THE ASTONISHED MAN; THE KNOCKABOUT; THE SEVERED HAND by Blaise Cendrars

THE ASTONISHED MAN; THE KNOCKABOUT; THE SEVERED HAND

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Written in the middle Forties and not translated into English until the early Seventies, Cendrars' trio of memoirs has perhaps languished in obscurity because of its haphazardness, its unfocused tale-telling, its inability to ever finally let us in on the culturally privileged life Cendrars led early in the century. A medical-student-turned-tramp, an entrepreneur and world traveler, Cendrars alighted in the Paris of the Banquet Years and soon knew nearly everyone: Picasso, Leger, Apollinaire, Modigliani, Remy de Gourmont. There are (in the last two dozen pages of the final volume, The Knockabout) some interesting anecdotes about these giants of art, but the bulk of the books is taken up in sheer boulevardiering. The Astonished Man includes sections devoted equally to the smells of Marseilles, adventures in Brazil, a mannequin manufacturer, the brutishness of women and suburbs, and a revenge killing of a king-of-the-gypsys whom Cendrars knew personally. The Knockabout details Antwerp in 1910, memories of growing up in Naples, the recounted-to-Cendrars story of the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II. The Severed Hand--with its indelibly gory central image: a blasted-off arm, fingers gripping the earth spasmodically--is the trimmest of the books, Cendrars' experiences during World War I as a corporal in the Foreign Legion (he himself lost an arm) and those of the men in his company. But while of vivid interest enough, even the war-stories have a tendency to wander, jump, double-back confusingly. On page 100 of The Knockabout, sensing objections to ""disorder, confusion, facility, faulty composition, carelessness,"" Cendrars parries by saying these books may be ""the great literary novelty of the twentieth century, the skill and art of applying the analytical procedures and mathematical deductions of an Einstein to the essence, the structure, the propagation of light to the techniques of the novel! (There is method in my madness!)."" No, not really--more the maunderings of an older writer whose spark, as happens, had guttered out. Considering what Cendrars' autobiography might have been--he was a figure of centrality and weight in Cubist writing--these books are failed works, teasing disappointments.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
ISBN: 8128-2814-3
Publisher: Stein & Day