- Blaise Cendrars: Un homme en partance
In her insightful short biography, Blaise Cendrars: Un homme en partance, Christine Le Quellec Cottier reminds why Cendrars—whose work is soon to receive the literary consecration of a Pléiade edition—has fascinated generations of readers and scholars. Following her excellent Devenir Cendrars: les années d'apprentissage (Paris, Champion, 2004), Le Quellec Cottier expands the scope of her inquiry to Cendrars' entire life. At some 200 pages shorter than Devenir Cendrars, this wide-angle approach necessitates some sacrifice of detail, but it is to Le Quellec Cottier's credit that her short biography is not synonymous with superficial biography. Throughout the volume, Le Quellec Cottier offers concise and penetrating accounts of Cendrars' life and works—and it is her particular understanding of the interplay between the author's life and his literary production that constitutes the biography's structuring principle. As Le Quellec Cottier notes in the first chapter, like Rimbaud, Cendrars presents a case where the myth of the poet-adventurer threatens to overshadow the writing itself. Blaise Cendrars: Un homme en partance subtly undermines the traditional 'man and his work' model by suggesting the ways in which, in literature as much as in life, Cendrars is always en partance, disappearing into his work, using his work precisely to unmoor himself from any stable identification. This is a productive approach that allows Le Quellec Cottier to follow the conventional linear format of the biography while largely avoiding facile causal arguments, or reducing literary production to a secondary effect of primary life events.
The volume is composed of nine chapters, each corresponding to a period of Cendrars' life and literary production. For some authors, such periodization can seem somewhat schematic, but Cendrars' work, with its distinctive periods, lends itself particularly well to the traditional organizational structure of the short biography. Le Quellec Cottier is not the first to note that the progression of Cendrars' writing can be roughly characterized as a movement first from poetry to novels, then to journalism, and finally to autobiography or autofiction. For each of these periods, Le Quellec Cottier carefully balances close [End Page 263] reading and contextualization, a respect for the specificity of the work and an attention to the conditions of its production and reception. Le Quellec Cottier has the talent, essential to the writing of a good short biography, of providing pithy overviews, and at times even original interpretations, in the space of a few pages. The book never falls into banal summarization, and Le Quellec Cottier's analyses will be of interest both to scholars and first-time readers of Cendrars.
There is some concern in the second chapter of the book that Le Quellec Cottier's analysis will belie the conception of biography outlined in the first chapter. In her discussion of Cendrars' childhood, she is occasionally guilty of establishing somewhat speculative connections between the poet's early experiences and the eventual content of his writing. It is entirely possible that the account of a stay in Egypt found in Bourlinguer has its sources in Cendrars' voyage to Italy at the age of seven, or that his exposure to women disfigured by the Comorra during his time in Naples inspired characters such as Marthe and Pompon, but such filiations are by no means strictly necessary. Much more interesting is Le Quellec Cottier's reading of L'Or, a text sometimes interpreted as containing autobiographical elements, as concerned primarily with the poet's father. Indeed, throughout the volume, Le Quellec Cottier's analyses of Cendrars' works wonderfully balance concision, summary (genesis, content, critical reception) and interpretation. The last chapter of the book, in which Le Quellec Cottier discusses the posterity of Cendrars' work, provides a persuasive argument against the tendency to classify him as a Swiss author. For Le Quellec Cottier, Cendrars' only country is that of the French language, and the rejection of a reductive conception of the poet's nationality is a fitting conclusion to this timely and insightful overview of Cendrars' life in writing. Once again, Blaise...