Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars

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

Early years and education
He was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to a bourgeois francophone family. They sent young Frédéric to a German boarding school, but he ran away. Next they enrolled 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.

While living in St. Petersburg, he began to write, thanks to the encouragement of R.R., a librarian at the National Library of Russia. 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 claimed to have found one of the Russian translations in Sofia, but the authenticity of the document remains contested.

In 1907, Sauser returned to Switzerland, where he studied medicine at the University of Berne. During this period, he wrote his first verified poems, Séquences, influenced by Remy de Gourmont’s Le Latin mystique.

Literary career
Cendrars was the first exponent of Modernism in European poetry with his works: The Legend of Novgorode (1907), Les Pâques à New York (1912), La Prose du Transsibérien et la Petite Jehanne de France (1913), Séquences (1913), La Guerre au Luxembourg (1916), Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles (1918), J’ai tué (1918), and Dix-neuf poèmes élastiques (1919). He was the first modernist poet; not only in terms of expressing the fundamental values of Modernism, but also in terms of creating the first solid poetical synthesis of modernism, in a form of a series of the poems mentioned above.

After a short stay in Paris, he traveled to New York, arriving on 11 December 1911. Between 6–8 April 1912, he wrote his long poem, Les Pâques à New York (Easter in New York), his first important contribution to modern literature. He signed it for the first time with the name Blaise Cendrars.

In the summer of 1912, Cendrars returned to Paris, convinced that poetry was his vocation. With Emil Szittya, an anarchist writer, he started the journal Les hommes nouveaux, also the name of the press where he published Les Pâques à New York and Séquences. He became acquainted with the international array of artists and writers in Paris, such as Chagall, Léger, Survage, Modigliani, Csaky, Archipenko, Jean Hugo and Robert Delaunay.

Most notably, he encountered Guillaume Apollinaire. The two poets influenced each other’s work. Cendrars’ poem Les Pâques à New York influenced Apollinaire’s poem Zone. Cendrars’ style was based on photographic impressions, themes and reflections in which nostalgia and disillusion were blended with a boundless vision of the world. In 1913, he expressed this in his lengthy poem La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (The prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France), in which he described his world journey. The published work was accompanied by the paintings of Sonia Delaunay-Terk. The long poem, printed on paper two meters in length and folded, he called the first “simultaneous poem”.

This was related to Robert Delaunay’s and other artists’ experiments in proto-abstract expressionism. At the same time Gertrude Stein was beginning to write abstract prose in the manner of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. Cendrars liked to claim that his poem’s first printing of one hundred fifty copies would, when unfolded, reach the height of the Eiffel Tower.

Cendrars’ relationship with painters such as Chagall and Léger led him to write a series of revolutionary abstract short poems, published in a collection in 1919 under the title Dix-neuf poèmes élastiques (Nineteen elastic poems). Some were tributes to his fellow artists. In 1954, a collaboration between Cendrars and Léger resulted in Paris, ma ville (Paris, my city), in which the poet and illustrator together expressed their love of the French capital. As Léger died in 1955, the book was not published until 1987.

The Left-Handed Poet
His writing career was interrupted by World War I. When it began, he and the Italian writer Ricciotto Canudo appealed to other foreign artists to join the French army. He 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 (La Grenouillère and Bois de la Vache). He described this war experience in the books La Main coupée (The severed hand) and J’ai tué (I have killed). It was during the attacks in Champagne in September 1915 that 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 that he was inspired to write the poems published as De Outremer à indigo (From ultramarine to indigo). He stayed with Eugenia in her house in Biarritz, in a room decorated with murals by Picasso. At this time, he drove an old Alfa Romeo which had been colour-coordinated by Georges Braque.
Cendrars became an important part of the artistic community in Montparnasse; his writings were considered a literary epic of the modern adventurer. He was a friend of the American writer Henry Miller, who called him his “great idol,” a man he “really venerated as a writer.” He knew many of the writers, painters, and sculptors living in Paris. In 1918, his friend Amedeo Modigliani painted his portrait. He was acquainted with Ernest Hemingway, who mentions having seen him “with his broken boxer’s nose and his pinned-up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand,” at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris.

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

Late years
Cendrars continued to be active in the Paris artistic community, encouraging younger artists and writing about them. For instance, he described the Hungarian photographer Ervin Marton as an “ace of white and black photography” in a preface to his exhibition catalogue. He stayed in Paris during World War II and the German occupation. In Occupied France, the Gestapo listed Cendrars as a Jewish writer of “French expression,” but he was not deported. His youngest son was killed in an accident while escorting American planes in Morocco.

In 1950, Cendrars settled 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 his last work before he suffered a stroke in 1957. He died in 1961. His ashes are held at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre.

Legacy and honours
In 1960, André Malraux, the Minister of Culture, awarded him the title of Commander of the Légion d’honneur for his wartime service. 1961, Cendrars was awarded the Paris Grand Prix for literature. His literary estate is archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. The Centre d’Études Blaise Cendrars (CEBC) has been established at the University of Berne in his honor and for the study of his work. The French-language Association internationale Blaise Cendrars was established to study and preserve his works. The Lycée Blaise-Cendrars in La Chaux-de-Fonds was named in his honor.

For a list of works and bibliography see wikipedia

Source:, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, partially shortened by editor

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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