The Books of My Numberless Dreams

More thoughts on “Moravagine”

Posted on: May 1, 2007

Although Moravagine commits dozens more violent acts with no punishment and no judgement from the narrator, or even Cendrars, who saves his criticism for other things like the French Academy, he does suffer a penalty for Rita’s murder. He is imprisoned for ten years and then sent to the asylum, at which he’s been for six. He is thirty- four at the start of his friendship with Raymond.

They escape from his asylum adopting various disguises and pseudonyms, all of which place Moravagine in the higher position (eg. he would be the diplomat, Raymond his secretary). They settled in Berlin to pursue studies. Moravagine sought an answer to the eternal question: the reason for living and a justification to his existence. This is where his growing interest in the primitive was taking him. He sought it in music, in its most basic state of rhythm, but the narrator tells us that the root, the origin of music was in man, in his brain, his physiology, his being and not in the mathematical framework given in scholarly circles. At this point Raymond seems to be disenchanted with science as well, pronouncing it mere superstition arranged by the “taste of the moment”, scholars have no wit etc. Considering that it is Moravagine’s frustration with his work that leads to this conclusion, I assume that he is the primary source of his opinion. You see where this is going right? Raymond’s world view becomes increasingly nihilistic. Nothing has value, nothing is worthwhile, nothing can be explained. And he forms this under Moravagine’s influence.

That’s one of the strange things about reading this book. Moravagine is completely lost in his own world, not in a manner that makes him helpless but that distorts his outlook. Raymond was clearly not entirely sympathetic to this at the outset, but Moravagine’s powerful personality and ego dwarfs his and for the rest of the novel he is little more than a companion and witness to his friend’s exploits. They form no other significant relationship with anyone else and while one gains the impression that Raymond feels a very strong, strange sort of love for Moravagine, the latter seems to keep him around as a convenient, easily manipulated aid.

The nihilism is fully developed during the time they spend in Russia from 1904-1907. They form a part of and take leading rolls in a terrorist group of revolutionaries who seem to have it out for everyone in general, tsar and citizens alike. The destruction of society, if not the world through violent means is their purpose and what will happen after that? They cannot say nor do they care. It’s like Moravagine’s insanity times ten. Certainly it’s a perfect outlet for Moravagine’s violent tendencies and he gives his time and most of his enormous inheritance to the cause.

What of his taste for misogynistic violence? That hasn’t gone away. He’s been killing young women from the moment he left the asylum to his time in Russia. Women are continually linked with death in the novel, with everything oppressive and draining, starting from the death of Moravagine’s mother in childbirth. Women with any kind of power at all is to be feared, is to be dismissed and torn down.

There are women in the terrorist group, but most are subordinates, ordered to make use of their bodies to seduce the men into followers of the cause. Mascha is one of only two women with any prominent position in the movement. But, of course, she falls for Moravagine, becomes his lover and turns into a raving maniac, while he cackles at her pathetic decline. At one point Raymond, after following Mascha during one of her wanderings, eventually reveals himself to go and comfort her when she starts to cry. As he holds her he feels some flicker of sexual arousal he does not recognises it as such. It more or less blows his mind, and not in a good way.

I was filled with a perplexing, new sensation. It was the first time I had felt a strange body stretched close beside my own, the first time I had felt an animal heat go through me. And so unexpectedly! This physical proximity put me in such a turmoil that my heart began to beat wildly and I no longer tried to understand what Mascha was saying. I was flat on my back, agitated and close to nausea. I felt that something frightful was about to take place.

He leaps away, demands to know what’s going on, and Mascha reveals that she’s pregnant while writing and vomiting on the ground.

What could possibly have led Cendrars to write something like this, this way? It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out. Remy de Gourmont was a fan of Schopenhauer’s flattering ideal of women, deeming them only fit for domestic pursuits, their primary role biological, and certainly not blessed with much resembling intellect. But Cendrars takes this and amplifies it to a graphically literal degree. I find it so puzzling because, and I may very well be wrong, but I don’t get the impression that Cendrars believes a word of it. There is an underlying tone of humour, of amused mischief, of irreverence that is especially strong when he’s being really outrageous. If it weren’t for that tone, if he had written much of the novel with a portentous sincerity, I wouldn’t have been able to read past page thirty four.

This doesn’t excuse him of course, and he may well be the biggest French misogynist ever (which would be quite a feat), but even if he was it doesn’t really change my reading experience. The whole novel is a big radical absurdity to me, with one or two not so bad ideas, buried beneath philosophies developed in the most exaggerated fashion. It’s fiction.

Something served in contrast to the inverse of woman as nurturer and creator is the mechanical imagery, the motif that, if Moravagine associates with freedom, Raymond associates it with monolithic domination. In one of the longest chapters, only of comparable length to the years in Russia, the two friends arrive in the USA after escaping Russia via London. Raymond describes it as one of the “finest spectacles on earth”, a “machine-world” built by engineers who have arranged and decimated the variety of the natural world in keeping true to their “principle of utility”. Cities are envisioned geometrically and everything is simplified as man pursues progress: a view that is taking over the world. It’s one of the few instances Raymond appears to speak from his own mind.

There is a lot more to the book. I’ve been wrestling with the subject matter (which I’ve only touched on) and have barely started to take a look at its style and structure. Cendrars style tends to change a bit, depending on his subject matter, so the writing on Russia is sensational and almost surreal, becomes more honed and almost wry when the characters reach the mechanised North American shores, and then dips back into the surreal when they end up in the primitive wilds of South America. The arrangement of the novel is interesting as well, with brief, episodic chapters interchanged with long, continuous narrative, and each chapter numbered as if it were a long bullet point list. These will be scribbles in my notebook though, rather than blog posts, I think, unless I feel the urge to post them. Cendrars clearly had a good time not only with the story but with the fictional form overall.

I see that Stephanie on the previous post asked if I’d recommend it. I would because it’s a remarkably different reading experience to what I’m used to, and is very provocative if not always agreeable. I can’t say that I found it as hilarious as all the reviewers and authors who were blurbed on the cover — there are a few laugh out loud moments, but it’s more of a ridiculous dark amusement that often catches you off-guard. And who knows what to think of Henry Miller’s opinion?

How can I convince the sceptic that I was ravished by Cendrars’s Moravagine? How does one know immediately that a thing is after one’s own heart?

Wouldn’t I like to read the source material from which that was quoted.


4 Responses to "More thoughts on “Moravagine”"

This sounds so totally outside of a book I would choose to read, but since you recommend it, I will put it on my TBR list, because stretching the reading muscles is a good thing 🙂

I know what you mean. It’s what I use the NYRB classics list to do a lot of the time — find books that are completely outside my reading tastes. I don’t do any research beyond what’s said on the back cover synopsis and off I go.

I think you’re all reading far too much into Moravagine. I found it to be a great novel but it is a question of styles. M. Cendrars seems to have invented or come across a number of different genres in his book. There is a Dr Zhivago element, there is a gothic horror element and when they get to America, M. Cendrars moves into western territory.
I read it a few years ago and need to re-read it…..wanna see if my work has been influenced by it?????

Edited by Site Owner

I don’t appreciate commenters who hawk their wares that have no obvious, direct link to my posts. Too much like spam, ya know? 🙂 I’ve removed the link to a more unobtrusive spot. If readers are interested in your comments they can simply click on your name –that’s why the URL spot is there when you’re composing a comment.

That is an interesting critique considering that my two posts on the book were not much more than a loooooong rehashing of the plot.

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