Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912

Although he later claimed that he was born in Paris, at the celebrated hotel on rue Saint-Jacques, Blaise Cendrars (sahn-drahr) was, in fact, born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1887, the son of a restless, peripatetic Swiss clock merchant. Truth and fancy, fact and myth, are inextricably blended in the narratives of his life, as in his poetry and fiction. This worldwide adventurer, who was called “one of the greatest liars of all time,” a “Marco Polo of the twentieth century,” and the “Homer of the Transsiberian,” never lost sight of the fact that art is the lie that tells the truth.{$S[A]Sauser, Frédéric Louis;Cendrars, Blaise}

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Before he was out of his teens, Frédéric Louis Sauser had spent several years in St. Petersburg, in the ferment of pre-revolutionary Russia. By 1911, he was in New York and had chosen the name Blaise Cendrars. His pseudonym suggests a major motif of his life and work: the combination of cendres (ashes), ars (art), and “Blaise” (which he identified as a transmutation of braise (embers) and which has a homophonic suggestion of “blaze”) encapsulates his lifelong insistence that “to write is to burn alive.” Before World War I, after the publication of Easter in New York, he was established as a central figure in the Paris avant-garde. The lyrical incantatory quality of his innovative poetry left its mark on such writers as Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as on the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the cubists. The Trans-Siberian Express, for example, was printed in multicolored type on folded two-meter sheets with illustrations by Sonia Delaunay. With 150 copies printed, Cendrars announced, in a typical gesture, that his poem soared as high as the Eiffel Tower. Yet for all of his involvement with the various schools and “isms” of modernist art, Cendrars insisted that he stood apart from all movements.

True to his philosophy of immersion in experience and, as a foreigner, true to France, Cendrars enlisted in the Foreign Legion; in the fall of 1915 he was wounded by shell fire, and his right arm was amputated. Shattered by the war, physically and spiritually, Cendrars in his work increasingly recorded an apocalyptic sense of an age of disintegration. Such works as Moravagine address the chaos, the violence, the irrational, schizoid, and destructive forces at work in the modern world. After the war, Cendrars, still traveling, indulged his “world hunger” in such works as Panama, where he celebrated the European Express train as “the finest church in the world.” Indicative of the scope of Cendrars’s influence is the fact that Panama was translated and illustrated by John Dos Passos, who paid tribute in his foreword to the “creative tidal wave” of Cendrars’s poetry.

Four novels published in the 1920’s constitute his major achievement in fiction. Sutter’s Gold, in terse prose and straightforward narrative, tells the incredible but true story of John Augustus Sutter, the Swiss immigrant who lived the American Dream. One of the richest men in the world, he had already realized the agrarian-based dream of plenitude in the Garden of the New World when gold was discovered in his land, and he was utterly ruined by the mobs that devastated his California empire. This compelling, tragic parable is one of the masterpieces of the American experience. If Sutter is one of the powerful creators inhabiting Cendrars’s universe, the title character of his next novel, Moravagine (whose name means “death-to-the-vagina”), is one of the dark destroyers, a mad, sadistic, anarchic figure who quests nihilistic extinction throughout a chaotic world. Dan Yack, protagonist of the next two novels, alternates between a life of action and one of contemplative retreat, between pursuit of and flight from love. Although the Dan Yack story may have been intended as a resolution of the tensions implicit in the first two novels—the polarity of making and unmaking, doing and being undone—these novels are not as successful as the first two.

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s Cendrars continued his travels, turning increasingly to journalism, and during World War II he served as a war correspondent. His world was shattered by this war, in which he again suffered personal tragedy (the death of his younger son), and for a time Cendrars renounced literature and embraced silence. He lived quietly in Aix-en-Provence, studying the Bible, the saints, and the mystics until he again exploded onto the literary scene with what may be his most remarkable work of all: the autobiographical tetralogy which begins with The Astonished Man and concludes with the ecstatic levitations of Sky: Memoirs. These extraordinary works, at once autobiographical, mythical, and mystical, expand the possibilities of autobiographical narrative.

In the 1950’s Cendrars returned to live in Paris, where he became a public figure, making radio broadcasts and receiving literary and cultural awards. He continued to write, working on unfinished novels such as the great love story of Mary Magdalene and the novel To the End of the World, a slashing expose of decadence. His imagination fertile and his pen active to the end, Cendrars died in Paris in 1961, having realized, perhaps, all of his dreams except his long-declared intention to book passage on the first journey to the moon. His literary achievement was rich and diverse, his influence pervasive, and he left behind a major body of poetry, substantial work in fiction and other genres, and a compelling personal legend. Cendrars evokes the cosmopolitan spirit as richly as any other twentieth century writer.

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