Blaise Cendrars

Article excerpt

I refuse to contribute to contemporary Parisian journals. They are too corny, too old-fashioned.... I don't want to be part of the gang. I am not behind, as you say, but ahead.... I have seen a few modern foreign journals. It all belongs to yesterday, not to today. I will be visible tomorrow. Today, I'm working.

--1917 letter from Cendrars to Robert Delaunay Modernities and Other Writings xiv

Today, the Swiss-born French writer Blaise Cendrars is mostly invisible to English readers. In 1975 Martin Seymour-Smith wrote that he was "an important anti-literary writer, and one of whom a more detailed study should be made" (96). A 1992 review of the final volume of Cendrars's tetralogy begins with these words: "One might begin with a simple question: Why read 'Sky,' the fourth and concluding volume of Blaise Cendrars's memoirs? Hardly anyone remembers this man.... Yet, although only a few people are aware of his work, both his life and work are amazing" (Gavronsky). Three years later the respected Cendrars scholar Jay Bochner stated that he didn't know why critics had not yet compared Cendrars's Moravagine (1926) with Celine's Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and then listed the noticeable similarities between the two novels ("Blaise without War" 50). That thematic resonances between those two novels have been left unexplored in French studies is surprising; however, French scholarship on Cendrars is leagues ahead of academic and critical work in English.

Cendrars's works retain a presence in English thanks to the tireless writings of Bochner, Monique Chefdor, and a handful of translators. The French edition of his oeuvre runs to fifteen volumes. In English the first three books of his memoir tetralogy--translated as The Astonished Man, Planus, and Lice--are out of print, though the fourth, Sky, is still available. Moravagine occasionally disappears from sight. Only Gold, which was popular before it was transformed into the movie Sutter's Gold, consistently remains in print. Cendrars has not had the fortune to be translated by one consistent and sympathetic person, and some of the translations that exist date from the late 1960s and early 1970s. His daughter Miriam wrote a biography of her father, published in 1984, which remains untranslated, and there is no complete biography of Cendrars in English. This essay, which can provide only an overview of certain aspects of Cendrars's novels and memoirs, will, I hope, initiate more interest in this neglected artist whose work spans genres, media, isms, wars, continents, and oceans.

From 1912 to 1961, hardly a year passed when Cendrars did not have something published in France and afterward throughout Europe, England, Brazil, and the English-speaking world. His poetry and prose were brought out by himself and others, his articles appeared in various avant-garde periodicals, he worked in movies, and he acted as a journalist for French and English newspapers. His first influential poem, Easter, appeared in book form in November 1912. (It would reappear in a 1919 collection of his work under the title "Easter in New York," by which it is more generally known.) There followed The Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Jehanne of France (1913), a "simultaneous" poem printed on a single sheet of paper, two yards long, of twelve panels, and colored by Sonia Delaunay. At once, newspapers were filled with letters and opinion pieces from various individuals and groups claiming exclusive jurisdiction over the use of the word simultaneous. While this event has been a footnote in French art history for some time, in 1913 the poem helped establish Cendrars on the aesthetic level as a bold and exciting literary provocateur and on the mythic level as a world traveler and restless adventurer. When the First World War started, Cendrars, a Swiss citizen, joined the Foreign Legion to fight for his adopted homeland, losing his right arm (his writing arm) in September 1915. …