Louis-Ferdinand Céline, originally named Louis Ferdinand Destouches, was a French writer and doctor whose novels Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) are innovative, chaotic, and antiheroic visions of human suffering. Pessimism pervades Céline's fiction as his characters sense failure, anxiety, nihilism, and inertia. Céline was unable to communicate with others, and during his life sank more deeply into a hate-filled world of madness and rage. A progressive disintegration of personality is visible in the stylistic incoherence of Guignol's Band (1944), Castle to Castle (1957), and North (1960). His novels are verbal frescoes peopled with horrendous giants, paraplegics, and gnomes, and are filled with scenes of dismemberment and murder. Based on his experiences as a doctor during World War I, his works portray the vileness of humanity through frank, often obscene, language.
Accused of collaboration, Céline fled (1944) France to live in Germany at Sigmaringen and then moved (1945) to Denmark. Condemned by default (1950) in France to one year of imprisonment and declared a national disgrace, Céline returned to France after his pardon in 1951. Céline later wrote a chaotic trilogy (1957-61) recounting the last days of the Third Reich in Germany.
The quarter-century-long rehabilitation of the reputation of the French physician, anarchist, scatological novelist and anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline took another step forward with the publication of the first English translation of London Bridge, the second half of the two part novel Guignol's Band (the first part was translated into English in 1954). Céline, his admirers tell us, was, until relatively recently, the victim of a "conspiracy of silence" in both Europe and the United States, partly because of a series of vicious, brilliantly inflammatory anti-Semitic pamphlets he published in France between 1937 and 1941, and partly because his bleak, angry novels threaten not only our notions of what literature ought to be, but our dearest self- delusions about human society and human nature.
The first part of this claim is true: the collaborator Céline did suffer a well-deserved ostracism in the decades following the war. Although he continued to write and publish, most intellectuals, following the lead of Jean-Paul Sartre, chose pointedly to ignore his work. This is, in a way, too bad, because it has inevitably enhanced the already enticing "forbidden" aura surrounding his oeuvre, an aura which has helped to buttress the second half of the claim- that Céline has been shunned because his courageous works say the unsayable and direct his readers to think the unthinkable, i.e. (brace yourself now) that God is dead and human effort is all, ultimately, vanity. In fact, in the second half of the 20th century (unlike in 1932 when Céline's first novel was published), the presentation in fractured prose of a godless and chaotic world neither frightens nor shocks. It does, however, at least in the case of Céline's London Bridge, disgust and bore by turns.
Louis-Ferdinand Destouches was born in 1894 into the costive atmosphere of a Parisian petit-bourgeois family whose xenophobia bordered on fanaticism and whose economic anxiety bordered on frenzy. In a move uncharacteristic of their class, Ferdinand's parents sent him to Germany and England for extended periods to provide him with the languages and contacts which, they hoped, would help him in his mother's lace business. In 1912, he enlisted in the cavalry. Two years later he was badly wounded and, as a result, suffered for the rest of his life from grievous headaches and unrelenting tinnitis (a ringing in the ears). After the war, he traveled, married and abandoned two wives, became a physician who ministered mostly to the Parisian poor and, in his thirties, began to write.
His first novel, Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage
au bout de la nuit, published under the pen name Céline), a powerful
and grim picaresque about the wanderings of the not- particularly innocent
Ferdinand Bardamu, caused a sensation in France because of its unprecedented
(in modern times) use of slang, its stylistic innovations and its relentless
pessimism. Although it sold well, it did not win the prestigious Prix Goncourt,
a slight which rankled the professedly uninterested novelist. He followed
with Death on the Installment Plan
(Mort à credit) an anti-Proustian anti- bildungsroman which, with its earnestly febrile prose, its grotesque characterizations and interminable, rapturously detailed descriptions of bodily functions and malfunctions, firmly established Céline as the projectile vomiter of the avant-garde. Céline's succeeding novels are less literature than religious tracts, sometimes prophetic but more often apocalyptic. He wrote in a delirium-as he himself boasts-and with the unshakable confidence of a zealot. He was as sure of the truth of his eschatological visions as he was of the greatness of his style, which he self-consciously termed métro émotif (emotional subway). Like other charismatic figures he did not-and does not-lack disciples.
Besides novels, Céline also wrote pamphlets. In
the years preceding and during the German occupation of France, he wrote
three long jeremiads directed at a number of targets but particularly at
Jews. These nearly 1000 pages contain the most spectacularly virtuoso anti-Semitic
diatribes in modern letters. As well as invective, the pamphlets are filled
with broad comedy, exaggeration and whimsy. These characteristics- and
itself-are all deeply rooted in a French pamphleteering tradition, Céline's apologists argue, and must be understood in that light. But, as religious historian John Gager (in his The Origins of Anti-Semitism) has noted about another eloquent and destructive anti-Jewish sermonizer, the third-century bishop John Chrysostom, "[His] language reflects the standard implements of rhetorical invective. [He] is particularly fond of biting metaphors. But his techniques are no less harmful for being artful or traditional. They convey ominous overtones." Céline's agitating was more than merely ominous. He was, in fact, espousing the extermination of a whole people at the very moment that the project was being initiated.
Reviewing a 1975 biography of Céline, John Updike begins with a wish, "One would like to write of Céline without touching upon his anti-Semitism, his Fascism, his collaboration with the Nazis, his political loathsomeness." But, of course, one cannot, and Updike, appropriately, goes on to spend more than a third of his review on just these subjects. Other critics minimize Céline's wartime activities in a disingenuous effort to prove that he was not, in the narrow legal sense, a collaborator. Still others attempt to separate the "pamphleteer" from the "novelist." It may be more useful to entertain the notion that Céline's anti- Semitism and his failure as an artist flow from the same source.
Sartre writes in his Reflections on the Jewish Question, an investigation spurred to a large degree by Céline's pamphlets, "Authentic liberty comes from assuming responsibilities and the liberty of the anti-Semite comes from that fact that he escapes all of this." In Journey to the End of the Night, Céline achieves near-greatness through an almost bravura assumption of responsibility. My misanthropy, he proclaims, is profound and genuine because it is based on self-knowledge; I have looked into myself and this is what I've discovered. He writes with the energy, fury and despair of an adolescent in the first throes of facing the almost unbelievable facts of loss and death. But he writes without a whisper of the adolescent's self-pity. His vision is bleak but large, and confers on him a freedom which allows him moments of penetrating human sympathy as well as startling prosaic felicity.
As his misanthropy loses its inclusiveness his vision shrinks. It becomes tainted with the petit-bourgeois envy and blaming that he ridicules in Death on the Installment Plan. It isn't us anymore, it's them-Jews, foreigners, Asians, Africans, Americans (the United States is "the most negroized, judaized democracy on the face of the earth"). So, the despair and nihilism of Journey to the End of the Night is reduced to tantrum in Death on the Installment Plan, invective in the pamphlets, and grotesque, detached, mechanical buffoonery in Guignol's Band I and II.
In France, the Grand Guignol is a marionette show notable for its farcical and horrific elements. The title Guignol's Band is perfectly appropriate for Céline's tale, set in WWI London and taking up two long volumes. (For the sake of clarity, I will-as translator Dominic Di Bernardi has chosen to do-call the first volume Guignol's Band and the second London Bridge. I should also note here that, despite being provided with a synopsis of Guignol's Band, the reader of London Bridge will find it almost impossible to follow without having read the prequel. References to characters and events in the first volume are not explained in the second; Céline clearly intended the two to be read together.) The book follows the misfortunes of the crippled veteran Ferdinand as he makes his way through Céline's familiar roster of gangsters, pimps and whores. In his peregrinations, our anti-hero also becomes involved with a deluded mystic, an English colonel and his teenaged daughter (or niece), and a variety of corpses. Ferdinand-"an ornery old turd," as he puts it in one of his more lyrical self-assessments-narrates events for us in Céline's usual disjointed, over-stimulated voice. Here are three typical examples (all ellipses are the author's).
First, action writing. The protagonists have inhaled some noxious fumes:
We zip around the lawn three times from sheer momentum!...coughing hacking...Ah! he really let us have it!...We flop down on the grass. Pooped...I had such an acrid taste in my throat I was afraid to take another breath...Small wonder that jerk had such a cough...The pair of us was coughing too! Sosthene even worse than me!...I puke up a gob of blood...I'm choking...All this hacking tearing me to pieces!...Ah! I've got my own bag of tricks! Look at that fresh gob! Hey, this is no joke!...Ah! I'm getting out of here...
All at once the Colonel shoots upright with a start...frozen motionless finger in the air..."Piss! Piss!" he shouts..."My prostate!...." With his eyes locked in a stare as though he were hearing voices!...Here we go again, another song and dance! Then he pokes around his underpants, sticks his finger in his butt...and dashes off, he's gone!...
And, third, love:
I can breathe!...No, I can't!...at the mere sight of her...forget
how to breathe...Ah! this is too much!...I love her too much right away...I'm
not myself anymore!...I give out! No! I bounce back to life!...My eyes
are playing tricks on me...Ah! her hair! A golden glow! A feast! Blonde,
the feast of her hair...Blonde her curls!...Blonde my joy!...
Ah! cries the reader, I'm getting out of here! This
is too much! And there are 449 pages
The narrative line in London Bridge is unsupported by certain physical and psychological laws we usually take for granted-cause and effect, for instance, and motivated behavior. This is, of course, intentional. The characters are on strings but the puppeteer is absent, or, more precisely, the puppeteer-as Céline would have it-is some sort of terrifying personification of Arbitrariness. But not really. What's really running the show is Céline's puerile pique mixed here and there, uncharacteristically, with an unbecoming nostalgia and a cloudy, misogynistic sentimentality.
Céline is still-and always-angry. And he is still absolutely certain of the "truth" of his anger and the greatness of his means of expressing it. But both are bankrupt by the time he is at work on London Bridge. The futility of aspiration, the omnipresence of death-these are in the background of any important work of literature, and when they are absent we are left with trivia. But when these defining aspects of the human condition are, for an author, always and forever foreground, the resulting tedium is truly oppressive. In London Bridge, Céline, the eternal adolescent, has, like many adolescents, become tiresome.
Dominic Di Bernardi's translation is a valiant effort, superior not only to the Bernard Frechtman and Jack T. Nile translation of Guignol's Band, but also to both the Marks and the Manheim translations of Journey to the End of the Night. Céline's style, crammed with argot, neologisms, archaisms and foreign words, with nearly every phrase punctuated by an ellipsis, is notoriously difficult to translate. Di Bernardi's use of a wide range of Americanisms renders the text as amenable as possible. I only wish he had spent the time and energy on a new translation of Journey to the End of the Night rather than the first one of London Bridge.
Céline by Gen Paul, 1943
From up high where I was, you could shout anything you liked at them. I tried. They made
me sick, the whole lot of them. I hadn't the nerve to tell them so in the daytime, to their face,
but up there it was safe. "Help! Help!" I shouted, just to see if it would have any effect on
them. None whatsoever. Those people were pushing life and night and day in front of them.
Life hides everything from people. Their own noise prevents them from hearing anything
else. They couldn't care less. The bigger and taller the city, the less they care. Take it from
me. I've tried. It's a waste of time.
from Journey to the End of the Night