Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars

Back in August last year, I read Cendrars’ first book about the picaresque adventurer Dan Yack; I’ve had the second volume sitting on my shelves for a while and the sad passing of its publisher, Peter Owen, recently prompted me to pick the book up. At the end of the first story Yack had escaped from the arctic and straight into WW1. This book continues his story, but not in a linear fashion as much of it is told retrospectively.

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Yack was a man obsessed with technology in the form of record players, and in this book he has discovered dictaphone cylinders. In a series of chapters corresponding with the nine cylinders he’s recorded, he tells the story of his love for Mireille. He encounters the latter on Armistice Day in Paris; the daughter of one of his many lovers, she immediately captivates Yack and is herself smitten by him. Yack sweeps her off her feet, providing her with money, a palatial lifestyle and even setting up a film studio so that she can take up acting. However, watching him looking back from his vantage point in 1925 we know that things did not go well, and in alternating narratives made up of Yack’s voice and Mireille’s diaries, we learn their story.

Mireille is a damaged, troubled girl; growing up in the country with an adored father, after his death she’s thrown into a convent by her mother where she languishes. Her attachment to Yack is intense, and he will do anything for her; the cinema is one of their joint loves, and so it seems inevitable that she’ll end up acting. However, the parts she ends up taking on are strange, wraith-like roles inspired by Poe, which seem to drain her of energy. Her health is weak in any event and it becomes clear that she’s not long for the world. As counterpoint to the love story, Yack reaches back to his life in the arctic and the arrival of the Germans as the war broke out, relating his escape and return to Europe.

But always he returns to Mireille. As he gradually reveals their story, Yack begins to explore their relationship and it becomes clear that it was not a conventional one; it seems that it was not consummated and the reader can’t help thinking that Mireille was looking for a father-figure, and perhaps Yack a daughter-figure. It’s a dark and melancholy tale which I read rapidly but which is still resonating with me quite some time after reading it.

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Much of Cendrars’ work is described as semi-autobiographical although to what extent he drew on his own life for “Confessions…” I don’t know. Certainly he fought in the First World War as did Yack, but Cendrars lost his right arm in 1915 and was invalided out. He went on to be a significant presence in modernist writing but seems to have slipped out of sight again, which is a shame. I shan’t forget the tales of Dan Yack in a hurry and kudos to Peter Owen for keeping his work in print and available.

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