On Blaise Cendrars–Good Writing for the Hell of It

Blaise Cendrars is known as an important 20th Century French poet, but I regard him as fine prose stylist.  He offers an interview in the Paris Review (1966)  which reveals his reading and writing habits, his circle of artist friends, and the colorful adventures that influenced his work.  Therein we read the following statements:

INTERVIEWER

All writers complain of the constraint under which they work and of the difficulty of writing.

BLAISE CENDRARS

To make themselves sound interesting, and they exaggerate. They should talk a little more about their privileges and how lucky they are to be able to earn some return from the practice of their art, a practice I personally detest, it’s true, but which is all the same a noble privilege compared with the lot of most people, who live like parts of a machine, who live only to keep the gears of society pointlessly turning. I pity them with all my heart. Since my return to Paris I have been saddened as never before by the anonymous crowd I see from my windows engulfing itself in the métro or pouring out of the métro at fixed hours. Truly, that isn’t a life. It isn’t human. It must come to a stop. It’s slavery . . . not only for the humble and poor, but the absurdity of life in general.

When a simple character like myself, who has faith in modern life, who admires all these pretty factories, all these ingenious machines, stops to think about where it’s all leading, he can’t help but condemn it because, really, it’s not exactly encouraging.

INTERVIEWER

And your work habits? You’ve said somewhere that you get up at dawn and work for several hours.

CENDRARS

I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit. Certainly, to be like everyone else, lately I’ve wanted to work regularly from a given hour to a given hour; I’m over fifty-five and I wanted to produce four books in a row. That finished, I had enough on my back. I have no method of work. I’ve tried one, it worked, but that’s no reason to fix on it for the rest of my life. One has other things to do in life aside from writing books.

A writer should never install himself before a panorama, however grandiose it may be. Like Saint Jerome, a writer should work in his cell. Turn the back. Writing is a view of the spirit. “The world is my representation.” Humanity lives in its fiction. This is why a conqueror always wants to transform the face of the world into his image. Today, I even veil the mirrors.

The workroom of Remy de Gourmont was on a court, 71, rue des Saints-Pères, in Paris. At 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Guillaume Apollinaire, who had a vast apartment with large rooms and with a belvedere and terrace on the roof, wrote by preference in his kitchen, at a little card table where he was very uncomfortable, having had to shrink this little table even smaller in order to succeed in sliding it under a bull’s-eye window in the mansard, which was also on a court. Edouard Peisson, who has a nice little house in the hills near Aix-en-Provence, does not work in one of the front rooms where he could enjoy a beautiful view of the valley and the play of light in the distance, but has had a little library corner constructed in back, the window of which gives on an embankment bordered with lilacs. And myself, in the country, in my house at Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, I’ve never worked on the upper floor which looks out on the orchards but in the lower room which looks in one direction on an impasse behind a stable and in another on a wall which encloses my garden.

Among the very few writers I’ve had occasion to see much of, only one man of letters, celebrated for his frenetic cult of Napoleon, installed himself before a panorama to work—a historical one—the window of his study had a full view of the Arc de Triomphe. But this window was most often closed because the living spectacle of the glory of his great man, far from inspiring him, clipped his wings. He could be heard through the door coming and going in his study, beating his sides, roaring his phrases, trying out phrases and cadences, groaning, weeping, laboring himself sick like Flaubert in his “gueuloir.” His wife then said to the servants, Pay no attention. It is Monsieur castigating his style.

One of my favorite passages of Cendrars prose comes from his novel Moravagine, a marvelous work that is too often neglected and overlooked.  Here it is:

I have already said that the activity of consciousness is a congenital hallucination.  Our origins being aqueous, our life is the perpetual rhythm of tepid waters.  We have water in our stomachs and in our ears.  We perceive the rhythm of the universe through the peritoneum, which is our cosmic tympanum, a collective sense of touch.  Of our individual senses the first in rank is our hearing, which perceives the rhythm of our own particular and individual life.  This is why all diseases begin with auditory troubles which are, like the manifestations of marine life, keys to the past and precursors of an inexhaustible process of becoming.  It was, therefore, none of my business as a doctor to attempt to hinder such manifestations.  I envisaged, rather, the possibility of multiplying these tonic accidents and achievements, through a prodigious subversion, the perfect accord of a new harmony.  The future.

Cendrars was a writer of future diseases, although the values he shared with Flaubert, including the disheveling of bourgeous and philistine modes of discourse, merely fashionable propaganda of banality, were not widely propagated in society.  What we learn from Cendrars is the importance of challenging the absurd conditions of modern life–the banality of mindlessness–which encourages us to think about how genuine perception must be integrated into art.  In the future, there is no obvious present.

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