Blaise Cendrars was dubbed the “Homer of the Transsiberian,” then the “Left-Handed Poet” because he wrote from Russia before he lost his right arm in World War I.
Cendrars was a leading 20th century avant-garde French poet and novelist. Though not widely known in the United States, the Village Voice hailed him as “the Indiana Jones of French literature.”
Born Frederic Louis Sauser in Switzerland in 1887, he adopted the pseudonym “Blaise Cendrars.” After roaming the world, he settled in France and ultimately became a French citizen.
Cendrars was a “travelling poet,” according to Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art by Dan Franck.
“At the age of 30, he had been everywhere,” Franck wrote. “He had run away from home when he was 15 and had gone from country to country – Germany, England, Russia, India, China, America, Canada – before setting down his suitcase in Paris, first in 1907, and then again 2 years before…[World War I] was declared. He had worked at a thousand jobs, he had come in contact with people from all over the world and from every social class and he boldly defended libertarian and anarchistic ideas.”
Cendrars wrote poems that were often surrealistic and usually filled with action, adventure and danger. His 1913 poem, “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France” (“The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France”) contained almost eerie foreshadowing. Based in part on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Cendrars described a scene where “…amputated limbs dance or fly off into the shrieking wind.”
Two years later, surgeons removed his gunfire-mangled limb.
Meanwhile, Cendrars had settled among bohemian artists and writers in the Montparnasse section of the French capital. When the war broke out in 1914, he urged other foreign nationals to join the French forces. Practicing what he preached, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion and was sent to the battlefront in 1914, the first year of the war. In 1915, he was listed among the thousands of casualties on the bloody Western Front. He lost his arm battling the Germans in the Champagne region.
Before he signed up for the army, Cendrars had befriended Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet, writer and art critic. An interesting fact about Apollinaire is that in 1911, he was arrested, but released, on suspicion that he stole the Mona Lisa. He implicated his artist friend, Pablo Picasso, whom police questioned but set free.
“I’m sending you a note from a friend of mine who’s one of the best poets writing today! Blaise Cendrars. He has an amputated arm!” Franck quoted a letter Apollinaire wrote Madeline Pages, for whom he penned love poems.
His right arm gone, Cendrars had to learn to write with his left hand.
In 1917, he penned a poem that says “my severed hand shines in the sky like the constellation of Orion.”
Nonetheless, he never claimed to be a “writer-soldier” like other veterans who became famous poets and authors.
“One is a fighter or one is a writer,” he said in a series of 1950 radio interviews that were published in the Paris Review in 1966. “When one writes, one isn’t shooting, and when one’s shooting one isn’t writing; one writes afterward. One would do better to write before and prevent all that.”
Cendrars was not a pacifist; his poetry and novels were not anti-war. They describe the horror, and sometimes irony, of war from an ordinary soldier’s perspective.
In his novel, I Have Killed, he wrote of grimy, bedraggled foot soldiers passing a general’s headquarters on their way to the battlefront: “A thousand trains spew out men and material. Evening. We cross a deserted city. There is a large modern hotel in this is city, tall and square: the G.H.Q. Cars with pennants, packing cases, an oriental swinging chair. Distinguished young men in impeccable chauffeur’s attire talk and smoke. A yellow novel on the sidewalk, a spittoon, and a bottle of eau de Cologne.
Behind the hotel there is a small villa tucked back beneath the trees. You can barely see it. A vague white shape….Involuntarily, each of us straightens and looks at the house, the general’s little house. Light filters through the half-closed shutters, and in that light an amorphous shadow moves back and forth. It is him.”
The author is sympathetic to the commander who must commit troops to battle – and death – as “he wields the table of logarithms like a prayer machine.
His 1926 novel, Moravagine, the story of a criminally insane monster, had its genus in the trenches, too, according to Cendrars. In an introduction to a 2004 edition of Moravagine, critic Paul De LaFarge wrote that Cendrars claimed he owed his survival to Moravagine, a character he conjured before World War I.
De LaFarge quoted “Pro Domom” an afterword Cendrars added to his book in 1951: “By day and by night, in the anonymous trenches, Moravagine never left my side. It was he who came with me on patrol and made me think of Red Indian tricks to avoid an ambush or a trap. In the swamps of the Somme, all through one sad winter, he comforted me, by talking about his adventures in the pampas, soaked by the terrible Patagonian winter. His presence lit up my gloomy trench. Behind the lines, I could stand everything, vexations, jeers, servile labours, by thinking of the life he had led in prison. He was with me when we attacked and it might have been him who gave me the courage and the strength and the will to pick myself up on the battlefield in Champagne.”
Cendrars apparently was not directly referring to Moravagine when he observed “The first virtue of a novelist is to be a liar.”
After World War I Cendrars returned to Montparnasse, which continued to attract artists and writers. He became friends with two famous Americans: novelist Ernest Hemingway and playwright Arthur Miller. Hemingway recalled seeing Cendrars with “his pinned-up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand.”
Cendrars’ circle included Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. He painted the “Left Handed Poet’s” portrait.
Cendrars also became involved in moviemaking, but remained an inveterate traveler, globetrotting far from Montparnasse. After World War II began in 1939, Cendrars became a war correspondent. But when France fell to the Germans, he left Paris for Aix-en-Provence, where he joined the French underground and managed to elude the feared Gestapo.
While in hiding, he began researching Biblical miracles. Cendrars was fascinated with saints’ and prophets’ purported powers of levitation. Cendrars also started on his memoirs in which he grieved over the loss of his son, a pilot, who was killed fighting the Germans.
Cendrars returned to Paris after the war and all but stopped traveling. But he kept writing and began working in radio. In 1960, he was named Commander of the Legion d’honneur for his service to the underground in World War II. He died the next year at age 73.
“Whenever Cendrars appeared, life shed its conventions and turned marvelous,” his friend, Jacques-Henry Lévesque, said.
“Reading Blaise Cendrars is like stepping into another universe,” an English critic observed in 2007.
Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.