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Blaise Cendrars: Cook, beekeeper, and the first modernist poet

Even among inveterate European readers, seminal and innovative though he is, his name's little known. And despite a litter of books from such forward-looking publishers as Grove and New Directions, in the States he's known not at all.

To start with, the name's not really his. He was born Frederic Louis Sauser in Switzerland in 1887 to a wandering Swiss father and Scottish mother. At age fifteen he ran away from home. Did what he had to do to get by: stoked coal on Chinese trains, stole cooling bread from ledges, taught English or French, cooked in cafes, played piano in moviehouses. By 1905 when the Russian Revolution reared up — an upheaval that gave form both to his great poem "Prose du transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France" and his great novel Moravagine — he was in St. Petersburg working as a watchmaker's apprentice.

Blaise Cendrars.

Later he'd travel with gypsies, drink with Chagall and Picasso, write for trendy Paris magazines, champion the new art as an ally of Cubists and Surrealists, keep bees in Aix-en-Provence, own plantations in Brazil, amass and lose a fortune, write the scenario for Darius Milhaud's The Creation of the World, work with Abel Gance and other early filmmakers in France, Russia and the U.S. Eisenstein tried to get U.S. backing for a movie based on Cendrars' L'Or.

"Whenever Cendrars appeared, life shed its conventions and turned marvelous," said friend Jacques-Henry Lévesque.

Cendrars' great trilogy, "Prose du transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France," "Les Pâques à New York" and "Le Panama ou Les Adventures de Mes Sept Oncles," are the first modernist poems. What is amazing with Cendrars is how much he anticipated: how much of our literature comes out of his. The New Novel or l'ecole du regard, the "nonfiction novel," postmodernism, transgressive writing — all are there; while generations of poets (often without knowing the true source) have taken their cue either from the early discursive or later "instantaneous" poems.

"Prose du transsibérien" is unmistakeably a masterpiece. Documenting Cendrars' passage from Moscow to Manchuria in the wake of the 1905 Revolution and Sino-Russian War and in the company of a young woman from Montmartre, possibly a prostitute, the poem telescopes past and present, realistic images of war, apocalyptic visions, musings on the writer's many failures.

    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
    I was in Moscow, city of a thousand and three bell towers and seven train stations....
    And my eyes were shining down those old roads
    And I was already such a bad poet
    That I didn't know how to take it all the way

The poem's 420 lines originally appeared on a single sheet seven feet long folded like a railroad timetable, text a jumble of typefaces in irregular blocks broken by pastel washes. Running the length to the left were Sonia Delaunay's abstract forms in bright primary colors, culminating in a childlike Eiffel Tower.

    "Blaise, say, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"
    A long way, Jeanne, you've been rolling along for seven days
    You're a long way from Montmartre, from the Butte that brought you up, from the Sacre-Coeur you snuggled up to

"Prose du transsibérien" came in 1913, three years after Cendrars gained French citizenship and two before he lost his right arm in the war.

1907: he takes the name Blaise Cendrars and vows that writing will be his life.

1911: down and out in New York City he writes his first great poem, "Les Pâques a New York."

There would be no poetry after 1925, the year in which L'Or (Sutter's Gold), with its story of the Swiss pioneer who started the gold rush in California, appeared. Moravagine came out the following year. This novel follows the exploits of a madman from the time of the Russian Revolution to World War I, charting how the exterior world's violence, senselessness and disorder increasingly comes to resemble Moravagine's own ravaged thoughts and terrible actions.

The two Dan Yack books of 1929 may be Cendrars' most personal novels. The first is set in Antartica, the second in a snowbound cabin in the French Alps as Dan Yack assembles his memoirs, prodding at the long give-and-take between action and contemplation in his life.

1940: disgusted over the war, Cendrars withdraws to Aix-en-Provence, renouncing literature. Here he learns that his sons Rémy and Odilon have been killed.

1945: following almost six years' silence, Cendrars publishes the first of his fanciful autobiographies, L'Homme foudroyé; (The Astonished Man). La main coupée (The Severed Hand), Bourlinguer (Planus) and Le Lotissement du ciel (Sky) follow.

1950: Cendrars returns to Paris, engaged mostly in writing for radio programs now.

1956: his final novel, Emmène-moi au bout du monde (To the End of the World), appears. Its tale of the romance between an aged actress and her legionnaire lover is strung with the barbed wire of satirical portraits of Parisian society folk.

Though earlier translations push their way up from time to time — notably John Dos Passos' version of "Prose du transsibérien" — Ron Padgett's masterful translation of the Complete Poems (University of California, 1992) is likely to remain the standard for some time.

The most recent edition of Moravagine is from New York's Blast Books. This recaps the original 1968 translation from Peter Owen, a UK publisher deserving praise for its championship of Cendrars and other important European writers. Peter Owen has now reissued translations of To the End of the World, Dan Yack and Confessions of Dan Yack. These are distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions, in its own right as deserving of praise as Peter Owen.

1961: three days after receiving the Paris Grand Prix, confined to a wheelchair following a series of strokes, Blaise Cendrars dies.

The world, in that instant, grows perceptibly smaller.

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