Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars

Frédéric Louis Sauser (September 1, 1887 – January 21, 1961), better known as Blaise Cendrars, was a Swiss novelist and poet naturalized French in 1916. A writer of considerable influence in the modernist movement.


Early Years

He was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchâtel, Switzerland to a bourgeois francophone family. Initially, they attempted to send young Frédéric to a German boarding school, but he ran away. After, they tried enrolling him in a school in Neuchâtel, but he had little enthusiasm for his studies. Finally, in 1904, he left school due to poor performance and began an apprenticeship with a Swiss watchmaker in Russia.

It was in St Petersburg that he began to write, thanks to the encouragement of R.R., a librarian at the Russian National Library. There he wrote the poem "La Légende de Novagorode", which R.R. translated into Russian. Supposedly fourteen copies were made, but Cendrars claimed to have no copies of it, and none could be located during his lifetime. In 1995, the Bulgarian poet Kiril Kadiiski found one of the Russian translations in Sofia. Today the authenticity of the document is still contested.

In 1907, he returned to Switzerland, where he studied medicine at the University of Berne. During this period he wrote his first verified poems, "Séquences", influenced by Rémy de Gourmant's "Le Latin Mystique".

After a short stay in Paris, he returned to St. Petersburg in 1911. There he wrote his first novel, "Moganni Nameh", which was not published until 1922. Then he was travelling once more, this time to New York to rejoin his friend Féla Poznanska. They married, and together they would later have three children: Odilon, Rémy, and Miriam. Cendrars was inspired by the modernity of New York, a world where everything was based on speed and mechanization. During his short time there he wrote his first long poem, "Les Pâques à New York". He signed it, for the first time, Blaise Cendrars.

He returned to Paris in the summer of 1912, now convinced that poetry was his vocation. With Emil Szittya, an anarchist writer, he started "Les Hommes Nouveaux", a journal and a publishing house, where he published "Les Pâques à New York" and "Séquences". He soon became acquainted with many of Parisian artists and writers, such as Chagall, Léger, Survage, Modigliani, Csaky, Archipenko, and Robert. Most notably, he encountered Guillaume Apollinaire. The two poets mutually influenced each other's work. Cendrars' poem "Les Pâques à New York" was of critical influence over Apollinaire's poem "Zone". Cendrars would create a style based on photographic impressions, themes, and reflections in which nostalgia and disillusion were blended with a boundless vision of the world. In 1913, he demonstrated this through his lengthy poem titled in English as "The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Jehanne of France" in which he described his world journey. The work was accompanied by the paintings of Sonia Delaunay-Terk. The long poem printed in folded form (2 m), was called "the first simultaneous poem" by Cendrars. This is especially important since this was an outgrowth of Robert Delaunay and other's experiments in proto-abstract expressionism. Similarly, Gertrude Stein was attempting to write prose in the manner of abstractness of Picasso's works.

The Left-Handed Poet

His writing career was interrupted by World War I. When it began, he and Italian writer Ricciotto Canudo appealed to other foreign artists to join the French army in battle. He himself joined the French Foreign Legion. He was sent to the front line in the Somme where from mid-December 1914 until February 1915 he was in the line at Frise (at La Grenouillère and the Bois de la Vache). He described this experience in the books "La Main Coupée" ("The Severed Hand") and "J'ai Tué" ("I have Killed"). It was during the bloody attacks in Champagne in September of 1915 that Blaise Cendrars lost his right arm and was discharged from the army.

Jean Cocteau introduced him to Eugenia Errázuriz, who proved a supportive if at times possessive patron. Around 1918 he visited her house and was so taken with the simplicity of the décor, he was inspired to write the sequence of poems "D'Oultremer à Indigo" ("From Ultramarine to Indigo"). He stayed with Eugenia in her house in Biarritz, in a room decorated with murals by Pablo Picasso. At this time he was also driving an old Alfa Romeo which had been 'colour-coordinated' by Georges Braque. [Richardson, "op. cit." pages 9 and 14.] Cendrars became an important part of the era of artistic creativity in Montparnasse at the time, his writings a literary epic of the modern adventurer. He was friends with Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller plus many of the writers, painters, and sculptors living in Paris. In 1918, his friend Amedeo Modigliani painted his portrait.

After the war, he became involved in the movie industry in Italy, France, and the United States. Needing to generate sufficient income, after 1925 he stopped publishing poetry and focused on novels or short stories.

Later life

During World War II, tragedy struck when his youngest son was killed in an accident while escorting American planes in Morocco. In occupied France, the Gestapo listed Cendrars as a Jewish writer of "French expression."

In 1950, he ended his life of travel by settling down on the rue Jean-Dolent in Paris, across from the La Santé Prison. There he collaborated frequently with Radiodiffusion Française. He finally published again in 1956. The novel, "Emmène-moi au bout du monde !…", was to be his last work before suffering a stroke in 1957.

In 1960, André Malraux bestowed upon him the title of Commander of the Légion d'honneur for his wartime service. A year later, he also received the Paris Grand Prix for literature. Shortly after, he died. His ashes now rest at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre.


Most of his works were translated into English including the long poem "Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles" translated by the novelist John Dos Passos and published in the United States in 1931.

elected poems

*"Les Paques à New York" (1912)
*"La Prose du Transsibérien et la petite Jehanne de France" (1913)
*"Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles" (1918)

elected stories and novels

*"Profond aujourd'hui" (1917)
*"J'ai tué" (1918)
*"La Fin du monde filmée par l'Ange N.-D." - (1919)
*"L'Or" - (1925) In English, "Sutter's Gold", a fictionalized story of John Sutter, a Swiss pioneer, who started the great gold rush in the northern California
*"Moravagine" (1926) (novel)
*"Dan Yack" (1927) (novel)
*"Le Plan de l'Aiguille" (1929) In English, "Antarctic Fugue"
*"Les Confessions de Dan Yack" (1929) (novel)
*"Une nuit dans la forêt" (1929)
*"Comment les Blancs sont d'anciens Noirs" - (1930)
*"Rhum--L'aventure de Jean Galmot" (1930).
*"Hollywood, La Mecque du cinéma" (1936)
*"Histoires vraies" (1937)
*"La Vie dangereuse" (1938)
*"D'Oultremer à indigo" (1940)
*"L'Homme foudroyé" (1945)
*"La Main coupée" (1946) [ (in French)]
*"Bourlinguer" (1948)
*"Le Lotissement du ciel" (1949)
*"La Banlieue de Paris" (1949)
*"Nöel aux autre coins du monde" (1953) (novel) In English "Christmas at the Four Corners of the World" (1994)
*"Emmène-moi au bout du monde!... " - (1956)
*"Du monde entier au cœur du monde" Poésies complètes (1957)
*"Trop c'est trop" - (1957)
*"A l'aventure" - (1959)

External links

* [ Read Cendrar's interview with The Paris Review]
* [ Centre d'Études Blaise Cendrars (CEBC) de l'université de Berne (Suisse).] (French)
* [ Centre des Sciences de la Littérature Française (CSLF) de l'université Paris X-Nanterre ] (French)
* [ Association internationale Blaise Cendrars] (French)


* Richardson, John "Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters" Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-679-42490-3.


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