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

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:

The story of a life (distant from his, yet so strongly similar) was taking life within him. Feeding upon his body. Flesh of his flesh. It clamored for birth. With threat of anomaly or destruction; promise of delivery and joy. Child of his pain. Slowly forming within male entrails. Fruit of parthenogenesis which swelled a womb made fecund by its own powers—mingling male and female in creation. Hidden hermaphroditic joining in the night. The ancient story of the making of the world.

The second passage describes the mixed elements that are found in all poets—and understood only by poets

…because they know that opposites are the stuff that art is made from; that individual mutiny must reign; and extravagant incompatibility marks the man who creates it.

(Which has been true for other sacred monstrosities—sphinx, chimera, basilisk, Garuda, Melusine, hippogriff, Ganesha, sea monk, naga, harpy, Anubis, Sekmet, Isis, Thoth, Hathor, gryphon, werewolf, minotaur, and the seven-headed, ten-horned, red dragon of the Apocalypse.)

What is there to say of a book that is written like that from start to finish? One can express regret, of course. Or one can burn the book. But Dr. Ostrovsky has rather got one by the…by the short hairs. She knows more about Céline than anyone else in the world. Her artless passion, her red-hot, ten-horned fecundity, arises out of the very fact that she has built her nest in Céline’s very entrails, and that the heat of the situation has gone to her head. What’s more, she has managed to spot many important things about him, and although these things land her up in a state of total confusion, we are obliged to turn to her if we want to know of them. That we end up at last as totally confused as she is is not only because her writing ensures our doing so, it is also because Céline spent his whole life conducting a mammoth theatrical pretense—a sort of deliberate defiance of human understanding.

Most writers leave at least a few major trails behind them to help us follow their ways and their development; but Céline covered the ground with thousands of trails, not one of which can be trusted. Poor Dr. Ostrovsky has suffered terribly from this, however gallantly she may refer us to Anubis, Sekmet, Isis, Thoth, or preach mysteriously of hermaphroditic wombs bubbling away to make books for Denoël and Gallimard. She has been obliged—and who can blame her?—to plump for one aspect of Céline that will do duty for the rest of him, and, as her title shows, she has put forward Céline the voyeur as the Céline of first importance.

It seems a bad choice. She has heard somewhere that though Céline liked going to bed with women, what he liked best was to go to bed with two women, so that one of the three of them played the part of onlooker. Would one call such a man a voyeur? Surely, half the fun of being a voyeur is that of not being seen on the job—of being bent double in the passage, peering through the keyhole? To enjoy watching other people doing it is not an uncommon pleasure, but it does not provide the exciting sense of secret power felt by the voyeur, who is forever seeing while being unseen. But this is only a statement of opinion; one admits readily that it takes all sorts to make a world.

Noisy, brash, cantankerous, dishonest, boastful, utterly irresponsible—Céline was all these, and even the most gifted of his French contemporaries have failed to agree on why he behaved as he did, or what character lay behind his worst peculiarities. It would be easy to say, for instance, that his principal aim was always to insult accepted opinion to a degree where he was made an outcast—that to be reviled as a monster was the fate he desired most. There is no doubt that this was the distinction he achieved when, in the late 1930s, he hailed the fate of the Jews of Europe with enthusiasm and urged the extinction of the half-breeds, mulattoes, Chinese, and blacks, whom he supposed to threaten the purity of Europe and to hold the money bags that financed its wars.

But one has no feeling, when reading Bagatelles Pour Une Massacre, the most famous of these inflammatory works, that Céline had any real convictions whatever on the subject. The book is corrupt not because of what it says but because it is prepared to say anything, however childish or brainless, that will horrify a civilized person. Nothing in the long story of Céline’s life suggests that he hated Jews, or held them responsible for any of the world’s wickedness. His aim, he said, was to be regarded as “the biggest bastard alive” and to suffer, in consequence, precisely the ostracism and the terrible sufferings that he demanded for the Jews.

His last works (they should not be called novels), Castle to Castle and North, describe this fate in detail—the wanderings through Germany with his wife and cat, the long months of internment with other French collaborators in a Danubian castle, the march toward a dreadful exile in Denmark with long spells of prison and a frozen exile in a Baltic hut. Amnestied and back in France, he passed his last ten years despised and rejected of men and went to his grave ignored and unlamented. And when we set these degraded years side by side with the years of fame and success, we find only one characteristic that is common to both—an insistence on being the “biggest” and “greatest.” The noun that follows—bastard, genius, coward, victim, hater, seer, pioneer—is only a variable of the moment: the uniqueness of the magnitude is the only constant and the only satisfaction.

We can follow certain broken lines through his life if we please—if we are prepared to drop them when they drop us. That grubby petit-bourgeois childhood in the arcade of the Rue de Choiseul—perhaps it was as loathsome and humiliating as Céline insists it was, perhaps his childhood decision to become a doctor was made because when a doctor stepped into this “unbelievable pesthole,” he seemed like a visitor from another world—“a miracle man…absolutely, a magician.” Humiliated vanity has made many storytellers—Dickens, Trollope, Shaw, for example—and, in a lower-class, city setting, it has often bred a hatred for those who rank even lower in the social scale—“phenomenally filthy bastards” such as Jews, blacks, “Arabic parasites,” and the like. There was a measure of truth in Gorki’s saying of Céline as early as 1934: “Céline is indifferent to all crime, and since he has found no way of committing himself to the proletariat or understanding their revolt, he is ripe for Fascism.”

Sartre also seems to have hit on a certain truth when he stressed the sense of personal fear that runs through the fiction and marks the anti-Semitism. If one doubts the existence of such fear it is not because Céline was capable of extraordinary courage but because he loved to boast of his cowardice and begged to be regarded as the world’s greatest asslicker. Dr. Ostrovsky finds, and pursues with energy, the interest in women’s bodies that made him choose Semmelweiss, the discoverer of the cause of puerperal fever, not only as his hero and double but as a prime example of the pioneer who believes that he will be honored if he helps mankind and who finds, instead, that he is hated and driven insane by ingratitude. The moral of this is: hate and mistrust mankind, if you want to get on in life.

Many fragments of this sort can be fitted together reasonably well to provide a portrait that is always partial, always dependent on the whim of the person who is painting it, and always liable to be smashed to pieces again at any moment. Much, for instance, was excused Céline on account of madness—the result of his being wounded in the head and trepanned in World War I. Only in the last two years has it emerged that these terrible experiences never happened. They were simply invented by Céline and built into the fiction of his life. So was his mother’s leg—that horrible, diseased limb that drags itself through both his fiction and his descriptions of his childhood. It is a leg that lives within us so strongly and virulently that we are quite vexed to hear that in fact the good lady was hale and spry throughout most of her life.

The only statements we can depend on, then, are those which seem to stand the test of firm supporting evidence. One such statement was made by Céline at the end of the last interview he ever gave, only a few months before his death. He said then: “I was through a long time ago. After Death on the Installment Plan I’d said everything I had to say, which wasn’t much.”

This would seem to be undeniably true. Céline never had much to say: his visionary power had little in the way of intellect behind it. When that power left him, he was left with nothing. Even his racist writings are commonplace street sweepings—noisy repetitions of the rubbish poured out by brainless propagandists. Castle to Castle and North are very interesting as personal history and well worth reading by any student of the last days of the German Reich; but they are records rather than fiction, which is indicated by the fact that both books require (though only Castle to Castle receives) a glossary giving short biographies of the principal characters and explanations of the period terms used by Céline.

The use of the “three dots” is also of a certain interest. Like the other seeds that grow in the mind, we suppose them to have loomed large in all Céline’s work. But we find, when we check up on the matter, that they are used very little in Journey to the End of the Night. In Death on the Installment Plan and Guignol’s Band they appear more frequently, while in Castle to Castle and North they are the main feature of almost every sentence. The author, one feels, no longer has anything to “say” but is using his famous trade-mark as a furious hammer with which to remind the world of his existence.

Of Guignol’s Band and its sequel, Le Pont de Londres (which has not been translated yet), it is also true to say that they add nothing to what Céline had “said” before. But they must be regarded as major works just the same, because they are genuine pieces of fiction and excite, just as their predecessors did, a visionary elation in the reader. We find in them, moreover, a simpler, racier, happier humor than is present anywhere else in Céline, and we only spoil our appreciation of this if we impose on his laughter our own dark notions of labyrinthine horrors and apocalyptic depths.

Dr. Ostrovsky can only see Céline wading through the floods of the abyss and riding the cataclysms of the age. Though she will admit something of Rabelais and Swift in his character, she would think it degrading to admit Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton too. The curious conviction that a book cannot be really serious if it is really funny is one of the worst aesthetic fallacies of modern criticism. It leads inevitably to the unnatural conclusion that though there is always room at the inn for the basilisk and the hippogriff, there is never an inch to spare for Joconde’s ass.

This Issue

February 10, 1972