THE HAZY WORLD OF BLAISE CENDRARS by LEE ROURKE
from The Guardian, July 27th 2007
Reading Blaise Cendrars is like stepping into another universe. His fiction is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. His poetry influenced the mighty Guillaume Apollinaire and helped shape the face of modernism. But it is his mockery of biographical detail and the very notion of literature that fascinates me the most. If, like me, you’re not a fan of autobiography, then Blaise Cendrars is the memoirist for you.
Blaise Cendrars – or the “son of Homer” as John Dos Passos called him – is himself a strange kind of fiction: born in La Chaux-de-Fonds of a Scottish mother and Swiss father, he claimed that he left home aged 15 to work in Russia during the revolution of 1905. He was a bee-keeper, a film maker, a chef, a picture-house pianist, a watchmaker, and a traveller with drunken gypsies. He spent the first world war fighting with the French foreign legion, where he lost his arm in combat, became an art critic, befriended Picasso, sailed the seven seas, shovelled coal in China, amassed and lost huge fortunes and had his own gossip column in a Hollywood newspaper. Nobody knows how much of this is actually true. Though he certainly lost an arm in the first world war, it is possible Blaise Cendrars was pulling more than one or two legs.
In fact, Blaise Cendrars isn’t even his real name. His real name is Frédéric Louis Sauser. Blaise Cendrars is a bastardisation of ‘braise’ (embers) and ‘cendres’ (ashes) with ‘ars’ (art) thrown in for good measure. Blaise Cendrars dances on the ashes of outmoded literary styles to create his own pioneering art. Fire is a repeated image throughout his work and it is this insouciance and dismissal of all that came before him that is elementary to his own philosophy: be different and forge the new.
His most famous ‘biographical’ work is the war memoirs tetralogy, consisting of The Astonished Man (L’Homme Foudroyé, 1945), Lice (La Main Coupée, 1946), Planus (Bourlinguer, 1948), and Sky (Le Lotissement du Ciel, 1949). These aren’t your average war memoirs, they are the strangest and most surreal I have ever encountered. Encompassing almost 1000 pages they cover subjects from the bizarre and the surreal: pimps, wastrels, vagabonds, Gypsies, actors, prostitutes, and thieves figure in abundance. It doesn’t matter to me if some of it isn’t true.
The Astonished Man blew me away when I first read it. It is Blaise Cendrars at his very best, a smorgasbord of artists, thieves, and brain-dead sergeants which hoodwinks the reader into believing this magical and horrifying world. It is gonzo journalism 30 years before Thompson and Wolfe, but, unlike most gonzo journalists, Cendrars could write a mouth-wateringly beautiful sentence to boot. We don’t care for fact when we read him. All that nonsense is dismissed. We are hypnotised.
For me, the best memoirists are those who know that all biography is fiction. Cendrars eschews biographical detail and morphs fact and fiction into an elaborate hoax that is both authentic and illusory – the reader is press-ganged and taken along for the ride. Literature should never be anchored or locked. Who needs to be bogged down with biographical fact when such writers hold the keys to our imagination?
TWO POEMS BY BLAISE CENDRARS
translated by Dick Jones
I never thought… Being into Cendrars and Prevert… Have you read/have I ever gone on about the French detective novels of Fred Vargas? Daughter of a surrealist writer and friend of Andre Breton, a historian and archaeologist by profession, her background and preoccupations find their way into her wonderfully oddball novels. I’ve just finished her most recent Commissaire Adamsberg novel, realised I’ve now read all of them and will have to wait for her to write another before I’ve another one to read. I’ve been reminded of when I gave up smoking 35 years ago. I’m craving a Fred Vargas now the way I craved a packet of fags back then!