Pen and pictures no. 9 – The cinema novel

Images from the 1930 stage production of Jules Romains’ Donogoo Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique (sorry about the music)

Our series on the relationship between literature and silent film has so far mostly taken the biographical approach, looking at the particular experiences of Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, John Buchan, Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. But for post number nine we’re taking a thematic angle on things and looking at the cinema novel.

The cinema novel does not mean novelisations (which began in the silent era and may well be the subject of another post). Rather I mean a phenomenon identified by the American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes in his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. Seldes wrote:

[I]t is interesting to note that the cinema influence in literature in France is almost exactly opposite to what it is here [in America]. There it seems to make for brevity, hardness, clarity, brilliance. You will find it in the extraordinary stories of Paul Morand and Louis Aragon; and you will find in neither of these those characteristic sloppinesses which American authors are beginning to blame on the movies. If they would take the trouble of studying the pictures, instead of trying to make money out of them, and discover the elements in the cinema technique which are capable of making their own work fruitful, we might have better novels, and we certainly would have a few less bad pictures.

Two Frenchmen have, at the same time, used the scenario as a method of fiction, and each of them has written a highly ironic piece which is capable of being transferred to the film, but which reads sufficiently well to be considered as an end in itself.

Seldes was excited by what looked like an emerging trend – writers of the modernist school seeing exciting possibilities in transferring the dynamism and visual quality of cinema to literary works. There were plenty among the modernist, Futurists, Cubists and other sorts of ists whose imaginations had been fired by cinema (especially Chaplin, Keystone and serial films). Some, such as the Futurist Anton Giulio Bragaglia managed to put their ideas into film; others, like Apollinaire, Kandinsky and Schoenberg theorised about the possibilities of combining their art forms (poetry, painting, music) with film.

None was more enthused than the first of Seldes’ examples, Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961). Cendrars was a poet, journalist, novelist and creative autobiographer (much of what he wrote about his personal history needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt). He was an arch modernist, as experimental in his life as he was in his works. Like many French intellectuals of the period, he was excited by cinema’s possibilities as a new and universal language, but unlike most he was able to get involved in production itself. He served as an all-round production assistant on Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919), appearing briefly in the film as an actor, and was assistant director on Gance’s La roue (1923), for which Cendrars directed the innovative (and extant) promo film Autour de la roue. He went on to write an impressionistic theoretical text, L’ABC du cinéma (1926), which expounded his ideas on the ways in which cinema’s multifariousness captured the very essence of modern life. His 1925 novel of the American west, L’or, attracted interest in Hollywood, with Sergei Eisenstein trying to get Paramount to produce it during his American phase. Eventually James Cruze directed it as Sutter’s Gold in 1936 while Luis Trenker made an unofficial adpatation, Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, in Germany the same year. Cendrars also wrote a quirky, perversely observant account of two weeks in Hollywood, Hollywood: La Meque du cinéma (1936).

What Seldes highlighted, however, were two works, La Fin du monde (1919) and La Perle fiévreuse (1921), in which Cendrars brought the cinema into his writing. La Fin du Monde, filmée par l’Ange N.-D. [The End of the World, filmed by the Angel of Notre-Dame] was conceived of as a film-novel and is ostenibly organised as a film scenario. It tells of God as a ruthless businessman, for whom business has been good in the war because it has yielded up so many souls. God travels to Mars, visits all manner of plagues upon earth and kills off mankind all in the name of business, only for the story to rewind like a reel of film back to the beginning to reveal human life starting again, only this time God is bankrupt.

It is not your average novel, and it did not look like one. Published by Éditions de la Sirène, which specialised in innovative designs, the book was illustrated with abstract designs and colourful lettering by the artist Fernard Léger (see example right), who also designed the typography. Léger would of course go on to turn filmmaker with Ballet mécanique in 1924. There is no English translation available, but the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the Dutch national library) provides a background history in English and what’s more a multimedia presentation on the book (in Dutch, French or English) which outlines the narrative, illustrated with many of the original images.

Cendrars next wrote La Perle fiévreuse [The Feverish Pearl] in 1921, a work with a curious history. In his imaginative autobiography, The Astonished Man, he says that he was responsible for an Italian film which he calls La Vénus noire,

starring Dourga, the Hindu dancer from the Opéra Comique, and using all the animals from the zoological gardens.

He says that he fell victim to a financial scandal which led to the collapse of the Italian film industry, personally losing 1,250,000 francs and ruining any opportunities the film might have had. Long thought of as a piece of Cendrars fantasy, the late Italian film historian Vitorio Martinelli, discovered that the film was indeed made and reviewed, as La Venere nera (1923), though little evidence of it can be found thereafter. It may be possible that the film was destroyed by Cendrars himself, as he himself claimed.

But before the film had been made, Cendrars had published his script in serial form, subtitled a ‘roman cinématographié’. This was La Perle fiévreuse. It is a spoof on detective fiction, with a host of renowned fictional detectives engaged in frantic pursuit of two women. The text is presented as though a director’s script, with precise filming instructions. Richard Abel (in Dada and Surrealist Film) provides a translated example of the effect:

1. Iris in on a small statue of Shiva dancing. Hold, then pan slowly over to the maid Co-Thaô, standing in a simple black dress. Hold; then track-dolly (in the same direction as the pan) until the camera reaches the door, which opens.

2. Now dolly through the doorway toward the meeting of the Hindu dancer Rougha and Miss Ethel Berkshire, who enters with an armful of flowers.

3. Close shot of Miss Ethel, surprised and delighted, brightly lit, a little in front of the door.

And so on, for around 850 ‘shots’. Gilbert Seldes was rather dismissive of the results:

American movie technique … M. Cendrars has evidently learned all too well, because he uses it, in all its tedious detail, in La Perle Fievreuse, for which he is publishing not a scenario but a director’s script, with the cutbacks and visions and close-ups all numbered and marked. It is in the manner of the old Biograph movies with what may turn out to be not such innocent fun at the expense of the detective film. Among its characters are Max Trick, director of Trick’s Criminal Courier, the great daily which specializes in criminal news. He is marked “Type: le President Taft” and is first shown in his office with twenty-five telephones in front of him; among his collaborators are Nick Carter and Arsène Lupin, Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc.

There is a long tradition of unfilmed screenplays published as texts, often because the demands of the writer’s imagination were too much for those who needed to finance such films and put them before an audience. One can either sees these as absurdities rightly turned down by level-headed producers, or a longing for a truly imaginative cinema unconstrained by the petty demands of the money man. Some French film theorists and avant garde-ists such Jean Epstein and Marcel L’Herbier did successfully bridge the gap between dreams and reality to become noted film directors, and of course Cendrars’ La Venere nera was produced. But diverting as his text may be, it is not truly a new work of the imagination.

Rather more to Seldes’ taste, because his cinema-novel was more fully realised and a genuine breakthrough in literary creation, was the work of his second example, Jules Romains (1885-1972). Romains was a poet, novelist and prosletyser for a literary movement of his own devising, Unanimism, which was concerned with a collective state of mind. He wrote many books, showed rather too much interest in Fascism, but what interests us here is one work with an extraordinary title: Donogoo-Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique, in English Donogoo Tonka or The Miracles of Science: A Cinematographic Tale (1920).

Donogoo had its genesis in a Blaise Cendrars initative. In 1918 Cendrars invited Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jules Romains and other to collaborate on a ‘cinema book’ which would bring together putative filmscripts by leading experimental writers. The book never happened, but Romains completed his scenario. However, although he argued that the text could be taken as a perfectly serviceable film script, in reality it was something halfway between the two media, and artfully achieved to be just so.

Romains’ cinema novel tells of a famous geographer, Yves Trouhadec, whose reputation depends on the discovery of the South American gold mining town Donogoo-Tonka which he placed on the map but unfortunately doesn’t exist. A would-be suicide Lamendin offers to float a company and lead an expedition to discover the lost town and save Trouhadec’s reputation. Lamendin creates fake films of the supposed town, sparking off a gold-rush. Adventurers come from all over the world to find Donogoo-Tonka, and having failed to find the town, build one anyway. Lamendin arrives to discover that the imaginary town exists after all, in which a religion is established, dedicated to scientific error (Romains’ main theme). Trouhadec is now a revered figure.

This is entertaining satire, but what is most interesting is the technique. Romains sets out his agenda in a prefatory note:

The framed portions of the text are to be projected on the screen. All the rest should be represented by the actors’ movements and by the possibilities of the staging.

Except when indicated in the text itself, the scenes should unfold with the normal rhythm of events in life. One should be especially wary of that unvarying and lamentable speed that too many people seem to see as one of the essential conventions of the cinematographic art.

Where there is some doubt on this point – in the scenes, for example, where the only events that unfold are the thoughts of the characters – it is better to err on the side of excessive slowness and overly scrupulous attention, so as to bring out all intentions and nuances.

These are, of course, instructions for reading, not viewing. Romains makes it clear that this is a cinematograph of the mind, though he does indeed have framed portions which serve as intertitles (though they are far more than that, serving as commentary and providing verbal illustrations), and the present tense narrative gives the sense of watching a film – yet it is a film where one sees equally the outward show and what is going on inside someone’s mind.

The technique is apparent in this extract:

A rapid succession of short scenes, each lasting barely a minute, shows us the propaganda for Donogoo-Tonka, insidious, rich in detail, irrepressible.

1. A fat fifty-year-old man has his morning hot chocolate in a pleasant dining room. The maid brings in the mail. The first envelope, when opened, lets out the prospectus for Donogoo-Tonka. The man skims it, without ceasing to eat his bread and butter. But watch how the twelve letters Donogoo-Tonka rise up, tear themselves free, escape from the paper and start scurrying, one after another, on the table, like a band of little mice …

… 3. A man struggles up the steps of an underground staircase. On the edge of each step: DONOGOO-TONKA. The inscription, at first lifeless and neutral, becomes more glistening, more active, from stair to stair. By the end the letters bulge out, corrode, burn. The man half-turns his head and through his no longer opaque skull we make out his brain, marked, like the shoulder of a convict, with twelve small, cracking letters.

We move from the literally visual (we’ve seen films like this before), to the arrestingly visual (OK, you could achieve that with animation, I’ve seen it done somewhere before) to the psychically visual (sorry M. Romains, but these sort of special effects won’t be around for another sixty years). It is avant garde cinema, before avant garde cinema existed.

Pages from the 1932 Dutch edition of Donogoo Tonka, with illustrations by Jo Spier, showing the ‘intertitle’ style on the left-hand page. From

Donogoo-Tonka is rather too obvious as satire, but it is an entertaining read and a constant stimulus to the imagination. It makes you think how you apprehend things, when reading, when watching, when simply living. Its dramatic possibilities did not interest film producers at the time, but a stage version was produced in Paris in 1930 and in Delft in 1931, the latter having filmed sequences shot by Joris Ivens, no less (sadly it is a lost film). It has been occasionaly staged since. In 1936 a German film version was produced, Donogoo Tonka, die geheimnisvolle Stadt, loosely based on the stage version but with a romantic plot. It was directed by Reinhold Schünzel and starred Anny Ondra. Romains disowned it.

Seldes is ringing in his praise of Romains’ achievement:

In the scenes which exploit the shares in Donogoo-Tonka we enter into the minds of individuals, of groups, of crowds; at the end the very framework of a building succumbs to the madness of the idea. And then, with a technical mastery not yet put into practise, M. Romains directs that the various scenes just projected be shown again, side by side, with a gradually accelerated rhythm. In the scenes of the adventurers we get glimpses at Marseilles, London, Naples, Porto, Singapore, San Francisco; then we see the groups starting out; the lines of their voyage converge. These scenes are projected first in succession and then simultaneously. Each time we see them we recognize some of the individuals we have seen before “And when by chance the faces are turned towards us, we have a feeling that they, too, recognize us.” The cinema has not yet accomplished that; chiefly, I fancy, because it never has been asked to.

Happily Donogoo Tonka was published in an English translation for the first time in 2009, with a knowledgable afterword by Joan Ockman.

There were other attempts at marrying the film text with the literary text at this time, for example Pierre Albert-Birot’s 2 x 2 = 1 (1919) and the dadaist poet Ivan Goll’s Die Chapliniade (1920). But the best known example from our period comes not from the French avant garde but from the English novelistic tradition, H.G. Wells‘ novel The King who was a King (1929).

The King who was a King is not one of Wells’ best works. It had its origins in an idea of his to produce a propaganda film on the subject of world peace, and it is as portentous and hectoring in tone as that might suggest. The film was never made, so Wells turned his ideas into a novel. What is interesting is its critique of cinema. In a long preface expressing disappointment with cinema story-telling, he expresses arguments that the literary modernist would have shared:

[T]he idea that the film was just a way of telling stories in moving pictures dominated the cinema theatre entirely for nearly a couple of decades, and still dominates it. It satisfied a hitherto unsuspected need for visual story-telling. It worked out lucratively … Can we get off the ground of the realistic story-film?

Wells set out to write a novel that demonstrates what he believes film should be able to achieve, as a vehicle for Wellsian ideas. Unfortunately he chose the wrong subject, and with insufficient appreciation of the method he was adopting. He shows some imaginative touches, describing the action throughout as though it is a film that we are watching, giving some indication of camera movements and scene-setting, but it remains novelistic in its thinking and in its unfolding. It lacks Romains’ wit. It makes the mistake of trying to correct film rather than trying to re-imagine the novel. The effect can be seen in this passage:

The film now plunges into the midst of Dr. Harting’s Steelville lecture upon The Causes of War.

Dr. Harting is an old distinguished-looking American, lean and tall, after the type of the late President Eliot of Harvard. He uses glasses to read his notes, and holds them in his hand while he speaks, often tapping the papers. He stands upon a platform at a reading-desk. Behind him are diagrams, indistinctly seen at first, and a chairman sits beside him. The picture is photographed with the camera turned somewhat upward in such a way as to make Dr. Harting slenderly dominant, like the prow of a ship.

A glimpse is given of Zelinka and Margaret sitting together in the front row of the audience, and then one sees a few other figures in the audience. Man the Destroyer is present, hostile and critical, and several commonplace and excitable types.

The lecturer says:

Do not imagine you can secure the Peace of the World by good resolutions. So long as you have national flags, national competition, national rivalry, you will have war.”

Man the Destroyer in the audience shouts, “Traitor,” and an old gentleman sitting near him says, “My country, right or wrong!” and looks round excitedly for approval.

A middle-aged man rises, points to the lecturer and says:

You go too fast and too far.”

The picture centres back on the lecturer.

This thinks that it is cinematic, but it isn’t. It simply sets out that which one might find in an ordinary novel, with the addition of camera placements. We would see the action anyway, without these additions. The use of present tense masks what is actually quite conventional. Wells understood film well enough, but he was too much the novelist to be able to express such understanding in words.

The cinema novel was an interesting by-product of the enthusiasm of the literary intelligensia for film in the late teens and early 1920s, as modernist ideas were evolving. It did not turn into a genre, because avant garde cinema emerged in the mid-1920s to fill the need. The true successors of La Fin du monde and Donogoo-Tonka were L’entracte (1924), La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) and Un chien andalou (1929). However, the cinema novel did return three decades later through the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose concept of the ciné-roman presented the film script as a text which had an independent existence as a literary work. L’Année dernière à Marienbad is an example.

This post is indebted to the introduction by Garrett White to Blaise Cendrars, Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies (University of California Press, 1995), Joan Ockman’s afterword to Donogoo Tonka or The Miracles of Science (Buell Center/Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) and Richard Abel, ‘Exploring the Discursive Field of the Surrealist Film Scenario Text’, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli (ed.), Dada and Surrealist Film (MIT Press, 1996).

6 responses

  1. Luke: This was a monumental effort, and well worth it. I found The Seven Lively Arts in the library and read it many years ago, but I didn’t remember his comments on the cinema novel. I liked the video you included with the posting. I see the maker has done similar videos for other plays. Based on your description, I don’t think I will look for the Welles book.

  2. Joe: Thank you as always. A bit of a mad undertaking, but I became intrigued by the history after coming across a copy of Donogoo-Tonka in a second-hand bookshop. I may follow it up with short pieces on The Seven Lively Arts and The King who was a King, to mark putting them in the Bioscope Library. The Wells novel is a tedious read, but the long introduction has interesting observations on the purpose of film, and the technique of writing a novel by telling you what the film of it would look like is striking. It’s just put to such a turgid end.

  3. Great post, as usual, Luke – and on a fascinating topic. Interesting that American critics like Seldes were praising “cinematic” aesthetics in the French avant-garde of the 1910s/’20s, whereas it was largely the French who, during the post-WWII period, would begin to uncover cinema’s influence on American modernist novels (often without the condescension toward commercial film evident in some earlier criticism). Certainly there were a host of contradictory attitudes surrounding cinema during this period – as I recall, Virginia Woolf had condemned a (now obscure) novel she had reviewed in 1918 as “a book of cinema,” even as her own work would come to undoubtedly display some cinematic attributes; her own views on cinema would also soften considerably, if still remaining somewhat ambivalent. Lots of food for thought in your informative post.

  4. Seldes’ book is fascinating – much of it is devoted to praising Chaplin and Keystone over the more turgid, arty ambition of Griffithian cinema, so that the enthusiasm for the French avant garde at the end of the book comes as something of a surprise (though not really when you consider the enthusiasm for American genre cinema that the French were already displaying by 1920). I’m going to write a post on Seldes in due course, not least because his book is freely available online.

    As for American modernist models, I was going to add something on John Dos Passos, who was greatly influenced by Blaise Cendrars and whose USA trilogy has filmi-ish elements to it, but its ‘newsreel’ sections owe more to newspapers that cinema newsreels, and besides he wrote it in the 1930s.

    Thanks to the omniscience of Google, I learn that the novel Virginia Woolf so dismissed was Competon Mackenzie’s The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett – which was of course filmed in 1935. I’d like to write a Pen and Pictures post on her some day, because her 1926 essay ‘The Cinema’ is so rich and observant. The love-hate relationship that many of the 1920s intelligensia had with cinema makes for particularly interesting investigation.

  5. Yes, it was the Mackenzie novel which Woolf had referred to – and the better-known film adaptation certainly makes the cinema connection that much more interesting. Seldes’s “The Seven Lively Arts” is invaluable as a study of popular entertainment during this period – and it is relatively free of snobbishness toward ‘lowbrow’ forms – looking forward to your future post on it.

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