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Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) - pseudonym of Frédéric Louis Sauser


Swiss poet and novelist, who wrote in French and spent much of his life traveling restlessly. Blaise Cendrars did his best to fictionalize his past and his biographers have had much difficulties separating fact from fabulations: "truth is imaginary," he once said. Cendrars's most famous novels, Sutter's Gold and Moravagine, both from 1926, have been translated into more than twenty languages.

I straighten my papers
I set up a schedule
My days will be busy
I don't have a minute to lose
I write

(from Complete Poems, 1992, tr. Ron Padgett)

Blaise Cendrars was born Frédéric Louis Sauser in the small city of La Chaux-de-Fonds. His parents were both Swiss but later Cendrars claimed that his mother was Scottish, and he was born on an Italian railway train during his mother's journey back from Egypt. Cendrars was educated in Neuchâtel, and later in Basle and Berne. At the age of 15 he ran way home – according to a story he escaped from his parents but another version tells his family gave up keeping him in school. Cendrars worked in Russia as an apprentice watchmaker and was there during the Revolution of 1905. In 1907 he entered the university of Berne but settled in 1910 in Paris, adopting French citizenship.

During his life Cendrars worked worked at a variety of jobs – as a film maker, journalist, art critic, and businessman. Before becoming writer he even tried horticulture and never stopped trying to earn his living by extra-literary activities. His cosmopolitan wanderings Cendrars used as a way to discover inner truths.

In World Authors 1900-1950 (vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens, 1996) he wrote that in his youth he traveled widely in China, Mongolia, Siberia, Persia, the Caucasus and Russia, and later in the Unites States, Canada, South America, and Africa. Some doubts have arisen whether he stoked trains in China in his youth, but perhaps this is more important from the biographical point of view than literary – the memoirs of Marco Polo, Cellini and Casanova and the autobiographical novels of Jean Genet and Henri Charrière are read in spite of reliability in all biographical details. Like the protagonist of Les confessions de Dan Yack (1928), Cendrars was a man of action, who avoided "literary" flavor in his prose, and a man of contemplation, who had almost obsessive need for exotic experiences. In Les Pâques à New York (1912, Easter in New York) he said: "Still, Lord, I took a dangerous voyage / To see a beryl intaglio of your image. / Lord, make my face, buried in my hands, / Leave there its agonizing mask." The poems was was prompted by his penniless stay in New York, and mixed despair with excitement of modern city living.

Cendrars was considered along with Apollinaire, whom he deeply influenced, a leading figure in the literary avant-garde before and after World War I. In his early experimental poems Cendrars used pieces of newsprint, the multiple focus, simultaneous impressions, and other modernist techniques. La prose du Transibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France (1913), a combination of travelogue and lament, was printed on two-meter pages with parallel abstract paintings by the Russian-born painter Sonia Delaunay. Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles (1918) was in the form of a pocket timetable. Cendrars was closely associated with Cubism but he also published poetry Jacques Vache's Lettres de guerre, which was edited by Philippe Soupault, André Breton and Louis Aragon – founders of surrealism in literature.

Prose of the Transsiberian & of Little Jeanne of France contains impressions from Cendrars's real or imaginary journey from Moscow to Manchuria during the 1905 Revolution and Sino-Russian War. As the train of the title speeds through the vast country, Cendrars mixes with its movement images of war, apocalyptic visions of disaster, and fates of people wounded by the great events. With Abel Gance he cooperated in J'Accuse (1919), an antiwar documentary, and La Roue (1921-24), originally a nine-hour movie of a railwayman, which is acclaimed for its innovative cutting. One of his close collaborators was the composer Erik Satie; he wrotethe first draft of Satie's ballet Relâche (1924). Cendrars's scenario, entitled Après-dîner, was  extended by Francis Picabia from one to two acts. The film segments were created by René Clair.

Cendrars was in the audience on the opening night of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), composed by Igor Stravinsky. As the audience responded with boos and jeers, he defended the work so loudly that an annoyed neighbor pushed him through his orchestra seat.  For the rest of the performance, he wore it around his neck like a collar.Cendrars traveled incessantly and after 1914 became involved in the movie industry in Italy, France, and the United States. During World War I Cendrars joined the army. He served as a corporal and lost in 1915 in combat on the Marne front his right arm.

Cendrars's first wife was Féla Poznanska; they had three children. In 1924 Cendrars met in Paris the American writers John Dos Passos and Hemingway. Ten years later he became friends with Henry Miller; their correspondence was published in 1995 in English. Miller hailed him as the man "exploding in all directions at once." As the Italian Futurists, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and others, he was fascinated by the new technology and speed of travel, writing in telegraphic rhythm about poems dictated over the phone and the lettre-océan: "The ocean letter was not invented for writing poetry, / But when you travel when you do business when you're on board when you send ocean letters, / It's poetry". During a two-week stay in 1936 in Hollywood Cendrars recorded his impressions for Paris-Soir in series of articles which were collected in Hollywood, la mecque du cinéma (1936). It depicts with wry humour the movie industry and the town's people. Films were one of Cendrars's passions. In the 1930s Cendrars planned to travel round the world to film such phenomena as levitation and ritual dances.

By 1925 Cendrars had ceased to publish poetry. He wrote the scenario for Darius Milhaud's ballet La création du monde (1923, The Creation of the World). This African-chic spectacle was presented by the Swedish Ballet in Paris. None of the participants knew much about Africa. Sets and costums were designed by the Cubist artist Fernand Léger. When Stravinsky's ballet Les Noces premiered on 13 June 1923, along with his Pulcinella, at the Quai Anatole-France, Cendrars was there, on the restored barge made into a restaurant, as was Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev, Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, and Tristan Tzara. Cocteau was dressed as a captain and wandered among the crowd whispering "We're sinking."

Cendrars's famous prose works from the 1920s include L'or (Sutter's Gold), a fictionalized story of John Sutter, a Swiss pioneer, who started the great gold rush in the northern California, built there his own empire but died in poverty. According to a literary anecdote, Stalin kept this book on his night table. Sutter's Gold can be read as the author's exploration of his inner self, like the semi-autobiographical novel Moravagine ('Death to the vagina'), which followed a madman, a descendant of the last King of Hungary, and a young doctor on their worldwide adventures from the Russian Revolution and to the First World War. Moravinge's madness becomes comparable with the dissolution of world and the chaotic disorder of life. "There is no truth. There's only action, action obeying a million different impulses, ephemeral action, action subjected to every possible imaginable contingency and contradiction. Life." Moravigne dies in an another asylum and the manuscript of the story finds it way to Cendrars, one of the characters in it.

The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein tried to arose Hollywood's interest in Sutter's Gold on his trip there in the 1930s. The director William Wyler obtained a scenario that Eisenstein had prepared and read plays based on the life of Sutter, including Bruno Frank's The General and the Gold and Caesar von Arx's John Augustus Sutter. Cendrars offered Wyler his services as a screenwriter, and hopefully wrote: "Should this film be succesful, I have several other first-class American scenarios." After Universal engaged William Anthony McGuire, Cendrars offered to read the script "absolutely gratis." However, Wyler was pulled off the project and Howard Hawks was assigned to it. Eventually James Cruze directed the film version, which was released in 1936. It was one of the studio's major flops of the year, and started the exit of Carl Laemmle from the chairman's office. Most of the action footage was reused in Mutiny on the Blackhawk (1939).

During the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1944 Cendrars was listed as a Jewish writer of "French expression." His younger son was killed in an accident while escorting American planes in Morocco. Cendrars started to publish in the late 1940s memoirs, which combined travel fantasies with colorful episodes from his life. In L'homme foudroyé (1945, The Astonished Man) Cendrars walks around between lines of World War I trenches, spends time with gypsies in a travelling theatre, and attempts to drive across a South American swamp. "I am haunted by no phantoms. It is rather that the ashes I stir up contain the crystallization that hold the image (reduced or synthetic) of the living and impure beings that they constituted before the intervention of the fire. If life has a meaning, this image (from the beyond?) has perhaps some significance. That is what I should like to know. And it is why I write."

In 1949 Cendrars married Raymone Duchateau, an actress who he had first met the late 1910s. Cendrars's final novel was Emmène-moi au bout du monde! (1953, To the End of the World), set in the Parisian theater world of the late 1940s. In 1957 he had a stroke. Cendrars received the Paris Grand Prix for literature in 1961, a recognition which almost came too late. Blaise Cendrars died a few days later on January 21, 1961, in Paris.

For further reading: L’odyssée Cendrars by Patrice Delbourg (2010); Henri Miller, Blaise Cendrars: deux âmes soeurs by Nelly Mareine (2009); Shades of Sexuality by A. Leamon (1997); Blaise Cendrars by Miriam Cendrars (1985); Blaise Cendrars by M. Chefdor (1980); Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Re-creation by J. Bochner (1978); The Inner Theatre of Recent French Poetry: Cendrars, Tzara, Peret, Artaud, Bonnefoy by Mary Ann Caws (1972); Situation de Blaise Cendrars by J.C. Lovey (1965)

Selected works:

  • La légende de Novgorode, 1909?
  • Les Pâques à New York, 1912
    - Easter in New York (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • La prose du Transibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France, 1913
    - The Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Jeanne of France (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
    - Transsiperialaista proosaa (suom. J. K. Ihalainen, 1996)
  • Séquence, 1913
  • La Guerre aux Luxembourg, 1916
    - The War in the Luxembourg (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • Profond aujourd'hui, 1917
  • J'ai Tué, 1918
  • Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles, 1918
    - Panama; or, The Adventures of My Seven Uncles (translated by John Dos Passos, 1931; on Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • La fin du monde filmée par l'Ange Notre-Dame, 1919
  • Poèmes élastiques, 1919
    - Nineteen Elastic Poems (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • Du monde entier, 1919
    - To the Heart of the World (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • J'ai saigné, 1920
  • Anthologie nègre, 1921
    - The African Saga (translated by Margery Bianco, 1927)
  • Feuilles de route, 1924
    - Travel Notes (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • Kodak (Documentaire), 1924
    - Kodak (Documentary) (translated by Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, 1992)
  • L'Or, 1925
    - Sutter's Gold (translated by Henry Longan Stuart, 1926) / Gold: Being the Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter (translated by Nina Rootes, 1973)
    - Kulta: kenraali Johann August Suterin ihmeellinen tarina (suom. J. S. Helander, 1972)
    - film 1936, dir. by James Cruze, starring Edward Arnold, Lee Tracy, Binnie Barnes
  • Moravagine, 1926
    - Moravagine (translated by Alan Brown, 1968)
    - TV film 1989, dir. by Philippe Pilard, screenplay by Miriam Gilou-Cendrars, starring Frigyes Funtek
  • L'eloge de la vie dangereuse, 1926
  • L'eubage, 1926
  • L'ABC du cinéma, 1926
  • Petits Contes nègres pour les enfants des Blancs, 1928
    - Little Black Stories for Little White Children (translated by Margery Bianco, 1929)
  • 'La Féticheuse, Petit Conte nègre', 1929 (in Cahiers du Sud)
    - Shadow (translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown, 1982)
  • Dan Yack: le Plan de l'Aiguille, 1929
    - Antarctic Fugue (tr. 1948) / Dan Yack (translated by Nina Rootes, 1987)
  • Les Confessions de Dan Yack, 1929
    - Confessions of Dan Yack (translated by Nina Rootes, 1987; Alan Brown (1990) /
  • Une Nuit dans la forêt, 1929
    - A Night in the Forest (translated by Margaret Kidder Ewing, 1985)
  • Comment les blancs sont d'anciens noirs, 1930
  • Rhum, 1930
    - Rommi: Jean Galmotin seikkailu (suom. Aarne T. K. Lahtinen, 1975)
  • Aujourd'hui, 1931
  • Vol à voile, 1932
  • Panorama de la pègre, 1935
  • Hollywood, La Mecque du cinéma, 1936
    - Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies (translated by Garrett White, 1995)
  • Histoires vraies, 1937
  • La vie dangereuse, 1938
  • D'outremer à indigo, 1940
  • Chez l'armée anglaise, 1940
  • Poésies complètes, 1944
  • L 'Homme foudroyé, 1945
    - The Astonished Man (translated by Nina Rootes, 1970)
  • La main coupée, 1946
    - Lice (translated by Nina Rootes, 1973)
    - TV film 1979, dir. by Jean Kerchbron, starring Patrick Préjean, Stéphane Shandor, Maurice Paquot, Pierre Chevalier
  • Œuvres complètes, 1947
  • Bourlinguer, 1948
    - Planus (translated by Nina Rootes, 1972)
  • Œuvres choisies, 1948
  • La Banlieue de Paris, 1949
  • Le Lotissement du ciel, 1949
    - Sky: Memoirs (translated by Nina Rootes, 1992)
  • Blais Cendras vous parlea..., 1952
  • Le Brésil, 1952
  • Noe¨l aux quatre coins du monde, 1953
    - Christmas at the Four Corners of the Earth (translated by Bertrand Mathieu, 1994)
  • Emmène-moi au bout du monde!, 1953
    - To the End of the World (translated by Alan Brown, 1967)
  • Trop c'est trop, 1957
  • Du monde entier au cœur du monde, 1957
  • A l'aventure, 1959
  • Films sans images, 1959
  • Œuvres complètes, 1960-1965 (8 vols.)
  • Selected Writings of Blaise Cendrars. 1966 (edited by Walter Albert, pref. by Henry Miller)
  • Inédits secrets, 1969
  • Poésies complètes, 1967
  • Œuvres complètes, 1968-1971 (15 vols.)
  • Dites-nous Monsieur Blaise Cendrars, 1969
  • Complete Postcards from the Americas: Poems of Road and Sea, 1976 (translated by Monique Chefdor)
  • Films sans images (Serajevo, Gilles de Rais, Le Divin Aretin)
    - Films without Images: Three Radio Plays (translated by Mark Spitzer, 2005)
  • Paris ma ville, 1987 (illustrated by Fernand Léger)
  • Modernities and Other Writings, 1992 (translated by Esther Allen in collaboration with Monique Chefdor)
  • Complete Poems, 1992 (translated by Ron Padgett)
  • Voyager aved Blaise Cendrars, 1994
  • La vie et la mort di soldat inconnu, 1995
  • L'eubage, 1995
  • Correspondance 1934-1979, 1995 (Blaise Cendrars, Henry Miller)
  • La carissima: genèse et transformation, 1996 (edited by Anna Maibach)
  • Madame mon copain, 1997
  • Histoires vraies, suivi de "La Vie dangereuse" et de "D'Oultremer à Indigo", 2003 (with Claude Leroy)
  • Aujourd'hui: Suivi de Jéroboam; La Sirène; Sous le signe de François Villon; Le Brésil; Trop c'est trop, 2005 (with Claude Leroy)

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