Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars, translated by Nina Rootes (Michael Kesend Publishing: $16.95; 144 pages)
Though Blaise Cendrars may not be a magic name to contemporary Americans, his extraordinary life and multifaceted literary career placed him at the center of the intellectual and artistic ferment in Paris during the years before and after World War I. A poet, journalist and novelist, Cendrars was intimately involved with Dadaism and the Surrealist movement; a flamboyant, gifted man with an enormous appetite for experience. During the 1920s, he temporarily left France for Hollywood, where he wrote, produced and directed films, returning to Europe to report from the front after the outbreak of World War II.
Now, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Cendrars' birth, this amazing example of his writing has been translated and published here. A paragraph at the beginning of the novel explains that the work is known in French as "Le plan de l'Aiguille"--Dan Yack the name of the protagonist. Later Cendrars wrote an entire book called "The Confessions of Dan Yack," an excerpt from which is included as an epilogue to give the bizarre story of Yack's adventures a workable, if not altogether plausible, resolution.
Europe and the U.S.
According to the biographical note, Cendrars was the son of Swiss-Scottish parents who lived at various times in Egypt, Italy and France. At 15, Cendrars went to work for a jewel merchant, traveling alone throughout the Near and Far East, settling finally in Paris where he almost immediately became a participant in avant-garde activities. Though he lost an arm in World War I, he managed to become an expert marksman and well-known race driver. From his home in Paris, he continued to travel widely, making frequent forays to Africa and the more remote reaches of South America, taking his racing car with him on these excursions.
Written in 1929, this hallucinatory novel reduces the New Wave of French fiction to the merest ripple in a well-charted sea. Widely fanciful, the images veering from lyrical evocations of nature to scenes of gruesome violence, the book is an extended metaphor for the polar contradictions Cendrars found in modern life, appropriately set for the most part in Antarctica.
Dan Yack, born Dan Yack William, a British subject and heir to a vast shipping fortune, is roistering in St. Petersburg when he learns that the love of his life is about to marry a prince. Simultaneously, he discovers that he has inherited the entire shipping firm. Crazed with grief for his lost love and determined to squander his newly acquired fortune, he sets off on a voyage to the South Pole, impulsively inviting three starving artists to accompany him. They are the poet Goischman, the sculptor Sabakov and the composer Lamont, each less important as an individual than as a symbol of the collective characteristics of an intellectual, a peasant and a dilettante. Before we can become excessively attached to any of them, they perish in particularly horrendous ways.
Not content with a mere voyage to the South Pole, Dan Yack extends the plan. The ill-assorted, unprepared quartet will spend a year on an uninhabited Antarctic island. Though he has meticulously and lavishly provisioned the expedition to survive the polar night, his eccentricity soon degenerates into outright lunacy and he destroys the supplies he has brought in the irrational belief that his adventures will constitute the ultimate test of human endurance. In spite of--or because of--his insanity, he alone is rescued and saved for further escapades. Eventually,he establishes a whaling station that succeeds against all economic and geographical odds.
In a dazzling finale, "business" becomes the apotheosis of Cendrars' vision of an outrageous universe. "Business isn't just business. It's whatever we wish it to be--our adventures, our loves, our desires, our thoughts, our most obscure needs, our craziest dreams."
These hilarious, dazzlingly inventive satiric passages explain why Cendrars became a hero in the war against the Philistines; why Henry Miller could say: "He knocked me cold. Not once but a number of times," and John Dos Passos could call him "The Homer of the Modern World."