:: Article

The Astonished Man


Blaise Cendrars, The Astonished Man

By Lee Rourke.

Everybody needs a place to hide, it’s a natural instinct. We all need solace, to be away from everything – anything. It just so happens that I’m like most of you and some years ago now my particular place of sanctuary happened to be the French Literature aisle in the library at the University of Sussex. There’s something extraordinarily wraithlike in losing oneself down a darkened aisle in a rather large library. I know this because I have done it often. And no, I wasn’t studying there. I was meant to be working and I sometimes did, but the drudgery, the sheer mindless Sisyphean banality of each working day would often outweigh my better judgment and force me to seek shelter away from each buffoonish panjandrum I encountered. And libraries are my first love, always have been always will be; I was a broken man.

Now, this aisle wasn’t chosen because of the tomes it contained but because it was in the deepest, darkest underbelly of the library; the light wasn’t working (it hadn’t been repaired for months) and for some unknown reason this gloomy aisle had fallen into some considerable neglect – inexplicably Sussex students just didn’t seem to care about Camus, Celine, Duras et al. It was fine by me, in fact, it was perfect. With rows of books towering above my ears and eyes, forming a protective cocoon, I was untouchable; and the very smell of them alone was enough to make me want to scream. But I didn’t. With as much reading material as I could muster it was, quite simply, heaven.

I remember the day quite clearly, it was overcast and raining; which shed an altogether melancholic, yet pleasing, hue over the library. I remember squinting whilst running my finger along a shelf as I walked happily towards my favourite kick-stool dreaming of escape and slumber, then suddenly stopping as its title caught my peripheral vision, my brain slowly twitched into gear: The Astonished Man. The Astonished Man? What a truly wonderful title. B-l-a-i-s-e C-e-n-d-r-a-r-s. Blaise Cendrars? What a name. What a glorious name. This human being is surely a literary genius with a name like that? Arguably, I turned out to be right.

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.

When you look at a picture of Blaise Cendrars you look at a man that has lived. You look at the man John Dos Passos called a “son of Homer” – the whole face a labyrinth of wrinkles and carbuncles that make Bukowski and Auden look like suave catalogue models. When people first see portraits of Picasso they immediately speak of the eyes – with Blaise Cendrars it’s the whole face.

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.

Just as The Astonished Man broke the long silence in me, that of not having read him before, it was this very book which broke Blaise Cendrars’ own, self-imposed, silence whilst living and refusing to write in occupied France. In breaking his silence the book is deliberately loud – written by a man who could no longer contain himself. Cendrars embellishes fact with relish, exploring every possibility within his whole range to grapple with any willing reader. Plagiarism plays a role and we see a genuine love and fascination of reworking and reinventing the imagery and narrative of those before him, always subtly and tastefully. But, oh no, hold your horses folks, this isn’t lazy writing by Cendrars, this is a celebration, the new from the old, a literary hoax formed from one imagination to another. In this Cendrars honoured the creation of literature, the written word, the voice; he devoured this creation and created a glorious pomposity to accompany it – but above all he moved the creation of modern writing onwards. There is no hypocrisy in Blaise Cendrars’ plagiarism, just a refreshing honesty. In a famous letter to Robert Delaunay circa 1917 Cendrars tellingly writes:

“I don’t want to be part of a gang. I am not behind, as you say, but ahead. It all belongs to yesterday, not today. I will be visible tomorrow. Today, I’m working.”

During the writing of The Astonished Man Blaise Cendrars was, indeed, at work. He created a style of writing jam-packed with topsy-turvy celebration of life that, when read today, can seem showy and brash. I can’t begin to think what people made of him then and, yet, maybe this is the crux of his now lowly profile. Maybe we just don’t get him? Maybe this audacious blurring of fact and fiction is just too much for our realist, face-value-prose climate? But most probably, and I hold this to my heart, maybe we just haven’t caught up with old Blaise Cendrars yet? I hope we do, because once he’s in your warm grasp, wherever you may find him, whether it be the darkened aisle of you local library, an old aged second-hand bookshop or a brash, bright coffee-book-and go-conglomerate, he’s hard to let go.

And so, I may not work in that library anymore, and so what? Something tells me with Blaise Cendrars on my side I’m going to be just fine. It’s funny, I often wonder, to this day, if that aging copy of The Astonished Man is still forlornly sitting there where I left it, all those years ago, just waiting for another bored Library Assistant to absentmindedly wander along and pick it up. I hope they do.

Lee Rourke is a Mancunian. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Scarecrow and Reviews Editor at 3:AM Magazine. His collection of short stories Everyday will be published by Social Disease in 2007.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 4th, 2007.