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Sunday, 8 December 2013

Trans-Siberian Prose and Little Jeanne from France


There is no truth. There is only action. – Blaise Cendrars, Moravagine

Before writing anything about the writer Blaise Cendrars the first thing you want to do is check your facts with as many sources as you can because, like Salvador Dalí a few years later, Cendrars was not adverse to playing fast and loose with the truth. Some facts, however, are not in dispute. He was born on September 1, 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to a bourgeois francophone family. His parents were both Swiss but later Cendrars claimed that his mother was Scottish and he was born on an Italian railway train during his mother's journey back from Egypt (a site maintained by his grandson confirms this although the English is not always very good). His birth name was Frédéric Louis Sauser. He changed it to Blaise Cendrars in the fall of 1911: (braises means “embers,” cendres “ashes”) although he spelled the name “Cendrart” at first. “Writing is being burned alive, but it also means a rebirth from the ashes,”[1] he proclaimed. In his autobiographical fragment Une Nuit dans la forêt, he added:

Well, one may adore fire, but not infinitely respect the ashes; that’s why I rake up my life and exercise my heart (and my mind and my balls) with the poker. The flame shoots forth.[2]

Having lived in Naples (and possibly Egypt)—his father was a travelling salesman—in 1897 he was sent to a boarding school (the Untere Realschule) in Basel in Germany. According to one story he ran away but another version suggests that his family simply gave up keeping him in school because of his poor academic results. In 1902 he was enrolled in business school in Neuchâtel but that didn’t work out either so, in 1904, when he turned seventeen he moved to Saint Petersburg to work as either as a secretary (or an apprentice) for the Swiss watchmaker Leuba—he ran away, Cendrars says, and smuggled jewels from Petersburg to the Orient, but it seems more likely that his father made the arrangements—or possibly for a travelling salesman called Rogovin so it is true that he was in Russia during the Moscow Uprising of 1905 but he wasn’t sixteen as he reports later—simple arithmetic tells us that—and it’s doubtful he was actually in Moscow itself then. It’s also unlikely—as he later claimed—that he fell in love with a beautiful revolutionary who was subsequently hanged by the Russian police. What he seems mostly to have done, outside his working hours, is to haunt bookstores and libraries. In 1907 he supposedly[3] wrote his first poem ‘The Legend of Novgorod’ although there are those who would dispute that. In the same year he returned to Switzerland and began to study medicine at the University of Bern. Needless to say he didn’t graduate.

After a short stay in Paris, he travelled to New York, arriving on 11 December 1911. If Cendrars is to be believed he ended up there after a stint smuggling Russian refugees across the Atlantic and an unspecified period driving a tractor in Canada, but the truth is more likely that Fela Poznanska, a Polish student whom he met at university and who was moving to the States, bought him his ticket. They married whilst there and she bore him three children: Odilon, Rémy and Miriam. In April 1912, he wrote his long poem, Les Pâques à New York (Easter in New York), his first important contribution to modern literature, and in the summer of that year (aged 24), Cendrars returned to Paris, convinced that poetry was his vocation and conversant if not fluent in German, English, Russian and French. With Emil Szittya, an anarchist writer, he started the journal Les hommes nouveaux (The New Man), also the name of the press where he published Les Pâques à New York (which sold zero copies) and Séquences and was absorbed into the burgeoning international array of artists and writers that had flocked to the city; if you were a creative type of any kind in the early 1910’s that was the place to be.

Cendrars's works are part travel journal and part reflection. He created a style using a succession of photographic impressions, feelings, and ideas, which combine nostalgia and disillusionment with an endless world vision.[4]

When is a book not a book? When it’s a work of art. In 1913 he wrote his most famous work—and a perfect example of the above definition—Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France which describes a fantastic journey through Russia at the time of the first Russian Revolution. It bore the subtitle: "poems, simultaneous colours, in an edition attaining the height of the Eiffel Tower: 150 copies numbered and signed." The Eiffel Tower is 324m in height which means that each individual copy of the book would be just over 2m in height. To achieve this, the authors packed the book like a travel map; it unfolds, concertina-style and there are 22 panels. The actual dimensions are 81¾" x 13¾". It was printed by pochoir (painting through a stencil).

Travel Map

You can examine the text in great detail the British Library site here. In 2009, a copy changed hands at Christie’s Paris for $145,000.

The text, which is in a dozen different fonts, was prefaced by a Michelin railway map of the Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan. Underneath this map a wide green stripe introduces the poem’s title in big block letters as if the stencil were a poster signboard. Cendrars himself referred to the work as "a sad poem printed on sunlight" and that’s not a bad description because the bright graphics occasionally have to fight with quite dark writing:

Through fissures in the sky, enraged locomotives
Go crazy
And in the gashes
Vertiginous wheels mouths voices
Mad dogs bark at our heels
Demons unchained
Scrap heaps
A mock agreement
The broom-vroom-vroom of wheels
We are a storm in the head of a deaf man

(Translated Donald Wellman)

sdelaunay51The book was marketed as “The First Book of Simultaneity.” The idea was that the reader should take in the text and painting simultaneously, and the poem strives gamely toward the same goal. The term Simultaneity suggests that this was a collaborative work but the fact is that the text was written first and then illuminated by the artist Sonia Delaunay (Mme. Delaunay-Turk as she’s listed on the title page). It is as much a work of art as it is a poem and of the sixty-to-a-hundred (not one hundred and fifty) copies that were eventually printed, most surviving copies hang in art galleries. The book, which was sold almost entirely by subscription, created a stir amongst Paris critics perhaps vindicating somewhat Cendrars’s positioning of himself as “the only poet in the Paris of 1913 who could seriously rival Apollinaire.”[5] As it happens the two poets lived together in a broken down house in Paris's Montmartre district known as the "Wash Boat"[6] and were friends.

Paris in 1913 was a hotbed of new ideas—Futurism, Cubism, Orphism, Modernism—and not everyone agreed on what Simultaneity was—the Futurists certainly had their own ideas—and so Apollinaire felt the need to jump to his friends’ defence although he may have had ulterior motives in doing so.[7] In an article in Les Soirées de Paris he wrote:

Blaise Cendrars and Mme. Delaunay-Turk have carried out a unique experiment in simultaneity, written in contrasting colours in order to train the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, even as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down on the bar, even as one reads with a single glance the plastic elements printed on a poster.[8]

The poster comment is worth pausing over for a moment because in 1927 Cendrars wrote a short piece entitled ‘Advertising = Poetry’. The September 1913 publication date of Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France was preceded by a flurry of leaflets, subscription forms and prospectuses announcing the forthcoming publication of the first book of simultaneity.

But why prose? Isn’t this a poem? Or a set of poems according to the subtitle? In an article in Der Sturm Cendrars wrote:

The Prose of the Trans-Siberian is ... certainly a poem, since it is the work of a libertine. Let us say it is his love, his passion, his vice, his greatness, his vomiting. It is part of himself. His Eve. The rib he wrenched out of himself. Some life, some life. Some red and some blue, some dream and some blood, as in the tales.[9]

He liked the word ‘libertine’. In the manifesto he released at the time he said:

I am not a poet. I am a libertine. I have no method of working. I have a sex…. And if I write, it is perhaps out of need, for my health, even as one eats, one breathes, one sings….

Literature is a part of life. It is not something “special”. I do not write by vocation. Living is not a vocation…. I have written my most beautiful poems in the great cities, among five million men—or, not forgetting the most beautiful games of my childhood, five thousand leagues under the sea in the company of Jules Verne. All of life is nothing but a poem, a movement….[10]

This reminds me of Dalí when he said, “I am not an artist, I'm a manufacturer of wealth.” And both were clearly showmen. Cendrars wrote that he worked as a juggler in a London music hall while Charlie Chaplin, "then an unknown, was the recipient of kicks on the behind."[11] (When exactly this happened is unclear since he lost an arm in the war in 1915.) The publication of The Prose of the Trans-Siberian wasn’t just a poem. It was an event, a happening. But did it live up to the hype? The fact that I’m writing about it a hundred years later suggests that it must have some staying power. We’re still listening the The Rite of Spring which was first performed then. Incidentally Cendrars was in the audience on May 28th and, “as he tells the story, defended the work so heatedly that a hostile neighbour pushed him through his orchestra seat.”[12]

If it’s a poem though why call it ‘prose’? In a letter to Victor Smirnoff Cendrars explains:

As for the word Prose: I have used it in the Transsiberian in the Vulgar Latin sense of ‘prosa,’ ‘dictu.’ Poem seems too pretentious, too closed. Prose is more open, popular.[13]

Interesting that a poem that says it’s prose, is dedicated to musicians and finds itself part of a work of modern art. Also Cendrars refers to the individual lines as formules. I can find no explanation for this.

So what’s the … let’s just call it a work … what’s the work about? Well, on the surface it’s about a train journey beginning in Moscow—trains feature often in his writings, a logical symbol of the modern world that fascinated him—but it doesn’t end at the Sea of Japan. Jean Cocteau called this particular one “a veritable drunken train”—alluding to Rimbaud’sLe Bateau ivre’ (‘The Drunken Boat’) which is also a fragmented first-person narrative saturated with vivid imagery and symbolism and similarly references the work of Jules Verne—but it’s more than that. It leaps off the tracks and it jumps back and forth through time.

The train does a somersault and lands on all fours
The train lands on its wheels
The train always lands on all its wheels

(Translated Ron Padgett)

If it is based in any way on reality—and that is highly debateable—Cendrars appears to be recounting “in a nonlinear fashion two separate train rides he had taken—one through Asia and the other through Europe”[14] although other countries as far flung as Patagonia, the South Seas and Australia are given a nod. Does the train travel there or does he simply imagine these places whilst on his trip? I suspect the latter.

[W]hen asked whether he had taken the Transsiberian train during his years in Russia, the breathtaking journey depicted in the first person in the Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France, Cendrars would reply that this was not important; what was important was the fact that his readers had experienced it thanks to him.[15]

blaise-cendrars-2597248In his 1972 book, L’Homme que fut Blaise Cendrars, Albert t'Serstevens points out that Cendrars had, over the course of several years, provided six differing accounts of the Trans-Siberian journey. (He uses the word équipée by which I assume he means ‘escape’.) Miriam Cendrars, the poet’s daughter, claims that he did; but as her biography of her father Blaise Cendrars (Ed. Balland, 1993) is based almost entirely on her father’s writings who can say? The following observation is worth noting however:

[A]s a child he had been to the Universal Exposition of 1900, in Paris, where the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits offered a “Moving Panorama of the Voyage from Moscow to Peking,” a painted backdrop mounted on rollers and turned by cranks, which featured Russian and Chinese restaurants in the stations of Moscow and Peking.[16]

It begins in December 1905 with the poet boarding the Trans-Siberian in the company of a jewel merchant who was on his way to Harbin in northeast China, not actually the last stop but it’s where the poet decides to get off too and yet somehow the poem ends in Paris or not in Paris physically but with the poet yearning for the place which, to be frank, he does for the whole journey. The poem is an elaborate montage of sensations, images and narrative fragments. As Cendrars said in his novel, Moravagine, “There is no truth. There is only action.” This is reminiscent of what Charles Olson would say years later in his 1950 pamphlet Projective Verse:

ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER![17]

They travel through war-torn lands and there are numerous images of war, apocalyptic visions of disaster. He can do little more than compare the horrors outside the compartment window “to the sense of the horror bred in him by hedonism and insouciance—qualities that became, for Cendrars, central characteristics of the City of Lights.”[18]

I said that the poem was not a collaborative work but in some respects that’s not true:

Cendrars met [Robert] Delaunay in 1912 and settled in his house in the autumn of the same year. It was the year Delaunay elaborated his theory of “simultaneism” in painting. Cendrars took an active part in this epic quest, whose most celebrated outcome was the first “simultaneist” book co-authored by Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay (the painter’s wife)…[19]

The river flowed both ways. Just as Robert Delaunay’s theories affected Cendrars, Cendrars also affected the Delaunays. They were clearly kindred spirits. The poem was written employing the mindset of the Delaunays:

In fact [Robert] Delaunay’s well-known phrase ‘Everything is colour in movement, depth,’ is constantly cited by Cendrars as a figure for his own poetics.


The idea of ‘depth’ … is one which appears to situate modernity in terms of being rather than consciousness; this is the profondeur of reality, a ‘depth’ of experience at which all conventional barriers between discourse and its objects have been overcome…[20]

The beginning of the poem is interesting. Cendrars opens with ‘En ce temps-là’ which translates as ‘At that time’. It’s not exactly ‘Once upon a time’—the French equivalent would be ‘Il était une fois’ (‘There was one time’)—but it’s an unusual way to begin a poem. It’s like beginning a poem with ‘And’. In modern parlance the poem hits the ground running and it never stops. There are no pages to slow you down and barely any punctuation to the piece.

If the future is an undiscovered country then the past is a rediscovered one.

Cendrars helps us to understand that we are constantly rewriting the past as new events and present developments change our understanding of the narrative we have formed about it. It is impossible to see the past as finished; its meaning is always deferred and differing.[21]

When is now? In the poem there are many nows but it’s clear too that they’re all in the past: “Now I’ve made the trains follow me”, “Now I was the one playing the piano”, “Now the train had lost its allure”.

Cendrars may not have been a Futurist but he had much in common with them. Futurism is not about the future. Futurism is not an excess of modernity. Futurism means: unique artistic happening. Free. Fascination with the present. The irreversible course of "progress." It is visual arts, literature, film, architecture, theatre, dance, cuisine and fashion. And yet this poem is full of nostalgia. Throughout the piece Jehanne asks him—a sort of anti-“Are we there yet?”—"Say, Blaise, are we a long way from Montmartre?" Always looking back. And what’s the first thing he does when he steps off the train but look ahead to the time he would be back in Paris. He’s even travelling with the past because who is Little Jehanne other than a modern day Joan of Arc one of those emblematic characters like John Bull or Uncle Sam, albeit his Joan is more profane than she is sacred since she’s a prostitute rather than a saint. I, personally, don’t believe that Jehanne is real. I think she’s a metaphor; he talks about her “fantastic presence”. It’s as if Paris personified—hence the amalgam of the sacred and the profane—is sitting beside him constantly reminding him that he’s a long way from home which is also why she can vanish so easily later in the poem.

Paris time Berlin time St Petersburg time the time in all the stations
And at Ufa the bloody face of that gunner
And the shiny witless clockface at Grodno
And the perpetual forward motion of the train
Each morning watches are synchronised
The train advances and the sun retreats
Nothing happens, I hear the solemn pealing of the bells
The mighty drone of Notre-Dame
The bitter chime of the Louvre bell that sounded out St Bartholomew’s Day
The rusty carillon of Bruges-la-Morte
The electric chimes of the New York Public Library
The campaniles of Venice
And the bells of Moscow, the bell at the Red Gate that tolled the hours away for me as I worked in the office
All those memories
The train thunders over turntables
The train rolls onwards

(Translated Dick Jones)

There is even a significant Proustian moment:

He [the jewellery salesman] insisted I wore a new suit, and whilst boarding the train, I lost a button

I remember it well, so well, I've thought of it often since –

PTS_01The button—how would Doctor Who put it?—is a fixed point in time. It anchors him to that moment. It is also always lost as the past is always lost and as such it is a symbol of both; he cannot find the button, he can only find where he lost the button.

The poem has been translated many times—I’ve found seven different versions online although only one, by Tony Baker and Alan Halsey incorporates illustrations into the text—and now we have an eighth by my friend Dick Jones. I’ve long championed Dick’s own poetry but this sees him with his translator’s hat on. In the last year I’ve tried my hand at translating a couple of short poems and did not do the best of jobs. It’s far harder than one might imagine.

I’m therefore ill-equipped to comment on the translation but let’s just have a look at a few from early on in the piece. I was lucky enough to be able to compare Dick’s final draft with an earlier one posted online:

En ce temps-là j'étais en mon adolescence

The opening line. Most translators went for something along the lines of ‘At that time I was in my adolescence’ which is accurate as far as the translation goes. Dick originally had ‘At the time I was just a kid’ which has more bite and has a contemporary feel but he finally opted for, ‘At that time I was just an adolescent’.

Et j'étais déjà si mauvais poète
Que je ne savais pas aller jusqu'au bout.

A literal translation of this would be something like ‘And I was already such a bad poet / That I did not know how to go to the very end’ but that’s not really what he’s saying. He’s saying he doesn’t know ‘how to go about it’ which it what Donald Wellman opts for. Dick originally had ‘And I was already so bad a poet / that I just didn't know how to carry it off’, which I liked, but his finally choice of, ‘But I was so bad a poet / that I just didn’t know how to follow it through’ works too.

Some words are hard to translate, for example, bruissements, in the line:

Et mes mains s'envolaient aussi, avec des bruissements d'albatros

which a couple simply avoid by rendering the line ‘And my hands flew up too, sounding like an albatross taking off’ (Padgett) or ‘And my hands flew away also, with the sound of an albatross’ (Passes). ‘Groaning’ (Wellman) is just plain wrong; ‘Rustling’ (Albert, Likhtik, Young) is better and although perhaps not as accurate Dick’s original ‘And my hands soared with them, flurrying like the wings of a rising albatross’ is evocative. He finally settled for, ‘And my hands soared with them, beating like the wings of a rising albatross.’

Et mes yeux éclairaient des voies anciennes

Google translates ‘voies anciennes’ as ‘old ways’. Dick went for ‘My eyes shone out over the ancient ways.’ Others chose ‘paths’, ‘pathways’, ‘roads’ and ‘streets’. I can see why he might choose the word ‘way’ but ‘route’ would also work—you think of a train route—so why not, ‘My eyes lit up those ancient routes’ or something like that; I’m thinking about the light at the front of the train here.

There’s no right answer. Dick could argue his case, I can argue mine and all the others will have good reasons for their choices.

And, of course, there are lines all of them struggled with:

Des femmes, des entre-jambes à louer qui pouvaient aussi server
De cercueils

And there were plenty of women, eager to sell their hidden treasures, vacant thighs for hire Coffins (Young)

Women with vacant thighs for hire
Who could also serve
Coffins (Padgett)

Women who open their legs for a price can also be of use
The coffins (Wellman)

Women renting between their legs and who could also serve
Coffins (Likhtik)

In an early draft Dick originally had:

Those women who peddled their cunts and who could also play nursemaid
To the coffins (Jones)

which I though was a brave choice but, in the final draft, he opted for:

Then there were all the women
with room between the legs for hire who could also service
the coffins (Jones)

I personally think Baker hits the nail on the head with:

Dozens of women whose open thighs you could hire who also
Serviced the coffins (Baker)

There’s probably hardly a single line in the poem where every translator agrees.

This new translation will be published next year by The Old Stile Press who specialise in limited editions of fine art books, printed by hand. About as far from an ebook as you could get then. I thought I’d ask Dick a few questions about the poem and why he felt a new translation was needed:


JIM: In her book, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, Nataly Kelly says, “Poetry translation is like playing a piano sonata on a trombone.” She’s not the first to try and express how hard the job is—Umberto Eco said, “Translation is the art of failure.”—and so I have to ask: Why? Especially when there are already half a dozen perfectly adequate translations available?

DICK: And Pasternak said that ‘translation is very much like copying paintings’. No one, least of all the translators, has a good word to say for translation as a means whereby to capture and communicate the absolute essence of the original. So indeed, why bother?

First, some background. I was introduced to La Prose du Transsibérien et la Petite Jehanne de France by my French teacher. An iconoclastic prof, he didn't use textbooks in his lessons, feeling as he told us many times that the prosaic adventures of M. Vanel and his dreary family were of no consequence within the vital literary and musical culture of his beloved France. So we learned our verbs regular and irregular (particularly the latter) via the songs of chansonniers and chansonnières such as Charles Trenet, Édith Piaf, Juliette Gréco, Georges Brassens and Anne Sylvestre, the prose of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Alain-Foulnier, Gustave Flaubert and the poetry of François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Appolinaire and Blaise Cendrars.

Cendrars fascinated me as a 16-year-old proto beatnik because his work, particularly the Transsibérien, seemed to prefigure so strongly the freewheeling, hedonistic output of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti. I've returned to it over the years and long after the Beats slipped down my hierarchy of heroes, its rambunctious appeal remained firmly in place.

Then three years ago a health crisis occurred in my life and I needed something to distract me from the process of addressing it. Having recently translated some Jacques Prévert poems [see here and here], I decided to tackle the Transsibérien. Initially, then, the translation was an exercise with no particular thoughts of trying to disseminate the results beyond my blog. But when after completing a first tentative draft I risked a peek at other translations into English I was struck by what I saw as the difficulties that their writers had experienced in rendering a poem written in 1913 into an English idiom that captured the character of the original French whilst at the same time making the piece accessible to a contemporary readership.

It was at that point, I guess, that a degree of hubris entered the proceedings and I went to work with a specific pair of objectives in view. Twelve full drafts later and with the close support of my friend and this edition's illustrator Natalie D'Arbeloff and the eagle eye of Blaise Cendrars' daughter Miriam cast over each rendition (and as a result with hubris entirely deflated), my version joins those already in print.

JIM: In her article on Cendrars Martha Cooley asks, “Why read Blaise Cendrars?” and then answers her own question:

‘Why read Blaise Cendrars? He's a blast. One can find few more entertaining or riveting writers in the modernist canon. He's playfully experimental in ways that many contemporary writers can only hope to be–yet without show-offish tics. He's got no master plan for his prose; he's in it for the ride, the discoveries, the apprenticeship, and the adventure–well-earned, in his case’.[22]

Is that a statement you’d agree with?

DICK: Entirely. There’s a cheerful, reckless iconoclasm about the Transsibérien. It’s as if Cendrars has, for no reason other than the downhill thrill of it all, abandoned the conventions of the time and set the writing free. This insouciance seems to have no foundation in a deliberate deconstruction of current stylistic protocols. It appears to arise more from an impatience with anything that might inhibit or constrain the narrative and the internal commentary that accompanies it. Whilst his prose is more conventionally presented, it is driven by a similar adrenaline rush. In the semi-autobiographical novel Moravagine, Cendrars writes: There is no truth. There's only action, action obeying a million different impulses, ephemeral action, action subjected to every possible imaginable contingency and contradiction. Life. This is not to say that Cendrars was a kind of poetic naïf, nor did he ever, as in early Bob Dylan mode, try to pass himself off as such. Alongside Apollinaire, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, he was widely read across the literary spectrum and he was an intimate of many of his foreign contemporaries, not least fellow iconoclasts American authors Henry Miller and John Dos Passos. I believe that Cendrars’ freewheeling tale-telling, style and content, is a direct expression of those ‘million different impulses’ and our good fortune is that his artistic instincts and a passion to communicate rendered his work accessible to readers up for the ride.


JIM: Describe the poem to me. We know it’s set on the Trans-Siberian Express but what’s it really about for you?

DICK: For me, it is what it is! A straightforward description of the content of the Transsibérien would represent it as a juggernaut account of the poet’s trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway at the time of the first Russian Revolution, accompanied by the French prostitute Little Jeanne/Jehanne. Stylistically, it offers surreal, sometimes hallucinatory reminiscences of life in Paris in his childhood and dreamlike imaginings of exotic places yet to be experienced, mingled with documentary realism and dime store novel imagery. The whole is presented in combination with Sonia Delaunay’s extraordinary abstracted illustrations, the shapes and colours of which are designed to echo and highlight (with the alternation of different typefaces) the atmospheres of the ongoing narrative. This process they called simultaneisme and it prefigured so much that was to come later.

In terms of some kind of transcendent meaning above and beyond text and illustration, that’s more to be found in the many later works that were so influenced by the Trans-Sib. In the synthesis of the faux-naif and the artful that typifies so much of the writings of the Beats, as I’ve already cited - their striving for a style that would encompass both the visionary spiritual and the immediate sensory experience, these works frequently performed to an illustrative jazz accompaniment.

JIM: You came to Cendrars, as it seems many do, via Henry Miller who, on your blog, you say you were passionate about at the time and that when you learned of the poet’s death you, in your words, “mourned rather ostentatiously and began, as a homage, a translation of Trans-Siberian Prose and Little Jeanne from France,” so clearly this is a poem you’ve lived with for a long time. What is it about this poem that’s so special that you’ve returned to it for over fifty years?

DICK: Quite simply, I find his account of that headlong journey from Yaroslavl Station in Moscow to Harbin in Manchuria as exciting now as when I first read it in my teens. Then the three trips that I took in the late ‘80s and beginning of the ‘90s on the Trans-Siberian Railway provided me with a personal experience of the vast terrains through which it passes and the mighty distances that it covers. So the documentary resonances within the poem have heightened meaning for me now and I have a much greater appreciation of the cinematic qualities of much of the writing. What was once absorbed romantically from the poem’s imagery is now perceived empirically.

JIM: That’s you. And I can understand, as purely a personal project, your deciding to have a crack at your own translation, but publishing it is another matter entirely. It’s a hundred years on and the world has changed. Modernism is old hat, as is postmodernism: what relevance has this poem today?

DICK: I’m not a critic; I’m not an intellectual. Neither modernism nor postmodernism as boxes within which to package creative material interest me greatly. Yes, the Transsibérien is probably the first great poetic work in what subsequently was to be identified as the ‘modernist’ style. But it’s the poem’s freshness and vitality, the immediacy of its highly personalised voice that excite me and that ensure that it gets read today as much as ever it did.

JIM: Your version has been illustrated by the artist Natalie D’Arbeloff. How important has it been to echo the spirit of Simultaneity in the work? Is it a collaboration or has Natalie simply illustrated your work?

DICK: As touched on previously, when Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay worked together on the original version of the Transsibérien the collaborative element was crucial. The intention was to produce a synthesis of the verbal and the visual and its publication was as a manifestation of simultaneity. Although I had written several drafts of the poem prior to Natalie’s involvement, that driving principle of the original was never far from my mind. So when Natalie suggested the collaboration, I was delighted and the subsequent drafts were produced in close consultation with her. In fact, for me the translation only really achieved some sense of real form and substance within the context of this project.

JIM: How involved has Miriam Gilou Cendrars been with the project?

DICK: Mme Cendrars has followed the process both of final draft translation and illustration very closely. We submitted copies of both text and graphics to her as they emerged and we’re enormously pleased that after her close scrutiny the final version has her imprimatur. She’s an extraordinary woman, still active and fully engaged at the age of 94.

JIM: The book will not be cheap—Old Stile Press books often retail from anything from £50 to £250—and I can’t imagine many of my readers being willing to spend a week’s let alone a month’s shopping on a book. Is this really the best way to present the book? Would you consider creating a website sometime in the future to give the poem to a wider audience?

DICK: The original version of the Trans-Sib was published in a sumptuous edition, the entirety of it presented as a single sheet of heavy-duty paper folded concertina-style ten times. The print run was 150 so it was never planned at that stage as a mass-market endeavour! Whilst neither attempting nor hoping to emulate that original format, Natalie and I wanted to embrace something of its spirit, hence the submission of the piece to Nicolas McDowall at the Old Stile Press. In its decidedly luxuriant edition, it will sell to the libraries and universities that are the main patrons of Old Stile Press publications. However, the hope is that at some point we’ll be in a position to try for a more conventional outlet and that the Trans-Sib will be easily accessible to the larger market.


The artwork is at an early stage of development and Natalie’s anxious that this is clear. She told Dick:

After cutting the blocks, I make trial proofs on my etching press and alter the design if needed, also gradually work out the colours. When the text will eventually be printed letterpress by Nicolas McDowall along with the images, the effect on the final paper will be quite different.

She has, however, provided some images so we can get an idea what the finished product will look like and in a blog back in August she talks about the process in some detail.



Mary Ann Caws, ‘From Prose to the Poem of Paris or Cendrars' Tour’, Dada/Surrealism 9, pp.20-28

Katherine Shingler, ‘Visual-verbal encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay‘s La Prose du Transsibérien e-France: an on-line Journal of French Studies,Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-28

Yannis Livadas, ‘My grandfather Blaise Cendrars’

Marjorie Perloff, ‘Cubist Collaboration/ Abstract Assemblage: The Avant-Garde Artist’s Book’

Blaise Cendrars, The Art of Fiction No. 38, The Paris Review, Spring 1966, No.37


[1] Quoted by Brendan Isaac Jones in the Fall 2011 edition of Narrative magazine but not referenced

[2] Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, p.5

[3] “In September 1995, to the great surprise of French­speaking literary circles, Blaise Cendrars’s first poem, La Légende de Novgorode, was discovered in Russian translation by the Bulgarian poet and translator, Kiril Kadiiski. This poem had acquired a mythical status in Cendrars’s literary production on account of its systematic appearance in many works and bibliographical lists by the author. Cendrars’s constant questioning of the relationship between the literary and the real throughout his œuvre had made the actual existence of this work seem unlikely. Its discovery therefore received much attention and the authenticity of this text still courts controversy today” – N. Parish, ‘A textless title: the mythical status of Blaise Cendrars' La Légende de Novgorode’, Journal of European Studies, 42 (1), p.1

[4] William J. Roberts, ‘Cendrars, Blaise’; France: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present, European Nations quoted by Facts On File, Inc.

[5] Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, p.5

[6] The name is attributed to the poet Max Jacob. How he came up with the name is not clear. Some claim it was because it reminded him of the laundry boats that used to sail on the Seine.

[7] “One must bear in mind, in considering Apollinaire‘s interpretation of La Prose du Transsibérien, that ‘Simultanisme-librettisme’ was written in the context of an ongoing spat with Barzun over the nature and intellectual ownership of poetic simultaneity, and that this may partially motivate his reading. In seeking allies against Barzun, it may be that Apollinaire deliberately plays down any differences between his calligrammes and La Prose du Transsibérien, in order to bring it into line with his own theoretical concerns.” – Katherine Shingler, ‘Visual-verbal encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay‘s La Prose du Transsibérien

[8] Quoted in Marjorie Perloff ‘Cubist Collaboration/ Abstract Assemblage: The Avant-Garde Artist’s Book’

[9] Blaise Cendrars ‘The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jeanne of France’, Der Sturm No. 184-185 reprinted in Chicago Review Vol. 24, No. 3 (Winter, 1972), pp. 3-21

[10] Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, p.10

[11] Quoted in Jeff Bursey, ‘Blaise Cendrars’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 24 No. 1, April 2004

[12] Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, p.15

[13] Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, p.14

[14] Stephen Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, Second Edition, p.145

[15] N. Parish, ‘A textless title: the mythical status of Blaise Cendrars' La Légende de Novgorode’ in Journal of European Studies, 42 (1). p.4

[16] Paul La Farge, ‘Idiots! How Someone Else Wrote Blaise Cendrars’s Classic 1926 Novel’, Believer, Vol 2 No 9, Septemebr 2004

[17] Charles Olson, Projective Verse

[18] Brendan Isaac Jones, Narrative magazine, Fall 2011

[19] M. B. I͡Ampolʹskiĭ, The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film, p.140

[20] Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide, pp.122,123

[21] N. Parish, ‘A textless title: the mythical status of Blaise Cendrars' La Légende de Novgorode’, Journal of European Studies, 42 (1), p.6

[22] Martha Cooley, ‘Blaise Cendrars’, Post Road Magazine, Issue 2


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent digest of the life and times, and most importantly, the work of the great iconoclast Blaise Cendrars. The comparative passages in translation demonstrate clearly how tricky the process can be and how maintaining the delicate balance between literality and sense is the key.

A brief observation on the two alterations between drafts that you note in my translation. I would have gone most happily with my earlier renditions in both cases, but Miriam Cendrars demurred. In the passage about the prostitutes looking after both passengers and luggage she stated that her father simply wouldn't have used language as direct as mine. Here we have an example of cultural variance. Whilst within the French language there is no squeamishness concerning sexual reference, there are euphemisms employed which have no direct translation. I used 'cunts' as the closest informal version of 'entrejambes' I could locate, but Mme Cendrars (who was enormously supportive throughout and gave us carte blanche to go ahead) wouldn't have it!

If I started the translation all over again, I'm sure that I would find other options throughout the entire poem. So I have no intention of re-reading my translation until it appears in print! Which we hope will be not too far into 2014.

Many thanks for this, Jim. The customary diligence employed here sets up the translation really well. I don't imagine too many of your readers will be digging deep on publication, but we're hopeful that a more modest edition might be upcoming in the future.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re very welcome, Dick. The research was enjoyable. I do see your point about the translations. It’s an impossible task. That was made abundantly clear in my essay on Cavafy and I know from my own efforts how tricky even the tiniest poem can be. All you have to do is look at the mess I made of that Beckett poem. You’re lucky to have had Mme Cendrars to consult. My only thought on that is: I wonder just how helpful my daughter would be if someone asked her about my writing? My daughter is far from stupid and reasonably well-read but she’s still not me.

Jonathan Chant said...

Love the work that The Old Style Press are doing. Which is slightly ironic as I have just been converted to using a Kindle. Fascinating post, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve been in favour of ebooks for a long time, Jonathan. My wife bought me one of the early ones—a Rocket eBook—which I loved but it was very limited (it couldn’t read PDFs which was its main failing) but it felt nice in your hand. Carrie then got me a Kindle when it first came out and I have to say I was disappointed to see how it compared to the Rocket eBook; I had expected technology to have made significant leaps since then but there wasn’t much difference. Now I use a 10" tablet in fact if I could’ve found a reasonably-priced 12" tablet I’d’ve bought that. I still like books and feel a wee bit cheated when I get offered an ebook to review which is odd because having an electronic version makes reviewing so much easier. When I don’t have an electronic version I often find myself using Google Books to find quotes.

As far as The Old Style Press goes I can still see businesses like this going in a hundred or so years’ time. It’s hard to speculate—which is why I never attempt to write science fiction—but common sense says that we have to embrace ebooks in a big way and paper books will become something collectors go in for. And for them to appeal to collectors I expect that the books will get fancier and fancier which is how they started out in the first place, luxury items for kings and high-ranking officials. Who knows?

Jonathan Chant said...

Yes. I think that's the way the future lies. Thanks Jim.

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