BLAISE CENDRARS (1887–1961) was born Frédéric Sauser in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. His father, an inventor-businessman, was Swiss, his mother Scottish. He spent his childhood in Alexandria, Naples, Brindisi, Neuchâtel, and numerous other places, while accompanying his father, who endlessly pursued business schemes, none successfully.
At the age of fifteen, Cendrars left home to travel in Russia, Persia, China—and everywhere in between—while in the employ of a jewel merchant; he wrote about this apprenticeship several years later in his long poem, Transiberien. He was in Paris before 1910, where he met Guillaume Apollinaire, leader of the tumultuous avant-garde world of arts and letters at that time. Cendrars then traveled to America, where he wrote his first long poem Pâques à New-York. The Transsibérien was published the next year. Both these poems were of some moment in shaping the 'modern spirit,' then in process of catalysis, as was his third and last long poem, Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles, (1918), published in America in 1931 in a translation by John Dos Passos.
Cendrars lost his right arm in the First World War, while serving as a corporal in the Foreign Legion. He refused an artificial arm and prided himself thereafter on one-handed skill at shooting, fast driving, typing, brawling. He worked in films after the war, as a writer and assistant director and later as a film maker on his own, sometimes a millionaire, more often broke.
During the 1920’s he published two long novels, Moravagine (1926) and Les Confessions de Dan Yack (1929), and on into the 1930’s published a number of 'novelized' biographies or volumes of extravagant reporting, such as L’Or (1925), based on the life of John August Sutter, and Rhum (1930), 'reportage romance' dealing with the life and trials of Jean Galmont, a misfired Cecil Rhodes of Guiana.
La Belle Epoque was the great age of discovery in arts and letters. Cendrars, very much of the epoch, was sketched by Caruso, painted by Léon Bakst, by Léger, by Modigliani, by Chagall; and in his turn helped discover jazz, and the modern music of Les Six.
During the early months of World War II Cendrars was a war correspondent attached to the British armies, but with the fall of France in 1940 he retired to Aix-en-Provence. He stopped writing in 1944 when he began the series of reflective reminiscences, L’Homme Foudroyé (1945), La Main Coupée (1946), Bourlinguer (1948), Le Lotissement du Ciel (1949), that constitute his best and most important work. His last major work was published in 1957, entitled Trop, C’est Trop. He was disabled with illness soon afterward and died in January, 1961, in Paris.
‘What a writer learns from Cendrars is to follow his nose, to obey life’s commands, to worship no other god but life.’ – Henry Miller