Saturday, January 21, 2012

" To the end of the world" by Blaise Cendrars

La Folle de Chaillot  by Georges Stefanescu ( 1967 )

The Old Bard told us that the world was a stage and we, mere players. Blaise Cendrars, a maimed survivor of “La Grande guerre” and an eyewitness of that most promethean 20th century, in his last book, turns the famous quote around: “The theatre is a world, enormous and delicate, in which the frontiers between reality and illusion blur so that one never knows whether it is the lies or the truths which are more important”.

How Blaise Cendrars’ odd book « Emmène-moi au bout du monde ! », poorly translated as “To the end of the world!” slipped into my reading list, I cannot recall, but it might have to do with that epigraph on the title page of Chatwin’s “In Patagonia". I wrongly thought I would find the text of this epigraph in Cendrar’s book with the ambitious title but it was not, and I couldn’t care less: “To the end of the world” is quite simply a blast and Blaise Cendrars the most originally funny and exciting writer I have “discovered” recently. And the title, by the way, does not refer to a gentle romantic invitation,  it is the coïtal cat-yell of the incomparable Thérèse Eglantine, a woman with a rather strange amorous taste and one hell of a story to tell…

« Emmène-moi au bout du monde! » is like nothing you have ever read before. It hangs somewhere between Molière’s scapinesque fourberies and a vulgar Legionnaire’s yarn, it is something between a Barnum freak show and a “Tartufian slapstick”. It has the breathless pace of a Celine, the black humor of a François Villon and the savagery of a Genet.

What else could we expect from a writer who has the looks of a criminal fit for the “bagne”, with his broken “boxer’s nose” and his eternal cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A face carved out by a life as exciting as any adventure story. 

Born Fréderic – Louis Sauser in Switzerland in 1887, in a well established Bourgeois family, the writer’s first memories are of the many travels in the wake of his travelling salesman father. An unruly boy, he is soon sent to a boarding school in Germany. He runs away. His parents send him to an “Ecole de commerce”; he fails brilliantly. When he is seventeen, his dad sends him to Moscow and to Saint Petersburg to work as an apprentice for a Swiss watchmaker. The revolutionary atmosphere suits young Felix well enough and he starts educating himself at the Imperial library. His first poem, “The legend of Novgorod”, written in 1907 and translated into Russian and of which only 14 exemplars were printed has attained a mythical status with collectors. 
Travelling around the world, Felix writes poetry. He changes his name to Blaise Cendrars, a wordplay on braises (embers) and cendres (ashes), a metaphor on the creative and destructive transformation of the Artist. Moving about in the artistic milieus, Cendrars soon enough befriends the likes of Apollinaire, Chagall, Modigliani and Archipenko.
Still, following the adventurous temperament of his youth, he volunteers to fight during World War 1. In 1915, a corporal in the foreign legion, he takes part in the Battle of Champagne. A machine-gun salvo cuts of his right arm. Cendrars is evacuated and survives his wounds. During what he calls his “terrible year”, the maimed poet learns to write with his left hand. In a nearly unreadable handwriting he pens down his combat experiences: “La Guerre au Luxembourg” in 1916 and “J’ai tué” ( I have killed ) in 1918. Cendrars, now famous as the “left-hand poet” leaves for Brasil and loves it. He returns to France only in 1925. Full of stories, he switches to novels and prose. Famous books and commercial success soon follow: “l’Or” ( Gold ) in 1925, the brilliant and disturbing “Moravagine” in 1926 and “ Rhum” in 1930. In 1934 he meets Henry Miller and they remain friends forever.

During the Second World War, Cendrars is active as a war correspondent for the British army. After the war and an interruption in his writing for three years, ( devastated by the death of his youngest son, killed in a plane accident) Cendrars keeps on writing book after book: “ la main coupée” (the severed hand), “Bourlinguer” and “le lottissement du ciel”

Cendrars dies on the 21th januari 1961 after a stroke has already paralyzed him intellectually since 1956. People hasten to bestow on him “forgotten” honors: the “Paris grand prix the literature” in 61 and even “la legion d’honneur” in 1960.

One more book still has to appear, “To the end of the world!” and it causes a scandal…

From the first lines, we are pulled into a savage sexual scene of an odd couple fornicating away in a rented room in a sleazy hotel somewhere in the outskirts of Paris. A young legionnaire, drunk and aggressive, tattooed from head to toes is bumping an old woman. They go at it so brutally, that one first thinks we witness a rape, but no, the 78 year old woman seems the enjoy it and even encourages and excites her “lover” even more. “Take me to the end of the world!” she screams.
In the heat of the action, they tumble from one position into another and the young solder even violently kicks out the old woman’s dentures and beats her a black eye. In his pre-coital frenzy, the man, a tank commander, remembers some gross criminal war-scene and instead of an orgasm, the legionnaire collapses and passes out, not before getting sick and vomiting all over the woman under him. 

It is a rough scene, I admit, but what is most surprising is that the old woman doesn’t seem to care; on the contrary, she has enjoyed it all and confesses that she has found true love again. 

The scene takes place in Paris, in 1946, a few months after the liberation. Normal life has not fully been restored yet. In the faubourgs, American army deserters, mostly, be not all of them black, still hide in the ruins. Regular electrical black-outs paralyze the city and the Parisians are trying to find their way back to normality.

The woman, Thérèse Eglantine, we soon find out, is an old but still ( in ) famous actress, whose success has pushed her beyond normality. Thérèse should be preparing for her next play, a comedy called “Madame l’Arsouille”, but her strange antics and eccentricities are jeopardizing her chances to play the lead role. Her encounter with her soldier – lover has run late into the morning and Thérèse is late for the dress rehearsal. Gathering her ripped clothes around her, ignoring the looks of the people she bumps into, Thérèse catches a taxi to rush her to the theatre. While the cab is racing through the streets of the capital, Thérèse, an octogenarian slut on the run, wriggles her bare bottom out of the window to cool it down.

Thérèse arrives in front of the theatre at the same time, as the young beautiful actress who has been summoned to replace the old absentee. Thérèse in a few well placed words, smartly corrects the “picking order” and rushes upon the scene ready to confront her furious boss, her angry colleagues, the writer, the stage-hands, the journalists and the photographers. She has covered herself with a self-made dress, extravagantly decorated with real diamonds, she borrowed from a friend, diamonds worth millions. Ignoring the sneers and bad looks and while everybody gasps at her arrogant boldness, Therese steps up into the floodlights and… drops her dress. There she stands, the old woman completely naked, exhibiting herself in all her un-glory, sagging breasts and bold crotch. The theater is silenced. Then there are whispers, laughs and shouts. 

Suddenly Thérèse, who until then has been silent, starts intoning Villon’s poem, “Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière”, that poignant lament on faded beauty…

‘Oh, old age, proud in wickedness,
You’ve battered me so, and why?

The theatre is silenced. Only her haunting voice reciting the lines of that medieval poet, whose complaint only now comes clear to the audience, cuts through the silence…

Who cares, who, for my distress,
Or whether at all your blows I die?
You’ve stolen away that great power
My beauty ordained for me
Over priests and clerks, my hour,
When never a man I’d see
Would fail to offer his all in fee,
Whatever remorse he’d later show,
But what was abandoned readily,
Beggars now scorn to know.

As Thérèse réincarnates Villon’s "Belle Heaulmiere", Flashes pop, journalists run for the telephone to call their redactions and the women, tears in their eyes, rush to embrace the actress. The old woman is all smiles, Thérèse Eglantine is back, she knows the piece will be hers and again a roaring success, her fame secured…

Years of exhibiting herself has turned Therèse into something of a freak, into what the French call a “Monstre Sacré”. She has become larger than life, adored and adulated. Nothing in what she does is normal anymore and we understand that true life and the roles she plays on stage, have blurred into one burlesque and grotesque show.

In the intro of “To the end of the world!”, Cendrars warns the reader that his book is a “roman à clef”, a novel with a key, a novel about real life and real people, but overlaid with a thin veil of fiction. But he immediately ads that he hopes the readers will have the delicacy not to use the key or “to be so paltry as to recognize themselves as they look through the keyhole at their neighbor”. The hole, “un trou” in French, is an important symbol in the novel. Cendrars will use it regularly. In the sex scene of the first chapter, Thérèse feels herself like a hole and more than one character comes out of a “trou”, a dirty hole of child abuse and neglect. More than one thinks about nothing else than burry himself in a “trou”, a hole made of alcohol and drugs and outrageous sex. More than one truly comes out of and ends in prison, again, “a trou” in French

“To the end of the world!”, was Blaise Cendrars last novel, written before his stroke but published after it, a few months before he died. It was written in his Parisian apartment in the rue Jean- Dolent, looking out on the “Santé Prison” famous for its literary inmates, Guillaume Appolinaire and Jean Genet, who got out of his “trou” only a year or so earlier.

The book, which demanded a long and arduous job, is inspired by the stories his second wife, Raymone Duchâteau, whom he married in 1949, told him. Raymone, an elderly theater actress, famous in the days of “l’entre deux guerres”, had lived through one of the most exciting periods of French theater and had indeed a few yarns to spin. Especially her remembrances of the actress Marguerite Moreno, who had just died in ’49, after a last moment of exhilarating glory, were a treasure trove for a writer like Cendrars. Moreno like Thérèse, survived a final role playing the exuberant crazy woman in the last play of the then deceased playwright Jean Giraudoux, “La Folle de Chaillot”.
Cendrars turned Marguerite Moreno into Thérèse Eglantine, a character who reminded me of something between Gloria Swanson in that Billy Wilder film noir, Sunset Boulevard and the charismatic French first ladies Simone Signoret or Edith Piaf. 

And this is probably the biggest excitement of the book. All these crazy scenes and absurd situations might be based on true occurrences and despite Cendrars request, we do indeed look through the keyhole and hypnotized keep looking through the “trou”.

Thérese is not the only monster in the book. Her best friend is some kind of monster too. 
La Présidente is a pretty half –woman, a beauty without legs, a lovely torso carried around by a huge negro. As absurdly comic and tragic, that it may appear, the Presidente too could be based on a real character, the true legless marvel known as Mademoiselle Gabrielle ( 1884 - ? ) exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 as the Half-Woman. Deprived of legs, she had no stumps either, her “torso finished just below the hip gracefully”. Like Cendrars, she was born in Switzerland and it could be that the young chap had heard of her and even saw her on one of his peregrinations. Gabrielle was so charming and beautiful that the public who came to gape at her forgot or accepted her deformity. She was exhibited in freak shows in different circuses, Barnum not the least of them. She even appeared in a vaudeville with the New York’s Hammerstein theater. Gabrielle did not live an unhappy life, she grew wealthy and was married three times! She disappeared in anonymity and it is not known where and when she ended the last part of her life.

In an earlier review, I observed that Chatwin had the habit, when asked about his literary influences, to mention grand names: Flaubert, Turgenev and even Racine, but he never mentions the writers we feel instinctively he is much more indebted to. Writers like Robert Byron, Frederic Prokosch and …Blaise Cendrars ! In his first novel, In Patagonia, is it not a legless woman who unknowingly attacks his homosexuality?
When do freak shows, exhibiting grotesque humans, turn into something we call “good taste”, culturally fit for theaters and movies? This a question Cendrars seems to ask. The writer divides the world between the exhibitionists and the voyeurs, and is interested in the interaction of both.

How much does the nakedness of that octogenarian “folle” contribute to the success of the vaudeville - comedy? Do the people come to see Thérèse in the same way as they would be attracted by the unusual exhibition of the “Hottentot Venus”? It seems so and it is brilliant that Thérèse realizes it and plays her “freak”-card to secure her last job. 

Now, between both women, Thérèse and la Présidente, who already share an outrageous 
sexual appetite and taste, an uterine fury, there is more than just friendship. It is clear that both women have been lovers, but there is more, unconsciously, secretly. I will not spoil it, but the story of both women might be hidden in a sordid legend Legionnaires tell around the campfires in North – Africa. 

Because the story of Thérese turns out to be a soldiers tale, and a crime story too, and a story worthy of the 1001 nights. It is at the same time a comedy and a tragedy, it is true and it is false, it is a story Cendrars lived, it is a story he invented, he is part of the story and he is the narrator and all this turns into a most fantastic and entertaining yarn whose wisdom is summarized in the chapter’s titles: Life is Magic and the street is a theater scene, courtrooms are for comedies, perfect crimes do exist and finally Man has his desires and the arse has no soul…

Life is a freak show and the monsters are aplenty.