The Joy of Literary Treasure Hunting

A while ago, I wrote about Moravagine, calling it the weirdest book I’d ever read. I stumbled upon it when leafing through a book on cult books, found a copy in my university library, and embarked upon a journey through the twisted mind of its author, Blaise Cendrars.

Even though I, like the rest of the world, had never heard of the man, he was quite an important figure during the Modernist period. Indeed Moravagine reads like a Modernist piece of work: it has the experimental language, bold content, and general outrageousness. At the same time it’s prose which is still fairly readable and even entertaining. Quite a leap from most Modernist literature, which tends to take itself extremely seriously.

I also described in my previous post that it took me a while to find the book itself. It took me to the library’s rolling stack room, and when I’d finally located the slim volume I noticed that the library owned several other books by Cendrars. But I’d already begun to fear that I’d never get out of the rolling stack room alive – it was pretty dark, empty, and cold – so I left as soon as I could.

Moravagine, however, proved to be the literary equivalent of a musical earworm, and eventually I went back to discover more about Cendrars. I ended up borrowing one of his other books, Lice (which, confusingly, bears a radically different title in French: La Main Coupee, probably a reference to the fact that Cendrars lost an arm during the events described in the book).

Lice is more like a memoir than a work of fiction. It narrates the author’s experiences as a soldier during World War I. As a result, it’s often rather gruesome. Cendrars describes people being scalped, people being killed, animals being killed, and all this taking place in three feet of mud. At least. It’s horrifying. Particularly because the book is dedicated to his sons, one of which died during World War II. Humanity never learns, or so it seems.

However, it’s the descriptions of humanity that make Lice so interesting. Much of the book consists of portraits of Cendrars’ friends, many of which didn’t survive the war. It’s moving to read how even in the most dire circumstances there can be such a thing as friendship, and even a sense of humour. Cendrars descriptions of his interrogation of a war prisoner are surprisingly comical, while still maintaining the tension and confusion existing in a war zone.

What I like most about this book, however – though “like” is perhaps an inappropriate term, given it’s content – is the fact that Cendrars has such a clear voice. He died three decades before I was born, yet reading his work feels like sitting in a pub with this slightly grumpy one-armed poet. For me, that’s one of the magical things about literature. You can read something written in a different culture, by someone you have never met and never will meet, and still there’s a kind of interaction going on, even though in this case I’m interacting with someone who’s no longer alive.

And finally, I’m enjoying a very snobbish type of literary pleasure – the kind that comes from having discovered a writer many people don’t know. It’s like that hipster joke about listening to a band that’s “so new, it doesn’t even exist yet” and I feel slightly bad about myself for cherishing Lice as a little secret. Then again, it’s a treasure which took me a lot of digging to find. I can suddenly relate to Indiana Jones.

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