“Language is a thing that perverted me.”
Lee Rourke on The Astonished Man:
Reading Blaise Cendrars for the first time is like stepping into another universe. It really is. But did Blaise Cendrars actually exist in the first place? Born Frederic Louis Sauser in the provincial city La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland of a Swiss father and Scottish mother he always felt at odds with the world from the very start. The name was invented after travelling extensively in his youth and devising a poetic voice that transcended the current trends in Paris. In fact, a direct translation of the name Blaise Cendrars can be read as the first name from braise (embers) and the last from cendres (ashes) and this meaning was wholly intended. With a gratuitous placement of ars (art) thrown into the mix his name was complete. Fire is an important symbol repeated throughout his work and this idea of dancing on the burnt ashes of outmoded styles was concomitant to Blaise Cendrars centrifugal philosophy: be different and create anew. We’re talking about a man who, after running away from home at fifteen and at various intervals in his life, kept bees and sold their honey for a living, made films in Brazil, wrote influential poetry (enough to make his peers weep long tears good-bye to their turgid, staid and stalled stanzas forever), shovelled coal on Chinese trains, cooked in cafés for the rich, played piano in picture houses, became a watchmaker, witnessed the Russian revolution in St Petersburg, travelled with drunken gypsies, lost an arm whilst fighting for the Foreign Legion in WWI, became an art critic (championing, amongst others, Picasso, the Cubists and Surrealists), amassed and lost vast fortunes in wealth, sailed the seven seas, had a column in a Hollywood newspaper and much, much more besides. Or so he would have you told.
So what did I find so fascinating about that first encounter with Blaise Cendrars all those years ago, sitting alone with his bedraggled book, nobody had read, in my hands? The voice, it just had to be the voice, it hit me immediately. Press-ganged into his world without a second thought. Think an elongated world of surreal humour, deadpan caricature, heartbreaking melancholy and a virtuoso prose style matched by few – after all, this is the man who, allegedly, changed Apollinaire’s way of thinking. So what is The Astonished Man? Firstly it’s part of a tetralogy (although I didn’t know this sitting on my kick-stool reading when I should have been working) including three other titles: Lice, Planus and Sky. This tetralogy encompasses almost 1,000 pages in length. The scope of these works is quite staggering, involving subjects such as war, travellers, shadowy figures of the night, wastrels and scoundrels, vagabonds, fictional pimps, different countries and conflicting cultures; the earth, its fruits and passions, women and the universe. Secondly, it’s a memoir with a difference – the simple difference being it was written by Blaise Cendrars. Bear with me here, I’m not being flippant. As a writers’ writer Blaise Cendrars knew many, he also mixed with actors, filmmakers, poets, artists and aristocrats; yet none are mentioned in this so called memoir. In The Astonished Man Cendrars litters his narrative, not with the artists of his generation but with the gypsies he met on his travels, the pimps, the prostitutes, the thieves; he takes the reader from the First World War trenches across vast continents in sprawling, complex, sonorous sentences that lift the reader out of the humdrum. Blaise Cendrars wrote against the grain in a style that preceded boorish Gonzo luminaries such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe a good thirty years or so. His reportage was assiduous, garrulous and inimitable, but above all poetic. Taciturn in nature with an honest voice (well as honest as the mythologizing Blaise Cendrars can be) that, somehow, manages to shine through the vainglorious bombast and braggadocio. Admittedly, this rather boastful book is quite difficult to absorb on first encounter, but, as in most of his books, the unique structure and prose style lift you away from such thoughts; you’re snatched in the blink of an eye, hoodwinked and bundled back for the remainder of his journey – like it or not.
More: Lee Rourke on the greatest liar & hoodwinker in fiction [Youtube] / ‘The hazy world of Blaise Cendrars’ by Lee Rourke / Blaise Cendrars interview in the Paris Review / ‘ladies and gentleman blaise cendrars is not dead’ by Patti Smith / ‘Blaise Cendrars: Cook, beekeeper, and the first modernist poet’ by James Sallis
First posted: Friday, January 8th, 2010.