Dan Yack

by Blaise Cendrars
ISBN: 0720611571

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Dan Yack
by Jeff Bursey

In The Astonished Man (1945), the first volume of a memoir tetralogy, Blaise Cendrars relates how in the spring of 1927 he rented a chateau named l'Escayrol in the French fishing village of La Redonne, in which to complete the Dan Yack stories. He set up his typewriter and wrote the first three lines of the last chapter, "by way of welcome and to wish myself good work' in this house... These were the sole, the only lines I was to write at l'Escayrol..." The poet Andr Gaillard visits the chateau on business occasionally and adds to the manuscript with each stay. Cendrars says those lines remain "embedded in [the] text," which was published in 1929. This is a miniature example of how Cendrars rendered his life in print. The memoirs-which one critic calls "autobiographical novels"-are fabulous for what is recounted, what is left out, what is altered, and for their style. The product of a mature writer, their appearance was preceded by three decades of influential and robust poetry and fiction.
Cendrars, born Frdric Sauser (1887-1961), does not have a wide audience today in the English-speaking world, though his advocates include Kathy Acker, John Dos Passos and Henry Miller. Unable to neatly classify his work, academics have generally settled for calling him a sport, a term which is at once vague and exclusionary. In Europe his visibility is not in peril. Publication of his early poetry (1912-1915) in France generated attention immediately. In telegraphic lines influenced by science, travel, revolution and advertising, Cendrars showed the modernizing, progressive impulses he witnessed in Berlin, Moscow and New York, where the present and immediate future promised new and exciting machines, inventions, skyscrapers and attitudes. The first poems-"Easter in New York" (1912) and "The Prose of the Transsiberian" (1913), among others-were not naive nor Futurist love letters to technology, but instead balanced the excitement of fresh discoveries with an awareness that scientific progress did not automatically mean humanity's advancement. They established Cendrars as a vibrant figure whose valuable insights and literary devices had been gathered on three continents.
His social circle included fishermen, restaurateurs, film-makers and eccentrics. He could count as friends or acquaintances Apollinaire, Braque, Chagall, Delaunay, Jacob, Lger, Modigliani, Picabia and Picasso. Cendrars chatted freely with anarchists whom he met in bars or on his travels, and their systems, plans and natures were immortalized in the harrowing novel Moravagine. Comrades from the Foreign Legion during the First World War became close, if not always permanent, friends, and they figure prominently in the tetralogy and his last novel, To the End of the World (1956).
A Swiss-German who adopted France as his homeland, Cendrars joined the Legion when war broke out, and lost his right arm (his writing arm) in September 1915. Despite this devastating injury-Hemingway coldly said he and others felt "that Cendrars might well be a little less flashy about his vanished arm"-he quickly resumed writing poetry, such as "The War in the Luxembourg Garden" (1916). From then until the middle of the 1950s something appeared by him, in one language or another, almost every year, in addition to his activities as a film-maker (with Abel Gance) and as a publisher. Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles (1918, written in 1913/14) earned him more acclaim as a poet, and Dos Passos, who dubbed Cendrars the Homer of the Transsiberian, translated it in 1931.
In the 1920s Cendrars lost interest in poetry. He felt fiction was the genre that could hold his ideas, and in six years five novels appeared: Gold (1925), Moravagine (1926), Dan Yack (1927), Confessions of Dan Yack (1929), and Rhum (1930; not in English).
After dealing with terrorism and a regicide in Moravagine, Cendrars created an ostensibly benevolent figure, a rich man with grand ideas. Dan Yack breaks into two parts and is told in the third person. Heartbroken by Hedwiga's decision to marry another man despite possibly carrying his child, Dan Yack invites three artists to join him, at his expense, on a year-long retreat from civilization. The sculptor Ivan Sabakov, the musician Andr Lamont and the poet Arkadie Goischman board the Green Star, one of Dan Yack's vessels. A globe is suspended, with each artist allowed one shot to decide where the four men (and Dan Yack's dog, Bari) will reside. Lamont deliberately severs the string attached to the globe; it crashes to the floor, rendering Antarctica their destination. It is March 1905. A shelter is set up, provisions are stored away, and the vessel departs. "Naturally, things did not run smoothly," begins one section laconically, and the colony soon self-destructs. When the Green Star returns a year later, the second part begins. Dan Yack plunges into his family's business, whaling, and over several years expands its market through modernization of the fleet and the invention of new products. At Community City, in Port Deception, he "wanted to found a kind of universal happiness..." Though successful in business, Dan Yack has never recovered from the loss of Hedwiga; his torment is intensified when he falls in love with an unattainable woman he meets towards the end of the novel. His suffers from a suicidal impulse which is barely restrained by an unconscious determination to act, to resist stasis. The whirl of events, and the twists and turns of Dan Yack's mind, are reflected in the hectic, fragmented utterances found throughout the novel. Here, the technique of short sentences, familiar from Gold, is adjusted to contain a lyricism that seeks to capture natural beauty and events; yet Cendrars also shows that impressions come too quickly for words to convey the experience.

An iceberg turns upside-down and disintegrates. In its fall, it brings down rags of tattered mist.
A dome of blue sky, then a luminous rift that descends right down to the level of the seething water.
A ray of sunlight is sprinkled over the mountains of floating ice, which break up and distill its light.
Everywhere, dazzling light. The rainbow is knotted into a whirlwind of sapphires, emeralds, rubies; it is a constantly shaken kaleidoscope, changing, splintering, reflecting and refracting...
The mist is viscous.
The sea breaks up.
It is choppy.
Everything is rocking.

Short quotations don't adequately convey the momentum of Cendrars's prose, whether in the cascade of a set of short sentences or in the piling up of clauses in one-sentence paragraphs that span pages. Nor can a review do justice to his intricate plots, the exuberant imagination, the delight in language, the intelligence and the geniality of the work, and its varieties of humour. Peter Owen deserves credit for reissuing these novels and To the End of the World (there are tentative plans for The Astonished Man to appear this spring). There will be those who find Cendrars's style too rich, but there will be others who will be carried away by his adventures, verve and audaciousness.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us