Blaise Cendrars so mythologized his life and experiences that scholars have had a difficult time culling the exaggerations and outright lies from his many exercises in autobiography. As Ernest Hemingway comments in A Moveable Feast (1964), “When [Cendrars] was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly.” The difficulty is further compounded by Cendrars’s ceaseless traveling from continent to continent. Even the true circumstances of his birth were not known until Jean Buhler published his 1960 biography.
Contrary to Cendrars’s claim in a 1917 poem that he was born in Paris in the Hôtel des Etrangers, he was actually born in the Swiss village of La Chaux-de-Fonds under the name of Frédéric Louis Sauser. Escaping La Chaux-de-Fonds seems to have been one of the major ambitions of its natives (Le Corbusier and Louis Chevrolet are among the more famous who left) and Cendrars’s father, Georges, was no exception. He had come to the city as a teacher of mathematics but was listed in the city registry as a clock merchant at the time of Cendrars’s birth. He restlessly immersed himself in financial dealings and was responsible for his son’s early initiation into travel. The family went to Egypt and into the hotel business when Cendrars was about two years old. This venture soon failed, however, and Cendrars began his chaotic education at the Scuola Internazionale in Naples in 1891 or 1892. In 1897, he entered the Basel Gymnasium (college-preparatory secondary school); he also attended boarding schools in Germany. In 1902, he registered at the École de Commerce in Neuchâtal, a business school, evidently after failing his college examinations.
Cendrars spent the years from 1904 to 1907 in Russia as a watch salesman and was there during the 1905 Revolution, which plays such a large part in his novel Moravagine; he may have traveled in Siberia and China as well. He had his first love affair with a Russian woman, “Hélène,” and in her honor wrote his first poem, “Alea” (later rewritten as Moganni Nameh, 1922) under the pseudonym Freddy Sausey. After his return, he moved frequently, raising bees near Paris, studying medicine at the University of Bern, working as a comedian in Brussels, working as an extra in the opera Carmen, falling in love with Fîla Poznanska, a Polish student, and following her to New York. All of this time, he was writing, undergoing in his poetry a transformation from his early heavy Romanticism, through neo-Symbolism to the startling modernism for which he would become famous. He made some money with his writing, doing translations and writing essays on art and literature. He translated Stanisaw Przybyszewski’s Totenmesse (1893) as La Messe des morts, which is considered a direct source for Moravagine, and the poem Die Verwandlungen der Venus (1907) by Richard Dehmel. He may have collaborated with Guillaume Apollinaire on Les Onze Mille Verges (1911), a pornographic novel.
Publishing under the name Blaise Cendrars, he stunned the Paris literary scene with Easter in New York. He claimed that the poem was written after he had left a...
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