Book Review

Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars

Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars is in many ways, as Kit Maude points out, one of the ghosts of modernism. His itinerant lifestyle is matched by travel through the genres, where first his poetry, then his art criticism, novels, journalism, film treatments and fictionalised autobiographies appear uncannily prescient. Cendrars’ literally ghosted for Apollinaire in the early years, but his style, with its fabulous lists and dedication to sensation and light (as Jay Bochner argues in Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Recreation) also makes its mark on Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, on Apollinaire’s Zone and, through Moravagine, on Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. Nevertheless, despite Cendrars’ important work at many of the key points in the story of the Parisian avant-garde, for English-speaking literary historians his figure remains regrettably spectral.

Moravagine, the anarchic psychopath at the centre of Cendrars' 1926 novel, also ghosts modernity. When we first meet Moravagine in the asylum he is in the process of 'gratifying himself morosely' into a goldfish bowl (complete with goldfish), but his voice seduces his psychiatrist into freeing 'this superb creature', even though, as his pseudonym suggests, his compulsion is to open up women's torsos. Moravagine, in one of the novel's most devastatingly funny sections, has already got to the point where the boundaries between the human and the non-human have dissolved, where 'soon an egg, a stovepipe could excite me sexually' and 'the sewing machine was, as it were, the plan or cross section of a courtesan, a mechanical demonstration of the prowess of a chorus girl', so the newly industrialised world gives him grand scope to extend this tendency into downright inhumanity.

Moravagine and his keeper-turned-disciple, 'Dr Raymond-la-science', leave for their fates in the year 1900 where their violent picaresque meshes perfectly with the bloody ferment of the early twentieth century. Industrial Germany is hell already ('factories, mines, smelters, scaffoldings, steel pylons, glass roofs, winches, steam cranes, enormous tanks, plumes of smoke, piles of coal dust, cables stretching from one end of the horizon to the other', 'the earth shrivelled, dried-out and peeled by the thousands of fires lit in all the furnaces'), the citizens of London think Moravagine is Jack the Ripper, in Russia Moravagine's co-ordination of ruthless slaughter merges invisibly into the worst excesses of the 1905 revolution, and in South America Moravagine decimates an Amazonian tribe as he, Kurtz-like, becomes their God for a season. The novel slows pace only with the First World War, where, as Raymond points out, the whole world is 'doing a Moravagine'.

It's fairly common for writers working in the early part of the twentieth century to marry modernism and madness; since Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life (at least) the feeling of the new had been a kind of colourful stabbing and whirring - modernity was the movement of 'energies more vivid than life itself', as Baudelaire put it. These kinds of feverish currents galvanized industrialists, futurists, cubists and revolutionaries, but by the time they get to Freud and the First World War the energies swirling around the modern are felt by many to be ungovernably savage and atavistic. Cendrar’s Moravagine absorbs the danger and the momentum at the core of these tensions with a stabilizing lucidity that sets him apart from, say, Breton’s Nadja or Artaud’s writing. Raymond is a pathogenecist, and this world where he excitedly exults that 'everywhere, one met with nothing but monsters, deviate humans, dismayed, incapacitated, all their nerves raw and overstrained', 'madmen, madmen, madmen, cowardly, traitorous, besotted, cruel, sly, villainous, two-faced masochists and killers', is clearly one that we are meant to read as diseased in more grave way. Moravagine's murderous mania, his desire to 'force open the bile-filled belly of your civilization!' represents in its frightening depravity the dark heart of a tradition of apocalyptic modernism where men like Cendrars, who fought with the French Foreign legion and lost an arm to the First World War, are still haunted by the instruction to kill.

-- Reviewed by Sarah Garland on 09/06/2008

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1590170636
ISBN-13: 9781590170632
Publisher: NYRB
Publication Date: 30/09/2004
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 256

Readers Comments

  1. Reader says... Friday 10 April 2009

    Very good book, thank you for this review.

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