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Cendrars, Blaise (Pseudonym of Frédéric-Louis Sauser-Hall) 1887–1961
Cendrars was a French-Swiss poet, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and editor. A tireless world traveler, he transmuted his adventures into lyric poetry and picaresque novels remarkable for their exuberant imagery and vigorous characters. Among the many stories surrounding his life and career, none has caused more debate than whether his first poem, Easter in New York, significantly influenced Apollonaire. His efforts to adapt the techniques of musical composition to writing poetry, along with other formal innovations, made him an important figure in French letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1680
Blaise Cendrars's reputation as a poet will, undoubtedly, rest upon one poem, "Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France." This is a meager residue from a body of work that fills 269 pages in the 1957 edition of the collected poems, but it is the one poem in which his basic inspiration, consisting, as it does, of autobiographical themes, fuses with his free poetic line to produce a work rich in technique and in meaning. The range of emotional coloring, the rhythms responding now to the impulsive movement of the train, now to his feeling of kinship with Jeanne and the humble creatures of this world, give it a more than personal significance. The dislocated rhythms of the modern world, that world to which he is so resolutely dedicated, are communicated in an exact and incisive language, capable of considerable beauty. It is a long poem, but its length is sustained by an emotional drive, immediate and intense, that is not exhausted until the concluding lines, when the poet, reviewing the images of the poem, translates his exhaustion into the slow, measured cadences of the finale. (p. 321)
In Cendrars's "Prose du Transsibérien," the sections concerning Jeanne are quiet lyrical pauses in the relentless onrush of the train. Cendrars's poem can thus be seen as a kind of poetic inversion of [Alfred de Vigny's] "La Maison du Berger," with the modern world's ferocity and power, captured in the train, dominating the mood of nostalgic reverie and contemplation to which the woman invites the poet. (p. 322)
Cendrars's poetic vision is rooted in an absorption of his own experiences into a poetic framework. Like the Romantic poets, he incorporated the personal ego, the intense physical or spiritual life, into a poetic context, deepening and diffusing it. However, where [Victor Hugo] in "Olympia," [Alfred de Musset] in "Souvenir," and [Alphonse de Lamartine] in "Le Lac" attempt to recall a time that was happy, to capture the intensity of a privileged experience, isolating certain moments and giving them a special value, Cendrars gathers together, in a single poem, an often bewildering variety of experiences. He gives to them not the aura of a nostalgic happiness and beauty but the record of memories intense and vivid enough to impose themselves again upon him. These memories possess sufficient force to break through the traditional limits of rhyme and meter…. Formal content, for him, cannot be restricted to a tight formal structure. This metrical liberation permits him a spatial freedom, and as Vigny has pointed out, the world has "narrowed." It is not, as it was with the Romantics, Man and Nature or Man and the Universe, but man and the world about him, distance conquered by science and the modern imagination…. (pp. 322-23)
Thus, Cendrars stands, at the same time, in a Romantic tradition, personal experience furnishing the material of the poem, and departs from it by refusing to find an ultimate poetic relationship between structure and experience. Where the romantic poets sought to deepen the experience in a temporal relationship, Cendrars insisted upon a spatial relationship. The world is narrowed by our experience, and in "Prose du Transsibérien" its depths are plumbed, depths of feeling, an emotional coloring lending a tonal unity to the poem….
Cendrars's poetry, like that of Rimbaud, in Saison en enfer, is the lyrical biography of a vagabond in flight but instead of using the prose poem, Cendrars preferred to use free verse, with its more formal poetic grouping into strophes rather than the paragraphs of the prose poem. And, lacking the semimystical exaltation of Rimbaud, his orientation is toward the observable incidents and artifacts of this world. The shrieking train may speed on in a superhuman madness, but it cannot take the poet out of this world. It contracts time and space, but it does not obliterate them.
Cendrars's revolt is also extended to the vocabulary, encompassing all ranges of expression, to the most vulgar and common. This is particularly striking in "Prose du Transsibérien" with its references to bordel, putain, fiente, chaude-pisse. Romanticism, which admitted the comic and the tragic, the grotesque and the sublime, into a single framework, here finds its ultimate assimilation in vocabulary, word-by-word analysis. The result is that lyric poetry attains a crudity and an explicitness of expression unique in modern verse. (p. 323)
Freedom of structure, of image association, of vocabulary, all distinguish Cendrars's poetic method, and in their most successful union (in "Prose du Transsibérien") they attain a rare intensity and diffusion. (p. 324)
[If] Cendrars disclaimed any direct association with the Surrealists, there is a curious and striking parallel between their automatic writing and his own description of the composition of "Les Pâques à New-York." The poem was written, as he recalled, during a single night, coming to him as pure inspiration and requiring, afterwards, "trois ratures. Un point, c'est tout."… Cendrars's poetry is distinguished from the Surrealists', however, by the sequential development of the images and the evident pattern of feeling and thought which appears at even a cursory first reading. Cendrars's poems are not exercises in the unrestrained freedom of the Surrealists. There is a restricting format and attitude which binds all of the poems into a coherent poetic universe and which finally restricts them to a prosaic statement in which Cendrars's most evident qualities are negated and obliterated.
The point at which Cendrars and the Surrealists most closely meet is in their insistent use of the personal "I." Biography to the Surrealists, however, is no longer an accumulation of a mass of events drawn from the poet's experience. There may be, as in André Breton's "Tournesol," a single real incident in a recognizable framework ("La voyageuse qui traversa les Halles à la tombée de l'été"), but this is only the pretext for a chain of half-real, dreamlike sequences which are opposed to Cendrars's very real, concrete universe. The sense of reality, so closely associated in Cendrars with his own biography and with his receptivity to the constructions of the world about him, is removed into a sentimental, emotional landscape more closely resembling the interior landscapes of Verlaine. To most poets, Cendrars's interpolation of the most mundane biographical information would seem too prosaic an approach. (pp. 326-27)
Cendrars's poetry assumes a constant poetic attitude, based on the importance of the personal experience, from the most banal to the most intense, as a material of poetry. It admits a wider range of experience than its predecessors, both in vocabulary and in spatial extension, but it seems to awaken only a muted echo in the poems following it. The interior landscape with only faint imprints of the exterior world, rather than the exterior landscape heightened by an expressive lyricism, is more characteristic of the Surrealists and their successors. The Surrealists, in their dredging up from the well of the unconscious, were responding to a real need of poets to tap a deeper inspiration. Cendrars's vigor, his range of imagery and his humanitarian feeling, were either beyond or beneath these poets. Cendrars's separation from poetic schools has perhaps resulted from a very real lack of identification with their aims and methods, and his vision, sounding a recognizable personal note, has been perhaps too distinctive a pattern for other poets to attempt to reproduce or to incorporate into their own poetry. (pp. 327-28)
If one wished to be excessively generous to Cendrars, one might say that he constantly renewed himself, taking on the demands of new mediums and new forms when the old seemed to signal their own extinction. But it might also be argued that, instead of enriching and developing his talent, he simply recast it into different molds, refusing to seek new modes of meaning in the poem or in the novel. There seems to be no line of progression in the movement from the poetry of free verse to the loosely constructed, intense language of his prose works. What seems most striking is the failure to adopt any formal discipline and to exploit fully the possibilities of any one medium. A wanderer in his personal life with an expressed horror of setting a definite path for anyone else to follow, he maintained the same course in his writing so that he wandered restlessly over the different forms of prose and poetry, unable to settle down sufficiently to establish himself and develop a marked supremacy in any single mode of writing. He worked competently and often compellingly in the personal essay, the novel, biography, and autobiography, but, at the same time, remained a little to the side of each of them, exploiting rather than disciplining them. Rather than creating a distinct form which would be detached and dependent on its own merits, he projected so many extensions of his own biography, writing and rewriting his emotional and physical life, his feeling for the outsiders and his distinctness from any school or camp, into a lengthy autobiography, now in terms of poetry, now in terms of the camera, now in terms of prose.
He always remained faithful to his ideal and refused to subordinate his personal impulses to any poetic hierarchy or trend. This purity of intent is an admirable trait in a writer and one can only regret that it was not allied to a more compelling sense of form. The lack of discipline which, in "Prose du Transsibérien," produced an apparently spontaneous and exciting work of art, appears to have absorbed the artist and made of him a foot-loose vagabond, unable to center himself long enough to create the work of which "Prose du Transsibérien" suggests he might have been capable. His poetry, moving as it may be in parts, leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness and with the apparent display of the dissipation of a talent that, assiduously cultivated, might have led to a coherent body of artistic work of beauty and force. (pp. 328-29)
Walter Albert, "Blaise Cendrars: A Temporal Perspective," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (copyright © 1962 by the University of Texas Press). Vol. IV, No. 3, Autumn, 1962, pp. 321-29.
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My first taste of [Cendrars] 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. It was like reading a phosphorescent text through smoked glasses. I had to divine what he was saying, Cendrars, but I got it. If he had written it in Tegalic I would have gotten it. Everything is written in blood, but a blood that is saturated with starlight. Cendrars is like a transparent fish swimming in a planetary sperm; you can see his backbone, his lungs, his heart, his kidneys, his intestines; you can see the red corpuscles moving in the blood stream. You can look clean through him and see the planets wheeling. The silence he creates is deafening. It takes you back to the beginning of the world, to that hush which is engraved on the face of mystery. (pp. vii-viii)
He has been accused of writing trash. It is true that he did not always write on the same level—but Cendrars never wrote trash. He was incapable of writing trash. His problem was not whether to write well or badly, but whether to write or not to write. Writing was almost a violation of his way of living. He wrote against the grain, more and more so as the years went on. If, on the impulse of the moment, or through dire necessity, he took the notion to do a piece of reportage, he went through with it with good grace. He went about even the most trivial task with pains, because fundamentally he did not recognize that one thing is trivial and another important. If it was not anti-human, his attitude, it was certainly anti-moral. He was as much ashamed of being disgusted or revolted as of being exalted or inspired. He had known what it is to struggle, but he despised struggle, too.
His writing, like his life, was on different levels. It changed color, substance, tempo, just as his life changed rhythm and equilibrium. He went through metamorphoses, without however surrendering his identity. His behavior seemed to be governed not merely by internal changes—psychic, chemical, physiologic—but by external ones also, chiefly by interstellar configurations. (p. ix)
Henry Miller, in his preface to Selected Writings of Blaise Cendrars, edited by Walter Albert (copyright © 1962 by Walter Albert; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1962, pp. vii-x.
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Of all the poets of his time, Blaise Cendrars concerned himself to the most extreme degree with the life of adventure and with the recounting of that adventure. The rough surface of his writing is an uncalculated witness to the rapidity and variety of his experience and to his genuine passion for life, often at the expense of what we usually call literature. The question which arises at various times in his work as to why in fact it should be important to transcribe the events one lives or observes is less interesting than the question as to what sort of transcription might be valid. For the poet of movement, only words in motion are acceptable; for the man of adventure, a cinematic language is more fitting than a language of mere picture. (p. 345)
The epic "Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France" (1913) encompasses a physical journey of the same complexity, scope, and melancholy as the spiritual journey of his "Pâques à New York" of a year earlier. In the highly poetic "Prose," Cendrars repeatedly laments that in his "ardent and foolish" adolescence, he was a bad poet, not knowing how to push to the limits of the possible. In the present, he can say of his life that it is, and has always been, in perpetual motion, that it has been measured out by train tracks. (p. 346)
Three essential psychological and esthetic attitudes are present [in "Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles"] as Cendrars states his change of direction. First, the highly-developed sensitivity already informing the visions of his "Pâques à New York" and the fear expressed in his "Prose." In his poetry and his essays, he repeatedly alludes to this characteristic, defining it as an ingredient of the modern, both in the personal and the impersonal realms, and thereby consecrating it as supremely valuable…. Second, the refusal to continue his poetic tourism because the seen is in fact pathetically undifferentiated, as the lines of railroads, of cables, of canals foster a tedium of the same. Third, the rejection of his complete passivity as he has followed the lines of the countryside presented to him in his linear passage. "Ma Danse," the poem of 1914 which … forms the central image for all the works of Cendrars as he places himself "Au coeur du monde," concludes with parallel statements on the ennui of sameness and on the possible interest of a new kind of motion, more circular than linear. The dance of the landscape finally merges with his own, as the pejorative sense of the notion tourisme (superficiality, unoriginality of vision) yields to the more positive sense of tour and tourner: the whirling motion of the seen and of the seer suggests the idea of the universal with which the poem ends…. (p. 347)
More often than any other geometrical figure, that of the spiral recurs in Cendrars' prose and poetry. He identifies it with a certain depth and an intense presence. Although the uni-linear voyage disappoints him by its monotony and its superficial nature, there is another possibility to which he attaches all the values of the total as well as the deep. (p. 348)
When, in an essay called "Le Principe d'utilité." Cendrars abounds in praise for the engineers of the epoch, the extent to which he is able to identify exterior physical constructions with the internal mental impulsions and their verbal and plastic expression becomes clear. He compares the material of hardened steels, sharp-edged glass, nickel and copper to currents of high-tension ideas, and the geometrical progress of inventions, the brightly-colored posters which replace the strict formal categories of flowerbeds to a new writing, a "verbe coloré" to match the multicolored life ("vie bariolée") of the poet and, ideally, of the people. His rejections of those flowerbeds (representing a restricted vision of time and space) for that of the whirlwind enables him to absorb, in a further spiral, the least "poetic" elements into his writing. (p. 349)
The accent placed on the simultaneous gesture is in itself a protest against the narrow and the linear, as the accent, peculiar to Cendrars, placed on the simultaneous contrast, is a protest against the facility and the narrow range of the simple contrast (of black and white, for instance)…. Founded in the resemblance between things as much as in their basic difference, this kind of contrast accentuates the continuous above the discontinuous. All the stages of a journey are linked and yet separate; their cohesion is assured by the movement of the voyager. This theory is the basis for Cendrars' admiration of the cinema, a medium effective precisely because the simultaneous levels and perspectives involve the onlooker who has now become active…. His involvement is paralleled by that of the camera itself, as it moves to register the sections of reality it links and to create the new unity deeper than the partial links we observe in our more limited vision.
As an experiment in the contrast of the pictorial and the cinematic, we might briefly compare (or make a simultaneous contrast of) passages from a 1914 poem for the artist de la Fresnaye, called "Natures mortes" and one of 1916, "La Guerre au Luxembourg." The distance between these poems, from the first or linear simultaneous poem to the second or purely simultaneous one, may be seen as merely formal, or as indicative of a change in vision. In the first, the colors of the painting are placed, in italics and unattached as to gender, among the objects to which they apply, so that they are at once separated from and associated with them…. The colors stand out from the objects, so that the colored language is directly in contact with the colored canvas without any necessary mediation of the colored objects. And yet it is a still life, containing the typical cubist objects to which we are accustomed, in typical simple cylindrical and rectangular shapes: the table and the paper contrasting with the bottles of ink and wine ("litre de sensualité"), the colors standing next to the objects which they define, leaving no space for surprise.
In the second poem, however, the right-hand margin supplies a simultaneous voice across the space. A child's game of war in the gardens is described in a sequence of catalogued items and statements on the left (a gun, shouts of high-pitched voices) are paralleled on the right by an actual description of the words shouted ("Moi!" "Moi!" "Moi!", childish and selfcentered)…. The interest here lies not just in the two simple and simultaneous readings on the horizontal and vertical lines about which there is nothing new—Villon's prayer written for his mother, signed VILLON down the page is, after all, to be read in two directions—but also in the fact that the reading can be done in many directions, as if in a spiral: left to right, right to left, horizontally, diagonally, vertically. (pp. 350-52)
A last indication, if one is needed, that Cendrars is more concerned about motion that about spectacle is his emphasis on the dépouillement of the gesture. Stripped bare of any adjectives which would serve as mere ornaments, it functions, whatever its purpose, purely and totally, unhindered by trivial detail. Another of the nineteen elastic poems, "La Tête," begins with the gruesome transformed into the serious … and ends in praise of Archipenko's egg-shaped sculpture, whose bare perspectives are devoid even of color, an ascetic parallel simultaneous with the "verbe coloré."… The immobile matched to the mobile, purity matched to profundity and novelty, the spiral matched to the simple, the sculpture and the poem identified with it are perfect and complete. (pp. 352-53)
Cendrars is always aware of the gesture of writing, alluding to it, often shaping even some of the rapid travel sketches (or "Feuilles de route") around it…. Yet he never attributes to that gesture any exaggerated importance—like the loss of his arm, the 36 professions he claims to have exercised, or the diverse kinds of exploits he undertook, it is simply one of the given points to be mentioned and then superseded in the process of moving about. It is the continuous gesture which is significant, the cinema which takes precedence over still photographs. To his poems he gives the simple title of "poèmes dépouillés," "poème-télégramme," "poème-océan," "cartes postales." Like the bright and bare posters, simple headlines or titles are quite as valuable as what they might announce. A poem called "Titres" describes the limited outline of the new spirit, completely unconcerned with the picturesque, more forceful as it is less complicated…. Writing is not living, Cendrars repeats. It should not therefore be given a greater importance than it deserves. (pp. 353-54)
The homesickness suffered by one of the Seven Uncles in the poem "Le Panama," the regret, fear, and tedium recurring along with the continual passion for travel …, the possibility of suicide Cendrars meditates out of the fullness of living, as he explains it—these simultaneous contrasts suffice to remove from the series of epic voyages the stigma of exaggeration. And by a reversing of the spiral, a series of the same voyages or same actions repeated can open out infinitely, proving that the exterior dépouillement of the gesture, of the landscape, or of the poem has no effect on the interior depth….
With a gesture continually in motion and pointing toward a permanent depth, the poet of adventure makes of his works, long or short, a cinema. The spiral form never becomes baroque, nor the heroism, grandiose. The depth depends on simplicity, and the intensity and scope of description on the acknowledgement of nostalgia. (p. 355)
Mary Ann Caws, "Blaise Cendrars: A Cinema of Poetry," in Kentucky Romance Quarterly (© University Press of Kentucky; reprinted by permission of Kentucky Romance Quarterly), Vol. XVII, No. 4, 1970, pp. 345-55.
L'Homme foudroyé takes us back to [Cendrars's] experience of active resistance in the 1914 war, before he lost his arm: in the English edition the title is astonishingly translated as The Astonished Man, a title which conveys nothing of Cendrar's meaning. Foudroyé is a favourite word of his, in its literal sense of struck down, struck by lightning, thunderstruck: unfortunately this (abridged) translation, like its title, does not adequately reproduce either the virile style or the popular speech of the original….
"Monde" and "Vie" are keywords in Cendrars…. The word "monde" is constantly recurring in his titles: Au coeur du monde, Du monde entier, La Création du monde, La Fin du monde. Cendrars does offer us a description of a wide cross-section of the world and he gives it to us straight, just as it appears to him. He is not a moralist, nor a preacher, nor a politician, nor a reformer, nor does he inhabit an ivory tower—he is always down in the mêlée. He writes with bitter scorn of the capitalistic exploiters of the underdog, yet he did not himself disdain to make one or several fortunes out of the same capitalistic system. What he was always temperamentally incapable of, however, was keeping such a fortune. (p. 248)
"No Other God but Life," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3600, February 26, 1971, pp. 247-48.
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Cendrars always deals with a unified core of concerns or themes, and interweaving … is a necessary technique for searching out an elusive and complex centre. In the case of [Les Pâques] something of the reverse seems to obtain, for the diverse images appear to be flung away from the central image of Christ, as if he can no longer control them. (p. 92)
The centre of Les Pâques is the difficulty of resurrecting the faith we already had. While it is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the modern world, New York, goes about its crass and deepeningly oppressive business…. There is no especial grudge against the modern world, and the poem is more concerned with the plight of the poor, which has no doubt never been much different; but New York is particularly saddening to the poet because it brings together many different peoples, by implication all people. They have come to the city of money for salvation, and Christ along with the poet may be as lost as any of them. (pp. 92-3)
The poem as a whole is a litany and throughout is medieval in tone, at least to modern ears, from the epigraph to the apparent awkwardness, the repetitions and the simple bluntness of many lines and expressions…. Les Pâques has little sound of the Church in its prayer, no exaltation, no polish at all it seems. All of its religious tone is contained in the mundane events and objects of daily, despairing life, and much of the beauty of the poem comes from finding precious the demeaned and factitious aspects of the city…. (p. 95)
The stripped, innocent style, mixing naïve allegory and common observations, permits Cendrars to use the simplest aspects of life in the filthy, teeming streets and yet relate them to some sort of faith. He eludes the language of propriety, which by transcending or modifying the commonplace also misplaces the holy. It would be a tribal prayer, or ritual, if it were not for the modern, or New York, fact. The multifarious population provides images which, each in its own culture, would be ordinary but which for the reader are exotic, baroque, and grotesque. These images mix in a depravity more bewildering than any single act or apparition, examined in depth, could convey. The effect is not of evil, but of confusion, which is itself the depravity. (p. 96)
Prose du transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France is a poem concerned with travelling through the modern, this time physically, devastated world and searching out one's frail identity in terms of that disintegrating world. (p. 97)
The major contrast within the poem's language is indicated in the long, explicit title—the train and Jehanne. The train represents the terrible flight of a boy of sixteen who wants so much of the world and life that he is on the verge of breaking everything about him…. (p. 103)
Throughout, the train is the only sufficient vehicle for a man's quest …—and although it is a terrible demon—… the machine, a virtuoso we made to surpass ourselves, remains the acrobat who will surmount all obstacles…. And it is for this reason that one must discover, understand and even come to love somehow this machine, for it represents ourselves, the contemporary manifestation of our strivings and thus our faith…. Cendrars was the poet of the train, of the Eiffel Tower, of publicity, cars, phonographs, newspapers, even dime-novels; he is the poet of these objects not because they were new and novel, but because they were really there, with him and part of his condition. (pp. 104-05)
[As] in Les Pâques à New York, the very last line combines the new and the eternal in an ambiguous note, half praise and half despair….
Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles (1918) is a discovery, the discovery of one's place among the events and places of the world and among the manifestations of oneself in others who went before. (p. 109)
Cendrars' care cannot be emphasized too often, for many critics take exception primarily to the 'disorder' in his writing, whereas the truth is simply that his imaginative and associative reach is longer than what we are accustomed to. (p. 114)
We are given, dispersed through the poem like the train-routes, six letters, one from each of six uncles. Each letter is a rapid and brilliant sketch in just a few lines of a man making his way in some lost corner of the globe. The means are not glorious, but always special, infused with a determination which, perhaps, is measured by the distance from home…. (p. 115)
The seventh uncle is the closest, symbolically, to the poet, and an enigma. Each metamorphosis of Uncle comes closer to the poet, who has contrasted his own anguish in the guise of Wanderlust to his models' mal du pays until all begins to dissolve, poet and uncles into each other, Wanderlust and mal du pays into the independence of the last lines. But before union the young narrator is a lost, searching soul. (p. 117)
[Reality comes] to fulfil and even surpass the yearnings of the imagination, and with that recognition of the world as being enough, the two searches, for uncles and for self, come together, and to an end which says, Start! Panama itself is only one of the many 'belles histoires' … to be told, for as the two searches meet, the whole world presents itself to the poet. The world is always new, and its poetry is just as new, ready; it starts today as the poet walks out his door, grabbing his hat and the first train…. (p. 118)
Thus these three progressively longer poems end at 'home,' Les Pâques in a small room and both Prose and Panama quite suddenly in Paris. Paris is a special hub, the place where these 'Prose' epics are written and to be sung…. The emotional equilibrium from one poem to the next also shows a clear progression, from the constriction of faith, through rebellion and apocalyptic destruction to an expansive readiness for the unknown new; it is a delicate balance of systole and diastole, and one that will be closely repeated, in entirely new voyages, in Cendrars' three novels of the twenties: L'Or, about gold and faith; Moravagine, about the arch-anarchist; and Dan Yack on emotional renewal. But in this poetic triptych of plea, search, and discovery, much more than in the novels, the one constant subject is the survival of man and poet in modernity; the achievement of constancy in and by very virtue of change…. The most powerful, effective aspect of these poems is precisely [the] contrast ('contraste simultané') of lyrical mysticism with the seemingly transitory, contingent nature of all the terribly solid, real objects and terribly passing acts. (pp. 122-23)
The poems [of Dix-neuf Poèmes élastiques] are not pretentious and most often they are intimate. Each seems the spontaneous epiphany—in Joyce's sense—of a fleeting moment…. The poems are immediate responses to occasions in which relatively minor occurences or objects call up personal, often obscure associations in the poet: reading a newspaper, having a drink, Chagall painting; or six colours, a train, his own portrait. (p. 126)
The style of the poems is that of the very personal, jagged sections of Le Panama where the youth jumbled fragments of his confused life. The poems are 'elastic' in two main ways; by what they permit themselves to include and by what they choose to omit. Almost anything connected with the life of the moment has bearing upon the meaning of that moment as the poet apprehends it. Each poem brings together, as did the Picasso and Braque collages of the time, the everyday materials at hand…. In Cendrars' nineteen poems we are called upon, through the style, to trust that the grab bag will make sense, that there is a sense, a circumstance behind the pieces. The frankness, virility, élan, often plain friendliness of the language suspends our doubting until closer or repeated reading or reflection puts things together.
All the links are, or course, omitted; thus the second elasticity derives from the first. Heterogeneous elements have been jerked together into radical relationships with purpose but no or very little explanation. At every line we are in the situation Wallace Stevens so often presents us with when he gives a poem a seemingly irrelevant title; the whole meaning resides in the connection between poem and title. This abridgment of explanation and transition is the mainstay of modern poetic technique, the manner in which pure picture, or Imagism, becomes meaningful. (pp. 126-27)
In these poems abridgments, errors, ambiguity, and metamorphosis contribute to short-circuiting the usually discursive and sensible nature of language to throw the reader through language conceived of as a barrier into untranslatable fact and association. This is, of course, quite the reverse of the process some structural critics propose as proper to the making of good poetry, in which, they feel, language is not at all transparent, but is poetic by virtue of holding the attention and becoming its own most important referent. The direction of Cendrars' success with language is the reverse—utter transparency; and more, since he has magnified the referent and recreated it as a thing living in association with himself.
In Dix-neuf Poèmes élastiques the objects of the world are bent, pulled, rewired, and rebuilt until they are thrown into a new motion, a dance with the poet's senses…. And yet, it is important to distinguish this effect from that of a dream, or an early version of Surrealism, in which the objects lose their solidity, and disappear into the imagination. Cendrars' objects matter and maintain their independence. This is not, in fact, a poetry of 'possession du monde,' as it can be so easily taken to be, and it is precisely Cendrars' strength that he is not acquisitive. His radical transformations leave his subjects real, and their new lives remain consistent with their more ordinary ones, even reinforce them, return them to themselves in a stronger light…. (pp. 129-30)
All the poems of Kodak and Feuilles de route may be divided between photo-style poems and what we might think of as Western versions of the Japanese haiku, or hokku principle…. Cendrars manages to bring off the obvious end with a touch of magic, of his own surprise at how clear and necessary the end is; this magic is the essence of the haiku's purpose—revelation, as you turn the corner, of two perspectives crossing and meeting. A few of the poems are very much haiku in the purest sense…. (p. 132)
These two volumes of poetry collect what Pound called 'precise instants' into series which Cendrars hoped would put the reader 'into a certain vein of thought,' one in which he will open to the slightest glimpses of countryside, streets, or history as privileged snapshots. Their poetry resides as much in their contribution to the volume as a whole as in themselves. The haiku are those especially revealing notes in what is, after all, the account of a voyage more than a collection with strictly symbolic or thematic sequence. Feuilles de route really constitutes a new form, a verbal photographic album which, taken in its entirety, has great evocative power…. In the same way that each poem springs forth and then disappears into the next without transition, the volumes also prefer to dissolve rather than make a final, all-encompassing statement of import and thereby become static. Cendrars' view is elusive, like the place itself which is only willing to give up small vistas. (pp. 134-35)
The most immediately remarkable aspect of L'Or is the sparseness of its style…. In the novel Cendrars was using [the] material to illustrate Sutter's idea of himself and a world he had created around him; but the descriptions in L'Or, which so often give the effect of a documentary accumulation, have nothing of the lavishness one expects from more romantic works…. (pp. 149-50)
The point of L'Or's style was to report fact and ever-pressing action as fast as action itself. To bring the story still closer to the reader's sensitivity Cendrars wrote the novel in the present tense…. (p. 150)
L'Or represents the battle between the actions of a man who pursues a metaphysical or spiritual endeavour in the ever solid and renewing earth and those of a society grasping for an insubstantial artifice,… [or] an abstraction. Spirituality is different from abstraction because the endeavour which fulfils the spiritual need is by that very activity constructive; it is a quality of the endeavour, and not the goal of it. Spiritual worth is discovered by practice and in practising; hence the familiar, time-honoured value of producing from the land and the age-old warning against cupidity; hence also the present tense of the narrative. (p. 153)
In Sutter, Cendrars united what seem two opposite poles of human nature, the need to hold to the land and the need to hold more land, to fructify beyond what was given at birth. (p. 154)
[Moravagine] is the devastating, progressive revelation of the kinship between Moravagine and the dark side of Raymond and, through him, of ourselves…. [As] he jumps the asylum wall he takes upon himself the primitive revenge of twentieth-century man entangled in a plethora of superficial and demeaning conventions and institutions, all sublimations which have been robbed of purpose. (pp. 158-59)
The two men are an indissoluble pair, the seemingly coincidental, but actually destined, or 'synchronistically' … determined meeting of an ambitious but weak, overcivilized doctor with a 'fauve humain' who has no ambition but is extraordinarily powerful and entirely uncivilized. In this meeting of pure force and its repressed aspirant Cendrars split the schizoid personality of the times into its two natural parts, each hidden from the other. Thus separated, the beast became mythical, and the socialized recognized his own cruel depths. The letter 'reproduced' for us in the preface, written the night before Raymond is to be executed for regicide some ten years after Moravagine's death, seems to show a coolness we found only in Moravagine himself, as if Raymond had eventually become his real and active brother after the madman's death…. (p. 168)
Moravagine resembles the ithyphallic and destructive god Siva in his cosmic dance of death, and perhaps as well Siva's consort, the black Kali, covered with skulls and blood…. But Siva is also the god of regeneration—resurrection being impossible, and undesirable, before the soul is cleansed of depravity and error. It is thus that Sutter and Moravagine, builder and destroyer, are joined and function as a Siva in both his manifestations to engender a far more human figure, Dan Yack, a failing man rebuilding his life and the lives around him. Our proximity to his failings, his difficulty to love in particular, gives him much of his humanity, and Dan Yack is certainly Cendrars' most poignant and beautiful work of fiction precisely because its hero is more human than Sutter or Moravagine, and his few victories contain the suffering of a very real man at grips with both objective reality and himself. In neither L'Or nor Moravagine were we told much about the inner workings of the main protagonist, for myths demand to stand at a distance and tell everything in their performances. In Dan Yack, however, the whole second half is, as the title tells us, Les Confessions de Dan Yack. (p. 169)
In Les Confessions Dan Yack rests from the exertions of action, and in Le Plan he rests from the burdens of reflection, no less onerous. Or in Le Plan he takes on the world, and in Les Confessions he takes on himself. The alternation of opposite but complementary activities defines the pulse of life: Sutter the builder opposite of Moravagine the destroyer, Moravagine as man hating opposite of Dan Yack as man loving, and, most true and poignant because contained in the same figure, Dan Yack in the world and Dan Yack in himself. Cendrars considered the first, the man in the world, the more optimistic activity. (p. 182)
Sutter, Moravagine, Dan Yack build, destroy, start again. Each time the protagonist both contains and battles his nemisis: gold, war, ice. Of the three, only Dan Yack survives, leaves the fiction open-ended, as if Cendrars had resolved in him the first two forces, entered their centre by combining them in a continually changing balance…. (p. 184)
In Une Nuit dans la forêt (1929) and Vol à voile (1932) Cendrars wrote the only avowedly autobiographical works of his career—and we must quickly qualify that fact with another, that many commentators believe they are at least partly fiction. (pp. 188-89)
If we attempt to generalize quickly about these documentaries of self and of others we find essentially three important elements: firstly, that reality was worth reporting with little embellishment, for its inherent, unsuspected, and possibly unsuspecting lyricism, quite independent from the reporting poet's personal voice; secondly, that the most valuable aspect of reality, for Cendrars, was how men instinctively and daringly grappled with it in all its incoherence, from the inside, and then indifferently or compassionately spent the profit, thirdly, that the reporting of this reality did not exclude his own involvement, whether he was an observer of others or of himself, because his presence was his only knowledge, his only medium. (pp. 189-90)
[Difficulties] arise from the assumption that the characters and events are factual because for the most part we are inclined not to believe in them. Here, if Cendrars is writing fiction, he has violated consistently one of its most important tenets (as long as art was still imitation in a narrow sense); the people and events must be likely or the reader will fail to believe. Most of Cendrars' fiction and non-fiction seems totally implausible…. Basic to Cendrars' world is that likelihood or probability is no criterion for the choice of fictional material; the criterion is that it exists, and if it is improbable, all the better. But the extraordinary things which Cendrars depicts are not meant to be interesting for their sensational aspects, for they always serve a meaning…. So whether Cendrars is reporting fact or inventing fictions, at all times the extraordinary symbolizes our own obsessions uncovered by him, acted out by characters without scruples. In other words, Cendrars has either created or discovered and re-created the archetype in his myth. The veracity of his material is less important than the form it takes, a sort of modern and somewhat personalized mythology. (pp. 190-91)
L'Homme foudroyé must remain largely at the level of an 'instinctif balbutiement' if it is intended to re-create its world, never quite reaching intellectual definition which would of its nature dismiss the quality of becoming. Appropriately, the books of this series seem to end abruptly, too soon, because in a sense they have not ended, but arrived at becoming. The book breaks off when its meaning comes alive, and the revelation of its gesture, its only point, initiates its first movement in the reader. So not only does the text appear confused, but the eventual elucidation is truncated; yet we are meant to understand, and, I think, even be elated at, this climax in the form of discovery. (p. 209)
Notre Pain quotidien illustrates a central aspect of Cendrars' mythmaking; for even if it exists, his claim for it is that it should appear to be an anonymous production. Whether it exists or not, it stands for a man who by it becomes a disinterested legend. And, of course, Cendrars is a legend. He created one out of himself and life about him, and he is thus a part of it, though since he was apparently not concerned with personal glory he was not duped by the tall tale of himself…. Legends are for the people who come after, not for their creators. Even if most of his extraordinary career and creations are not 'real' to start with, or did not happen exactly as he tells them, Cendrars is not for that a 'liar' in any pejorative sense because the invention is not self-serving, self-aggrandizement, but rather the mystic's 'hymns of the praise of things,' the re-creation of things infused with the writer's faith that they are of inestimable value. (p. 212)
Cendrars' fictions do no more than match the truth. They stand beside it, and within it, not substituting for weakness, but translating the same power from different angles. The quality of myth is enhanced by the extraordinary truth cleaving to the extraordinary invention because, for the mystic, reality is the fine representation of transcending truth, and not in the least a vulgar failure which he must transcend. (pp. 213-14)
Le Lotissement du ciel is of course Cendrars' levitation, containing within it the natural, the traditional, and the modern levitations of birds, saints, and, along with airplanes, the Eiffel Tower! He does not transcend these things; he takes them with him (like many of the saints who, attempting to stay down, dragged furniture off the ground with them). The book is the most overtly religious demonstration of Cendrars' ability, as early as 1912, to see man's nature within the objects of common and popular life, to see the lyricism of everyday but contemporary existence. Saint Joseph and Oswaldo each function in a faith that is free of traditional binds, for Joseph is pathetically ignorant of his own religion, and Oswaldo is ready to dismiss any established lotissements for his own. Each man's instinctual independence frees him for the only important revelation, 'le ravissement de l'amour,' and this no matter what its peculiar manifestation may be. Cendrars commits the same basic heresy and raises man's gods out of his pragmatic and essentially unconscious creations…. (pp. 221-22)
As man's productions are capable of generating a more essential and human meaning, of levitating in fact, in Cendrars' lyricism, so they gain mythical value. Myth is the folk telling its version…. A truth is wrenched from a likely reality and reported in all its splendid unlikelihood. In a modern, sceptical age credulity is to be recultivated, or the world remains without wonder, crushed under the weight of meaningless objects. Cendrars assaults verisimilitude, yet remains faithful to reality. His lyricism is that wonderment which makes things spiritually and sensually real rather than only objectively and verifiably so; a lyricism which metamorphoses newspapers, cars, streets, buildings, boats, radios, anything we make use of into myth, a version of reality projecting man's longing into the heart of merely real things, 'au coeur du monde.' (p. 222)
Emmène-moi au bout du monde! … reverses Cendrars' technique of the four preceding books by having a plot with no flashbacks or disruptions in chronological time. Rather than spanning a great many years, jumping back and forth at the call of associations, Emmène-moi covers about twenty-four hours in the first ten chapters. The last three chapters disperse the characters, purposely leaving an open ending; the main point must remain those twenty-four hours. But if Cendrars has written a story with a plot, he has done so only to emphasize the plot's failure. If we concern ourselves with what happens, that a man is murdered, we finish only in frustration because there is no solution, and the case remains a mystery…. (p. 225)
[In] Emmène-moi a myth-like truth—or so the author tells us person to person, outside of his fiction—underlies an illusory or theatrical world in turn rendered more real by the violent invasion of the myth. The invasion is mysterious, insidious to such a man as the chief of police. No doubt it is a mystery, 'l'Inconnu,' for even such as Thérèse, but she is intimate with it, and personifies it. Its baffling action is the very medium of her freedom, the chord progression for her improvisation…. (p. 230)
Emmène-moi is by far his most Rabelaisian work, alternately obscene, bombastic, funny, and tender, a novel not entirely unlike Henry Miller's first success Tropic of Cancer…. It runs quite counter to the direction of the four autobiographical volumes, which culminate, in the last one, with the levitation of saints and author. It would almost seem that Cendrars was debunking himself. As the three epic poems and the three early novels embodied a sort of dialectic of the imagination, the grand finale in the sky of Aix-en-Provence is shockingly returned to earth, to the streets of Paris. Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross levitate, Thérèse and Jean-de-France screw. If this is the work of a writer grown old, to the philosophical maturity of a 'brahmane à rebours,' it has been without the loss of any of his youthful toughness, or of his perfect sense of abandon. With Emmène-moi au bout du monde! … it is as if that cry of the title were indeed taken up again, an original call to adventure…. (p. 231)
Jay Bochner, in his Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Re-creation (© University of Toronto Press 1978), University of Toronto Press, 1978, 311 p.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Cendrars cannot be considered apart from his biography. To read anything that he has written 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….
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….
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. (p. 6)
Sutter's Gold [L'or] 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 profiteth a man if he gain the whole world …? The tempo and simplicity of the work gained it a wide audience in many languages….
[Moravagine] 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] 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…. 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 19 Elastic Poems, strike us with their quickness and modernity, but hardly comprise a major testament. (p. 7)
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 Foudroye, 1945, La Main Coupée, and Bourlinger, 1948, are not diminished by mention of Rousseau or Montaigne, though in their savour 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 is 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. (pp. 7-8)
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. (p. 8)
Sven Birkerts, "Blaise Cendrars," in New Boston Review (copyright 1980 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. V, Nos. 2-4, June-July, 1980, pp. 5-8.
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