Blaise Cendrars, ca. 1907, photograph by August Monbaron.
Blaise Cendrars (real name Frédéric Sauser) was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1887. His father, an inventor-businessman, was Swiss, his mother Scottish. He spent his childhood in Alexandria, Naples, Brindisi, Neuchâtel, and numerous other places, while accompanying his father, who endlessly pursued business schemes, none successfully.
At the age of fifteen, Cendrars left home to travel in Russia, Persia, China—and everywhere in between—while in the employ of a jewel merchant; he wrote about this apprenticeship several years later in his long poem, Transiberien. He was in Paris before 1910, where he met Guillaume Apollinaire, leader of the tumultuous avant-garde world of arts and letters at that time. Cendrars then traveled to America, where he wrote his first long poem Pâques à New-York. The Transsibérien (full title: La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France) was published the next year. Both these poems were of some moment in shaping the “modern spirit,” then in process of catalysis, as was his third and last long poem, Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles, (1918), published in America in 1931 in a translation by John Dos Passos.
Cendrars lost his right arm in the First World War, while serving as a corporal in the Foreign Legion. He refused an artificial arm and prided himself thereafter on one-handed skill at shooting, fast driving, typing, brawling. He worked in films after the war, as a writer and assistant director and later as a film maker on his own, sometimes a millionaire, more often broke.
During the 1920s he published two long novels, Moravagine (1926) and Les Confessions de Dan Yack (1929), and on into the 1930’s published a number of “novelized” biographies or volumes of extravagant reporting, such as L’Or (1925), based on the life of John August Sutter (published in American in 1926 as Sutter’s Gold), and Rhum (1930), “reportage romance” dealing with the life and trials of Jean Galmont, a misfired Cecil Rhodes of Guiana.
La Belle Epoque was the great age of discovery in arts and letters. Cendrars, very much of the epoch, was sketched by Caruso, painted by Léon Bakst, by Léger, by Modigliani, by Chagall; and in his turn helped discover Negro art, jazz, and the modern music of Les Six. He published in 1921, when director of the Editions de la Sirène, his Anthologie Nègre—the first volume of a projected three-volume series gleaned from his travels in Africa and South America; almost-completed manuscripts of volumes two and three were destroyed by the Germans during World War II. At La Sirene he also put out a new edition of Lautréamont, who had died in 1870 at the age of twenty-four, bringing him to the edge of surrealist deification. As an assistant to Abel Gance in the filming of La Roue (1921), he put together the montage of the running train, and suggested Arthur Hönegger as composer of background music. Hönegger’s score for this passage became his famous Pacific 231.
In 1935 Cendrars discovered Henry Miller, with the first article on Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) to appear in France (in the review Orbes) and perhaps the first notice of importance anywhere: dated on New Year’s Day, it opens with the liturgical formula for the Christmas Eve announcement that a Savior to us is born, but reads instead: “An American writer to us is born: Henry Miller, who has just written his first book in Paris. A royal book, atrocious book, exactly the sort of book I love best...” The author, he wrote, was a one-hundred per cent American and solid realist but “ ... in discovering Paris, in breathing Paris, in devouring Paris, he swallows in gulps, furiously, and eats, vomits, and pisses forth the city, adores and curses it ...” Plenty of Cendrars’ discoveries didn’t take; for example Ferreira de Castro, Brazilian of Portuguese origin, whose masterwork Cendrars translated in 1938 under the title of Forêt Vierge; or for that matter a number of other literary and artistic discoveries brought from South America; or for that matter South American itself, which failed to impassion Paris. Cendrars went so constantly to South America from 1924 to 1936 (usually taking along his Alfa Romeo racing car, whose body had been designed by Georges Braque) that he pretended the Route Nationale No. 10 ran from his house in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre direct to Asunción, Paraguay.
His home base was always Paris, for several years in the Rue de Savoie, later, for many years, in the Avenue Montaigne, and in the country, his little house at Tremblay-sur Mauldre (Seine-et-Oise), though he continued to travel extensively. He worked for a short while in Hollywood in 1936, at the time of the filming of Sutter’s Gold.
During the early months of World War II Cendrars was a war correspondent attached to the British armies, but with the fall of France in 1940 he retired to Aix-en-Provence (while his house at Tremblay was pillaged by the Germans). He stopped writing in 1944 when he began the series of reflective reminiscences, L’Homme Foudroyé (1945), La Main Coupée (1946), Bourlinguer (1948), Le Lotissement du Ciel (1949), that constitute his best and most important work. His last major work was published in 1957, entitled Trop, C’est Trop. He was disabled with illness soon afterward and died in January, 1961, in Paris.
The following interview combines Cendrars’ reflections on his own work with reminiscences of the writers and artists whom he knew. It is selected from a series of radio interviews with Michel Manoll, broadcast from October to December 1950, and later published as Blaise Cendrars Vous Parle by Editions Denoël, to whom we are gratefuly for permission to reprint.
All writers complain of the constraint under which they work and of the difficulty of writing.
To make themselves sound interesting, and they exaggerate. They should talk a little more about their privileges and how lucky they are to be able to earn some return from the practice of their art, a practice I personally detest, it’s true, but which is all the same a noble privilege compared with the lot of most people, who live like parts of a machine, who live only to keep the gears of society pointlessly turning. I pity them with all my heart. Since my return to Paris I have been saddened as never before by the anonymous crowd I see from my windows engulfing itself in the métro or pouring out of the métro at fixed hours. Truly, that isn’t a life. It isn’t human. It must come to a stop. It’s slavery … not only for the humble and poor, but the absurdity of life in general.
When a simple character like myself, who has faith in modern life, who admires all these pretty factories, all these ingenious machines, stops to think about where it’s all leading, he can’t help but condemn it because, really, it’s not exactly encouraging.
And your work habits? You’ve said somewhere that you get up at dawn and work for several hours.
I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit. Certainly, to be like everyone else, lately I’ve wanted to work regularly from a given hour to a given hour; I’m over fifty-five and I wanted to produce four books in a row. That finished, I had enough on my back. I have no method of work. I’ve tried one, it worked, but that’s no reason to fix on it for the rest of my life. One has other things to do in life aside from writing books.
A writer should never install himself before a panorama, however grandiose it may be. Like Saint Jerome, a writer should work in his cell. Turn the back. Writing is a view of the spirit. “The world is my representation.” Humanity lives in its fiction. This is why a conqueror always wants to transform the face of the world into his image. Today, I even veil the mirrors.
The workroom of Remy de Gourmont was on a court, 71, rue des Saints-Pères, in Paris. At 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Guillaume Apollinaire, who had a vast apartment with large rooms and with a belvedere and terrace on the roof, wrote by preference in his kitchen, at a little card table where he was very uncomfortable, having had to shrink this little table even smaller in order to succeed in sliding it under a bull’s-eye window in the mansard, which was also on a court. Edouard Peisson, who has a nice little house in the hills near Aix-en-Provence, does not work in one of the front rooms where he could enjoy a beautiful view of the valley and the play of light in the distance, but has had a little library corner constructed in back, the window of which gives on an embankment bordered with lilacs. And myself, in the country, in my house at Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, I’ve never worked on the upper floor which looks out on the orchards but in the lower room which looks in one direction on an impasse behind a stable and in another on a wall which encloses my garden.
Among the very few writers I’ve had occasion to see much of, only one man of letters, celebrated for his frenetic cult of Napoleon, installed himself before a panorama to work—a historical one—the window of his study had a full view of the Arc de Triomphe. But this window was most often closed because the living spectacle of the glory of his great man, far from inspiring him, clipped his wings. He could be heard through the door coming and going in his study, beating his sides, roaring his phrases, trying out phrases and cadences, groaning, weeping, laboring himself sick like Flaubert in his “gueuloir.” His wife then said to the servants, Pay no attention. It is Monsieur castigating his style.
You have read much during your life?
Read enormously. It’s my passion. Everywhere, in all circumstances, and all sorts of books. Everything that falls under my hand I devour.
Reading isn’t for you, you’ve said, a means of traveling, in time or space, but a way of penetrating without great effort into the skin of a character.
No, reading has been a drug for me—I drug myself on printer’s ink!
Will you cite some of the unusual reading you’ve done?
Captain Lacroix is an old sailor and his books are a feast. I’ve never had the luck to meet him. I looked for him in Nantes, at Saint-Nazaire. I was told that he is in his eighties and that he doesn’t want to give up. When he was no longer able to navigate, he became a marine insurer, and it appears that he doesn’t hesitate to put on a deep-sea diving rig in order to see for himself the state of his hulls. At his age, admirable. I imagine that the winter nights seemed long to him by the fireplace, when the wind from the sea poured down on his village of the Loire-Inférieure and blew around in his chimney, and I suppose it was to kill time that this man, who has knocked about on all the seven seas and aboard all sorts of ships possible and imaginable, began to write books. These are thick books, strongly built, full of solid documentation, sometimes a little too heavy but nearly always fresh, thus never tedious, all the less so in that the old seaman even searches out reproductions of illustrated postcards and photos of joyous ports of call of his youth, and he recounts things as they happened: his experience and all that he has learned and all that he has seen from Cape Horn to the China Sea, from Tasmania to Ushant, speaking of everything, of lighthouses, currents, wind, reefs, tempests, crews, traffic, shipwrecks, fish and birds, celestial phenomena and maritime catastrophes, history, customs, nations, people of the sea, relating thousands of anecdotes intimate or dramatic, all his life of an honest seaman carried along by the very movement of the sea and dominated by his exclusive love of ships. Ah, it is certainly not the work of a littérateur. His pen is a marlinespike, and each page brings you something, and there are ten big volumes! It’s as moving as it can be and as simple as good morning. In a word, miraculous. One touches the globe with a finger.
And there are the divinatory quatrains of Nostradamus, written in a magnificent language which is a joy to me, although they remain indecipherable. I have read them for forty years, I gargle with them, I regale myself with them, I enjoy them, but I don’t understand them. I’ve never searched for the key, I’ve read nearly all the keys that have been published, they are meaningless and all false since every two or three years someone invents a new mechanism without being able to spring the lock. But, as a great French poet, Nostradamus is one of the greatest. Still another to stick in my “Anthologie de la poésie française” if I ever compile it. All his impromptu turns invented from a conventional language beat by far the looniness of dada, and the automatic writing of the surrealists, and the decalcomania of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes.