PAUL LA FARGE

IDIOTS!

HOW SOMEONE ELSE WROTE BLAISE CENDRARS’S CLASSIC 1926 NOVEL

DISCUSSED: The Biard, Frédéric Louis Sauser, Jewels Smuggled from Petersburg, Dostoevsky, “Prose of the Transsiberian,” Modernity as Association of Creaks, Alter Egos Giving Themselves Alter Egos, Unrepentant Woman-Disembowelment, A Bagful of Pixie Dust, Where x Is the Quality of Being an Idiot, A Positively Beautiful Man, Myshkin the Fool, Jacobus de Voragine, Unpacking the Id by Ripping the Belly, Untrustworthy Etymology, The Single Word Martian Vocabulary

1.

Who is Moravagine? The question has no simple answer, but we can begin in November 1912, in a bar called the Biard, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, in Paris. The poet Blaise Cendrars is talking to a young Jew named Starckmann, a bookbinder’s apprentice, who has asked him about something in the past. “As I told him certain episodes from my life, the idea for Moravagine was born in me, spontaneously, released like a spring by the gears of the conversation,” Cendrars later recalled. “Starckmann had pressed an automatic button… and until daybreak I told him the story of Moravagine as if it were something that had really happened to me.” It was a story that took a lot of telling, about a madman, Moravagine, and his madcap adventures in Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, where he became a revolutionary, and hatched a plot that nearly got the tsar assassinated. Moravagine was lucky to escape with his life, and fled to America, where he… and so on, all night long. Cendrars doesn’t say what Starckmann thought of the story, but it seems safe to assume he was enchanted. “He was a young man who was very devoted to me,” Cendrars wrote, “and who, in 1914, following my example, enlisted on the first day of the war…” Blaise Cendrars lost his right arm in the First World War. Starckmann was killed. If his story had a moral, it might be this: be careful what you believe, especially when you are dealing with Cendrars.[1]

2.

Blaise Cendrars was born on September 1, 1887, at 216, rue Saint Jacques, Paris. His father was an inventor, who bequeathed to the world such wonders as the automatic weaving machine, the spring that closes doors automatically, and the luminous shop-sign. If only his competitors hadn’t copied his inventions, or bought the patents for practically nothing! Monsieur Cendrars would have been rich. But he was not rich, and at the age of eighty-five, he threw himself from a bridge, because, he explained in a letter to his son, “I am getting a little hard of hearing in my right ear. Nature is badly arranged, dear boy.” If it is badly arranged, then Blaise seems to have done all he could to fix it. For the truth is that none of this is true, not the deafness, not the door-spring, not the apartment in Paris, not even the name Blaise Cendrars.

The author of Moravagine was born Frédéric Louis Sauser in the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. His father sold clocks. Frédéric, who was known as Freddy, or Fred, or, briefly, as Fritz, grew up in Switzerland, Naples, and Egypt, where his father undertook one failed business after another. He studied in Basel and in 1902 he enrolled in business school in Neufchatel. In 1904 he went to Russia—he ran away, Cendrars says, and smuggled jewels from Petersburg to the Orient—to work as a secretary for the Swiss watchmaker M. Leuba. He lived through the revolution of 1905, which provided him with material for the central episode of Moravagine, and if he did not, as he claims, fall in love with a beautiful revolutionary who was later hanged by the Russian police, he must have seen bloodshed enough. What he seems mostly to have done, though, outside of his working hours, is to haunt bookstores and libraries. Sauser read Rémy de Gourmont’s Mystical Latin; he read Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Dante, Darwin, Durkheim, and one final “D,” Dostoyevsky, whose novel The Idiot he struggled through in Russian. In 1906 he returned to Switzerland, attended medical school, and met the woman who would become his first wife, Fela Poznanska, a Polish student who moved to New York shortly thereafter. As Cendrars tells it, he too ended up in New York, after a stint smuggling Russian refugees across the Atlantic, and an unspecified period driving a tractor in Canada. (According to other records Fela simply bought him a ticket.) And it was in New York, during the winter of 1911–1912, that Sauser became Cendrars. He spelled the name “Cendrart” at first, but the artifice must have been too apparent; “Cendrars” looked more natural and retained, in its syllables, the marriage of cendres, ashes, and ars, or art, the phoenix that rose from them. Sauser signed his new name to “Easter in New York” (1912) which, along with Apollinaire’s “Zone” (1913), inaugurated an era in modern poetry. He followed it a year later with the “Prose of the Transsiberian,” a half-verse hymn to the railroad, to progress and foreign lands. The two poems established Cendrars not only as a writer but as a persona: the world traveler, the man who had chased women and danger into their profoundest burrows, father to Hemingway, grandfather to Kerouac and all the little Beats.

“Prose of the Transsiberian” tells the story of a trip across Russia by train, of a sixteen-year-old runaway sitting on a chest of jewels, playing with an automatic pistol as the forests, the mountains, and the steppe roll past outside the window. It is, in other words, a story from the life of Cendrars, behind which, if we look carefully, we may find Freddy Sauser, copying letters in French and German for his employer in a Petersburg office. The rat-a-tat of the verse, which you can hear in lines like

I was hungry
And all the days and all the women in the cafés and all the cups
I would have liked to drink and then to break them
And all the windows and all the streets
And all the houses and all the lives
And all the taxicab wheels that turned in tumult on the bad streets…

owes as much to the tick-tock of clocks in Monsieur Leuba’s shop as it does to the pistons of the great railway. Cendrars’s genius was to recognize that the one could be substituted for the other. Modernity is not a particular kind of creak, it is an association of creaks; or rather, it is the freedom to move among creaks, to make a new rhythm from the old sounds. The clattering of the “Prose of the Transsiberian” rings true because everything in it is true somewhere, even if its truth has been borrowed and bent, displaced, translated, renamed. Sauser may never have ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway at all,[2] but he knew trains, and as 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.[3] The “Prose of the Transsiberian” ends

Paris
City of the single Tower of the great Scaffold and of the Wheel.

The Tower is the Eiffel Tower, of course, and of the Scaffold we will not speak. But the Wheel: not the medieval instrument of torture;[4] nor again the wheels of the train that carries runaways to their destinations. It is the Ferris wheel that was built in the Tuileries for the 1900 Exposition; Freddy Sauser might have ridden it with his mother and father. From its rise and fall, from its return, again and again, to the same place, Cendrars makes motion, a transcontinental sweep, a whole wild world, spun from the memory of a time when everything seemed marvelous and every story could have been true. An art of ashes indeed.

3.

Of this there can be no doubt: on September 28, 1915, at the Navarin Farm, in Champagne, a German shell blew off Cendrars’s right arm.

4.

He survived; he healed; he learned to write with his left hand. And eventually Cendrars wrote that he owed his survival to a character whom he had invented before the war, a madman named Moravagine. In “Pro Domo,” his 1951 afterword to Moravagine, Cendrars recollects that

By day and by night, in the anonymous trenches, Moravagine never left my side. It was he who came with me on patrol and who made me think of Red Indian tricks to avoid an ambush or a trap. In the swamps of the Somme, all through one sad winter, he comforted me, by talking about his adventures in the pampas, soaked by the terrible Patagonian winter. His presence lit up my gloomy trench. Behind the lines, I could stand everything, vexations, jeers, servile labours, by thinking of the life he had led in prison… He was with me when we attacked and it might have been him who gave me the courage and the strength and the will to pick myself up on the battlefield in Champagne.

Something very odd has happened here: Cendrars, an alter ego himself, has given himself an alter ego. A dangerous move, as it turns out, and one that should only be undertaken in the most desperate of situations. Because Moravagine, who was, of necessity, tougher and more cunning than his creator, soon began to assert his own claim to reality, at the expense of Cendrars, who, as a fiction, had little power to deny him. As for Sauser, there is no record of him; we can only assume that he was drowned out. “I wanted to sit down to write,” Cendrars wrote, “but he [Moravagine] had taken my place. He was there, seated at the bottom of my soul as in an armchair… He traveled in my place. He made love in my place.” Fortunately he did not sire children, at least, that we know of. What Moravagine brought into existence was a novel, which Cendrars seems to have written as a kind of exorcism, a way of getting this bullying, insistent voice out of his head. It took him nearly ten years, from 1917 until 1926, to see the book into print. The work of writing was interrupted by poverty, by travel, by laziness, by drunkenness, and, perhaps, beneath all these causes, by a reluctance to deliver Moravagine into the world, a reluctance which becomes perfectly understandable when you have read the novel Moravagine.

Who is Moravagine? An idiot, Cendrars calls him. A madman. A monster. If Cendrars = cendres + art, then Moravagine is mort, death, to the vagine, yes, exactly. Reader, be warned: the protagonist of Moravagine is an unrepentant disemboweller of women and young girls, whose numerous crimes go unpunished, unrebuked, and in many cases practically unremarked upon. Moravagine kills for the fun of killing; he kills to revenge himself on his mother, who died while he was still in the womb; he kills to repossess, in symbol if not in fact, his first love and first victim, the Austrian princess Rita. He kills because he is afraid of women, who embody, according to his philosophy, the spirit of death, and in this too he is true to his name. Mort à vagine can also mean “death by vagina,” the woman who kills by loving, the slow death that comes of being born. What is really horrifying about Moravagine, though, is that once you get to know him, he’s quite likeable: boundlessly energetic, equipped with a good sense of humor, generous and caring in his own way. Moravagine knows how to live. He is equally at home orchestrating a coup in Russia or a wedding in New Orleans; he gets along well with peasants, children, and savages. He schemes a failed flying machine into a circum-global aerial tour; he arranges a wedding; he writes a novel that, in its length at least, makes Proust’s In Search of Lost Time seem as slender as an Encyclopedia Brown mystery. Murderer though he is, Moravagine possesses by the bagful the pixie dust that makes life interesting enough to write about.

Little wonder that he charms the novel’s narrator, the errant (and aptly named) psychiatrist Raymond La Science. In an attempt to understand Moravagine’s success, Raymond speculates that

the latest discoveries of science as well as its most stable and thoroughly proven laws, are just sufficient to allow us to demonstrate the futility of any attempt to explain the universe rationally, and the basic folly of all abstract notions… If one wants to live it is better to incline towards imbecility than intelligence, and live only in the absurd.

Psychoanalysis and general relativity have conspired to make reason less than useless; order and intelligence are illusions; and all we who are not blessed with madness can do is to emulate the mad, or, at the least, to indulge them in their serial murders and other gory pursuits.[5] The reader who is alarmed by the unrepentant misogyny of Raymond’s conclusion may now wish to hurl Cendrars’s book across the room. This would be a mistake. There is more to Moravagine than death and the vagina; there is always more when you’re dealing with Cendrars.

5.

Who is Moravagine? Consider: two men are sitting on a train bound for Petersburg. One is Freddy Sauser, aged seventeen, wide-eyed and happy to be leaving Switzerland. The other is a middle-aged Jew from Warsaw, with a tobacco-stained beard, green eyes, and a bowler hat; he is smoking a cigar from which the inches of ash have not yet fallen. He is the principal agent of the watchmaker (or jeweler) M. Leuba. His name is Rogovine. As Moravagine cares for Raymond, so Rogovine showed Sauser the ropes of the jewelry (or watch) business. “I watched him running from city to city,” Cendrars wrote in his memoir Vol à Voiles, “going to offices, workshops, factories, visiting banks, calling craftsmen and big bosses by their first names…” It was from Rogovine that Sauser learned his bustle and his bravado, not to mention a few sexual quirks: “He took from an open suitcase an admirable spring-loaded dildo, which he made to pop up and go down a few times, laughing.—Funny, isn’t it! he exclaimed.” With Moravagine it is the same: years later, a printer’s apprentice named Starckmann would push a button, and pop! up came Rogovine, slightly transformed, quivering as if on a spring.

6.

But then again: two men are sitting on a train bound for Petersburg. One is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, but with an innocence that makes him seem younger. He has been living in Switzerland for a long time, and he is sorry to leave. The other is about the same age, but dark and robust, with an impudent or even a malicious smile. He is the heir to a million rubles, which he is on his way to Petersburg to claim. His name is Rogozhin, or, in French, Rogojine. He and Myshkin are the main characters in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot. And now we need a new series of equations. Moravagine = Rogovine, but Rogovine = Rogozhin; even if Monsieur Rogovine really lived, he has slipped into one of the bright crevices where art and life almost meet and nothing can be believed. So Moravagine = Rogozhin, or, more accurately, Moravagine = Rogozhin + x, where x is the quality of being an idiot. This is where things begin to get complicated. Moravagine is heir not only to the worldly Rogozhin, but to Prince Myshkin, the eponymous idiot, whom Dostoyevsky wanted to pass off as a saint. In a letter to his niece Sofia Ivanovna, Dostoyevsky wrote,

The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man [i.e., Myshkin]. There is nothing more difficult in the world and especially now… There is only one perfectly beautiful person—Christ—so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already an infinite miracle.[6]

Moravagine is hardly what you’d call beautiful; but then Prince Myshkin, a semi-recovered epileptic with the awkward habit of saying whatever’s on his mind, isn’t perfect, either. To be a saint in the modern world—to be a saint in the trenches of the Marne—is to approach perfection from a very great distance.

7.

Which brings us to Jacobus de Voragine, the author of the Legend of the Saints, also known as the Golden Legend. Voragine was a bishop in thirteenth-century Genoa; his work was enormously popular in medieval Europe but fell out of favor during the Renaissance, when scholars attacked its stories of miracles and grisly deaths as “implausible, superstitious, and even immoral.” Little wonder, then, that Cendrars, a voracious reader, knew and admired him. Writing about the sacristan of a cathedral in Santiago de Chile, Cendrars observed,

I consider it an extraordinary privilege for an author who has no religious faith, to be able to contribute, in the manner of Jacobus de Voragine, to the formation of a legend today.

One interesting feature of Voragine’s hagiographies is that each begins with an etymology of the saint’s name, and that the etymology is usually spurious, if not actually fantastical.[7] And in this sense Moravagine is more Voragine than Voragine himself; he is not only the psychopath’s mort à vagine, but also Rogovine the teacher, Rogozhin the scoundrel, Myshkin the fool, and Voragine the grisly fabulist, the maker of saints. The id, unpacked, turns out to contain a library, and if it wanted so badly to rip open the bellies of women, perhaps that was only a way of uncovering, or begging us to uncover, its origins, which are as old as books, maybe even as old as stories.

If there is a lesson here, it is perhaps this: mistrust etymology. Moravagine is an idiot, but he is also an idiom (the words share a root, the Greek idios, which means “own” or “particular”): a term whose meaning is established by usage, and not deducible from the meanings of its constituent parts. Idioms are the place where language shows signs of wear: those phrases that have been said so many times they have fused into a single unit and can no longer be pried apart. In just the same way, Moravagine is a creature of use; he is what happens when you tell a story too many times, and it acquires, in the telling, a life of its own. So it is fitting that at the end of the novel, Moravagine travels, in dream if not in fact, to the planet Mars, where the natives have only a single word, kay-ray-kuh-ko-kex, which means whatever you want it to mean. The word is pure idiom; it has no etymology, no roots, no past. Or almost no past. The Martian word, Cendrars tells us, is an onomatopoeia, derived from the sound of a stopper moving in a crystal flask, as when a drink is about to be poured, or a genie struggles to get free.

8.

With the publication of Moravagine, we would like to think that Cendrars was able to unseat the demon from the armchair of his soul. But idiots—and idioms—are not so easily taken out of circulation. In his 1951 appendix to Moravagine, Cendrars mentions a letter from an admiring reader, Dr. Ferral, who writes, “You have freed yourself from your double, whereas most men of letters remain victims and prisoners of their doubles until the day they die, which is what they call being faithful to oneself, although nine times out of ten it is just a typical case of possession.” So far, so good; but then you learn that Ferral was formerly the physician to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, and is now the director of an Institute of Beauty on the Left Bank where he entices society ladies with medicines of dubious worth. That he is, in other words, another of Cendrars’s charming, fictive rogues.[8] “The doctor was a misogynist,” Cendrars writes, “but his wit was enchanting, and his conversation, nourished with true anecdotes, sharp observations, with experience gained in all the settings and all the closed societies which a doctor enters with no illusions about their nature, was astonishing, and constantly illuminated by his vast knowledge of books, for Ferral knew all, and one understood in his words much more than what he said or implied.” This, in the end, may be as close as Cendrars comes to telling the truth, about himself at least. The succession of stories is without end; all you can hope for is that the storyteller knows enough to make the story good.

  1. And be doubly careful here, because we have Starckmann’s story only from Cendrars himself.
  2. Cendrars’s biographers are not unanimous on this point. Miriam Cendrars, the poet’s daughter, claims that he did; but her adoring, confusing Blaise Cendrars (Ed. Balland, 1993) is based almost entirely on her father’s writings. Monique Chefdor, in her Blaise Cendrars (G. K. Hall & Co., 1980), wisely avoids the morass of Cendrars’s biography to focus on his work; but she seems to be of the opinion that he spent the years 1904–1906 entirely in Petersburg.
  3. The resemblance between poem and panorama only deepens when you consider that the “Prose of the Transsiberian” was first published on a single continuous sheet of paper, the length of which was covered, almost at the expense of the text, with colorful paintings by the Simultaneist painter Sonia Delaunay Terk.
  4. As Chefdor, who translates the end of this last line as “of the Rack of the Wheel,” seems to think it is.
  5. It is customary to credit Cendrars with having predicted the atom bomb in Moravagine. In fact he considers only the general possibility that the Earth could be blown to bits by “an astral explosive… condensed in the smallest volume industrially possible,” a “luminous nucleus” with vast destructive power. But this other notion, that the modern world belongs to the charming butchers, the ladykillers, the idiots, may be more prescient.
  6. Cited in the introduction to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s excellent translation of The Idiot (Knopf, 2002).
  7. Consider, for example, Voragine’s account of Saint Blaise, whose day is February 3rd:

    Blaise comes from blandus, sweet; or it comes from bela, robe, and sior, small. For he was sweet in his speech, clothed with the robe of virtue, and small through the humility of his actions.

    Which sounds more like a description of Myshkin, or of young Freddy Sauser, than of Cendrars. The wheel is turning around and around, bringing the same people past us again and again.

  8. Although a footnote to the Club Français du Livre edition of Moravagine claims real existence for the doctor, and suggests that he and Cendrars collaborated on a project called the “Tour of the Unknown World,” a three- or four-year expedition to record, with cameras and other equipment, everything in the world that seemed in one way or another supernatural: haunted houses, whirling dervishes, ectoplasmic apparitions and so on. The project attracted the interest of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, but was for some reason never carried out.

Paul La Farge is the author of two novels, The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction. A version of this essay appears as the introduction to Moravagine, to be published this month by New York Review Books Classics.

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor


STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.