||A Review of: Confessions 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.
Confessions of Dan Yack is the first-person account of Dan Yack's
life in a chlet above the village of Chamonix. There he mourns the
death of Mireille, a young woman he loved. From January to September
1925 he records his memories into a dictaphone, narrating what life
was like on Port Deception before and after the Germans took control,
describing his service in the war, and how he met Mireille. Reading
aloud from her notebooks, Dan Yack says: "I should have bought
this machine for her. She could have spoken into it. And today I
should be listening to her voice..." Though the narrative
shifts from the source of his grief to apparently unrelated
incidents-the war, opinions about New Zealand, a search for gold
in the mountains around him-each story reveals a different aspect
of this formerly powerful man. In an act of petty cruelty meant to
correct an injustice or imbalance, he plots to kill two eagles whose
nest is near the chlet. Since he and Mireille cannot live together
(in the same way he could not live with Hedwiga and their son) the
eagles have no right to live as a pair either.
Eventually Dan Yack moves on to the next phase of his life, but he
is no longer as decisive. The novel's pace is slow, its tone is
mournful, at times grim, and the depiction of a man who is unable
to stop death or loss from visiting him connects this work, in a
natural and thematically faithful way, with the last pages of Dan
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.