• Email
  • Print

Paranoid Poetics

Castle to Castle

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, translated by Ralph Mannheim
Delacorte, 384 pp., $7.50

There can be no doubt about the historical importance of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in the literature of anarchistic revolt. He was the first great foul-mouthed rhapsodist of the twentieth century to proclaim a satanic vision of the godless world, rolling helplessly through space and infested with crawling millions of suffering, diseased, sex-obsessed, maniacal human beings. Voyage au bout de la nuit, which appeared in 1932, was not simply a continuation of the pessimistic literature of the nineteenth-century “realists.” It was Zola-esque in its blackness, but it had a frenzy, a speed, and a virulence which made the average Zola novel suddenly seem almost as old-fashioned as a horse-drawn bus. Zola had toyed with the idea of using the working-class vernacular as a medium for the expression of social reality, as had Jean Richepin and a number of minor satirical poets, but no one before Céline had exploited the figurative obscenities and racy syntax of the spoken language in such a thoroughgoing and masterly fashion. It was as if the underdog had suddenly found a voice.

Céline’s anti-hero, the penniless disreputable slum-doctor, Bardamu, was a sort of eloquent Caliban, expressing the nether side of civilization. The effect was as startling in the Thirties as that of the comparable cry of revolt in the Forties and Fifties by Jean Genet, who also emerged suddenly from the anonymous mass, this time to proclaim a complete subversion of “normal” values in the name of the criminal, homosexual outcast.

Since nothing is ever absolutely new, Céline would probably not have been what he was without the French tradition of revolt, which one can trace back almost as far as one likes—through the Surrealists (with whom he was contemporaneous, although he appears to have had no dealings with them) to Jarry’s Ubu Roi and to Rimbaud, to the Romantic movement, to the Marquis de Sade and the other révoltés of the eighteenth century, such as the hero of Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, to the scurrilous and picturesque writers of the seventeenth century, to Rabelais in the sixteenth and Villon in the fifteenth. God-defiance or God-rejection, wild satirical exaggeration, scatological and pornographic hyperbole are not novel elements in French literature, but they have appeared with increasing density as each fresh wave of revolt has broken on the historical scene. Céline may not have absorbed much of this tradition consciously, but it was in the air he breathed. Also he had suffered the terrible shock of the First World War at the tender age of eighteen and had emerged from it with serious head-wounds, which caused chronic insomnia and may have permanently affected his personality. He admits to only one important immediate literary influence—the writings of Henri Barbusse, the author of Clarté and Le Feu, who had a similar impatient, erotic temperament but rather less force and staying power.

It would be interesting to know whether or not Henry Miller had actually begun writing his “Tropics” before he read Voyage au bout de la nuit; the very short letter he contributed to the special number of the periodical L’Herne devoted to Céline (1962) leaves the matter in some doubt. Yet the similarities between his books and Céline’s two major novels, the Voyage and Mort à crédit (1936) seem too striking to be explained merely as a coincidence, or as two separate manifestations of the Zeitgeist. One gets the impression that Céline pulled out some kind of stopper and released a flood of vituperative literature, which since his time has flowed as strongly in the English language as in French. The vengeful, apocalyptic note, which sounds first in Miller, then in Mailer, Kerouac, Baldwin, Ginsberg, etc., has also been characteristic of a great many of the younger British writers, although in England it has perhaps been heard more frequently in the theater than in the novel or poetry. I have lost count of the garrulous heroes who have stood on the British stage during the last twenty years or so and shouted their disgust with society and life in different varieties of the demotic. Whether they know it or not, Céline had a lot to do with the development of the poetics of paranoia, which they have illustrated so exhaustively.

The dust-jacket of Castle to Castle says that it is “a novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.” Actually, Céline is a novelist only in the limited sense that he produces imaginative variations on his autobiography. This book is the middle volume of a trilogy, including Nord and the recently published Rigodon, which gives an account of his experiences in Germany during the last phase of the Second World War, just as the Voyage dealt mainly with the First World War, while Mort à crédit went back to his childhood and adolescence. The expression “gives an account” is perhaps misleading; the writing is demential in that Céline does not tell a story nor explain anything, but instead produces a vast, swirling monologue in which glimpses of real-life episodes, worked up to Céline’s usual feverish pitch, alternate with repetitive diatribes against all those people against whom he has a grudge—the mob who ransacked his flat in Paris at the time of the Liberation, the Danes who put him in jail as a suspected collaborator, his publisher, Gallimard, his various literary colleagues who have come through the war unscathed, and anybody else who, for one reason or another, has provoked his bile.

He found himself in Germany with the retreating puppet French government because he had been a collaborator, but why he should have become one is a major problem that has never been properly clarified. After producing Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à crédit, which were widely and justifiably assumed to be expressing a predominantly left-wing sensibility, he suddenly turned into the most scurrilous kind of anti-Semitic pamphleteer and, when the Germans occupied France, allowed himself to be associated with one of their most revolting enterprises, the anti-Semitic exhibition in Paris.

Some of his defenders have put forward the view that he had looked upon the Jews as war-mongers and had been so horrified by the First World War that he couldn’t stand the thought of another. It is surely a feeble excuse to say that anti-Semitism is a metaphor for pacifism; the indiscriminate expression of hatred can never be expected to ensure peace, and even if there were Jews who were thirsting, and not without reason, for a crusade against Hitler, it was as plain as a pikestaff between 1935 and 1939 that Hitler himself was itching for war. Then, after the German invasion of France, it was still possible, for someone who had no faith in an ultimate Allied victory, to adopt an attitude of minimal cooperation with the Germans, at least during the initial phase, in order to save something of France. But Céline seems to have gone far beyond the attitude of sorrowful acceptance that was legitimate in the circumstances, and therefore he had little grounds for complaint when his property was confiscated after the German defeat. He was, in fact, condemned to death in absentia and, had he not been held in Denmark until the proclamation of the amnesty, he would not have remained alive to make such a fuss about the disgraceful treatment he received at the hands of the Danes.

Another argument advanced in his favor is that his attack on the Jews was really a criticism of capitalism and of what is now called “the consumer society.” We are asked to look upon him as a prophet of the contemporary disgust with money and commercial values, and this no doubt is why he is quoted in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Pierrot le fou. It seems to be true that he was in some ways a generous man; during his last years, he apparently gave his medical services free of charge to such poor people as came to consult him in his retreat at Meudon. But he had no social or economic philosophy that I can discern. His reason for going to Denmark by way of Germany was that he had salted away his literary earnings there in the belief that Denmark would be able to keep out of the war. This shows a certain individualistic self-interest rather than a detestation of commercial values. In any case, all his railing against people with money is nullified by the fact that his publisher, Gallimard, is one of the rich men he attacks most violently. Since Gallimard is serenely drawing revenue from this attack upon himself, Céline is reduced to the role of licensed, anti-bourgeois jester. It is impossible to take him seriously as a thinker, although it is also impossible to forgive him his more disgusting outbursts.

I think one has to assume either that Céline was not quite right in the head, or that his metaphysical despair was so great that he thought it didn’t much matter whom he attacked or what he said, provided the theme he was dealing with could be translated into his particular brand of rhapsodic prose. The most one can say on his behalf is that he didn’t play safe. His literary reputation stood high in the late Thirties and, since anti-Semitism was not a popular theme in France, he had no personal axe to grind in suddenly switching to it, apart, perhaps, from the technical need to find a new source of invective, after using up the material of his early life in the two major works. Nor are the later volumes in any sense an apologia; he doesn’t try to explain or justify his behavior; he just carries on in his usual tone, hitting out in all directions, although he has one or two kind words incidentally for Pétain and Laval, who appear to have maintained their personal dignity during the shambles of the German collapse.

Castle to Castle oscillates between Céline living in the present at Meudon after the war, with his second wife, Lili, his cat, Bébert, and his horde of dogs, Céline at various stages in his childhood and youth, as in the Voyage and Mort à crédit, and Céline during the German collapse and after. The style is characteristic of his later manner, i.e., it bears as little resemblance to traditional narrative writing as Turner’s last pictures do to representational painting. The reader has to surrender himself to an impressionistic, paranoiac monologue, in which more often than not the sentences are left unfinished, the transitions from one idea to the next are not explained and many of Céline’s contemporaries are referred to elliptically and derisively under transparent nicknames (Larengon=Aragon and Tartre=Sartre), as if their misdeeds were too obvious to need recounting. Occasionally, there is a more sustained passage where Céline is describing some tragi-comic scene in Germany—crowds arriving at a railway station, French collaborators scattering as the English bombs fall, or the extraordinary Hohenzollern castle of Siegmaringen, where the French refugees were temporarily lodged.

The technique is always the same: detail is piled upon detail in a mad rush, as if the intolerable nature of creation were being suggested by a proliferation of instances. The phenomenon is very close to the hysteria of the Absurd in Ionesco, which expresses itself through the multiplication of chairs on the stage, or a sprouting corpse, or the transformation of humanity into a herd of rhinoceroses. Céline has swarms of refugees milling around one overworked hotel lavatory (the excremental side of human nature was almost as hateful to him as to Swift; cf. the description of the New York public lavatory in Voyage au bout de la nuit), or he conveys the horror of the castle by dwelling on the endless labyrinth of its rooms or the all-invading clutter of objects and Hohenzollern portraits, e.g.:

From one side to the next, I got lost…I’m telling you, I admit it…Lili or Bébert found me…women have an instinct for labyrinths, for ins and outs …they find their way …animal instinct…it’s order that stymies them …the absurd is their dish…to them the whacky is normal … the fashion for cats… attics, mazes, old barns…they’re drawn irresistibly by Gothic manses…that we’d better stay out of…they’re funny that way…that’s embryogeny, the pirouettes and somersaults of the gametes…the perversity of the atoms…animals are the same way … take Bébert!…he’d peekaboo me through the transoms … brrt!brrt! …big joke! … I couldn’t see him … teasing me … cats, children, ladies have a world of their own … Lili went where she pleased all over the castle of the Hohenzollerns…from one maze of corridors to the next…from the bell-tower up in the air to the armory on a level with the river…by sheer instinct!…reason’ll only mix you up…wood, or stone spirals, ladders…bends..up or down?…hangings, tapestries, false exits…all traps…troubadours, bats, vagrant sprites…there’s nothing you won’t run into, I’m telling you from one false exit, one false drapery to the next…

….the Schloss and its library! labyrinths…woodwork! porcelain and dungeons!…into the drink with its memories!…and all its thousands of princes and kings! down into the delta! …ah, crashing, impetuous Danube! the river will carry it all away!…ah Donau blau! …my ass!…crashing fury, carrying off the Castle and its bells…and all its demons!…

…porphyry Apollos!…ebony Venuses! all carried away by the torrent! and the Huntress Dianas! whole floors of Huntress Dianas!…Apollos! …Neptunes!…the loot of demons in breastplates, ten centuries of pillage! the work of seven dynasties! you’ll see when you get there, the warehouse of superloot…

…I thought of this and that…I’m boring you again…Yes, I thought of the way she was at home in that castle…never lost…the way she’d find me in some corridor…fascinated, looking at one more Hohenzollern…Hjalmar …Kurt…Hans…another…a hunchback…yes…yes…I didn’t tell you…they were all hunchbacked! Burchard… Wenceslas…Conrad…they’re driving me nuts…twelfth…thirteenth…fifteenth of the name! Centuries…centuries! …centuries! …hunchbacked and no legs!…cloven goat’s hoofs…all of them…Landru Devils!…ah, I see them! I see them all! their warts too!…that family wart!…on the ends of their noses…

The basic feeling in paranoia may be that the individual consciousness is being stifled by the infinite number of other existences and by the pressure of the unassimilable weight of material things. Here the objets d’art are treated with a certain respect because they are precious and the skills that produced them have largely disappeared (this is a subsidiary obsession with Céline, because his mother was a lace-maker, i.e., a devoted, old-fashioned artisan), but at the same time they are hated, because there are so many of them, just as the generations of Hohenzollerns who amassed them are hated and seen as an endless series of warts on predatory noses.

Céline is both fascinated by the castle and looks forward to the day when it will collapse into the Danube with all its contents. This again is typical; the twin poles of his sensibility seem to be endless proliferation or total destruction. This would fit in with his anti-Semitism, which is a tendency to see Jews everywhere and make them responsible for everything, while calling for their complete obliteration.

Independently of its moral obtuseness, this all-or-nothing rhythm is, in the long run, very monotonous, and Castle to Castle, apart from one or two good, nightmarish passages, is quite a tedious book. He himself seems to have realized this, because he says in an interview included in this volume that he had written himself out with Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à crédit. I would suggest, rather, that after 1936 he went so peculiar that he involved himself in experiences which did not correspond to the whole of his personality as it had existed in the earlier phase. The increasing stridency of his later works shows that there is something wrong with the experiences themselves and that he is not digesting them properly into literature.

  • Email
  • Print