Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Notes Towards A Blaise Cendrars Project 1

The man, the myth, and the man-made man-myth.

As I bit by bit add skeleton, flimsy as it may be to an experimental novel I'm working on, I have to occasionally slip back into hopefully shorter projects and feel like I might complete them.

Like short stories I suppose. Or short blog posts. Or letters. Or impassioned emails. As if writing is something that demands quotas. Sometimes that's how it is though. You need to keep in practice. You need to count your words.

But for now, I'll stick to a lyrical essay I'm working on about the effects and resonance of Blaise Cendrars on my youthful, wholly naive imagination (then AND now.) I find it best to work on this by just spewing out my impressions which are many and varied and dovetail with my own mishaps and misadventures.

Starting when I was, oh about my late teens well into the present, Cendrars has been something of an "exemplary example."

Now I tell myself, the overarching reason that I must learn French is to read Cendrars in the original. (And Tournier, and Perec, and Rimbaud, and Apollinaire, and Baudelaire, and Flaubert. . .ad infinitum.)

In the meantime, I have combed high and low these many years to acquire all of his works that are in English translations, many of which are considerably rarer than the originals. Searching for these books has led me on many circuitous goose chases and I can't now remember how I first acquired my first Cendrars book but I suspect it was by accident after I heard his name mentioned by Henry Miller. I have reason to believe however that the first book I had was a copy of his magnificent, sprawling and multi-layered autobiographical novel Sky.

(I remember that for a while the other book in his autobiographical series, The Astonished Man, was as rare and hard to come by as anything on the Internet.)

Cendrars, the intrepid, one-armed seaman.

But Sky, the book is so like a season that catches in my mind and had everything to do with being an idiotic young man in moth-eaten clothes, of attending cognac vigils on starlit balconies and high night meadows during meteor showers and walking past weirdly angular buildings arm in arm with a girl with a certain Peter Pan look on her face and having every day feel like spring with petals falling and few obligations except Galousies and books and dreams. . .

. . .it's a book utterly devoted to its title, whether it deals with his son being killed in the sky during World War 2, or the often admittedly tedious history of levitating saints, or his descent into the pitch-black depths of the South American jungle to talk about mysterious constellations and odd light-sucking patches in the evening sky and old, noble recluses in love with Sarah Bernhardt.

Cendrars' captivating romanticism is paradoxically yet nobly infused with an ascetic's sense of the void, a mystic's grasp of absolute non-doing and non-being and while at the same time, always being reverential of life, Cendrars at the drop of a hat can, as he likes to say, "sever all ties and retire from the world", shutting himself away in some impromptu hermitage with his books and cigarettes and old reels of film.

His insomnia. His day dreams. His books that he will never write.

What amazed me from the first time I read him was how adroitly and effortlessly, like no one before him or since, he forges a rough marriage in words between high involvement and seclusion, adventure and bookishness, the grinding life of the daily man and the florid life of the day-dreaming artist, and, most importantly between the facts of a man's life and the truths of a man's life.

His Modernism is both machinic and spiritual and is all about the essential tension of consciousness that can allow us to be both monad and cosmos all at once. His vision of the Modern is a place where near and far collapse, and another zone, more sidereal, at the Antipodes as he likes to call it where consciousness itself transcends terrestrial coordinates. . .

Really? I'm not sure yet. I'm working on it.

He, more than anyone, if only with unacknowledged, stellar influence, seems to have predicted our own era of "the false memoir", the "fictive autobiography" and the "libellous true story."

Which, not surprisingly, is the "false genre" I'm working in now with my first novel. . .

So Cendrars' stellar influence is as strong and radiant as ever. . .and my nights are longer again as I remember his nights that he brought to life to me as an unworldly, utterly bookish boy, my head in the mists of an interior sky, my hands soft and puny from handling nothing but soft pages all day and dealing with only the pettiest of juvenile indiscretions.

Night as seen and breathed in South American jungles, aboard ships, on top of cliffs as he is about to drive his Alfa Romeo down to a deeply nestled fishing village where he will be greeted like a troubadour with a hearty stew and red wine and the kind of conversations that old travelers inns used to teem with.

And Cendars the fervent mariner and explorer and solitary man of the night writes the most lyrically of the nocturnal, and the blank, and the black beyond black spaces. . .night and solitude and cigarettes and books and adventure: these are his mainstays.

In my next post perhaps I will include a photo of this stack of 12 or 13 books that I own, or that own me, if for no other reason than photos are good ways to break up the text. . .

A "simultaneous" poem by Cendrars, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay.


  1. Great post! I've been a Cendrars fanatic for years, and like you I first came to him buy way of Henry Miller. I am sure that Miller has been responsible for the bulk of BC's readers in the English-speaking world.

    I read French passably well, so a while back I started buying Cendrars stuff in the original as well as in translation. Most of his ouevre has been put into English at some point or another, though not everything. He did three volumes of short stories (he called them "histoires vraies," "true stories") in the 1930's that I love and that as far as I know have not been translated into English.

    What a pleasure to see an enthusiastic, informed post about Cendrars!

  2. Thanks David!

    I appreciate the comment! The above blog was more me free associating about Cendrars and tying him in to mine own personal experience. I can't really claim any scholary insight, having no passable French, but I hope to write an article that in someway makes him compelling to an English speaking audience.

    I'm also keen on exploring how he forged a whole new genre of writing that even today isn't totally being embraced.

    Yes his three volumes of true stories I've wanted to read for so long!

    Thanks again for the wonderful comment! I appreciate any other Cendrars insight you might have.

  3. Hi, just came across this piece while doing research for an essay on "la prose du transsiberien".
    Really great writing, captures his brilliance woderfully.