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Uncovering Céline

At the end of November 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht, Denoël published Céline’s next book, the 57,000-word L’École des cadavres—“The School of Corpses.” Where, a year earlier, in Bagatelles, Céline had used every rhetorical means at his disposal to conjure, with buffoonish intensity, cartoonish hyperbole, and tireless vulgarity, an image of the Jews as culprits for the iniquities of modern life and of ancient tyranny—a series of tableaux so absurd in their overstatement that some uncommonly blinkered readers mistook their nature—in L’École there can be no mistaking what side Céline was on. “I feel very close to Hitler, very close to all the Germans,” he writes, “I consider them brothers, they have every reason to be racist. It would bring me no end of pain if they were defeated.”

To avoid such a defeat, a little anti-Semitism wasn’t going to be enough. “I find Italian anti-Semitism lukewarm for my taste, bloodless, inadequate,” Céline explains, referring to Italy’s Leggi razziali, the racial laws promulgated there in September 1938. “I find it dangerous. A distinction between good Jews and bad Jews? It makes no sense”:

Does a surgeon make a distinction between good and bad germs?… No. It would be foolish, a disaster. He boils all his instruments before he operates, not during, a good twenty minutes under painstaking pressure…. The ABCs of the Art of Surgery.

Everything is mysterious about germs just as everything is mysterious about Jews. One germ so harmless, one Jew so admirable yesterday, tomorrow brings rage, damnation, infernal blight. No one can predict the future of a germ any more than the future of a Jew…. Waves of infection spread through space, as they wish, when they wish, and that’s that. Harmless bacteria, harmless Jews, semi-virulent germs become virulent tomorrow, epidemial. The same Jews, the same germs, just at different moments in life…. No one has the right to risk introducing a single germ, a single Jew said to be innocuous, into the operating theater. No one knows what will happen, what did happen, what will mutate the most benign-looking germ or Jew….

What’s happening with the kikes in Italy and France is exactly what happened with pseudo-sterilization. It’s no mystery…. If you want to get rid of the rats in a ship, or the stink bugs in a house, do you de-rat by half, and exterminate on just the first floor? You’ll be reinvaded in a month by ten times the rats, by twenty times the bugs….

Two go out the door and 36,000 come back in through the window…. You have to know what you want. Do you want to be rid of the Jews or do you want them to stay? If you really want to get rid of the Jews, then don’t do it 36,000 ways, with 36,000 pretenses! Racism! The Jews aren’t afraid of anything except racism! They don’t care about anti-Semitism. They can always handle anti-Semitism…. Racism! Racism! Racism! And not just a little, not halfheartedly, but completely! absolutely! inexorably! like Pasteur’s perfect sterilization.

Once France was under the Occupation, once Céline’s publisher, Denoël, had launched a new imprint, Nouvelles Éditions Françaises (its inaugural title: Dr. Georges Montandon’s Comment reconnaître le Juif? [How Do You Recognize the Jew?]), Céline’s 34,000-word Les Beaux Draps (A Fine Mess) arrived in the spring of 1941. Céline finds “more Jews than ever in the streets, more Jews than ever in the press, more Jews than ever at the bar, the Opéra, the Comédie Française, in manufacturing, in banks. Paris and France under the sway of Freemasons and Jews more than ever and more arrogantly than ever before.” His solution?

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them.

While Céline would have us understand that the Jews, despite his 200,000 words of wartime incitement, were still enjoying the best of all possible worlds, new editions of Bagatelles and L’École were being readied for 1942 and 1943—the latter in an illustrated edition with a new preface by Céline (“Much water under the bridge since this book came out!”). Because paper was being rationed in France and Denoël was running low, Céline called in a favor from Karl Epting, wartime director of the German Institute in Paris:

Dear Epting,

You were once kind enough to inform me that in the event of my publisher lacking paper to print my books—you might be able to come to my assistance. I have not forgotten those tempting words—up to now we have struggled against growing penury but we have reached the end of our rope— To reprint my principal works we would need fifteen tons of paper. That is the naked truth—Do you think you can help me? [In English] That is the question—Be or not.

Most cordially yours.

Destouches.

2.

While the content of Céline’s pamphlets is, unintentionally, perhaps even more tragic than the events that take place in his novels,” writes Marlon Jones in his new introduction to Normance (1954), the fifth of Céline’s eight novels and the last to appear in English, “the consequences of these anti-Semitic writings gave his life a particular trajectory, led to his period of exile, and ultimately, provided living fertilizer for some of his richest literary produce.” Jones would have us understand that Céline’s “pamphlets” are important today only inasmuch as we can be grateful for their impact on Céline’s biography—on how the troubles they cost him fortified his subsequent, “richest” writing. Undoubtedly, as France regained its senses and its borders and started to settle its overdue accounts—and as Céline saw other anti-Semitic agitators rounded up and decided to flee through Germany at the war’s fraying end—such events did find their way into the novels D’un château l’autre (1957), Nord (1960), and Rigodon (1969), just as the eighteen months he spent awaiting extradition from Danish prison to trial in France after the war fed Ferié pour un autre fois (1952).

In one of these postwar books, Normance, Céline gives us a day in the life of wartime Paris, as an air raid hits Montmartre in 1944. Here we have play-by-play of the day’s explosions, inner and outer:

Ah, all of a sudden, the babooming stops completely!…silence!…the apartment stops rocking…shuddering…creaking…cracking…almost, at least…a lull…the floor’s still bulging, rippling…but not so violently…the storm’s blown over…just a little swell to crawl across…gentle…I catch [the dog]…I’ll have to auscultate him…dogs’ hearts beat faster than humans’…I’m always interested in the physiological angle!…never mind the circumstances!…I’ll auscultate all the hearts I come across…I’ve auscultated a thousand cats’ hearts…that’s delicate work!…hardly takes anything for their pulse to become “undetectable”…you know? Palpitation in dogs is mainly caused by their masters’ voices, more than exertion…dogs are sentimental…I’d even auscultate an elephant…or a crocodile…a mouse…I don’t have the time!…I enjoy creatures’ physiology….it’s their pathology that gets me down….

Dogs may well be sentimental, but Céline is no less so, or oddly so, willing to auscultate the heart of every animal, of thousands of cats, dogs, elephants, crocodiles, mice, but rather less adept at sounding the hearts of human beings. Consider, for example, how on the first page of his first book, he writes of the French “race” that it is

nothing but a hodgepodge of filth like me, rheumy, flea-bitten, aloof, who, chased by hunger, plague, tumors, and cold, ran aground here, arriving broken from the four corners of the earth. They couldn’t keep going because the ocean stood in their way. That’s France and that’s the French…. Vicious and spineless, raped, robbed, gutted, and always halfwits…. We don’t change a bit! Neither our socks nor our masters nor our opinions or, if we do, too late to have it matter. We’re born followers and die of it! Soldiers without pay, heroes for all humanity, talking monkeys, tortured words, we’re the minions of King Misery! We’re in his grasp! When we’re foolish, he squeezes…. His fingers forever around our necks, it’s hard to speak…. No way to live….

The language is, indeed, alive. In French particularly one registers the profound technical gift Céline possessed, his ability to sew vernacular into his syntactically exacting prose, prose Simon de Beauvoir called “a new instrument: writing as alive as speech.” But the theme played on that instrument—“The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death”—one repeated in book after book, is shallow and simpleminded. To read any single novel by Céline is to receive, in a bracing style, a hysterical primer on the abjection of being. To read them all is to register a unique species of racism: a hatred not of particular elements of humanity but of the human race as a whole. Thus Jean Giono said of Céline’s writing, “If Céline had truly believed what he wrote, he would have killed himself.”

So, of course, we say that he didn’t really hate the human race as a whole. His hatred of the human race, we say, was a novel way of addressing the suffering of its members. “Céline was a brave French soldier in the First World War,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five. “He became a doctor, and he treated poor people in the daytime, and he wrote grotesque novels all night.” Vonnegut and Philip Roth admired those grotesques and taught them in their classes at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1960s. Bruce Jay Friedman included Céline in his 1965 anthology Black Humor, the only French writer beside Barth, Pynchon, and Heller.7 “You get humor along with tragedy,” the narrator insists in Normance, and though true enough as a description of Céline’s method it suggests a balance between qualities that his work does not, taken as a whole, support.

The lack of proportion in our view of Céline can be seen in unlikely places. On the back of the Vitoux biography, there is much fuss from American writers claiming Céline as theirs. “For me,” Henry Miller says, “he will remain always not just a great writer but a great man.” More significant is Philip Roth’s confession: “To tell you the truth, in France, Céline is my Proust! Now there is a very great writer. Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice,” a remark that remains worthwhile because Roth never made so unqualified a claim. Spliced from a 1984 interview published in French in LaQuinzaine Littéraire, Roth’s approbation reads differently in its original, unbowdlerized form:

To tell you the truth, in France, my Proust is Céline! There’s a very great writer. 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, even Castle to Castle. Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice.

Just as Roth’s “Jewish conscience” was itself silently suspended by editorial sleight of hand, a no less misleading elision of Céline’s posterity has been made. Henri Godard, editor of the Pléiade edition of Céline’s novels, has argued that, taken together, the eight novels possess a “dynamic unity” without which “it is not possible to get the true measure of Céline.” This does not go far enough. Once one extends the reach of Godard’s claim to include the anti-Semitic trilogy, the congruence of Céline’s wink-wink misanthropy with his unblinking sociopathy becomes apparent. It is not that we shouldn’t read Céline because he was, at a profound level, contemptible. It is rather that, to understand Céline, we must be ready to, and permitted to, read all that he wrote. Only in this way can we begin to understand what we are saying when we might think to class him as—of all things—a humorist.

  1. 7

    See Alice Kaplan’s “The Céline Effect: A 1992 Survey of Contemporary American Writers,” Modernism/ Modernity, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 1996), pp. 117–136.

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