Man Without Art

Death on the Installment Plan

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, translated by Ralph Manheim
New Directions, 592 pp., $7.50

Céline and His Vision

by Erika Ostrovsky
New York University, 225 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Louis-Ferdinand Céline; drawing by David Levine

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…

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