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Sky: Memoirs.

It looks like Cendrars might be about to get the credit he deserves as a major modernist. During the nineteen-teens, he along with his pal Guillaume Apollinaire were among the major French experimental poets. Some called them cubists of the medium. His fast-paced, exciting, sometimes slangy novels anticipated and/or influenced Celine's work. I'm surprised the connection between them wasn't noticed by literary historians long ago. (Georges Bataille and Paul Morand, incidentally, are other precursors of Celine.)

Sky, published originally in 1949 and translated into English for the first time here, is the fourth of Cendrars's autobiographical works, the others being The Astonished Man, Lice, and Planus. It is hardly conventional autobiography, however, containing much historical and philosophical material. The first large section is divided into 105 sections ranging from one word to about ten pages in length. One of his ecstatic, lyrical sentences runs for three pages. The major subject of this section is flying. He pays homage to birds, writes fondly of his son, a flier who was killed in action during the Second World War, and devotes a great deal of attention to his candidate for the new patron saint of aviation, Joseph of Copertino, and others who have been reported to fly or levitate.

The second large section deals mainly with Cendrars's adventures in Brazil and Russia, where as a young man he worked for a wealthy jeweler, ferreting out precious stones all over the huge nation. There are also fascinating discussions here of the proto-dadaist Arthur Craven and his relations with boxing champion Jack Johnson, Cendrars's concepts of spirituality, and his daydreams about the legendary lost continent of Lemuria. Everything is grist for the mill of this constantly interesting and constantly interested artist/scholar (he even provides footnotes here). Regardless of what one thinks of his concepts and ideas, Cendrars impresses with his humanity and rich, colorful prose. As for storytelling ability, check out his riveting account of a reclusive Brazilian plantation owner who worships France and Sarah Bernhardt and thinks he has discovered a new constellation which traces the outline of the Eiffel Tower.

Those who are only acquainted with Cendrars's action-packed novels may be surprised by the amiability of his work in this collage-like volume. He doesn't have to prove anything here, he's a master, sitting back and recounting the wisdom of an event-filled lifetime.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Pekar, Harvey
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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