Writing Technologies

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

Amaranth Borsuk


While he evidently appreciated the clarity and speed of the machine, Cendrars may well have used the romantic epithet above as an allusion to the popular use of the term ‘typewriter’ to refer to both the machine and its female operator.14 The entry of women into the office setting as typists gave rise to much humour regarding dalliances between the boss and his secretary that drew on this multivalent word. In his history of the typewriter, Bruce Bliven cites an American cartoon in which two men in an office eye a Remington model 4, one of them offering, ‘What a pretty typewriter you have!’ and the other replying, ‘Pretty! She’s angelic. Why, man, when that girl taps off an ordinary letter on that dusty old machine, you’d think you were listening to a symphony from Beethoven’ (WWM p.73).15 Of course, Cendrars’s machine was indeed ‘belle’. As the first portable typewriter with a complete 4-tier keyboard, ‘the latest model’ portable Remington in 1924 accommodated all of the functionality of a full-sized typewriter in a sleek black three-inch-high frame that echoed the modern lines of the art deco age.16

The beauty and speed of Cendrars’s machine link it closely with the train he used in La Prose du Transsibérien as a model for the simultaneity of modern life, in which, as Perloff notes, ‘to be, figuratively speaking, in two places at once now became a possibility’.17 For Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni, simultaneism was ‘the synthesis of what one remembers and of what one sees’,18 a temporal proximity of present and past. Cendrars incorporates simultaneity into the Prose, as Perloff has noted, through juxtaposition with the abstract, brightly-hued artwork of Sonia Delaunay, which was meant to be viewed concurrently with the text, but also through the ‘spatial and temporal distortions’ of present and past, Russia and Paris.19 In his desire to reflect the abrupt pace and fragmentation of modern experience, the typewriter seems to supplant the train in Cendrars’s world of metaphors, a shift that not only alters the subject matter, but also the style of his writing, which moves from the Whitmanesque long free-verse lines of the Prose to the brief, unpunctuated present tense observations of the Feuilles. Perhaps the change in Cendrars’s work is indicative of what he wanted to accomplish in his poetry – a type of simultaneous subjectivity the typewriter enabled rather than enforced. With the typewriter, the merger of memory and vision, thought and word occurs immediately on the page – it is implicit in the act of inscription itself. The poet is no longer a spectator buffeted through time and space by the technology of modernity, he controls it, able to put each thought to paper as it comes to him, rendering the experience of travel with unprecedented immediacy.

The poems of Feuilles de Route are mostly short descriptions of places and people, culled from Cendrars’s several journeys between South America and France. He described them as postcards he sent or intended to send to friends, though several exceed traditional postcard length. This lineage, whether real or imaginary, accounts for the starkness and intimacy of the poems, which are at the same time distant and personal, like postcards, written often as a formality more to inform our loved ones that we are thinking of them than to really reveal something of what we have seen. The Feuilles rely on a present-tense narration of travel, their speaker delivering a commentary, moment-by-moment, on shipboard life. Thus, the longer poem ‘A Bord du Formose’ begins:

Le ciel est noir strié de bandes lépreuses
L’eau est noire
Les étoiles grandissent encore et fondent comme des cierges larmoyants
Voici ce qui se passe à bord

(p. 310)

[The sky is dark streaked with leprous bands
The water is dark
The stars grow even larger and melt like weeping tapers
Here’s what’s happening on board]

(p. 148)

Cendrars goes on to describe the different activities of the various ethnic groups on the ship, who have each claimed a different portion of the vessel: the Jews on the deck ‘are huddled together’, the Portuguese dance in the deckhouse, and ‘very clean and carefully combed German emigrants sing severe hymns and sentimental songs’ on the sterncastle (p. 149). In describing these groups by ethnicity, the speaker takes his place as an observer and outsider. His brief descriptions become a kind of inside joke with the letter’s recipient, a bit of long-distance gossip about the other passengers. He catalogues their movements with a lighthearted reverence, and the juxtaposition of all of these activities creates an unnatural simultaneity in which the author seems to be everywhere at once—on the open deck, in the deckhouse, in the salon, the smoking lounge, and even the pantry. Most perplexing of all, he is also seated before his page, composing the letter that contains these descriptions. While one might explain away the paradox as a fiction, or perhaps as the recollection of the writer having wandered around the ship before retiring to his quarters to compose, Cendrars himself offers a justification in the subsequent poem of the collection, ‘Lettre-Océan’ (‘Ocean Letter’). In this brief musing on the nature of shipboard missives, Cendrars asserts, ‘La lettre-océan n’a pas été inventée pour faire de la poésie / Mais quand on voyage quand on commerce quand on est à bord quand on envoie des lettres-océan / On fait de la poésie’ (p. 311).20 While ocean letters may not have been ‘invented for poetry’, he claims, the atmosphere surrounding them is one of poetry. Because they are written as part of the larger experience of travel (as expressed by the compression of activities on Cendrars’s list, which bleed one into the next without punctuation), simultaneity itself makes them poetic. The ocean-letter’s ability to encode the speed of both travel and thought enables the disembodied reportage that characterizes the Feuilles de Route. In order to keep pace with Cendrars’ peripatetic poetic transmission, the typewritten poem must change the look of his verse.

The typewriter that appears in these poems seems to be empowered in ways the poet himself is not. In ‘The Prose of the Transsiberian’, Cendrars laments his inability to fully express his emotional and poetic insight, as he reminisces, ‘j’étais déjà si mauvais poète / Que je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout’ (p. 236), or ‘I was already such a bad poet / That I didn’t know how to take it all the way’ (p. 15). In ‘Moonlight’, the fifth poem of Feuilles de Route, however, the poet is finally able to take it ‘all the way’:

On tangue on tangue sur le bateau
La lune la lune fait des cercles dans l’eau
Dans le ciel c’est le mât qui fait des cercles
Et désigne toutes les étoiles du doigt

Une jeune Argentine accoudée au bastingage
Rêve à Paris en contemplant les phares qui dessinent la côte de France
Rêve à Paris qu’elle ne connaît qu’à peine et qu’elle regrette déjà
Ces feux tournants fixes doubles colorés à éclipses lui rappellent ceux qu’elle voyait
    de sa fenêtre d’hôtel sur les Boulevards et lui promettent un prompt retour
Elle rêve de revenir bientôt en France et d’habiter Paris
Le bruit de ma machine à écrire l’empêche de mener ce rêve jusqu’au bout
Ma belle machine à écrire qui sonne au bout de chaque ligne et qui est aussi rapide
    qu’un jazz
Ma belle machine à écrire qui m’empêche de rêver à babord comme à tribord
Et qui me fait suivre jusqu’au bout une idée
Mon idée

(p. 307)

[The ship tangos from side to side
The moon the moon makes circles in the water
As the mast makes circles in the sky
Pointing its finger at the stars

A young girl from Argentina leaning over the rail
Dreams of Paris while gazing on the lighthouses that outline the coast of France
Dreams of Paris which she’s hardly seen and misses already
These turning fixed double colored intermittent lights remind her of the ones she saw
        from her window over the Boulevards and which promised her she’d come
        back soon
She dreams of going back to France soon and living in Paris
The sound of my typewriter keeps her from going all the way with her dream
My beautiful typewriter that rings at the end of each line and is as fast as jazz
My beautiful typewriter that keeps me from dreaming portside or starboard
And makes me go all the way with an idea
My idea]

(pp. 143–44)

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14. Of course, the French for typist is dactylo, not machine à écrire, but Cendrars certainly would have been aware that the position was most often filled by women, thus his ‘beautiful’ writing machine becomes a kind of muse or assistant figure without the intervention of the dactylo.

15. Bliven, Wonderful Writing Machine, p. 73.

16. Richard Milton, ‘Remington’, The Portable Typewriter Website.

17. Perloff, Futurist Moment, p. 14. Interestingly, an advertisement for the Olivetti typewriter printed in 1920 highlights the connection between the typewriter and the train. It features a dramatic race between the two modern marvels in which the typewriter glides along a track of its own beside the train, sparks flying from the rails on which it glides and sheets of white paper trailing from the carriage as the bright new machine outpaces its blurred and straining forbear. The image can be found in Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 197.

18. Umbro Apollonio, ed., Futurist Manifestos, trans. Robert Brain et al. (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001), p. 47.

19. Perloff, Futurist Moment, p. 9.

20. ‘The ocean letter was not invented for writing poetry / But when you travel when you do business when you’re on board when you send ocean letters / It’s poetry’, p. 150.