Long before David Shields excoriated the strict boundaries between journalism and fiction, espousing, in its place, a loose and open-ended hybrid that is more in keeping with “reality”, a Swiss-born Frenchman with one arm, a Gauloises cigarette forever dangling from his grizzled lips and a swaggering nonchalance befitting only a soldier and a drifter, penned a series of “autobiographies” that blended history, memoir, fiction, poetry, gossip, news clippings and every kind of slipshod arcana into one boisterous melange.
Born Frédéric Sauser, he became the writer known as Blaise Cendrars (a made-up name that can be given to mean “to strike the fire of art”). This name came to him when he was starving in New York on Easter, where he came to write a poem (“Easter In New York”) that is considered to be at the origins of modernist poetics.
Written in the 194o’s, his series of memoir-novels Sky, The Astonished Man, Planus and Lice are unlike anything else you’ll ever read.
Within the rhapsodical pages of this quartet you learn the implausible “facts” of his life: He started as a brilliant delinquent runaway, fleeing to Russia to make his first millions as a jewel merchant. Afterwards he found himself in China working in a boiler room and then fled from there on the Trans-Siberian. Then it was a succession of wars and schemes and voyages to Brazil and collaborations with artists and filmmakers and fellow poets.
At some point he bargained to purchase a giant anteater. At another, he’s living with Gypsies. Later, he predicts the atomic bomb.
For years the English translations of his memoir-novels were out of print and, having little French at my disposal, I hunted high and low to find them. The Astonished Man was the hardest to find, which is funny because only the other day, three copies of it arrived at my bookstore marked down to the inconceivable price of $5.98!
But the best way to get quickly acquainted with Cendrars — the solitary man, the adventurer, bon vivant, writer, soldier and Renaissance man — is to read The Paris Review interview with him, in which he admits that he is not “an extraordinary worker” but an “extraordinary daydreamer.”
He also offers this priceless advice to young people:
“One counsel: when you see an open door, newspaper, radio studio, cinema, bank, anything—don’t enter. By the time you’re thirty you’ll be nuts because you left your laugh at the door. That’s my experience.
Poetry is in the street. It goes arm in arm with laughter. They take each other along for a drink, at the source, in the neighborhood bistros, where the laugh of the people is so flavorsome and the language that flows from their lips so beautiful.”