BLAISE CENDRARS (1887–1961) was born Frédéric Sauser in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. His father, an inventor–businessman, was Swiss, and his mother was Scottish. He spent his childhood in Alexandria, Naples, Brindisi, Neuchâtel, and numerous other places, accompanying his father's endless unsuccessful pursuit of various business schemes.
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. In Paris, around 1910, he met Guillaume Apollinaire, leader of the tumultuous avant-garde world of arts and letters at that time. Cendrars then travelled to America, where he wrote his first long poem Pâques à New-York. The Transsibérien was published the next year. Both these poems contributed to shaping the 'modern spirit,' then in process of catalysis, as did 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 and brawling. He worked in films after the war, as a writer and assistant director and later as a film maker. He was sometimes a millionaire, more often broke.
During the 1920s he published two long novels, Moravagine (1926) and The Confessions of Dan Yack (1929), and in the 1930s a number of 'novelized' biographies or volumes of extravagant reporting, such as Gold (1925), based on the life of John August Sutter, and Rum (1930), 'reportage romance' dealing with the life and trials of Jean Galmont, a misfired Cecil Rhodes of Guiana.
Cendrars, very much part of La Belle Époque, was sketched by Caruso and painted by Chagall, Modigliani, Léon Bakst and Léger; and in his turn was involved in popularising 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. In 1944 he began a series of reflective reminiscences, including – The Astonished Man (1945) – that constitute perhaps his best and most important work. His last major work was published in 1957, and soon afterwards he was disabled with illness and died four years later 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