September 01, 2011

With Blaise Cendrars in Provence

I almost wrote "Reading Blaise in Provence" but actually it wasn't true: what I did with Blaise Cendrars during my four days in Provence which followed my four days in Prague (see previous post) was to carry him around in the form of two books I found in a bookstore in Aix-en-Provence, one of those pleasant bookstores mixing the old and the new, the upstairs with tall windows framed by provençal sky-blue shutters, bookshelves full of poetry and no cash register; and an urbane downstairs for literary novelties where I encountered, among other things, my first ultra-poches.

Ultra-poches means "extreme pocket books", or, better yet, "pocket books beyond your wildest dreams". These are not gimmicky little books about fashion astrology or "Catfucius says", but real, hard cover, unabridged novels, only small, not much larger than -- what would be appropriate here -- a box of Gitanes cigarettes, something they achieve by being printed on bible paper and formatted to be read vertically. They were invented in the Netherlands a couple of years back and only made their debut in French bookstores a few months ago, where they seem to have right away struck a chord as their stand was 90% empty, offering only a handful of crime novels, mostly Michael Connelly, and one Swann's Way. The Cormac McCarthys, the Hugh Lauries touted on the display placard, all gone. I chose one of the remaining ones at random (I hope you don't believe that) and here it is, posed next to my mouse for scale:

I was actually looking for a different Marcel and that's Marcel Pagnol, the great novelist and filmmaker who was born back at the turn of the century between Aix and Marseille near one of those massive outcrops called (I love this) massifs that dot the region. "I was born in the town of Aubagne, under a Garlaban covered with goats, at the time of the last goatherds" is how he puts it in the book I was looking for, My father's glory, about the summer vacations his family used to take on the Massif during his childhood, which I have wanted to read since having seen and loved Yves Robert's very sad, sentimental, funny movie version.

When I got upstairs where I thought Pagnol might be, whom did I stumble into instead but Blaise Cendrars, the audacious, emphatic, disenchanted, lyrical adventurer and avant-garde poet who captured my heart (and that of Apollinaire, who credited Cendrars's poetry with revolutionising his own) many years ago with his two great 'river-poems' (they flow on forever) Prose of the Transsiberian and little Jeanne of France, and then Le Panama: or, the adventures of my seven uncles. And here they were in a shiny new Complete Poetry, which I took away, along with a little biography which proclaimed itself a "literary discovery", or, the word being the same in French, a "literary uncovering", not quite a " between the covers" but almost as good.

It turned out to be somewhat difficult to read, from being seriously imprinted with the zapping culture (la culture zapping as the French have it) of the eighties, when this "Literary Discovery" series was born. You know what I mean -- those books where each page has three different fonts and the margins are stuffed with cut-out photos, art, quotes reproduced in autograph.

Still, it looked fantastic lying around every day on the bed of the house where we were staying, the yellow fingerpainting of Cendrars by a beautiful Brasilian modernist named Tarsila do Amaral almost picking up the tone of the blanket. A bit more sulphurous, perhaps, or maybe that was due to its being superimposed on an old black and white photo of Cendrars squinting into the sun, cigarette jutting from his mouth, wearing a wrinkled workshirt which yells out "Cargo boat full of prostitutes and tuberculars" (as the book describes the vessel for one of his Atlantic crossings):

In one of the bits I did read, I learned that I had not lost out completely on taking home a book that would be a souvenir of Provence:  Blaise Cendrars lived self-exiled in Aix-en-Provence from 1940 to 1943, after the Gestapo in the occupied north had seized all the copies of his latest book, and the proprietor of the hotel where he used to live in Paris wired him "Your Aunt Amelie keeps coming looking for you".

He had fought in the first World War and lost an arm, immediately afterwards teaching himself to write with his left hand and in 1918 publishing I killed, where he described a hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier (an excerpt quoted in the book: "I killed the Boche, I was sharper and quicker than he was. I acted, I killed. As a man does who wants to live."); this war he passed in silence, a recluse in a beret and shabby jacket who passed his time at the public library when he wasn't standing in line for his ration of potatoes.

But before all that, back in the Belle Epoque Blaise Cendrars blazed a path across the continents of the known world and the literary map, announcing his destiny with this name -- yes, Cendrars means cinders -- which he invented for himself in his twenties, in New York, poor, hungry, even sick, but "that won't stop me from writing. I am ready."

Arriving back in Paris the year Marcel Duchamp presented his scandalous painting "Nude descending a staircase", he produced the poem which brought modernism hurtling into the literary scene like the locomotive it describes speeding through a Russia in the throes of the Revolution of 1905. It was inspired by Cendrars's first great adventure, eight years before. Aged seventeen, he had run away from his boarding school near Basel, catching the first international train to come into the station and ending up in St. Petersburg, making friends with anarchists and spending time with the librarian of the Imperial Library, who told him he was a poet.

The poem is called The prose of the Transsiberian and little Jeanne of France (Jeanne is a prostitute), and here are a couple of my favourite verses from it, translated by Ekaterina Likhtik:

The sky is like the shredded tent of a poor circus in a small fishing village
In Flanders
The sun is a smoky oil lamp
And at the very top of a trapeze a woman makes a moon.
The clarinet the piston a sharp flute and a bad tambourine
And here is my cradle
My cradle
It was always next to the piano when my mother like Madame Bovary played Beethoven sonatas
I spent my childhood in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
And skipping school, in the railroad stations in front of departing trains
Now, I have made all the trains run behind me
I have also bet on the races at Auteuil and at Longchamp
Paris – New York
Now, I have made all the trains run the course of my life
Madrid – Stockholm
And I lost all my bets
There is now only Patagonia, Patagonia, that suits my immense sadness, Patagonia, and a journey to the South Seas
I'm on the road
I've always been on the road
I'm on the road with little Jehanne from France
The train makes a perilous jump and falls back on all of its wheels
The train falls back on its wheels
The train always falls back on all of its wheels

“Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?”
We are far, Jeanne, you've been on the move for seven days
You are far from Montmartre, from the Hill that nourished you from Sacre-Cœur that cradled you
Paris has disappeared and its enormous flame
There is nothing but continuous ash
Falling rain
Rising peat
Whirling Siberia
Heavy rebounding sheets of snow
And the bell of madness that quivers like the very last wish in the bluish air
The train beats at the heart of the heavy horizons
And your sorrow sneers…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”
The worries
Forget the worries
All the railroad stations cracked askew on the road
The telegraph wires on which they hang
The grimacing lampposts gesticulate and strangle them
The world expands elongates and retracts like an accordion tormented by a sadistic hand
In the shreds of the sky, locomotives in a fury
And in the holes,
The dizzying wheels the mouths the voices
And the dogs of misfortune that bark at our parcels
The demons are unchained
Scrap iron
All is in false harmony
The broom-room-room of the wheels
Bouncing back
We are a storm in the skull of the deaf… 

This is just a fraction of the poem, but you can read the rest of it on the website The drunken boat.

As I said, I didn't get around to reading the Complete Poetry when I was in France; I read it when I was back at home. And the funniest thing happened. As I was reading it, one night in bed, I kept smelling tobacco, not just any tobacco but pungent French cigarette tobacco. I looked around. I was alone. My husband was still in Europe; Jean-Paul Belmondo was not on the deck outside my window.

I read some more. The odour didn't go away. I looked around again. Still alone. The cat had not taken up smoking in our absence. Turned my attention back to the book. Still there. I brought the book up to my nose. And then it hit me. I opened the tube of lotion I had bought in the pharmacy in Avignon which was on the bedside table. I sniffed it. I sniffed my hands. Somehow I had bought French hand lotion that smells like tobacco.

Was this a new French fashion? The next day, for fun, I googled "tabac perfume women". 0.05 seconds later, up came the result: Tabac blond Caron.

Why, c'est moi!
Complete poems by Blaise Cendrars or try his cult novel Moravagine   
My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle: Memories of Childhood by Marcel Pagnol
My Father's Glory (DVD of the movie version by Yves Robert)

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00


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