August 13, 2012

Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars [Frédéric Sauser] [Switzerland]

Although little is known of his early life—which throughout his career Cendrars kept secret—it is known that he was born Frédéric Sauser in 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. During his infancy he lived, perhaps, in Egypt, and in his later childhood, more certainly in Naples. After education in England and Paris, Sauser returned in 1907 to Switzerland as a student in Basel, moving perhaps to Leipzig, and then to Bern. By 1910 he found his way to Paris, where, with fellow student Féla Poznaska, he translated letters and documents. Among the artists he met was Marc Chagall, but basically Sauser was a failure in the art and literary worlds. For lack of funds, Féla was forced to visit relatives in the United States, while Sauser traveled to Saint Petersburg. Working as a language teacher, he attempted to return to Paris, but was unable to find the money until Féla mailed him a boat ticket for New York.

     Living for a while with Féla's relatives in the Bronx, Sauser met the opera singer, Enrico Caruso and visited Stieglit's galleries at 291; but the New York stay only reconfirmed his need to return to Paris. To make ends meet, he played the piano in a Bowery movie house, while Féla taught at the Ferrar School, founded by anarchist Emma Goldman. In New York Sauser took on the name of Blaise Cendrars, returning to Paris via Switzerland.

     Over the next two years, Cendrars was active in the great avant-garde scene of the day. He worked with Guillaume Apollinaire, had poems published in journals, and made close friends with Fernand Léger, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the boxer Arthur Craven, and others. His closest drinking companion was Modigliani. Cendrars was active during this period in exhibitions and readings from Saint Petersburg to Berlin. Panama and Elastic Poems were also written during these years; and a son, Odilon, was born to Féla and Cendrars in 1914. A few days later, Cendrars was on his way to join The Foreign Legion.

     In 1915, assaulting the Naavarin Farm in Champagne, Cendrars lost his right arm, and returned to Paris. At first the city was culturally deserted, but gradually poets and artists returned, and Cendrars was again involved in poetry readings and concerts with Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and others of the avant-garde. In 1917, however, he left Paris with Féla and his two sons for the small town of Méréville, where he wrote The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre-Dame and other works. In the same year, Cendrars began to move apart from his wife, traveling to Cannes where he worked with the great film director, Abel Gance, eventually serving as his assistant on La Roue. Later, with the help of Jean Cocteau, he became the artistic director of La Sirène Éditions, where he published contemporary authors alongside authors such as Lautrémont and de Gourmont.

     From 1912 to 1924, Cendrars also traveled to South America five times, lecturing in Brazil and other countries. During these years he completed his poetic activity and turned to fiction, writing Sutter's Gold in 1925, Moravagine in 1926, and Dan Yack in 1929. During the 1930s he continue writing, mostly as a journalist, reporting on Hollywood and popular figures such as O. Henry and Al Capone. At the end of the decade, however, he returned to writing fiction, first with Histoires vraies (True Stories), La Main coupée (Lice), L'Homme foudroyé (The Astonished Man), Bourlinguer (Planus), and Le Lotissement du ciel. Green Integer published Cendrar's three plays, Films sans images, performed between 1954 and 1956 (available in book form and a PDF file from Green Integer).


Les Pâques (Paris: Édition des Hommes Nouveaux); La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France (Paris: Édition des Hommes Nouveaux, 1913); Séquences (Paris: Édition des Hommes Nouveaux, 1913); La Guerre au Luxembourg (Paris: Niestlé, 1916); Le Panama ou les Aventures de mes sept oncles (Paris: Éditions de la Sirène, 1918); Du Monde entier (Paris: Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, 1919); Dix-neuf poèmes élastiques (Paris: Au Sans Pareil, 1919); Kodak (Documentaires) (Paris: Stock, Dellamain, Boutelleau, 1924); Le Formose (Part I of Feuilles de route) (Paris: Au Ssans Pareil, 1924); Poésies complètes de Blaise Cendrars (Paris: Denoël, 1944); Oeuvres complètes de Blaise Cendrars (15 vols) (Paris: Denoël, 1968-1971)


Panama or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles (trans. by John Dos Passos) (New York: Harper Brothers, 1931) [includes The Trans-Siberian, Panama and selections for Kodak and Feuilles de route]; Selected Writings of Blaise Cendrars (edited with a Critical Introduction by Walter Albert, trans. by Walter Albert, John Dos Passos, and Scott Bates) (New York: New Directions, 1966); Complete Postcards from the Americas (trans. by Monique Chefdor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976 [includes Cocumentaires, Feuuilles de route and Sud-Américaines]; Selected Poems (trans. by Peter Hoida) (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1979); Complete Poems (trans. by Ron Padgett) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

Homage to Guillaume Apollinaire

The bread is rising
An entire generation
I address the poets who were there
Apollinaire is not dead
You followed an empty hearse
Apollinaire is a magus
He's the one who was smiling in the silk of the flags at the windows
He enjoyed throwing you flowers and wreaths
While you walked behind the hearse
Then he bought a little three-colored cockade
I saw him that same night demonstrating on the boulevards
He was astride the hood of an American truck and waving an enormous
     international flag spread out like an airplane

The times change
The years roll by like clouds
The soldiers have gone back home
To the houses
Where they live
And look a new generation is rising
The dream of the BREASTS is coming true!
Little French children, half English, half black, half Russian, a bit
     Belgian, Italian, Annamite, Czech
One with a Canadian accent, another with Hindu eyes
Teeth face bones joints lines smile bearing
They all have something foreign about them and are still part of us
Among them, Apollinaire, like that statue of the Niles, the father of
     the waters, stretched out with kids that flow all over him
Between his feet, under his arms, in his beard
They look like their father and go their own way
And they all speak the language of Apollinaire

                                      Paris, November 1918

—Translated from the French by Ron Padgett
Reprinted from Complete Poems, trans. by Ron Padgett, with an Introduction by Jay Bochner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Copyright ©1992 by Ron Padgett. Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press.

For an interview with Cendrars in The Paris Review, click below:

For more poems by Cendrars, go here:

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