With John Beer, Robert Burton, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Giles Gordon, Eugene Hayworth, Christine Hume, Jim Knipfel, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Ann Quin, Francois Rabelais, Gilbert Sorrentino, Gertrude Stein, John Taylor, Curtis White
Reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline
It’s been noted by people much wiser than myself that those writers who produce the angriest work—novels and essays which explode and burn on the page, which condemn, in the most pitiless of terms, the world and all its component parts—were generally the sweetest of creatures in person. Henry Miller comes to mind as a perfect example. In contrast, it’s also true that those writers whose novels are gentle, easygoing, happy-go-lucky affairs, filled with warmth and good feelings, were often absolute monsters in their private lives.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, however, falls into neither category. The hatred that crackles through every sentence fragment of every page of every novel he wrote was, by all accounts, the real thing.
"He succeeds in almost nothing," Professor Bettina Knapp wrote in Céline: Man of Hate. "He has no illusions, no will to right the wrongs he sees about him. Whatever he touches withers in his grasp and sinks from view into a muck of despair, negativism and nihilism."
Although she was writing about the protagonist of Céline’s first novel, she might just as well have been writing about the man himself. Céline, to put it mildly, was not a very pleasant fellow. And to many readers and critics, his novels don’t provide the most pleasant of reading experiences. Céline rants and froths and screams and howls his way through a literary landscape flooded with mud, blood, shit, anguish, disease, and the foulest depths of human suffering—and one which rarely—if ever—offers any sign of relief once you reach the end. No peaceful resolution, no "but it was all worth it" to soften the blow of the pages that came beforehand. The unremitting despair simply rolls on again when you open the next volume.
I first read Céline when I was twenty. I’d seen him referenced so many times by so many writers I admired at that age, that I felt it was necessary. I was an angry young man, living an angry and desperate life. From what I’d heard, Céline and I would be a perfect match. Yet when I picked up that used paperback edition of Journey to the End of the Night and opened it to page one, the effect of this avalanche of obscenity and violence and disgust and dismay was akin to scraping my skull against a brick wall—plenty of damage to my skull, but the wall remained unmarked.
Céline’s style was something I was not yet equipped to deal with. His relentless anger aside, my meager experience at the time simply could not accommodate this splintered, savage writing, which was unlike any writing that had come before it, or, I might add, anything that has come since. (Céline, despite his enormous influence on the likes of Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs, has remained inimitable.)
Returning to Céline a decade later, however—and going back as a slightly wiser, slightly less angry man—things were different. This time, it all made perfect sense. I felt the adrenaline rush I fully expected to feel back when I was twenty, I found myself laughing aloud at his unforgiving black humor. I found myself, finally, loving a writer who wanted nothing more than to be hated as much as he hated everything. As he once wrote, "the more you are hated, the more you rest easy."
To this day, a grim cloud of infamy still hangs over Céline. You don’t find him taught in schools much, and the name alone elicits spits of "Nazi" from people who know very little about him. There have been certain efforts in recent times—much as there have been in regards to German philosopher Martin Heidegger—to "rehabilitate" Céline, to rewrite his history, to claim that his anti-Semitism and his collaboration with the Vichy government were anomalies, and not so heinous as had been previously claimed. Some have even tried to argue that his novels, at heart, were humanist works, that he was just reacting to the evil he witnessed in the world around him. Besides, they ask, how could a doctor who cared for the poor, and often offered his services free of charge, be all that bad?
I’m not so sure about any of that—noble an effort as it is—if only because I don’t see any real evidence for it in what he wrote. I do believe, however, that he hated the Germans as much as he hated the Jews and the French and the Communists—but he also hated the poor as much as the rich, as much as the artists, and charlatans and criminals and do-gooders. The weak and the strong alike. You could say he was nondiscriminatory that way. "To place confidence in man," he wrote, "means already letting oneself be killed a little."
At the same time, that rage fueled the creation of something new, something remarkable—sometimes frightening and disgusting, but, given the effort, something no reader will ever forget.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.***
Céline was born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in 1894. His parents were upper middle class, and he did all right for himself—attending boarding schools and learning a variety of languages. At eighteen, he enlisted in the 12th Regiment Cavalry Division. Soon after World War I erupted, he was seriously wounded in battle, after which he was cited for bravery, and given a medical discharge. He worked a series of odd jobs until 1923, when he entered medical school. By 1928, he had set up his own practice in a poor suburb of Paris, and there he began writing, adopting the pseudonym "Céline"—his grandmother’s maiden name.
Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932, was an immediate success, and established Céline as a major literary figure. An episodic, hallucinatory and bleak novel written in the first person, heavy in slang and contemporary references (as all his novels would be), it followed Ferdinand Bardamu from the trenches of the First World War, to Africa, to America, ending back in Paris, where Bardamu has established a medical practice. The splintered, misanthropic narrative, and its portrait of a degenerate world without beauty, decency or possible redemption was something shocking and new to French readers:
He followed Journey four years later with Death on the Installment Plan, written in much the same fractured style, with the same desolate perspective. This time, he tells the story of Ferdinand as an unhappy youth, who flees his home and joins up with a grifter. The novel was again hailed as a masterpiece.
In the years and writings which soon followed, however, people began to realize that Céline wasn’t joking around. Mea Culpa (1936), which recounted a trip to the Soviet Union, was a bitter denunciation of communism. Then, in the late ‘30s, fearing that France was about to be dragged into another war, Céline produced three virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets, in which he accused an international Jewish conspiracy of bringing about another world war for their own benefit.
When war did, indeed, break out, he volunteered his medical services on the battlefield. As the war neared its end, knowing he might be executed as the Allies liberated France, he fled to Germany, then Denmark. The French government found him guilty of treason in absentia, and he spent over a year on Death Row in Copenhagen. In 1951, he was released, albeit denounced as a national disgrace and forced into exile.
During the last ten years of his life, he resumed his medical practice and continued writing. By this time, however, his popularity had waned dramatically. Certainly some of that was due to his odious political views (for which he was less than apologetic). At the same time, however, Céline had, in his later novels, continued to push the style he originated in Journey towards what some thought was its logical conclusion, and what others believed to be evidence that Céline had simply lost his mind.
Guignol’s Band (1944), for instance, opens:
It goes on like that. Even in his own introduction, Céline (satirizing his frustrated readers) calls it "unreadable" and "an outrage." In fact, returning to the once-shocking Journey after reading later novels like Guignol’s Band or North (1960), the earlier prose seems so simple, so clean, the storyline direct and linear—at least in comparison. Over the course of nearly three decades (his final novel, Rigadoon, was completed the day before he died, in 1961), his narratives had disintegrated into a series of tiny sentence fragments held together with ellipses and exclamation points, and the "plots" became increasingly difficult to follow—while his rage seemed to grow in intensity.
Was it a sign of madness brought on by shell shock and imprisonment and public disgrace, the way some scholars would like to see it? I find that doubtful, especially considering the evidence Céline himself provides in Conversations with Professor Y (1955). In that book—designed as a series of interviews with Céline conducted by a skeptical "Professor Y"—the author explains, clearly and repeatedly, exactly what he’s up to with the notorious "three dots."
What he’s trying to do, he explains, is capture pure, direct human emotion on the page. Since, he feels, true emotion can only be found in spoken language, he has to do what he can to seize and transcribe that—hence the three little dots:
"B’loney, Colonel! So much b’loney! . . . not in an emotive tale! . . . you don’t reproach Van Gogh for his misshapen churches? Vlaminck, his screwed-up thatched roofs? . . . Bosch, his creatures neither head nor tail! . . . Debussy, his unconcern for measures? or Honegger’s! do I not have the same rights myself? no? I have the right only to follow the Rules? . . . the Rhythms of the Academy? . . . that’s revolting!"
He uses the Metro as a metaphor for the style he’d created. In most writing, he says, the rails remain rigid and straight, carrying readers along on their safe, uncomplicated way—but what he does, see, is take those rails and give them a little twist.
It makes sense. I’ve found that you reach a point in nearly all his novels where you have no choice but to simply stop searching for meaning and coherence, and just sit back and ride. As Kurt Vonnegut said of Journey, "The book penetrated my bones, anyway, if not my mind." Even if his stories are sometimes difficult to comprehend, what Céline does provide—and provide unfailingly, in spades—is a stunning—and often hilarious, strangely enough—poetry of misery and excess. As in this passage from Castle to Castle (1957):
To date, most—though certainly not all—of Céline’s major works have been translated into English, and remain available (though sometimes only after a little searching). In recent years, even some more obscure works have appeared in this country—his collection of ballets, for instance, Ballets without Music, without Dancers, without Anything (1990). (In spite of everything, Céline loved the ballet.)
Given the availability of his work, the question then becomes, where to begin? Most all of his novels are massive undertakings, involving a certain investment of time and concentration and sanity. It’s reasonable, I suppose, to read the novels in the order they were written—Journey first, then Death on the Installment Plan, then onwards, to Rigadoon. That way, readers can watch—in astonishment or in horror—as his style develops logically, or devolves completely, depending upon your perspective.
While there’s no "simple" Céline novel, no Dubliners or Crying of Lot 49 to gear up with beforehand, I usually suggest that those new to Céline begin, if at all possible, with Conversations. It’s a quick, funny, nasty read—and one which provides much of the background (more than I could ever give here) about Céline, his general outlook on things, and those unholy three dots. Afterwards, well-aware of what you’re about to get into, it’s easy to return to the early novels—or choose instead to pick up something by Jack Higgins.
Those readers who do put in the effort will come away with a portrait of an oftentimes contradictory figure, perhaps an evil one, a man who, as a doctor, cared for the society’s dregs while working hard to be loathsome himself—a man who loved his wife and his cat and little else—a man who saw the worst of two world wars first-hand—and a man who revolutionized the terms with which we can approach a work of literature, and the way many of us look at this ugly old world today.