I like the idea of Blaise Cendrars (né Frédéric Louis Sauser, 1887-1961) better than I like his writings. The Swiss-born writer was an avant-garde poet close to Guillaume Apollinaire (and various painters, including Amadeo Modigliani who painted a portrait of him) who lost his right arm in World War I. He turned to writing prose, beginning with a novel, L’Or (Gold, 1925), hewing very close to the historical record about the life of another Swiss-born adventurer/expatriate, Johann August Suter (better known as John Sutter, 1803-80).
I’ve found Cendrars’s most celebrated novel, Moravagine (1926) unreadable, though others find its tale of crime and insanity spanning much of the world “depraved and beautiful”, and the other Cendrars fiction I’ve read (Confessions of Dan Yack, Christmas at the Four Corners of the Earth) mildly amusing: shall we saw tepid with flashes of arresting images?
Though a Californian of long standing, I did not know much about Sutter (whose name is that of a county in California, an east-west street in San Francisco, and the creek where gold was discovered in 1848, and was the name of a fort at the confluence of rivers that is now Sacramento).
The discovery of gold by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill (under construction) was a disaster for Sutter’s burgeoning empire, which he called New Helvetia (Helvetia is the Roman-and Swiss-name for Switzerland). Sutter had acquired huge land grants from Mexican officials for establishing a buffer between the hostile Indians and the Mexicans on the coast of Alta California. But when news of gold “in them there hills” leaked out, those working the fields, stores, etc. of John Sutter dropped their jobs and took up digging and panning for gold, and hordes of additional prospectors flowed in, trampling Sutter’s principality.
The debt-ridden young Sutter had abandoned his wife and three children back in Helvetia, and lost them (except for one son) after they traveled to New Helvetia and tangled with the squatters.
Cendrars shows the dogged pursuit of compensation by Sutter for the expropriation of his land (by squatters) and infrastructure (by the new state of California as well as the flood of new residents). He went to the East Coast seeking some sort of justice, fell under the spell of a Moravian Hutterite preacher and shuttled between the nation’s capital and Lititz, Pennsylvania. He collapsed in DC and was buried in Lititz.
Cendrars chronicles the rise and fall of Sutter and New Helvetia without any wild imagery or much imagination of Sutter’s consciousness. The text of the novel is only 121 pages, and Cendrars covers a lot of ground, both geographic and socioeconomic. One may consider the book of seeking fame and fortune in foreign lands-and being disappointed-as partly autobiographical, which is all the more tempting in that both author and protagonist were Swiss, but I think the book is pretty straight historical/biographical fiction. What I learned about John Sutter seems to be firmly based on the historical record of his rise and the fall of his dream of Acadian New Helvetia.