“Céline is my Proust!” Philip Roth once said. “Even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books… . Céline is a great liberator.” Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born on this day in 1894. He was a French writer largely remembered for his first novel “Journey to the End of the Night,” a loosely biographical work teeming with disease, misanthropy, and dark comedy. He was decorated for bravery in the First World War, and wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the run-up to the Second, after which he was declared a national disgrace and imprisoned for collaborationist sympathies. Céline, in short, is one of the great problems in twentieth-century literature: you find yourself irresistibly drawn in by the fearless singularity of his vision, even while aware of the appalling place to which it led him. What’s striking is how absent his grievous opinions are from his great novels where one can occasionally glimpse a gentle humanist buried beneath a bitterly stung idealism.
Everything that Céline became was an act of will. From a modest background, he was taken out of school early to work in trade, but he seemed unable to hold down jobs. The First World War—in which he was wounded while voluntarily undertaking a dangerous mission—freed him from this humdrum future; he educated himself relentlessly and came out of the war determined to be a doctor. He worked as an obstetrician and later in a public dispensary for the poor. The mind that emerged from this background is defiant, obscene, unsparing, willfully provocative, but it is also entirely without vanity.
Céline does not attempt a novel of ideas. His work has little in common with that of his contemporaries Sartre and Camus. And he defies the expectations of more traditional fiction—any impulse towards heroism, transcendence, escapism are absent. One is forced to read Céline in a different way—to not only share his perceptions but to somehow feel them. With his speech rhythms, his slang, his heavy use of ellipsis, he embroils you in the writing. But this is much more than a trick of style; it is the work of a wildly original imagination. His writing is intensely physical: a New York subway train is “a cannonball filled with quivering flesh”; he describes the “long, oozing house fronts” of the poor Paris suburbs and the “rickety dribbling children with nosefuls of fingers.” His experience as a soldier and doctor perhaps account for a biological fixation in his imagery and a perspective of pitiless objectivity. Here he is describing the act of speech:
When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. The corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth which screws itself up to a whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of fetid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment … Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state—that’s the unconscionable torture. (“Journey to the End of the Night”)
While using language to persuasively undermine itself, this passage captures the essence of Céline’s deepest comedy: the energy of the writing versus the sense of utter futility he conveys. The sheer stylistic exuberance with which he puts forward character is often in devastating contrast to the pointless, calamitous schemes in which they are caught up. The best example of this is the editor, writer, and inventor whose insane and increasingly manic moneymaking schemes make up a third of “Death on the Installment Plan”:
Courtial des Pereires himself never stopped producing, imagining, conceiving, resolving, making claims … his genius tugged at his brains from morning to night…And even at night it didn’t rest…He had to hold tight to resist the torrent of ideas…And be on his guard…It was incomparable torture … Instead of dozing off like other people, he was pursued by chimeras, new crazes, fresh hobbies…
The artistic energy Céline puts into creating this character, crafting one episode after another of virtuosic absurdity, seems of a piece with his own description of the novel’s paradox: “For me, you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on. That’s what “Death on the Installment Plan” is, symbolically, the reward of life being death.” Céline draws his vitality, his linguistic life from a joy in describing human action that comes to nothing.
There is no room for pathos in Céline’s vision. He seems almost to fear it—as if it might be a mere literary indulgence. Although he describes the most wretched, pitiful scenes, he is always quick to undermine our sympathy. In “Death on the Installment Plan,” waiting for a train at Gard du Nord, Ferdinand is embraced by his mother’s “misshapen carcass”:
“I was terribly ashamed […] She hugged me so hard, with such a storm of emotion, that I reeled…On those occasions the tenderness that welled up from her misshapen carcass had the strength of a horse…The idea of parting drenched her in advance. A howling tornado turned her inside out, as if her soul were coming out her behind, her eyes, her belly, her bosom…it hit me in all directions, it lit up the whole station… […] I didn’t dare admit it, but in a way I was curious…I’d have liked to know how far she could go in her effusions…From what nauseating depths was she digging up all this slop?“
Running through this scene is the shame the family feels in an unfamiliar public space so far removed from their usual poverty-stricken surrounds. They cling to one another at the station, feeling miserably exposed, “timid, furtive.” But having set this up, Céline undercuts it with his curiosity about his mother’s emotions, her “slop.”
Céline’s autobiographical self is largely good-natured, sensitive to the discomfort of others, but unable to offer solace. One feels that he would consider it somehow dishonest, and that this is not a grand principle or a pose, but an instinct. Pulling against the bog of misanthropy in Céline’s work is a modesty, a naivety even. In “Journey to the End of Night,” Bardamu (his alter-ego) is at a trading post, deep in the African jungle, with an army officer who confides in him about his orphaned niece whose education he is paying for with money from various illicit trades with the natives. Céline writes how the officer tells the story in a “strange bumbling voice” and “blushed crimson, as if her had done something absolutely indecent.” Bardamu feels his distress and instinctively knows he “ought to help him tell his story,” but he is at a loss at how to respond to it: “I didn’t know what to say, I had no experience, but his heart was so superior to mine that I went red in the face.”
In Céline’s world, human suffering is on the same footing as human pleasure; there is no system of abstract truth to which one can appeal. “A time comes when you are all alone,” he writes in “Journey to the End of the Night,” “when you’ve come to the end of everything that can happen to you. It’s the end of the world, even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore, and you have to retrace your steps, to go back among people, it makes no difference who.” There is something touching about this insight from one of literature’s most infamous misanthropes: the only place where, finally, we might find shelter from our suffering is in company—among people.
Céline returned to France in 1951, having been granted amnesty. He never renounced his former views and seemed to remain largely unrepentant, but in an interview in 1957 when asked about his anti-Semitism, he said, “My great sin in this was pride and, I’ll admit it, vanity, and stupidity.” In this utterance, he cites the very qualities that never mar his fiction. During another interview on TV that same year, he appears like a corpse, completely ravaged, sucked dry from the inside. The interviewer asks what message he hopes to impart about people before he dies: “Ils sont lourds,” (“they are heavy”), he says over again.
De THE NEW YORKER, 27/05/2013