Céline as something else
I would not have read through the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline had I not found them entertaining. They are supposed to be “difficult”; they are so only until one gets the hang of the technique and style. It is the opposite of Proustian (and Céline hated Proust with all his demonic passion, called him “the Homer of the perverts”), yet I love Proust and have lived with pleasure in his own “alternative universe.” But then, my idea of entertainment marks me out as something of a non-participant in my own generation. I do not “couch-potato” well; even at my advanced age I suffer from too much energy. I want a participant sport. My natural attraction is to “difficult” authors, because I get my thrills from wrestling with them, and a pleasure that is different in kind from, say, receiving a sun tan.
Read him ideally in the original French, but failing that in the earlier translations. (This is a tip not only for Céline.) The flavour leeches out over time; a contemporary translator cannot help catching things that are in the air of his period; a later translator must think everything through; and as Céline said, “There’s no tyrant like a brain.”
Ralph Manheim was a fine chameleon of a translator, of modern lit from German and French into American English, and his versions of Céline’s triumphant final trilogy of novels (Castle to Castle, North, Rigadoon) are wonderful and should remain definitive, just as they are redolent of the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties. On the other hand, Manheim’s 1966 re-translation of Mort à crédit, from 1936, is too clean, too “thoughtful.” I much prefer the nearly contemporary version by John Marks which appeared under the much better English title, Death on the Instalment Plan. Marks takes more liberties with the text, but gets the pulse of it. His translation benefits tremendously from having been done pre-War; anything after that War may be subverted by anachronism.
For everything published in the 1930s was written before Auschwitz. The reader after Auschwitz will not be able to keep it out of mind, yet if he does not try, he will misread everything — not only big things, but little things. “The War” for those writing intra-war, is the Great War, the shadow of which still darkens and highlights everything from its own angle. And perhaps more significantly, the pre-War for them is the world before 1914: a world almost unimaginably displaced from the “pre-War” of a later generation.
This is indeed much of what Céline is getting at, as chronicler of his age — a chronicler who has nothing but contempt for “the masses,” and the mass history that is laid down with a slather of “great events.” He is intensely personal, and history for him is intensely personal. It is written in pain, by souls who have been thrust into Hell.
I mentioned in my last post what seemed to me a significant fact: that Céline’s horrid anti-Semitic tracts began appearing shortly after he’d had his heart broken by a Jewish girl. To our way of thinking, this fact must be rejected, and I notice all interpreters looking the other way. For how could he be so petty? Surely a little personal misfortune in love could not be so great a trigger. We are trained to think big. Little things like one single human’s birth, life, and death do not count with us: after all, mere people die by the millions; are so many aborted foetuses in the hospital bins. Yet I think that little event was a trigger in Céline, for bigger things; just as the murder of a well-dressed man in Sarajevo touched off a much wider explosion. Neither “justice” nor “proportion” is the issue here.
In this post, let me mention Céline’s persistent habit of dating the collapse of Western Civ to some moment in October 1914. Many things happened in the course of 1914: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurred in June; the serious fighting began in August. But it was on the 25th of October that Céline himself was grievously wounded, during an action which incidentally earned him the médaille militaire, and had him cited for bravery all across France. That is the date he chooses as the boundary between “then” and “now” — when he is himself “invalided” or as he also put it, “invalidated” out of the conflict. The world before was the world before; the world after he summarizes later in the single word, “Stalingrad.”
Gentle reader must fully take this in, should he wish to make any sense of an author who makes no concessions whatever to the “objectivity” we require for our own mental peace. Céline does not care for your mental peace. He has permanently lost his own. As he puts it, “People don’t deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them.”
He has been “victimized,” and the world he depicts is of his fellow victims: the little people. The closest he comes to making a speech is when he expounds little home truths to them:
“I tell you, little man, life’s fall guys, beaten, fleeced, sweated from time immemorial, I warn you, that when the princes of this world start loving you, it means they’re going to grind you up into battle sausage.”
Or when he explains:
“In olden times the fanatical fashion was: Long live Jesus! Burn the heretics! … But heretics, after all, were few and voluntary. Whereas today, under the flags of Europe, …”
Or when he gives his advice to the lovelorn:
“Love is like liquor, the drunker and more impotent you are, the stronger and smarter you think yourself, and the surer you are of your rights.”
Or when he provides tips on how to get out of a fix. For when the executioner has you staring at the blade of his guillotine, it is time to shout:
“Hey, you lazy bastard! Don’t you have anyone sharpening that thing?”
Céline is with the victims. But that, too, will be misleading to our post-modern reader who has come to understand victimhood as a mass phenomenon, as a political position; or if reduced to the personal level, as a way to extract money and retribution through the courts by means of malicious posturing and lies. These are not real victims, but the exploiters of the Left-progressive “system” for the bureaucratic arbitration of victimhood — of a “system” imposed, for all practical purposes, by agents of Satan.
In a parallel way, “indignation” has been whored by the Leftists (and their mirrors on the Right). The very possibility of “righteousness,” therefore “righteous indignation,” has been whored: for us, individual righteousness can only be self-righteousness, for righteousness has been put to work in the streets by our liberal and progressive pimps.
And I say this with some warmth, not only because it is true, but because it will give the reader some insight into the world this Céline is describing; this Céline who absolutely refuses surrender to anybody’s stinking party line, and is therefore easily labelled as “a fascist.”
This same Céline who writes vile and vicious things in pamphlets, and shouts obscenities in his sleep at night; but in his private waking life would not hurt a fly. And who, during the War, in France, refused to play the game of a Sartre or Picasso, both of whom lived well and comfortably under the Nazis and then manoeuvred to pose as heroes of the Resistance after. Céline had no idea how to be a whore; not that he was good, but because it wasn’t in his repertoire.
He identifies exclusively with those “on the run,” and in his last magnificent trilogy, with those on the run who can enjoy no one’s sympathy; on those with whom he is running himself, from castle to castle, ever north, away from the “liberators,” in a fine rigadon (it is the name of a Baroque dance). Running, gloriously and without excuse, through the smashed remains of the old Europe — itself appearing now to be nothing more than a knocked-down Hollywood set. The reality he describes is poetic beyond words.
Those who specialize in condemnation, may surely condemn Céline for many sins. I would not myself volunteer to advance his cause for Catholic sainthood.
Our Canadian sage, George Grant, tried to defend him by suggesting that Céline’s vision — which he once naughtily (and brilliantly) associated with Simone Weil’s — was also to be associated with a Platonic conception of justice and the Good. With characteristic unctuousness, the Canadian professoriat dismissed this as eccentric and naïve. I have read a couple of papers in which essentially Marxist professors diminished Grant, and by extension Céline, for advancing an “art” of precisely the kind that must be censured and censored by the wise elders enforcing Plato’s immaculately sterile Good. Needless to say they knew nothing of Grant, Céline, or Plato. (Or, nothing but a few “facts,” which put them on a level with journalists.)
Céline wears his vices on his chest, instead of the médaille militaire. My only defence could be, that they are necessary to his virtues, and that for the reader, they must be borne together, because in some deep sense they are married — they “cannot be apart.” He provides the vantage to see a tremendous truth about our times, which no other vantage could supply; and in doing so perhaps Céline himself provides a poignant illustration of why God might permit evil in this world.
Finally, to complete my own perfessorial instructions, Céline like any author worth the time, should be read through, chronologically. He will train the reader in how to read him as he goes along; stock us up with what we need to know along the way. And while a few paragraph’s worth of author biography, or better, naked chronology in the French style, may be essential orientation from the start, stay well away from long, later author biographies. They will fill your head with prejudices, misdirections, and stupidities. Céline is to be read on Céline’s terms, not on those of some filthy self-serving bourgeois.