Death on the Installment Plan
Céline and His Vision
In Journey to the End of the Night the narrator, Bardamu, takes up a seedy practice as a doctor in Garenne-Rancy, “When you live in Rancy, you don’t even realise how sad you have become.” One day he attends to Bébert, the concierge’s nephew. There will be no fee. In the suburbs the doctor is never paid. These sick people, he tells himself, “showed me, one after another, all the horrible deformities hidden away in their hearts which they revealed to no one but me”:
Such hideousness cannot be adequately paid for. It slips through your fingers like a slimy snake. I’ll spill it all one day, if I can live long enough to tell everything.
So he rehearses the first paragraphs:
Listen, you swine! Let me be nice to you for a few more years. Don’t kill me yet. Just look humble and helpless and I’ll tell you everything. I promise you that. And you’ll suddenly turn tail like those sticky caterpillars that used to crawl around my hut in Africa and I’ll make you more cunningly cowardly and obscene than ever, so much so that at the last maybe you’ll die of it.
We have here nearly all the ingredients to make a novel by Céline: violence, aggression, self-disgust, the appropriate images, and a threat to turn everything to good account, death, apocalypse. The scene is powerful, at the time, and if, later, it seems absurd, this is because we are far enough away from the words to ponder the gross disproportion between the occasion and its feeling. T. S. Eliot said that Hamlet “is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” By the same count, Céline’s emotion is always in excess of the facts as they appear. Indeed, much of his fury is directed against the paltry facts which coincide with its eruption. The fury is almost pure, gratuitous. But the effect of Bardamu’s scene cannot be entirely dispelled, because we are touched by the fury in the words, if not by the words themselves. The passage succeeds by its excess. If we say that the whole book wins by cheating in this way, we mark a certain operatic quality in Céline’s fiction. We might call his entire work an apocalyptic opera, and justify the description by citing a passage in Death on the Installment Plan. “I’m working up the opera of the deluge,” Ferdinand says: “Je fabrique I’Opéra du déluge.”
Louis-Ferdinand Destouches was born in Paris in 1894. His father had a job in an insurance firm, his mother was a lacemaker. His formal education was reasonably careful. In 1912 he enlisted for three years in the French cavalry at Rambouillet. He was severely wounded in the War and discharged on a disability rating. After the War he traveled for a while and turned to medicine. In 1928 he went into general medical practice in Clichy. His most famous novel. Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), was largely based on his own life in the War and thereafter in Paris, the United States, and Africa. His second major work, Mort à crédit (1936), is a fictional account of his childhood and adolescence. In 1932 he assumed the name Céline. After 1939 the story becomes confused. At that stage, it seems, Céline’s mental condition was highly erratic. For several years he had written wild pamphlets, anti-Semitic tirades. In 1951 he was found guilty of having collaborated with the Germans, but after a few months the verdict was reversed and he was exonerated. He spent the last ten miserable years of his life in Paris, writing furiously, trying to spill it all. He died in 1961.
CELINE’S LITERARY REPUTATION is still insecure. To Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and many other writers he is Saint Céline, the man who showed them what could be done, how to howl. Mr. Ginsberg’s Kaddish is the text to consult. To others, Céline is a charlatan. Henri Peyre calls him an exhibitionist, a mythomaniac, a coward, a liar; in literature, a slave to an argot already quaint.* Erika Ostrovsky clearly thinks Céline a very important writer, and she is fascinated by the violence of his prose, but she does not face the arguments that have been brought against him. She is rather the loyal expositor than the critic. So her book is useful as a guide to the work, but it will only please those who are already of Céline’s party. Every page of her book is helpful, but when all the pages are done, many of the crucial questions seem to have been mislaid.
In Yeats’s “A Woman Young and Old” the woman who speaks of “the crime of being born” goes on to say:
But where the crime’s committed
The crime can be forgot.
To Céline the crime can never be forgot, there is no consolation. If he identified the crime with Jewry, that is only because the Jews were near at hand. In Réflexions sur la question juive Sartre describes anti-Semitism as a Manichean force. Life can be understood only as a struggle between the principle of Good and the principle of Evil. To Céline “les youtres” are everywhere, the earth is lost, and the Aryan must never compromise. The only solution lies in mass suicide, death. So in Bagatelles pour un massacre and L’Ecole des cadavres Céline calls for the destruction of the Jews, vermin, merde. But there is a sense in which Céline’s language, even in his fiction, is designed as a form of torture. His low style is based on the assumption that eloquence is the schmaltz of Jews; as in Entretiens avec le Professeur Y he describes his argot as a language of hatred. “L’argot est né de la haine. Il n’éxiste plus.” he says again, in a passage quoted by Miss Ostrovsky. Some of this torture is dispelled in previous English translations of the two major novels. John H. P. Marks’s translations, now thirty-five years old, are bowdlerized in detail and toned down in general. The slang is rendered with a feeling that the novelist could not possibly have meant what he said. The result is that the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the Voyage is seriously misleading. As Mr. Manheim says, “the swift abrupt ejaculations are transformed into the flowing periods that Céline had rejected, and the language is to a considerable extent ennobled.” In the new translation of Mort à credit Mr. Manheim has turned Céline’s French into the kind of American that dogs and cats can read. So the torture is clear. Céline writes as if the crime of being born were embodied in literary French; and somebody is going to pay.
IT IS POSSIBLE to put an innocent face on this by saying that Céline distrusts the mind and tries to reach the nervous system directly. The obvious comparison is then with Artaud’s theater of cruelty, in which spasms, shudders, violence, and hallucination rush in upon the nerves to forestall the later, more decorous visitors. Like Artaud, Céline cultivates delirium because in that state everything is one. But there is no hate in Artaud; no feeling of vengeance. Indeed it often appears that the purpose of Céline’s fiction is to hasten the process of decomposition, to nullify the work of Creation. This is why his Bardamu hates the countryside, where intimations of growth are unmistakeable and even if winter comes spring can’t be far behind.
There are a few tender scenes in the Voyage: when Bardamu tries to find a vaccine for Bébert’s typhoid, when the poor little English girls at the Tarapout sing of love. But these scenes are only another incitement to Bardamu’s disgust. When they are over, he hates life more than ever for catching him in such traps. If the principle of Evil is bound to win, then let it win sooner rather than later. If everything aspires to the condition of excrement, hasten the process, get it over. The only way to go through life is to anticipate its most hideous intentions: then you cannot be taken by surprise. Céline’s style is designed to put his own voice in command of the empty spaces, to fend off the rush of fantasy and memory. “Life forces you to have far too much to do with phantoms,” Bardamu says. So he lives with facts and surrounds them with his hate. In Towards a New Novel Alain Robbe-Grillet urges the novelist to refuse complicity with things, with Nature. The novelist sees things,
…but he refuses to take possession of them, he refuses to entertain any questionable understanding or complicity with them. He asks nothing of them, he feels neither in harmony nor in disagreement with them. He may perhaps use them to reinforce his emotions, or as something to focus his eyes on. But his eyes are content just to measure them, and his emotion, too, alights on their surface, with no wish to penetrate them, since there is nothing inside.
There is something of this in Céline, an earlier stage in its emergence. In Céline’s fiction man is still, reluctantly, calling to things, but he hates himself for doing so. He is terrified by the incrimination of the senses, especially the sense of smell. The only way out is to keep things at a distance. Robbe-Grillet favors the sense of sight for this reason, that you don’t need to touch what you see. In the Voyage Bardamu goes up to the Sacré-Coeur to get away from the detail, the places, the houses. From that height, everything looks the same, and equally ugly. So be it.
PRACTICING TORTURE, Céline conspires with the destructive image. Sometimes he translates it directly into a scene, a character, like the crazy surgeon and the lip-smacking mob in D’un château l’autre, or the figure of Schertz in Nord. Miss Ostrovsky takes these gestures rather lightly, as if they called for no particular comment. She goes further, glancing at Goya, Bosch, and Brueghel for appropriate comparisons. But this is to gain for Céline a note of passion and world-sorrow which his works do not sound. Henri Peyre is perhaps too quick to deride Céline on the grounds that he was a nasty character and therefore could not have been a good writer. This will not hold. But Céline cannot be adequately defended merely by putting him into great company. There is no denying the fact that his vision is extremely limited; that he is a master of one note; that he connives with the extreme image as if its justice were as clear as its extremity. Talk of Goya’s war etchings is wide of the mark. Céline’s most famous pages are closer to Jacobean melodrama, if comparisons are to be sought; like the vomiting scene on the boat from Dieppe to Newhaven, in Mort à crédit. Céline is seldom quiet, unless he is contemplating, with quiet satisfaction, a thoroughly accomplished disaster. In one of the war scenes of the Voyage Bardamu contemplates the image of a burning village. “C’était gai.” The meditation is beautiful in its way, a tone poem, lyrical in its fulfillment, with the inevitable sigh, disappointment that the pleasure cannot last. “ça fait encore des beaux feux les forêts, mais ça dure à peine.” He is never content with the sea; until the tide goes out, and he sees what the pretty beach really is, “la vérité, mares lourdement puantes, les crabes, la charogne et l’étron.”
The pattern is clear enough. Far out in the Voyage Bardamu has a few paragraphs of reflection which one may safely quote as Céline’s theory of literature:
Dans les maisons, rien de bon. Dès qu’une porte se referme sur un homme, il commence à sentir tout de suite et tout ce qu’il emporte sent aussi, Il se démode sur place, corps et âme. Il pourrit. S’ils puent, les hommes, c’est bien fait pour nous. Fallait qu’on s’en occupe! Fallait les sortir, les expulser, les exposer. Tous les trucs qui puent sont dans la chambre et à se pomponner et puent quand même.
There is no question of mending the world, the crime is committed. The only plan is to vex man into the grave. Gide said of Céline: “it is not reality which he paints but the hallucinations which reality provokes.” The object is to suffuse the criminal’s mind and nerves with an endless sequence of hallucinations, third-degree treatment under the lights. Some of this is achieved by pure invective, as if this were Céline’s only skill and he were driven to spend his entire life collecting materials to feed it. Most of the hallucinations are achieved by taking incidents, common enough in themselves, and transposing them into the lower key of decomposition. Whether the key is called Bardamu or Ferdinand, the pattern of transposition is the same. The oeuvre is the opera of the deluge. Miss Ostrovsky writes of it as exorcism: “literature then becomes an exorcism rather than a salvation, a sign that everything is lost except the word.” This takes the harm out of an activity which seems to me quite different in its aim.
Of the two major novels, Mort à crédit is richer than the Voyage in verve and invention. There is nothing in the Voyage to put beside the long section about Courtial des Pereires in Mort; the cracked scientist trying to grow radishes ten times bigger than usual; author of The Complete Works of Auguste Comte Reduced to the Dimensions of a Positivist Prayer in Twenty-Two Acrostic Verses. As an aria, this sequence is remarkable, and it does wonders for the tone of the book in which it appears. But it is not enough. In both books there is far too much rant, too much howling. After a while the fiction lodges in the mind like a dance of the seven deadly sins, where all the seven are one and the same, called Life, or the Skin Disease. The energy is undeniable; but the fiction is less than the sum of its parts, because many of the parts are indistinguishable one from another. What is missing is the dramatic imagination, the hovering fly in the last scene of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, to take Allen Tate’s example. Without this, Céline’s fury, hate, and rage make whatever impact they make upon first hearing, but this is the strongest impact they will ever make, and it is not sustained. Perhaps this is an elaborate way of saying that Céline is a “man without art.”
Henri Peyre, French Novelists of Today (Oxford, revised edition, 1967.)↩
Only Joking October 12, 1967
Henri Peyre, French Novelists of Today (Oxford, revised edition, 1967.)↩