Castle to Castle
Uproar in the whorehouse! Angèle has accused Joconde of wearing a wig. “And then, hup! Without time to say oof!” she’s pulled a knife and plunged it into Joconde’s fanny. Screams ring through the room as Joconde, “squeezing her ass in her two hands,” races from pillar to post yelling “Help!” Moved by feminine curiosity, all the other whores dash after her trying to see the wound; Angèle starts feeling guilty and begins to snivel; Cascade, the great ponce, sees that he must intervene;
“Where’d she stick you, tell me, Mimine?”
“There, sweet darling, there!…Ow!”
One quick glance at her ass is enough. Joconde must go to the hospital. But she hears the dreaded word. She screams:
“I want to die here!”
“You won’t die here, you slut!”
He tries to cheer her up. “Look! You’re not the only one with a nice ass.”
He whips off his pants, presents his own behind. It’s tattooed all over! On the right buttock, a rose. On the left, a wolf’s face with long teeth. Over the wolf is written in green letters: “I bite everywhere.”
Even Joconde smiles when she sees that. She lets the other whores stuff towels and oilcloth up her ass, roll her up in a tablecloth, and rush her to the street door. Cascade can’t help take her to the hospital because a police inspector has happened by at this difficult moment and must be persuaded that the situation is normal:
“I’m sure that in your family, Inspector, you’ve got trouble, too!…Ah, I bet! …It’s a subject that makes me terribly sad…. And how unhappy everyone is! …And how that kind of thing ages you…!”
Now Joconde is in the cab—and it’s off to the London Hospital. A long way, but no other hospital will do. At the London is Dr. Clodovitz, the French refugee with no papers. The British let “Clodo” work there because there’s a war on and he’s ready to do the dirty jobs—face up to
…the cockney housewives and the drunken bullies…the peglegs, the whisky cirrhoses, the fistulas, the broken heads, the dyspeptics, the lumbagoes cut in two who squalled about everything, the albuminous, their little bottles, the finical bellyachers, the anti-everythings, the death dodgers, the people with little pensions, the choking asthmatics, all of them corralled, roped in, pushing one another, squeezed against the door….
And down on all this comes the yellow fog, drifting into the public wards—and “Clodo” drifting with it, a kerosene carriage lamp (to see the patients with) held high in one hand, a kindly hypodermic in the other. “Soon be over…. Soon be over,” he murmurs in each ear. And the beds with the dead in them are wheeled into the street, and the fog on the Thames Embankment covers them forever like an eternal pall. “I can’t help saying that when I die I’d like to be left on the sidewalk…just like that, all alone…you wouldn’t see anything…carried off gently…faith in the gloom.” Except that life must go on, and the fundamentals of life are very different—particularly to Cascade:
“And how’s her ass coming along?”
“That part’s all right!” [said “Clodo.”]
“When the ass is all right, everything’s all right,” he answers.
* * *
So happily ends a scene in Céline’s novel Guignol’s Band. What a combination it is—the rude realities of knife, ass, and choking asthmatics all melting into a dream world of fog and eternal sleep! It is only a point of minor interest that a Frenchman should be the greatest novelist of London since Dickens: it is the genius, not the locality, that is the point of astonishment. Céline set his scenes in many places, including Africa and North America, and only New York and Detroit were too much for his recreative eyes. There, and there alone, do we find the stereotyped responses, the accepted picture of an automatic, soulless city: perhaps we must assume that his business was never with the New World, only with the decays and diseases of the old.
The so-called seminal writers are often ones who do not achieve a great deal themselves, but plant the seeds that are needed by their greater successors. But Céline was a seminal writer of another sort. In the first place, no successor has managed to take over his seeds and grow greater works than his own from them. In the second place, he is a sower of seeds that germinate not only within their own setting but in the minds of his readers—some little sentence, some passing phrase that sticks in the mind and grows with such vigor that one is astonished, after years of living and growing with it, to refer back to its origins and find that what one has expanded into a vision occupying pages is in fact only a little suggestion sketched in two or three lines.
In this manner, all the seed he sows seems to expand within his own works, which become bigger and more extensive in their visions the longer one carries them around in the imagination. Not much space, really, is used in Guignol’s Band to describe the burial of the poor in eternal fog. But after ten or twenty years of carrying that image in the mind, a huge vision has been blown up in the memory—the vast hospital in the huge city, the broad Embankment, the invisible dead lying on their wheeled beds in their endless rows, covered by fog until the day of judgment.
In the same novel, two of these wild Frenchmen go to work on an old pawnbroker in his Greenwich bedroom. They heave him up, throw him in the air, turn him upside down, shake him like mad. Out of his pockets, out of hidey-holes all over his body, sovereigns and half-sovereigns shoot out and fly through the air; the more the gold flies, the more the excited Frenchmen shake and wrestle. And over the years, the fantastic scene swells in the reader’s memory until it expands into the sphere of Greek myth—the dirty room fills with showers of gold and covers the struggling little figures, like Zeus descending on Danaë. One scrubby little incident flowers into a spectacular legend.
And so it happens with hundreds of little scenes, with dozens of tiny episodes. That famous moment on the cross-Channel packet boat in Death on the Installment Plan when the seasick Frenchman, watched with fascination by his fellow travelers, strains for what seems like hours to empty his stomach over the side—and at last succeeds in vomiting out one raspberry: it takes Céline a dozen lines, but in the mind, that retching runs on forever. So does the absurd walk by the French father, mother, and child along the cliffs from the landing place to Brighton, the father striding adamantly toward the goal, the mother dragging behind him on her lame leg, the little boy crying his eyes out in the rear—with here again the fog falling like a blanket on the ridiculous figures and rising only occasionally to reveal the pointing finger of a signpost, marked “To Brighton.” And on and on they march “To Brighton” in the imagination, never pausing but never arriving, three struggling figures that are never forgotten. This is what Henry Miller means when he says simply: “Céline lives within me. He always will.”
Any man who has lived with Céline’s visions growing in his mind perpetually over the years must feel a vast admiration for their original creator. The huge expenditure of physical energy that lies behind them, the intensity of the concentration—these repeat both the abandon that killed Dickens as well as the theatrical demonstrativeness that was also the great mark of Dickens. But one must make a small correction in the use of the word “theatrical.”
In her study Céline and His Vision (1968) Erika Ostrovsky noted the fact that there is a Céline who travels and a Céline who stays at home—a translated Céline who captures his American and British readers with his visions, and an original Céline whose literary style is what has mattered most to his fellow countrymen. This is a good observation. The reader who has digested Joyce is not particularly impressed by the famous “three dots” with which Céline broke the orthodox French sentence into pieces and stood French syntax on its head. But it is also possible that the American reader has been attuned in advance to those “three dots” and the rhythm they impose on the movement of a sentence. This rhythm is not of any prose, nor is it of any theatrical dialogue. It belongs to the world of the silent film and the earliest comedies of the American cinema.
Each broken fragment of a few words is one of those little frames jerking its way through the projector and deriving a good part of its humor from its stuttering progress from one absurdity to another. When Joconde is rushed to the hospital, when Cascade and his gang are chased through the streets of London by furious dockers, we relive the fantastic chases and rushes of the cinema as it was in Céline’s boyhood. One wonders now: was it mere coincidence that two of Céline’s earliest American worshippers, James Agee and Otis Ferguson, were not only wild men who loved Céline’s anarchy, but men who never escaped from the tutelage of the film?
Céline, whose life was a perpetual pretense and self-invention, never paid tribute either to Dickens or to the early film. Nor does Dr. Ostrovsky have anything to say of either in her disastrous new book on Céline, Voyeur Voyant. There are so many rude things to say about this supposed biography that the quicker they are said, and the more briefly, the better for everyone except the biographer.
First, her book is not ordered chronologically. It is ordered by theme and by whim—any given moment in Céline’s life, from childhood to death, may pop up wherever the author decides to pop it up, e.g., Chapter 1 begins with Céline’s funeral in 1961, Chapter 2 kicks off with his life in London in 1915, shoots back to 1911, on to his spell in the Cameroons (1917), forward again to his first marriage (1919), and finally to Detroit (1927) and Paris (1928). As there is no index, the only way to discover any one thing is to check through the whole book.
But the whole book is so abominably written that it is torture to have to read it at all. The little seeds that have been mentioned—the seeds that sprouted in Miller, Sartre, Agee, Kerouac, Burroughs, and God knows how many other receptive novelists—have landed smack inside Dr. Ostrovsky and have grown into a sort of bedlam of orchids. Her syntax is so bizarre that, just as one can never follow Céline’s life chronologically, so one can often not know whether the doctor is starting a sentence, ending a sentence, or just burbling in the middle of a sentence. That the spirit of Paris should be evoked by (among other things) “the deep fragrance of ripening chestnuts; the trickle of urinals” is good at least for a hearty laugh, just as a maternal demise described as “Decomposed, the mother’s teats…” is singular enough to wake one up. But here, so that the reader may judge for himself, are two longer passages from this distracted work. The first is on the subject of Céline’s doctoral thesis, a biography of Ignace Semmelweiss, the great Hungarian accoucheur: