Writing Technologies
 
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‘Ma belle machine à écrire’:
Poet and Typewriter in the Work of Blaise Cendrars

Amaranth Borsuk

 

In 1917, little more than a year after he returned from the French front to a Paris transformed by World War I, Blaise Cendrars (né Frédéric Sauser) composed a prose poem that encapsulates his ambivalent relationship with modern technology. ‘Profond aujourd’hui’ (‘Profound Today’), a sequence of images depicting the contemporary metropolis, juxtaposes the human, the animal, and the machine, eliding the boundaries between them. In this turbulent landscape, ‘locomotives rear and steamships whinny on the water. Never will a typewriter commit an etymological spelling error, but the man of intellect stammers, chews his words, and breaks his teeth on antique consonants’.1 This arresting opening, which treats the mechanized world as a menagerie of mystical beasts, both beautiful and destructive, establishes Cendrars’s fascination with technologies of writing and travel, an obsession that connects him with F.T. Marinetti and the Italian Futurists of the period. Although Cendrars was not himself a Futurist, his work epitomizes what Marjorie Perloff calls ‘the Futurist Moment’, a period of creative rupture in which artists in all media sought to break with the past and forge new styles more appropriate to a contemporary society on the verge of technological and political upheaval.2 Cendrars’s choice of the railroad train, steamship, and typewriter as starting points in his appraisal of the period reflects the centrality of these three modern machines to his writing.

The train first appears in Cendrars’s work before the war in the long narrative poem La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France, in which the speaker travels to and from France by the Transsiberian Express, and then in Le Panama ou Les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles, a text that includes train route maps and an advertisement from the Denver, Colorado chamber of commerce. After the war, when Cendrars befriended Brazilian writer Oswaldo de Andrade, he forged a relationship with the South American avant-garde and traveled to Brazil by steamship several times, in the process composing a series of travel poems he would publish in 1923 as Feuilles de Route.3 These poems treat his experience both on shipboard and on land, illuminating not only the experience of travel in the 1920s, but the experience of a traveling writer, one beset with unfinished projects and the sense that, as he writes, ‘I don’t have a minute to lose’.4 In these poems, the typewriter alluded to in ‘Profond aujourd’hui’ not only makes an appearance; it plays a key role in several poems about the act of writing. In the poem ‘Bagage’, Cendrars lists the belongings he has taken with him for the trip to South America, including: the manuscripts of the novels Moravagine and Le Plan de l’Aiguille, which he claims he must finish before they dock; a large dictionary; ‘Ma Remington portable dernier modèle’ (p. 316); and several kilos of blank paper, perhaps to feed into that ‘latest model Remington’. Although his admiration for the device, which he refers to in several poems as ‘ma belle machine à écrire’, or ‘my beautiful typewriter’, is evident throughout the Feuilles, by 1951 Cendrars would deny having been influenced by the ‘machine’ at all. Questioned by an interviewer about the impact of material comforts like the telephone, television, radio, and typewriter on his work, Cendrars replies, ‘Tout ça, c’est rigolo! Ce sont “les petits accessoires de la vie moderne”. Mais on peut fort bien s’en passer’.5 His claim that he could easily do without these ‘little accessories of modern life’ may reflect the extent to which the typewriter’s novelty had worn off by that period, a decade in which the device had become ubiquitous. Perhaps at a time when Cendrars was no longer writing poetry, but working on novels and journalism, he wanted to distance himself from his earlier engagement with the machine that was once so central to his poetics.

While much has been written on Cendrars’s relationship with trains and travel,6 little has been said regarding the role of the typewriter in his work, in part because the Feuilles de Route, as Monique Chefdor has noted, are written ‘in a style that defies all critical commentary by its utter candor and simplicity …a travel diary’.7 She reads the poems as reveling in the subjective sensual experience of the journey, ‘in contrast with the harrowing plunge into the divided consciousness of the age which [Cendrars] was dramatizing at the time in his major prose works’.8 Although these poems are indeed written with the clarity of a ‘travel diary’, Cendrars’s foregrounding of the typewriter and the act of writing within them provides more than simply a record of his daily activities. By encoding the act of transcription into the poems themselves, Cendrars makes these works about the act of writing and the materiality of the page. Teasing out the relationship between typewriter and poet reveals a poetics as complex and ‘divided’ as it initially seems clear.

The typewriter would have served a highly practical purpose for Cendrars after the war in which he lost his right arm to combat. Though he learned to write with his left hand shortly after the amputation, as Jay Bochner notes, his penmanship is so visibly different one can easily date his post-war writing by it. In an unaddressed and unsent letter written during his recovery, Cendrars jests, ‘J’ai le bras droit amputé. Cela me rajeunit jusqu’au barbouillage’,9 mocking the way his amputation has ‘rejuvenated him as far as scribbling’, an image that suggests both a reduction of his writing ability and a renewed love (re-juvenation – a return to juvenility, to childhood) of messiness. With his reduced dexterity, the typewriter would have provided Cendrars a means of writing swiftly and clearly, enabling him to use both his able hand and his hook at the keyboard.10 Additionally, the typewriter occasions rapidity because of the keys’ simultaneous inscription of entire letters as opposed to the several strokes required to make each character when writing longhand. Cendrars’s claim in ‘Lettre’, one of the early poems in Feuilles de Route, ‘Ma Remington est belle pourtant / Je l’aime beaucoup et travaille bien / Mon écriture est nette et claire’ (p. 307); ‘But my Remington is beautiful / I really love it and the work goes well / My writing is sharp and clear’ (p. 143), foregrounds the utility of the machine in terms of visual clarity. Cendrars’s ‘barbouillage’ gives way to neat and natty text.

Early typewriters were in fact developed to assist the disabled, with prototypes of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century often manufactured and marketed explicitly to the blind or deaf.11 These early models were clumsy and slow, and it was not until Christopher Latham Sholes sold his patent for a writing machine modeled on the piano’s system of hammers to E. Remington and Sons in 1873 that speed was finally achieved. The development of the typewriter was facilitated by the American Civil War, as the post-war slump left Remington with unused manufacturing capacity that could be turned toward the new machine. The linking and tripping mechanisms were an easy extension of arms manufacture and with this partnership, as Friedrich Kittler points out, ‘The typewriter became a discursive machine gun’.12 The interlinking of these technologies brings new meaning to Dadaist Richard Huelsenbech’s professed desire ‘to make literature with a gun in [his] pocket’. 13 The ‘belle machine à écrire’ enabled writers of the period ‘to make literature’ with guns on their desks.

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1. Blaise Cendrars, Modernities and Other Writings, ed. Monique Chefdor, trans. Esther Allen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), p. 3.

2. Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. For more on the avant-guerre ‘romance of the machine’, see Perloff’s chapter, ‘The Great War and the European avant-garde’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War, ed. Vincent Sherry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

3. Much has been written regarding Cendrars’s relationship with Brazilian writers. For the purposes of this paper, I bring them up only to establish the inspiration for the Feuilles de Route, which I believe merit closer study than they have received. A lineage might be traced, however from Cendrars through Oswaldo De Andrade to the Noigandres poets he inspired, progenitors of the ‘Concrete Poetry’ movement of the 1950s.

4. Blaise Cendrars, Complete Poems, trans. Ron Padgett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 184. All further quotations from Cendrars’s poetry are taken from this edition and appear in the text in parentheses. I rely on this edition for the French as well, which is copyright Éditions Denoël 1947. All translations are Padgett’s, unless otherwise indicated. When no page number is given, the translation is my own.

5. [‘All that, it’s funny! They are “the little accessories of modern life”. But one can very well do without them.’] Richard Hughes, ed., Dites-Nous Monsieur Blaise Cendrars … (Lausanne: Éditions Rencontre, 1969), p. 114.

6. See especially Kimberley Healey’s The Modernist Traveler: French Detours, 1900–1930 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), in which she discuses the impact of changed perceptions of time on Cendrars and Paul Morand, among others.

7. Monique Chefdor, Blaise Cendrars (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), p. 58.Jay Bochner analyzes the poems as ‘verbal photographs’, a term Cendrars himself used to describe them, in Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Re-creation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 131.

8. Monique Chefdor, introduction to Blaise Cendrars, Complete Postcards from the Americas: Poems of Road and Sea, by Blaise Cendrars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 39.

9. [‘I have my right arm amputated. It has rejuvenated me as far as scribbling.’] Chefdor, Blaise Cendrars, p. 59

10. John Dos Passos describes Cendrars’s agility with his hook in The Best of Times. Discussing a visit to Monpazier in 1929, he notes, ‘It was hairraising to spin with him around the mountain roads. He steered with one hand and changed gears on his little French car with his hook. [...] Cendrars took every curve on two wheels’ (quoted in Chefdor, Blaise Cendrars, p. 71).

11. For a history of the typewriter and its impact on gender relations, authorship, and referentiality see Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). For a historical account that includes much information on the marketing, sale, and mechanics of typewriters, see Bruce Bliven, The Wonderful Writing Machine (New York: Random House, 1954). Darren Wershler-Henry incorporates this historical material into an analysis of the cultural mystification of the machine in The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).

12. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 191.

13. Quoted in Perloff, ‘Great War’, p. 143. For an analysis of the joint ascension of the typewriter and the gun in America, see Barry Sanders, ‘Bang the Keys Swiftly: Typewriters and their Discontents’, Cabinet Magazine 8 (2002), http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/8/keys.php [accessed 3 June 2008].