerailles de Whitman, qu'il tient, ditil, d'un témoin qui a assisté à la cérémonie. Avec ses trois mille cinq cents participants, et les pédérastes qui étaient venus en foule, et la claironnante fanfare, et l'orgie qui ensuivit, ce fut un mémorable enterrement …"
Yet the most attractive poems are not the great long poems of 1912–14—Easter in New York, The Trans-Siberian and Panama, a tale of seven uncles dispersed across the globe, narrated by the nephew—so much as those in the later volumes and batches that represent Cendrars's "documentary" phase: the Black African Poems published in magazines in 1922, Kodak and Travel Notes (both published in 1924). Exotic, sexy, mixing a quiet lyricism with "modern"—trains, ships, radios, the laboratory—and "primitive" subject-matter (Cendrars was instrumental in bringing the fetish for African fetishes to Paris and Picasso), dandyish in the spirit of Valery Larbaud's Barnabooth, these "snapshots" or "ocean letters" belie their own lightness; by making less of the poem as an art object (so different to the monumentalism of that early project with Delaunay), they achieve their own artistic substance in the act of recording, as in "The Thousand Islands" from Kodak:
The sun disappears on the horizon of Lake Ontario The clouds bathe their folds in vats of purple violet scarlet and orange What a beautiful evening murmur Andrea and Frederika seated on the terrace of a medieval castle And the ten thousand motorboats reply to their ecstasy.
Other poems in Kodak show how taxonomy drives Cendrars's documentary technique: "The California quail / The rabbit known as the jackass / The prairie hen the turtledove the partridge / The wild duck and wild goose / The antelope / It's true you still see wildcats and rattlesnakes / But there aren't pumas anymore." If zoology and scientific examination in general is one of his methods of proceeding, or appearing to proceed—remembering Zola in a skewed, rebellious sort of way (as did his concern for the poor and abused)-another is plain, or, in the case of "Menus", sumptuous and weird presentation:
Pickled shark fins Stillborn dog in honey Rice wine with violets Cream of silkworm cocoon Salted earthworms and Kava liqueur Seaweed jam….
But this is not, as with Zola, a case of the artist trying to give an objective, "measured" picture of the world; indeed, most of the "fact" in Kodak was lifted from Le Mystérieux Docteur Cornélius, a second-rate contemporary popular novel by one Gustave Le Rouge, to be transmuted by Cendrars into seemingly ingenuous poems with their own "real" fabric. One assumes that Cendrars planned the discovery of this, five years after he died, by writing twenty years earlier in a memoir of how he had shown Le Rouge a volume of poems "scissor-and-pasted out of the latter's adventure novels". Travel Notes, on the other hand, says Bochner, is "definitely Cendrars's own trip, the journal of his first voyage to South America".
One of the two keynotes, in all this, is production, of one sort or another; there are manufacturing city poems as well as luxuriant island poems, internal combustion poems as well as landscape poems, lists of goods as well as animals. Behind every line you hear, if not cicadas in some tropical scene, the rattling of machines. ("In the years 1910 and 1911", says Cendrars, "Robert Delaunay and I were perhaps the only people in Paris who were talking about machines and art and who were vaguely conscious of the great transformations of the modern world.")
The other note, almost the note not struck, is of a pastoral latency that puts interpretation at its ease; of an image, immediate but strangely inert, which the poet presents without comment or formal pressure, as if to say "there is this other life too", beyond machines, beyond machine-poems. As it would be with the driver of a coach in Tampa, "asleep with his mouth open"; or with old Jupiter, at a sign from his master, bringing out "a little lacquered stand / A bottle of sherry / An ice bucket / Some lemons / And a box of Havana cigars/ … No one spoke / The sweat was streaming down their faces". These, production and latency, are the twin poles of Cendrars's art as a whole. The sheer, diverse fact of the burgeoning physical world, the crowd of images alone, is sufficient for him; the reader must supply the unifying idea if he wants to, or just take it "as read".
Some—like John Dos Passos, who translated Panama, hailing Cendrars as "the Homer of the Transsiberian", and Henry Miller, who also championed him—were able to. Others, like the English poet F. S. Flint (one of the contributors to Des Imagistes, the first Imagist anthology, published under Pound's editorship in 1914), reviewing Nineteen Elastic Poems in the TLS in 1919 under the headline "A New Decadence", were not:
M. Cendrars is as sensitive to impressions and as clever as any minor poet; but … he now pretends to look out with one eye half-opened on a world for which it is really not worth while finding a definite form and expression…. There never was any other unity than that made by the artists, and you are not creating new art by allowing the spectacle of modern life to pour pell-mell through you without selection or arrangement…. We are not afraid of audacities, but we do want composition. Mallarmé is said to have left out the first half of the comparison; but the composition was there, and it was clear, if you had wit enough to divine the missing half. M. Cendrars leaves out indifferently the first or the second half, or both, and he does not trouble to compose, so that you are left wondering whether he has any intentions at all—except to pull your leg.
What this suggests is how much the old modernists would abhor today's postmodernists. The wild, brilliant texts collected by Monique Chefdor in Modernities and Other Writings—including Profound Today, I Have Killed, In Praise of the Dangerous Life and The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame—certainly bear out her view that Cendrars was "at once on a par with his contemporaries and far ahead of them, anticipating the present postmodern moment".
These "other writings"—as distinct from the Modernités proper, a more journalistic though no less strange and unrestrained series on the painters of the day—may represent a more lasting achievement than many of the poems. They take the form, mostly, of staccato, gnomic utterances on such subjects as war, the camera, crowds, apocalypse, chemistry, biology, commercial iconography and techno-sexual mania. Velocity (of machines, of social life, of travel, of trade) is one significant concept in these intense, associative, high-focus pictures chronicling the "altered state" of emergent modern society; another is perspective, an adjusted perspective ready to look at new types of social and physical space and render that vision formally. To get any sense of what Cendrars is about in these pieces (because their fragmentariness works by cumulative total effect rather than, as with most of the poems, through the projection of a series of more discrete images), you have to quote at length. The difference, remembering Pound's phanopoeia—"a casting of images upon the visual imagination"—as well as Cendrars's role in the development of the cinema through his relationship with Gance is akin to that between photography and cinematography:
The terrible blast of a whistle furrows the continent. Here is Egypt on camelback. Choose Engadine for winter sports. Read Golf's Hotels under the palm trees. Think of four hundred windows flashing in the sun. You unfold the horizon of a timetable and dream of southern islands…. Watches set themselves. From every direction ocean liners move towards their connection. Then the semaphore signals. A blue eye opens. The red one closes. Soon there is nothing but colour. Interpenetration. Disk, Rhythm, Dance, Orange and violet hues devour each other. Checkerboard of the port…. Barrels of fire. Cinnamon. European women are like subaqueous flowers confronting the stern labouring longshoremen and the dark red apotheosis of machines. A tram slams into your back. A trap door opens under your feet. There's a tunnel in your eye. You're pulled by the hair to the fifteenth floor. Smoking a pipe, your hands at the faucets—cold water, hot water—you think of the captain's wife, whose knee you will soon surreptitiously caress. The golden denture of her smile, her charming accent. And you let yourself slip down to dinner. The tongues are stuffed. Everyone must grimace to be understood. Gesticulate and laugh loudly. Madame wipes her mouth with her loincloth of a napkin. Boeuf Zephir. Cafe Euréka. Pimodan or Pamodan. Seated in my rocking chair I'm like a Negro fetish, angular beneath the heraldic electricity. The orchestra plays Louise. To amuse myself, I riddle the fat body of an old windbag that is floating at the level of my eyes with pinpricks. A deep-sea diver, submerged in the smoke from my cigar, alone I listen to the dying music of sentimentality that resonates in my helmet. The lead soles of my boots keep me upright and I move forward, slow, grotesque, stiffnecked, and bend with difficulty over the swamp life of the women. Your eye, seahorse, vibrates, marks a comma, and passes.
(Profound Today, 19)
Though their sensibilities were totally different from that of Cendrars (he celebrated the dissociation, diversity and transmutation, the change in the old order that they bemoan), and their aesthetics more complex, the Anglo-American modernists certainly traversed his route. Considering Cendrars's role within modernism as a poet and a novelist (and, indeed, as a grand fibber), one is driven back to some other remarks of Pound's in "How to Read" (collected in his Literary Essays, edited by Eliot) where, making a distinction between "charged" poetry and "cumulative" prose, he argues that some poets are still able to get a prose-like effect "by a greater heaping up of factual data; imagined fact if you will, but nevertheless expressed in factual manner". To some degree, this distinction mirrors what have been seen to be Cendrars's own structures, formal and material, in the poetry itself, their being in between "production" and "latency".
Was a similar kind of in-betweenness suffered personally by Cendrars through the loss of his arm—a charged sense of the missing portion being there but not really being there, not being able to function authentically? The vision contiguous to that personal disability certainly bespoke the times, it reflected the climate of thought, all the more so because the vision was there prior to the injury. "We are the amputees of space", as Cendrars put it in the Trans-Siberian—proleptically, two years before he lost his arm—in a phrase that has lots of resonance for modernist preoccupations and formal practice.
For all that, Blaise Cendrars's preoccupations were adventurous rather than introspective; certainly not the type, anyway, in Yeats's disdainful but self-knowing phrase in "The Scholars", to cough in ink or wear the carpet with his shoes.
SOURCE: A review of Correspondance 1934–1979; 45 ans d'amitié, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. 359.
[In the following review, Brown praises the compilation and editing of the correspondence between the Cendrars and American author Henry Miller.]
A group of three collaborators prepared this scrupulously edited and richly documented correspondence between Blaise Cendrars and Henry Miller [entitled Correspondance 1934–1979; 45 ans d'amitié]. Cendrars's daughter Miriam supervised the edition and contributed a preface. Frédéric-Jacques Temple, who knew both correspondents, wrote an account of their friendship and their many contacts with the international avant-garde. Detailed notes on each letter (sometimes longer than the letters themselves) were prepared by Jay Bochner.
A chronological listing reveals that the correspondence was somewhat one-sided. Miller's letters are numerous, detailed, often three to four pages in length. Cendrars's correspondence, in comparison, seems laconic, almost telegraphic. The numerous photographs are also copiously annotated. The "annexes" include Cendrars's text on Miller's poem "Alraure," presented on French radio in 1952; Miller's preface to L'homme foudroyé; the English originals of Miller's letters to Cendrars, Miriam, and others; a chronological listing of the letters; and a résumé of the biographies of both correspondents. An impressive (and indeed a somewhat intimidating!) documentation, which occupies almost as much space as the letters themselves.
Miller first writes to Cendrars (in English) on 26 November 1934 from the Villa Seurat, enclosing a copy of Tropic of Cancer ("the first book of a young author of nearly 50") as "a slight recompense for the pleasure I have had in reading your books." (He mentions particularly Moravagine.) Several pages of notes, including a letter from Anaïs Nin, follow the brief communication. Miller (25 December 1934) thanks "Dear Mr. Cendrars" for his visit to the Villa Seurat. He excuses himself for not having written sooner, but he "is in a terribly despondent mood" following his divorce from "June," his second wife. A third letter (13 January 1935), mailed from New York, brands Manhattan as "a detestable place," "une grande sauvagerie babylonienne." Miller never stops denouncing "his native land"! He is looking for a publisher for Black Spring and hopes to return to Europe soon, for "that's where I really belong." Significantly, during the many years of their correspondence, the exchanges remained quite formal in tone: Cendrars always wrote to "Mon cher Henry Miller"; Miller addressed his mentor and model as "Mon cher Cendrars." Although Miller wrote often and expansively, Cendrars's replies, frequently just a few lines, never exceeded a page. But Miller did not reproach his laconic friend: "Je sais que les lettres ne sont pas votre fort." (They never employ "tu.")
Unlike many of their distinguished contemporaries—a Gide, a Martin du Gard—Cendrars and Miller devoted little discussion to literature but rather (especially Miller) dwelled on literary "business": finding a publisher, arranging for translations, seeking coverage in the press. Neither had a favorable opinion of publishers. For Miller, they were "putains," just whores. Cendrars agreed, but in more polite terms: "Publishers are a writer's greatest enemies." Writing to Duell, Sloane, and Pearce, Miller urges them to publish Cendrars, "one of the great figures of our time." Miller, more frequently than Cendrars, makes brief comments on contemporary writers: "The American public doesn't like expatriates and even Hemingway is out of favor." Both Cendrars and Miller admire Dos Passos, who had a chapter on Cendrars in Orient Express and provided illustrations and an introduction for Panama. Among the nineteenth-century giants mentioned are Balzac ("Balzac and His Double" figured as a chapter in The Wisdom of the Heart) and Dostoevsky: "Blaise Cendrars is the French equivalent of Dostoevsky." Both friends admired Rimbaud and published essays about him. Cendrars immediately appreciated Miller, writing the first important article to appear about him in French, "Un écrivain américain nous est né"; and Miller is fervid in his cult of Blaise Cendrars, for him "a universal man," a man "aux stratifications innombrables," whom he literally adores. "At the end of each letter, you extend to me your friendly hand. I grasp it with joy and gratitude."
Following the death of Cendrars, Miller was invited to speak at the memorial service. He declined: "I have thought about Blaise Cendrars almost every day since we met. I have lived with him as a disciple lives with his master." And he desired to continue to live in silence with the man he adored.
SOURCE: A review of Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies, in The French Review, Vol. 69, No. 6, May, 1996, pp. 1033-34.
[In the following review, Lampert-Greaux finds Cendrars's journal of his trip to Hollywood still relevant sixty years later.]
Hollywood has always held a fascination for the French, much to the dismay of French filmmakers who shake their berets at the supremacy of American movies in their cinemas. Blaise Cendrars's journal, Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies, proves that as early as 1936 there was already a healthy appetite in France for news of the American movie capital.
A popular French poet, novelist, essayist, and sometime newspaper man, Cendrars spent two weeks in Hollywood in 1936, installed in the luxury of the Roosevelt Hotel. On assignment for the daily newspaper Paris-Soir, Cendrars filed lively dispatches describing the activity along the palm-lined boulevards, and at the gates to the great studios. While circling the lives of the rich and famous, Cendrars proved to be a perceptive reporter, and his brief chronicle of Hollywood captured both the essence of the city and the imagination of his readers. Serialized in the newspaper as The Secrets of Hollywood, Cendrars's collected reports were published in France by Grasset in August 1936.
The University of California edition of Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies has been translated by Garrett White, a writer who contributes to The Los Angeles Times and Premiere magazine. Browsing in the stacks of the UCLA library in 1988, White came across an original copy of Cendrars's book, visibly neglected and forgotten. This first English-language edition is an attractive volume which reproduces 29 light-hearted pen and ink drawings by illustrator Jean Guérin, a portraitist and part of the French colony in California in the 1930s.
It was not just serendipity that sent Cendrars to Hollywood. He had written enthusiastically about the early filmmakers in France and the United States. He also had been associated with such French pioneers as Abel Gance and Jean Vigo, having written the scripts and worked on the production of several films, and published The ABC's of Cinema in 1926. One of Cendrars's novels, Sutter's Gold, was even made into a Hollywood film. Directed by James Cruze for Universal, the film was released in 1936 just as Cendrars hit Hollywood, but met with little success. The experience did, however, give Cendrars his own taste of the excitement and disappointment of the American mecca for dreams that may or may not come true.
Taking the train across the America continent, Cendrars treats his readers to a landscape of a United States in the aftermath of the great depression and of a country in a deep transition. Stepping off of the train into the brilliant sunshine of Southern California, Cendrars discovers Hollywood at its heyday, and he quickly made it the subject of his inquisitive style and piercing pen. Cendrars wrote in a casual, conversational tone, appropriate for an accomplished man of letters writing home to the large, appreciative audience of Paris-Soir.
Whether taking his readers with him along the sunny boulevards or into dressing rooms and hot jazz clubs, or bringing them along on interviews or long waits at the impenetrable studio gates, Cendrars joyously shares his two-week foray into the Hollywood he was able to see. Since his brief stay allowed him only limited access to the real stars, his colorful accounts are perhaps more interesting than if he had been the toast of the town. His perception of the movie capital could almost have been written last year, rather than almost 60 years ago. In just two weeks, Cendrars felt the pulse of a magical, mythical place whose axis spun around the movie makers and their stars.
Six decades later, Hollywood is still spinning as fast as it can to create new heroes and new stars, and the French are still avidly devouring the product of this myth factory. Cendrars's Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies confirms the author's own fascination with the movies, and provides a charming insight into the Hollywood of 1936.
SOURCE: "One Hand Clapping," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 21, Nos. 1 & 2, 1996, pp. 78-89.
[In the following essay, Sieburth offers an overview of Cendrars's writings and their translations.]
After you have taken in the battered old boxer's mug and the inevitable Gauloise glued to the lower lip, the thing you most notice about Blaise Cendrars in the old photos is his missing hand. The left hand writes, smokes, drinks, eats; but from above the elbow down, the right arm just hangs there, all sleeve.
Cendrars lost his right hand to a mortar shell at the Ferme Navarin in 1915. As he would later describe it, part of him lay there by his side, "planted in the grass like a great spreading flower, a red lily, a human arm streaming with blood, a right arm severed above the elbow, its hand, still alive, digging its fingers into the soil as if to take root." From the killing fields of the Marne, the hand then rose up into the sky to become the constellation Orion:
It's my star It's in the form of a hand It's my hand gone up into the sky During the entire war I saw Orion through a lookout slit When the zeppelins came to bomb Paris they always came from Orion I have it above my head today The main mast pierces the palm of that hand which must hurt As my amputated hand hurts me pierced as it is by a continual stabbing pain
This is one of the Travel Notes Cendrars jotted down as he crossed the Equator en route to Sao Paulo in 1924—and it reads just as flatly in the original French as it does in Ron Padgett's English. The zeppelins over Paris and the dazed camera eye of the poilu looking out of the aperture of his loophole are, by the early twenties, fairly standard-issue modernism. But the mythopoeia at work in these lines might be Dante's: A pilgrim poet looks to the heavens and sees the entire cosmos transformed into a vast projection of the martyred body of Jesus. The vision telescopes the carnage of war, the mast-pierced palm of the warrior Orion, and his own missing hand, a sidereal Christ nailed to the firmament like a pulse-star of pain.
In an uncanny coincidence, Cendrars's hand was blown off the very day Remy de Gourmont died. Influential editor of the Mercure de France, polymath novelist, poet, and critic, Gourmont was the Roland Barthes of the prewar avant-garde, a figure whom Cendrars so idolized that he actually signed some of his own early manuscripts with the master's name. With his spiritual father now gone, Cendrars-the-son, orphaned, maimed to the core, also undergoes a symbolic death. Switching from the right hand to the left, having literally to learn to write all over again, he will compose almost no more poetry after 1915—indeed, if we are to believe his own carefully forged hagiography, he will abandon Literature altogether, choosing instead the career of a latter-day Rimbaud or Dada saint. Though he will continue to publish enormously over the following half century (his collected works come to eight hefty tomes in the standard French edition), what he writes with his left hand no longer strictly matters: After the mortar shell, all his works are posthumous, ghostwritten by a phantom limb. One of his last poems runs: "Je suis l'homme qui n'a plus de passé.—Seul mon moignon me fait mal." I'm the man who no longer has a past. Only my stump aches.
The ache is already there in Cendrars's very first poem, Les Pâques à New-York, published in 1912—the same year as Apollinaire's Zone. Compared to Apollinaire's exuberant, kaleidoscopic collage of modernity, Cendrars's poem, inspired by the incantatory cadences of Gourmont's Latin mystique, scans more like the coarse gougings of a medieval woodcut, its blocky alexandrines thudding down the page. Padgett's translation catches the rhythm beautifully:
The apartment windows are filled with blood And the women behind them are like flowers of blood, Orchids, strange, bad, withered blooms, Chalices inverted underneath your wounds. They never drank of your blood collected there. They have red on their lips, and lacy underwear.
The violent juxtaposition of the Savior's sacrificial blood with the menstrual effluvia of the modern world is typical of the poem's rather lurid expressionistic effects. Whereas Zone is closer to the futurist experiments of a Boccioni, Severini, or Balla, Cendrars's agonistic litany of Easter in New York—down to the very frontispiece he designed for it, which depicts a man bent over, holding his crotch—is pure Kollwitz, Kokoschka, or Schiele.
Cendrars's residences in Russia and his bilingual Bernese background make him one of the few intermediaries between the modernisms of Mitteleuropa (notably, the Blaue Reiter school) and the Parisian avantgarde; Easter in New York, significantly enough, was first published in a Franco-German anarchist review printed in Paris. He is, for example, probably the only French poet of his period to know all of Rilke's work by heart in the original. A key image from the latter's Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1911, is adapted by Cendrars to express the utter facelessness of New York:
Lord, make my face, buried in my hands, Leave there its agonizing mask. Lord, don't let my two hands, pressed here Against my lips, lick the foam of wild despair.
In an inspired feat of translation, Padgett manages to capture Cendrars's expressionistic Menschheitsdämmerung by transposing it into the more familiar idiom of the early Eliot:
In the night the street is like a gash Filled with gold and blood, fire and trash.
Or this couplet, which reads like something Pound might have slashed from the manuscript of The Waste Land:
Lord, the humble women who were with you at Golgotha Are hidden, in filthy backrooms, on obscene sofas.
Unreal city, indeed.
Easter in New York was the Howl of its generation. Written while Cendrars was down and out in New York, living the life of a dharma bum, its hallucinatory catalogue of Lower East Side immigrants, skid row drunks, and assorted spiritual and sexual cripples is one slow scream of pain. The theology of the poem (a further link to the German expressionists and the American Beats) is darkly gnostic, dismissing as it does the entire incarnate world as an obscene, female simulacrum of the Creation. If there is redemption, it lies only in the suffering body of the crucified Christ—a body, however, that is no longer (or not yet) ready to rise:
Lord, cold as a shroud the dawn slipped away And left the skyscrapers naked in the day.
Easter in New York concludes with a vision of failed resurrection in the New World; the harrowing night of the soul it records, however, at least allowed its author to be reborn. Sloughing off his previous identity as the Swiss Freddy Sauser, the poet for the first time signs his work "Blaise Cendrars"—a man on fire (braise), determined to reduce the world to cinders (cendres) through the flame of his art (ars).
Nineteen thirteen is Cendrars's annus mirabilis. Returning to Paris, he is quickly caught up in the vortex of the avantgarde. He meets Apollinaire and Jacob, but his closest imaginative commerce is with painters: Léger, Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine, Robert and Sonia Delaunay. With the last, he collaborates on his first great simultanéiste work, Prose du Transsibérien, an object half-painting, half-book; Cendrars's poem runs down the right hand of the two-meter sheet, while Sonia Delaunay's swirls of color occupy the left, now and then spilling over into the typographical indentions of the text. One hundred and fifty copies were printed; folded like a pleated map, the sheets came to the size of an average paperback—stood end to end, however, they equaled the height of the Eiffei Tower. Modern editions of the text, of course, cannot convey the full optic and semiotic complexity of this publishing event. Following in the footsteps of Mallarmés' "Un coup de dés" and anticipating the experiments of Apollinaire's Calligrammes, Cendrars scores the page, using a range of typefaces and blocks of print to syncopate his epic (and purely imaginary) journey through Russia on the Transsiberian Express. A similar attention to the graphic lie of print on page informs his other great poem of 1913, Panama (not published until 1918). Designed by Cendrars and executed by Raoul Dufy, the book's folded format imitates a steamship schedule or railway timetable, its cover emblazoned with a logo that parodies the trademark emblem of the Union Pacific Railroad. The stanza breaks within the body of the poem are in turn filled with maps of train routes in the American West—vectors of verse visually rhymed with the branching trunk lines of modern transportation.
Despite their cinematographic appeal to the reader's eye, these are also very much poems about new ways of hearing. Nineteen thirteen is, after all, the year of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and The Prose of the Transsiberian is accordingly "dedicated to musicians" (later, in the early twenties, Cendrars will work with Darius Milhaud on his jazzy Création du monde). The very "Prose" of the title gestures toward music—specifically the Latin prosa of medieval Gregorian chant that Cendrars (like Pound) discovered in the elastic rhythmic units of Gourmont's Latin mystique, a prose both colloquial and liturgical, a cadence to be at once spoken and droned. This particular fusion of the hieratic and the vernacular is perhaps the most difficult thing to translate—and for the most part it eludes Padgett's ear, attuned as it is to the deadpan diction of the New York School. Here are the opening lines of his Prose of the Transsiberian:
Back then I was still young I was barely sixteen but my childhood memories were gone I was 48,000 miles away from where I was born
Compare Dos Passos' version: "I was a youngster in those days," where, right off the bat, we feel ourselves in the presence of a great spinner of yarns; "Hardly sixteen and already I couldn't remember my childhood," which retains the original's clunky copula, smoothed out by Padgett's adversative "but," and "I was sixteen thousand leagues away from the place I was born," whose register is appropriately epic, involving distances measured in mythical leagues, not in Padgett's American miles.
Translating the Transsibérian and Panama in 1931, Dos Passos of course came to his task with certain advantages: Cendrars was a personal acquaintance whose poetics of montage had already influenced the jump cuts of his own Orient Express and the "Newsreel" and "Camera Eye" sections of The 42nd Parallel. Although his versions are often slapdash and their slang now somewhat dated—their lexicon includes words like "flappers," "hornswaggled," "jack" (for money), and "on the bum"—they at least manage to register something of Cendrars's characteristic voice: "J'ai été libertin et je me suis permis toutes les privautés avec le monde." With his trained novelist's ear, Dos Passos catches the precise inflection of wounded swagger: "I've done what I damn pleased I've taken all sorts of liberties with the world." Padgett, by contrast, chooses to remain more literal, but in the process misreads the French "libertin" as a false friend of the English "libertine," producing the awkward repetition of "I've been a libertine and have taken every liberty with the world"—a line one cannot imagine anyone possibly saying. Or take this famous phrase from Panama: "Je tourne dans la cage des méridiens comme un écureuil dans la sienne"—where the subtle internal off-rhyme established at the median caesura ("méridiens" / "sienne") reproduces the futile rotation of a mind trapped on its own treadmill. Padgett merely sight-reads the original, giving us the stunted line: "I go round in the cage of meridians like a squirrel in his," whereas Dos Passos conveys the frenzy of immobility: "I go round and round inside the meridians like a squirrel in a squirrelcage."
If Dos Passos' ear is almost always superior to Padgett's, it is because he has actually experienced the acoustic universe of the great international express trains:
Women brushing past Hiss of steam And the eternal rack of crazy wheels in the ruts of the sky.
Padgett is more bloated:
Swishing of women And the whistle blowing And the eternal sound of wheels wildly rolling along ruts in the sky.
A veteran of the Great War like Cendrars, Dos Passos also knows the precise shadings of military jargon. His Captain Dreyfus, for example, is "reduced to the ranks before the army," whereas Padgett's, "stripped in front of the army," is actually forced to publicly unclothe. Furthermore, Dos Passos has lived through the dawn of aviation: When, toward the end of Panama, Cendrars dreams of participating in a "rallye aérien," he perfectly renders the period feel with "Air Circus" (as opposed to Padgett's blander "airplane races"). The original French is deceptively simple:
La voie lactée autour du cou Les deux hémisphères sur les yeux A toute vitesse Il n'y a plus de pannes
Padgett's version is entirely correct, but, as usual, overcautious:
The Milky Way around my neck The two hemispheres on my eyes At top speed There are no more breakdowns
Dos Passos gives the last two lines as "Full speed ahead / Never stall again," at least capturing something about the flight of early airplanes. And his first two lines miraculously improve upon the original, sharpening the image of the pilot as an astral Icarus, transmogrified by ascension:
With the Milky Way around my neck And the two hemispheres for goggles
The Prose of the Transsibérian is a narrative about the disintegration of narratives, a modernist Childe Harold's Pilgrimage whose fast-forward imagery culminates in a vision of holocaust at Port Arthur before looping back (somewhat cornily) to the Eiffel Tower and the arms of Jeanne, the brave little Paris whore. Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles in turn deploys a dazzling array of plots and location shots—less to map the modern world in all its photogenic variety than to erase it, to denounce it as a Big Lie. (Despite his advanced poetic techniques, Cendrars remains very much the fin-de-siècle student of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Mallarmé.) Leaving these experiments with cinematographic epic behind, he now turns, in late 1913 and 1914, to the dismantling of lyric in a series of texts later collected as 19 Elastic Poems.
Padgett on the whole does very well with this collection, perhaps because it so explicitly anticipates the repertoire of the New York School, particularly the knowing in-jokes about the art world ("The Weather Bureau is forecasting bad weather / There is no futurism"; "Art criticism is as idiotic as Esperanto"; "Simultaneism is old hat"). The language of these texts, originally published in such avant-garde magazines as Les Soirées de Paris, Dèr Sturm, De Stijl, Cabaret Voltaire, and Littérature, reads like a cross between the culled snippets of Apollinaire's "conversation poems" and the cut-ups of Tzara. Cendrars himself referred to them as "poémes de circonstance," underscoring the deliberate casualness of their occasion—browsing through a newspaper, having a drink in a café, chatting with a fellow poet, looking out a window, having one's portrait painted. Their idiom is supple enough to explore the smallest, most prosaic incidents of daily life and then to compact these anecdotes into a private, often gnomic shorthand. Though they still gesture toward narrative, most of these poems take the form of lists—as in this stroboscopic record of a visit to Chagall's studio, dated October 1913:
Cossacks Christ a shattered sun Roofs Sleepwalkers goats A lycanthrope Pétrus Borel Madness winter A genius split like a peach Lautréamont Chagall Poor kid next to my wife Morose delectation The shoes are down at heel An old jar full of chocolate A lamp that's split in two And my drunkenness when I go see him
The "I" who makes his appearance here is no longer, strictly speaking, a lyric subject. Recording his drunkenness as he would any other random stimulus or association, he has become an impersonal seismograph of the self (Rimbaud's "Je est un autre"). His job, in short, is no longer to express the world but merely to document it, to inventory it, to place it within quotations, as in the following "News Flash":
OKLAHOMA, January 20, 1914 Three convicts get hold of revolvers They kill their guard and grab the prison keys They come running out of their cells and kill four guards in the yard Then they grab the young prison secretary And get into a carriage waiting for them at the gate They leave at top speed While guards fire their revolvers in the direction of the fugitives
This rapid-fire narrative reads like the shooting script for one of Mack Sennett's manic two-reelers. Cendrars copied it out of the morning newspaper. It is said to be the first found poem in French, the literary equivalent of the ready-mades Duchamp had exhibited at the Armory Show the previous year. Well before Dada, Cendrars is trying to find a way out of Poetry once and for all.
Although he continues to compose a few scattered poems after his amputation, the Elastic Poems of 1913–1914 announces Cendrars's crossover into left-handed prose, or a genre that might be best labeled anti- or post-poetry. After a hiatus of ten years, he returns to the lineations of verse in a series of texts jotted down over the course of 1924 and published in book form under the titles Kodak and Feuilles de route; under the threat of a trademark infringement suit from the Eastman Company, however, the title of the former was changed to Documentaires. This legal contretemps, coincidentally enough, underscores the (postmodernist) strategies of reappropriation at work throughout the volume. As its title suggests, Kodak displays the world in the age of mechanical reproduction as a snapshot album or a medley of souvenir postcards. As it moves out from Manhattan into the great American vastness, the camera pans down the Mississippi, up to Canada and Alaska, then across the Pacific into Asia and Africa—an entirely imaginary tracking shot, for Cendrars never visited any of the landscapes he photographically documents with such precision. Nor can he really be said to be the owner or originator of the texts gathered in the volume, for virtually every word has been cut and pasted from the adventure stories of the minor French popular novelist Gustave Le Rouge (bearing out T.S. Eliot's dictum that bad poets borrow but good poets steal). Cendrars's samplings from Le Rouge's novels are exactly contemporary with the archival montage techniques of Pound's "Malatesta Cantos," but whereas Pound, working as a historian, still believes in the recoverable truth inherent in fact, Cendrars's documentary footage functions more ironically, reminding us that the world is mere representation (Schopenhauer again), that all reality has now become as virtual as his missing hand.
Padgett's translations of Kodak and Travel Notes are among his finest achievements. Far more relaxed than Monique Chefdor's previous renderings of these same texts, Padgett's versions actually manage to invent Cendrars as a plausible twentieth-century American poet. We hear hints of Hart Crane, for example, in this Florida landscape:
On these stinking waters in the poisonous muck Flowers bloom with a stunning scent a heady and persistent smell Burst of blue and purple Chrome leaves Everywhere
Or this, a possible outtake from an early Williams poem, lensed through the precisionist eye of Charles Sheeler:
A six-cylinder and two Fords out in the field All around and as far as you can see the slightly tilted sheaves form a checkerboard of wavering rhomboids Not a tree From the north the chugging and clatter of the thresher and hay wagon And from the south the twelve empty trains coming to load the wheat
Or this, from Gary Snyder's poems of the Northwest:
Strings of wood doves red-legged partridge Wild peacock Wild turkey And even a big reddish-brown and white eagle brought down from the clouds
Or this, an objectivist Cid Corman noting the specifics of a Japanese home:
Bamboo stalks Thin boards Paper stretched across frames There is no real heating system
Kodak presents us with a world drained of all affect and exotic glamour. Though he knows its landscapes to be mere simulacra, mere images, mere quotations, Cendrars arrives at an almost Zen-like acceptance of their lovely, illusory prose. He is, as he reports in his Travel Notes, content to be simply here—that is, as always, elsewhere:
Today I am perhaps the happiest man in the world I have everything I don't want