I am slightly shamed to admit that I only encountered Blaise Cendrars through coming to work at Peter Owen. I noticed his novel Dan Yack on one of our order forms and, underneath it, where one would expect a short description or a quote it read simply ‘Better than Hemingway’. This made me laugh out loud – partly of itself and partly because I knew who had written it. Daniel, my then boss, is one of the most mild mannered men that one could ever hope to meet, as unlikely to be flippant about a Peter Owen book as he would be to be seen reading the new Harry Potter whilst listening to a Britney Spears album. So, when I questioned him about the strange byeline, I was even more surprised to see him shrug his shoulders and say, ‘because he is’ before going back to what he was doing.
‘A writer that can make even Daniel blasé,’ I thought to myself, ‘must really be something.’ I began to read. A month and more than half a dozen books later, I was able to enter the office one morning and say to Daniel ‘You know what? He is better than Hemingway.’
Daniel shrugged again: ‘I told you so.’.
Why the apparently gratuitous Hemingway bashing? Why not another figure from the twenties and thirties such as Henry Miller or F. Scott Fitzgerald? The answer lies not so much in the work of the two men – their writing styles and subjects were markedly different – but their personal mythologies: Both men played the part of the hard drinking, hard loving adventurer, the great macho modernist. Daniel and myself simply came to the conclusion that Cendrars did it with a lot more pizazz.
We are not the only ones. Jeff Bursey, in his preface to Cendrars’s first volume of autobiography The Astonished Man, says:
The example of Ernest Hemingway illustrates how a writer can fall victim to a self-created myth. Cendrars proves that, if care is taken, embellishing and playing with a fictional persona can be rejuvenating.
Or to put it another way; where Hemingway will mumble obliquely about the moving earth Cendrars will give a detailed description of a native Patagonian sex toy – not only its use and effect but also how it is constructed and its social relevance.
But even if he did mythologize certain aspects of his life, a résumé of the some of the things we know him to have done is impressive enough, He began a lifetime of travel at the age of fifteen, and while he may not literally have climbed down a drainpipe to escape his parents, he nevertheless did accompany a Russian jeweller throughout Eastern Europe and into Asia, witnessing the revolutionary events of 1905 in Russia. While he may not have designed the perfect car engine, he did travel up and down North and South America in a car personally customized by George Braque. He was a hunter (elephants, of course), screen-writer and filmmaker, and a thoroughly dodgy international businessman. He was a huge presence in the modernist movement, but while he was friends with Appollinaire, Picasso, Modigliani and Picabia he avoided name-dropping in his memoirs to the point of leaving these figures and many more out all together. He was the consummate gentleman.
The 1927 novel Dan Yack is as good an example as any of the man as a prose writer. We first meet Dan Yack, a typical Cendrars alter-ego thoroughly drunk in a St Petersburg bar having been dumped by his beautiful but flighty girlfriend Hedwiga. He is a British millionaire:
...a famous reveller, the envy of all St Petersburg.
He wanders outside to regard the sunrise:
The river was seized with labour pains, glittering forceps induced the water, which was streaked with blood; at last the sun was delivered , fine, bonny and red faced.
Dan Yack does not take the view for granted (‘He felt he had witnessed a prodigious spectacle’) and as he walks on through the waking city his joie de vivre (a phrase that might have been invented for -- or perhaps by -- Cendrars) continues:
To his eyes everything appeared joyful: colours, lights, life; the drunks slumped in the backs of fiacres, the enormous tart escorted by two officers of the guard, the decorated carriage, the grinning limosine . “. . . Aaamen!” he intoned.
The enthusiasm, pace and power is infectious, it is language as a cypher to convey the essence of experience. We are constantly reminded that we should be happy to be alive and if we aren’t then what’s stopping us from (as Dan Yack will very soon decide to do) grabbing hold of three complete strangers, chartering a boat to take us to an uninhabited Antarctic island and sit the whole thing out for a year?
But Cendrars’ lust for life is far from romanticized – pain, madness and catastrophe are prevalent, chaos is the order of the day. Much of the chaos springs, one suspects, from his internal contradictions. For instance, while Cendrars is obviously in thrall to the industrialized world, he also portrays it as cold and heartless. The last section of Dan Yack describes the whaling empire that the eponymous hero builds up from a remote fishing port in the South Atlantic. Although the colony is a huge success and fulfils all of Yack’s hopes for it, he comes to hate his creation, although it makes his men rich, they end up leaving in search of wives. Although the book is a celebration of Yack’s schemes, plans and life, one can’t escape the fact that they all end in disastrous failure – Dan Yack always ends up miserable.
It is this nihilistic flavour (also to be found in Hemingway’s writing) that is perhaps the most important aspect to take from reading Cendrars. A pessimism that occasionally gets lost behind all his surreal imaginings, his comic interludes and life-affirming adventures, until it bursts forth destructively. This is the writing of a man who saw poverty, pain and two world wars in his lifetime, fighting in one and losing a son in the other. It might be that it was this random, merciless violence that most affected Cendrars in his lifetime. Perhaps it was the war that changed him from a poet as he was before the First World War to the prose writer that he became.
So what to take from Cendrars’ writing? Love of language, knowledge and experience, but also the ability to see these things as they truly are: so often the cause of tragedy from which there is frequently no escape and, of course, that he is manifestly better than Hemingway.
I have just discovered an interview with Blaise Cendrars in which he is questioned about his relationship with Hemingway
Interviewer: Was it in New York that you met Hemingway?
Cendrars: No, at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris. I was drinking; he was drinking at a table next to mine. He was with an American sailor on leave. He was in uniform – probably that of a noncombatant ambulance aid, unless I’m mistaken. It was at the end of that other war, the “last of the last.” We talked between tables; drunks like to talk. We talked. We drank. We drank again. I had an appointment in Montmartre, at the home of the widow of André Dupont, a poet killed at Verdun. I went there every Friday to eat bouillebaisse with Satie, Georges Auric, Paul Lombard and sometimes Max Jacob. I brought my boozer American friends with me, I thought I’d given something good chez nous to eat. But the Americans aren’t fond of good food; they have no good food at home, they don’t know what it is. Hemingway and his sailor didn’t care for my arguments – they preferred to drink until they weren’t thirsty any more. So I planted them in a bar on the rues des Martyrs, and I ran to treat myself at my friend’s widow’s house.