Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novelistic production can be divided into three principal phases, which are usually linked to developments in the author’s life. Thus, one can discern an initial period consisting of the novels written before he fled to Denmark, which concludes with the publication of Guignol’s Band. The two volumes of Fable for Another Time constitute a second phase in Céline’s literary production, for they mark the resumption of his literary career after his return to France and the controversial resolution of his political difficulties. In both novels, there is an increasing confusion—literally and figuratively—among protagonist, narrator, and author, as Céline proclaims his innocence as the scapegoat for a guilt-ridden French nation. The final phase of his literary production, consisting of the wartime trilogy Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon, continues the self-justification begun in Fable for Another Time, though in far less strident terms, as the character Ferdinand describes his perilous journey to Denmark.
Céline’s novels are linked by the role and character of their respective protagonists, all of whom, except for the Bardamu of Journey to the End of the Night, are named Ferdinand and constitute variations on the same personality. The early novels emphasize the ironic interplay between the naïve protagonist being initiated into life and the protagonist as the older narrator endowed with greater insight than his younger incarnation. Protagonist and narrator approach each other in time, space, and knowledge, but they never coincide. The distance between them is considerably reduced in Fable for Another Time and the later novels as Céline’s own political difficulties shape the consciousness of his character, Ferdinand.
Although the theme of the victim assumes specific political connotations in Céline’s later fiction, all of his protagonists see themselves as caught up in a universal conspiracy. One aspect of that conspiracy is the inevitable biological degeneration to which the body falls heir; another is the natural human penchant for destruction. This tendency may assume various forms, among them pettiness, greed, malice, and exploitation of others. Its most blatant and dangerous form, however, is the aggression unleashed by war. The specter of war haunts Céline’s novels, and in the face of its menace, cowardice, fear, sickness, and insanity are positively valorized as legitimate means of evasion. War accelerates the natural disintegration of those institutions that have been erected by society as barriers to the natural chaos of existence. In his last novel, Rigadoon, Céline prophesies the submersion of the white race by yellow hordes from the East, who, in their turn, will be subject to the same decline that brought about the collapse of the civilization of their Caucasian predecessors.
Given the generally execrable nature of existence, most individuals, according to Céline, are content to indulge in self-delusion. As Céline’s protagonists discover, love, sexual fulfillment, and the pursuit of social and financial success are merely idle dreams that must eventually be shattered. In his later novels, Céline denounces the cinema, the automobile, and the French preoccupation with good food and fine wine as equally delusory. Across the otherwise bleak landscape of Céline’s novels, one finds occasional moments of love, compassion, and tenderness. Two categories of creatures that elicit particularly sympathetic treatment are animals and children. Céline views the latter, metaphorically, in terms of a reverse metamorphosis: the butterfly becoming the larva as the child turns into an adult.
In Castle to Castle, the narrator describes himself as a super-seer, as blessed with a vision that penetrates to the core of reality and beyond. That vision is inseparable from the particular style by which it is conveyed. Céline rejected traditional French writing as having become too abstract to convey the nature of the experiences he was relating or the response he wished to elicit from his readers. He developed an art that, by intermingling various modes of perception and tonal registers, would embrace the diversity of existence, reveal its essential nature, and jolt the reader into awareness through anger, revulsion, or laughter. Moreover, such an approach to the novel perforce emphasizes the writer’s claim to artistic autonomy, as opposed to his conforming to the external criteria of “proper” writing.
Céline also refused to accept the divorce between written French and spoken French. By introducing many elements of the spoken language into his novels, he believed that he could draw upon its greater directness and concreteness while at the same time maintaining the structured elaboration inherent in the written text. Indeed, although Céline’s novels often have the appearance of a spontaneous first draft, they are the product of laborious craftsmanship.
Journey to the End of the Night
Journey to the End of the Night brought Céline immediate critical attention upon its publication, and it continues to be the best known of his novels. The journey of the young and innocent Bardamu is one of discovery and initiation. Bardamu’s illusions about human existence in general and his own possibilities in particular are progressively stripped away as he confronts the sordidness of the human condition. His limited perspective is counterbalanced by the cynicism of the novel’s narrator, an older and wiser Bardamu. The voyage ultimately becomes a conscious project—to confront the darker side of life so that, with the lucidity he acquires, he can one day transmit his knowledge to others by means of his writings.
Having enlisted in the army in a burst of patriotic fervor, Bardamu, as a soldier at the front, discovers the realities of the war. Despite their puzzlement about the politics of their situation, the men involved in the conflict have a natural penchant for killing and are generally fascinated by death. The most trenchant image of the war can be found in Bardamu’s perception of a field abattoir, where the disemboweled animals, their blood and viscera spread on the grass, mirror the slaughter of human victims that is taking place. Given the insanity of war, the asylum and the hospital become places of refuge, and fear and cowardice are positively valorized. After Bardamu is wounded in the head and arm, any means to avoid returning to the front becomes valid.
Bardamu finally succeeds in having himself demobilized. He travels to the Cameroons to run a trading post in the bush. Through Bardamu, Céline denounces the inhumanity and corruption of the French colonial administration. More important, however, is the lesson in biology that Africa furnishes Bardamu. The moral decay of the European settlers manifests itself in their physical debilitation as they disintegrate in the oppressive heat and humidity and as they succumb to poor diet and disease. The African climate “stews” the white colonialists and thereby brings forth their inherent viciousness. In more temperate regions, Céline indicates, it requires a phenomenon such as war to expose humankind so quickly for what it is. Unable to tolerate the climate or his job, Bardamu burns his trading post to the ground and, delirious with malarial fever, embarks on a ship bound for New York.
Bardamu believes that America will provide him with the opportunity for a better life. He considers his journey to the New World a sort of pilgrimage, inspired by Lola, an American girlfriend in Paris. His New York is characterized by rigid verticality and the unyielding hardness of stone and steel; it bears no resemblance to the soft, supine, compliant body that Lola had offered him. As a “pilgrim” in New York, he discovers many “shrines,” but access to them is open only to the wealthy. Bardamu is no more successful in Detroit than he was in New York. His work at a Ford motor assembly plant recalls the Charles Chaplin film Modern Times (1936). The noise of the machinery and the automatonlike motions Bardamu must perform eventually cause him to take refuge in the arms of Molly, a prostitute with a heart of gold. Molly has the legs of a dancer; Céline’s protagonists, like Céline himself, are great admirers of the dance and particularly of the female dancer, who is able to combine Apollonian form with Dionysian rhythms in movements that defy the body’s inherent corruption.
In Detroit, Bardamu encounters an old acquaintance named Léon Robinson. Hitherto, Robinson had been functioning as Bardamu’s alter ego, anticipating, if not implementing, Bardamu’s desires. They first met during the war, when Robinson, disgusted by the killing, wished to surrender to the Germans. Robinson preceded Bardamu to Africa, where he served as the manager of the trading post that Bardamu would later head. When Bardamu learns that the resourceful Robinson has taken a job as a night janitor, he concludes that he, too, will not succeed in America. He decides that his only true mistress can be life itself, that he must return to France to continue his journey into the night.
Bardamu completes his medical studies and establishes his practice in a shabby Parisian suburb. Reluctant to request his fee from his impoverished patients, Bardamu is finally obliged to close his office and take a position in an asylum. Bardamu envies his patients. They have achieved an absolute form of self-delusion and are protected from life’s insanity by the walls that imprison them.
Robinson reappears in Bardamu’s life. In his desperate attempt to escape his poverty and its attendant humiliation, Robinson joins a conspiracy to murder an old woman. The plot backfires, literally, and Robinson is temporarily blinded when he receives a shotgun blast in the face. His “darkness,” however, does not bring him enlightenment; his disgust with life simply increases. Bardamu realizes that he is bearing witness to an exemplary journey that must end in death. Robinson finally dies at the hands of his irate fiancé, whom he goads into shooting him. His “suicide” terminates his own journey to the end of the night and Bardamu’s as well.
Journey to the End of the Night proffers a vision of the human condition that serves as the basis of all of Céline’s literary production. Concomitant with this vision is the elaboration of a particular style that, with certain modifications in later works, afforded, according to Céline, a means of revitalizing French literature, by freeing it from the abstractions of classical writing. The most salient stylistic effect in Journey to the End of the Night is Céline’s use of the vocabulary, syntax, and rhythms of popular speech as a vehicle for communicating the concrete, emotional impact of Bardamu’s experience.
Death on the Installment Plan
Céline’s second novel,...
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Louis-Ferdinand Céline 1894–1961
(Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) French novelist, pamphleteer, and dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Céline's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 15, and 47.
A highly influential prose stylist and controversial polemicist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline is widely regarded as one of the most important European novelists of the twentieth century. His first two novels, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night) and Mort à crédit (1936; Death on the Installment Plan), earned immediate critical admiration and established his reputation as a daring literary innovator and iconoclast. Distinguished for his acerbic misanthropy, black humor, and apocalyptic vision of modern civilization, Céline broke from conventional French literature with his "style télégraphique," a fragmented, elliptical prose style infused with convulsive obscenity, neologism, lower-class slang, and delirious diatribe. Though condemned as a vehement anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator—unfortunate biographical facts that have long maligned his literary reputation—the startling intensity and nihilism of his early novels exerted a pervasive and lasting influence on contemporary European and American literature.
Born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in Courbevoie, France, Céline was an only child raised by his mother, a lace merchant, and father, an insurance businessman, in a lower middle-class Paris suburb called the Passage Choiseul; his pseudonym derives from the first name of his maternal grandmother. Céline was educated at local schools and, during his early adolescence, sent abroad to study in England and Germany, where it was hoped he would acquire marketable language skills for a business career. After working a series of odd jobs, in 1912 he enlisted in the French calvary and attained the rank of sergeant. During the First World War, Céline sustained serious arm and head wounds in the line of duty, for which was hospitalized and bestowed a medal of honor. He was he was reassigned to the French consulate in London in 1915. While in London, he met and unofficially married his first wife, Suzanne Nebout, a barmaid. Upon his discharge from the military in 1916, Céline abandoned London and his wife for West Africa, where he worked for a trading company in Cameroon. He returned to France the next year after contracting malaria and dysentery. Following employment with Henri de Graffigny, publisher of the inventor's magazine Eurêka, Céline worked for the Rockefeller Foundation as a traveling lecturer on tuberculosis in 1918. The next year he began his medical studies at the University of Rennes and married Edith Follet, daughter of the school's director. Céline completed his medical degree in 1924, along with his first published work, a doctoral dissertation entitled La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis (1924; The Life and Work of Semmelweis). In 1925 Céline left his wife and daughter, as well as a lucrative medical career under his father-in-law, to work as a doctor for the League of Nations, a position that took him to Africa, Canada, Cuba, and the United States. With his divorce made final in 1926, Céline began an affair with American dancer Elizabeth Craig, the first of several dancers with whom he was involved. In 1928 he resettled in Clichy, France, where for the next decade he worked as a physician for the poor, in private practice and at a local clinic, and began to write. With the 1932 publication of his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, Céline won instant acclaim and a nomination for the prestigious Goncourt Prize; he was awarded the lesser Théophraste Renaudot Prize due to jury politics. The next year he published his only drama, L'Eglise (1933), a satirical rendering of his medical experiences in Africa, America, and postwar France; the work, completed in 1927, represents a preliminary version of Journey to the End of the Night. After the 1936 publication of Death on the Installment Plan, Céline traveled to Russia to collect his royalties and reacted strongly against the hypocrisy and exploitation of the communist system, which he denounced in his first polemical tract Mea Culpa (1936; published with The Life and Work of Semmelweis). Céline published several additional political texts, including the venomous anti-semitic pamphlets Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937; Trifles for a Massacre), L'Ecole des cadavres (1938; School for Corpses), and Les Beaux Draps (1941; A Nice Mess), in which he alleged an international Jewish conspiracy to bring war, professed his own pacifism, and criticized French society. During the Second World War, Céline worked as a doctor on a French arms transport ship, published the first volume of Guignol's Band (1944), and contributed writings to collaborationist journals under the Nazi Occupation of France. Labeled a traitor and fearful of reprisal from the Resistance, Céline fled France in 1944 with Lucette (Lili) Almanzor, a former ballet dancer whom he married in 1943. Upon their arrival in Copenhagen, Céline was arrested by Danish officials at the insistence of the French government and incarcerated for fourteen months. After his release, due to poor health, he remained in Denmark for the next five years. In 1951 a French court found Céline guilty of treason, though a military tribunal granted him amnesty, whereupon he returned to France with Lili and settled in the Paris suburb of Meudon. During the remainder of his life, Céline practiced medicine among the poor and continued to write. He completed several additional novels, Féerie pour une autre fois (1952) and its sequel Normance (1954), and the trilogy D'un château l'autre (1957; Castle to Castle), Nord (1960; North), and Rigodon (1969; Rigadoon). His affinity for dance is also reflected in compositions for ballet contained in Bagatelles pour un massacre and Ballets san musique, sans personne, sans rien (1959; Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything). Céline suffered a fatal stroke at his Meudon home in 1961, a day after completing Rigadoon. A sequel to Guignol's Band, Le Pont de Londres (1964; London Bridge), was discovered among his papers and posthumously published.
Céline's picaresque fiction recounts the author's childhood, wartime experiences, foreign travels, and medical career through the episodic misadventures of rogue protagonists whose first-person narratives are an amalgam of autobiography, invective, social satire, hyperbole, and hallucinatory paranoia. Journey to the End of the Night features Ferdinand Bardamu, a disillusioned French soldier who is seriously wounded during the First World War. After convalescing in various hospitals, reflecting on the horror and absurdity of war, and suffering a nervous breakdown, Bardamu embarks for Africa, where he witnesses the greed and exploitation of European colonialism as a trade representative deep in the jungle—an episode that resembles Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Disgusted with his position and the oppressive climate, he abandons his post to travel to America, where he experiences alienation and poverty in New York and Detroit. While in Detroit he takes a mindless factory job with Ford Motor Company and falls in love with a benevolent prostitute named Molly. Bardamu finally returns to France, signifying his resolve to confront rather than flee reality, where he completes his medical degree and works as a doctor among the working-class poor then at a private insane asylum. The novel is punctuated by recurring encounters with Bardamu's alter ego Léon Robinson, whom Bardamu meets during the war, in Africa, America, and again in France where, after becoming entangled in an assassination plot that results in his blindness, Robinson is shot to death by his estranged fiancée. Death on the Installment Plan is a bildungsroman based on Céline's traumatic childhood and adolescence prior to his military enlistment. Amid the poverty and squalor of suburban Paris, the protagonist, Ferdinand, endures the derision, lunacy, and physical abuse of his father, a feckless insurance clerk, and tenacious mother, a crippled lace peddler who operates a small shop below their apartment. After leaving public school, Ferdinand works several menial jobs and is dismissed in disgrace from each. Through the intervention of his kindly uncle, he is sent to a boarding school in England, where he has an affair with the headmaster's suicidal wife. Back in France, Ferdinand finds employment with Courtial des Pereires, a quack inventor and publisher of pseudo-science manuals. When Courtial's office is destroyed by defrauded subscribers, Ferdinand accompanies Courtial to the countryside to pursue an ill-conceived agricultural scheme that ends in police intervention and Courtial's suicide. Ferdinand is returned to his family and the novel ends with his decision to join the army. Ferdinand reappears in Guignol's Band, which centers upon Céline's experiences in London during the First World War. The word "guignol" is a double reference to a children's marionette show and a ridiculous person or buffoon. While in London, Ferdinand becomes involved in the underworld of prostitution and drugs through dealings with Cascade, a pimp who heads a large criminal operation. When Ferdinand is implicated in the death of a pawnbroker, he is pursued throughout the city by the police and Cascade's henchmen. At the French Consulate, where he seeks to rejoin the army, Ferdinand meets Hervé Sosthène de Rodiencourt, a mysterious occult explorer who is hired by an eccentric military officer to design a new gas mask for the British army. In the end, Sosthène's takes Ferdinand on as his assistant, London Bridge, the second part of Guignol's Band, picks up where the first leaves off. While working on the gas mask with Sosthène under the direction of Colonel J. F. C. O'Collighan, Ferdinand remains in hiding and falls in love with the colonel's young niece, Virginia. The project is eventually abandoned when the colonel disappears and Ferdinand plans to flee the country with Virginia and Sosthène, who experiments with magical powers. A reconciliation with Cascade causes Ferdinand to miss a ship bound for Argentina and, in a final scene, he crosses London Bridge on the way to new adventures. Céline's wartime trilogy—Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon—recounts his desperate flight from France via Germany to Denmark at the end of the Second World War. Abandoning the pretense of a fictional protagonist, Céline writes openly as himself in these works, though takes great liberties in the presentation of time, place, and nonfactual episodes as he dramatizes events between June 1944 and the spring of 1945. In Castle to Castle Céline describes the middle stage of his journey, during which he lived and worked as a doctor in the French colony of Sigmaringen while seeking entry into Germany. After a long prologue in which he rails against the false accusations and hardships imposed upon him, the novel centers upon activities in and around the resort town which attracted many refugees of the notorious Vichy government. North revolves around Céline's stay in Baden-Baden and war-ravaged Berlin, where he witnessed the disintegration and chaos of the collapsing Third Reich, and Rigadoon traces his travels through northern Germany and finally to short-lived freedom at his destination in Denmark. Céline's additional novels, Féerie pour une autre fois and its sequel Normance, are transitional works that deal primarily with his imprisonment in Copenhagen and experiences prior to his arrival in Denmark. In Entretiens avec le professeur Y (1955; Conversations with Professor Y) Céline delineates his literary principles and techniques, which he compares to the work of Impressionist painters, through a mock interview with a hostile and inept questioner.
Considered among the first rank of twentieth-century French novelists, Céline is highly regarded as a radical literary innovator whose manic prose, savage humor, and accusatory pessimism inspired a generation of writers and introduced new possibilities for the novel form. As David O'Connell reports, "In the last twenty years, Louis-Ferdinand Céline has emerged and, in the opinion of most major critics, joined Proust as one of the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century." Céline's wide-reaching influence is evident in the work of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and numerous major American authors, including Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Thomas Pynchon. According to O'Connell, "In the United States, the number of writers clearly influenced by Céline is greater than for any other European writer, living or dead." While Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan are widely viewed as his most important works, Céline has also attracted critical praise for his trilogy Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon. Both Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan were immediately embraced by representatives of the political left and right, however Céline's anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies caused his work to fall into silent disrepute for several decades. His reputation was partially reinstated during the 1960s as critics regained appreciation for his lyrical rage and demystification of hypocritical institutions and popular sentiments, particularly military valor, middle-class respectability, and industrial prosperity. Philip H. Solomon writes, "Céline wields his pen like a scalpel (he was, after all, a doctor by vocation). He dissects the human condition, exposing its malignancies, but he offers no treatments or cures." As Jane Carson notes, "Céline writes with a purpose: to show us that the world does not conform to the structure we conventionally give it, that we are in fact surrounded by anarchy."
La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis [The Life and Work of Semmelweis] (dissertation) 1924
Voyage au bout de la nuit [Journey to the End of the Night] (novel) 1932
L'Eglise, comédie en 5 actes (drama) 1933
Mea Culpa, suivi de La Vie et l'oeuvre de Semmelweis [Mea Culpa and The Life and Work of Semmelweis] (pamphlet and dissertation) 1936
Mort à crédit [Death on the Installment Plan] (novel) 1936
Bagatelles pour un massacre (pamphlet and ballet) 1937
L'Ecole des cadavres (pamphlet) 1938
Les Beaux Draps (pamphlet) 1941
Guignol's Band (novel) 1944
Casse-pipe (prose sketches)...
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SOURCE: "The Way Down to Wisdom of Louis-Ferdinand Céline," in Minnesota Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1968, pp. 85-91.
[In the following essay, Widmer offers analysis of Céline's misanthropy and pessimism in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. According to Widmer, "Those who see nothing but humor and rancor in Céline miss the existential wisdom."]
Céline's writings have a special relevance to contemporary American literature. While that should not be, given the usual adumbrations of our culture as arising from optimistic innocence and pragmatism and affluence, we may now be more willing to revise the bright theories than...
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SOURCE: "Marxist Criticism of Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Spring, 1971, pp. 268-72.
[In the following essay, Fortier examines Marxist themes, interpretation, and critical reaction to Journey to the End of the Night.]
Voyage au bout de la nuit, from its publication in 1932, created around itself an atmosphere of mystery and controversy. The author, who called himself Céline, was unknown. The grammar used in this text resembles that of factory workers, taxi drivers, and hoodlums—an idiom hardly considered to be a fit vehicle for art. The vocabulary is a curious mixture of neologisms, medical terms,...
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SOURCE: "Journey to the End of Art: The Evolution of the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline," in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 80-9.
[In the following essay, Nettelbeck examines the evolution of ethical and aesthetic concerns in Céline's oeuvre. "Despite his reputation as a hate-filled iconoclast," writes Nettelbeck, "the central thrust of Céline's literary works … is, on the contrary, toward affirmation."]
During the last fifteen years of his life, Céline reflected a great deal about his art. In his correspondence (particularly the 1947 letters to Milton Hindus), in the several interviews which...
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SOURCE: "Céline: The Fire in the Night," in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 117-30.
[In the following essay, Carson examines picaresque themes and the metaphorical significance of fire in Céline's fiction. "In Céline's novels," Carson writes, "the images of fire reveal many of the author's ideas about creativity and the act of writing."]
The narrators of Céline's novels, from Bardamu in Voyage au bout de la nuit to the doctor of Rigodon, share a desire to recount a journey which, as they are the first to point out, leads to no magic solution, no shining Grail. From the opening of the...
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SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Novels: From Narcissism to Sexual Connection," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Buckley examines Céline's treatment of sexual desire and love in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan.]
"Ah, Ferdinand … as long as you live you will always search for the secret of the universe in the loins of women!"
… the female mystery doesn't reside between the thighs, it's on another wave-length, a much more subtle one.
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SOURCE: "'I'll Protest If It Kills Me': A Reading of the Prologue to Death on the Installment Plan," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 180-92.
[In the following essay, Burns discusses incongruities between the narrator of Journey to the End of the Night and the narrator of the prologue to Death on the Installment Plan. According to Burns, the later work "is a distinct and separate novel that makes its own demands in order to express its own intentions."]
The novel of adventures, the tale, the epic are [an] ingenuous manner of experiencing imaginary and significant...
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SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: An Introduction," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 100-10.
[In the following essay, O'Connell provides an overview of Céline's literary career, novels, and critical reception.]
In the last twenty years, Louis-Ferdinand Céline has emerged and, in the opinion of most major critics, joined Proust as one of the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century. This change in his literary fortunes is one of the most interesting stories in modern literature, and is understandable if one remembers that Céline's work was surrounded by what amounts to a conspiracy of silence by...
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SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Creator and Destroyer of Myths," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 92-100.
[In the following essay, Ostrovsky examines Céline's adaptation and subversion of myth themes and patterns in his novels.]
Céline has elicited so much critical commentary—especially in the past decade—the corpus of interpretations devoted to him is so rich and varied, that one might well ask what still remains to be said. Yet his work, by its extraordinary complexity and vitality, constantly inspires, even demands, new explorations. Among these, the treatment of myth elements in his fictions...
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SOURCE: "Reading Céline," in Understanding Céline, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 5-15.
[In the following essay, Solomon provides an overview of the major themes and characters in Céline's novels.]
Céline preferred to think of himself as a stylist, but it would be more appropriate to consider his writings in terms of a particular vision of the human condition. Vision is a crucial concept in Céline's novels. Several of his novels begin with a unique pattern of opening signals. The narrator finds himself in a set of circumstances articulated by a mythologized head wound which results in his having perceptual distortions. These distortions...
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SOURCE: "Caught in the Dialogic: The Célinian Narrator Silenced," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 107, No. 4, September, 1992, pp. 795-805.
[In the following essay, Silk discusses the effect of cultural alienation on the protagonist's ability to communicate in Journey to the End of the Night.]
Dialogism's emphasis on an interplay of voices is grounded in Bakhtin's conception of the word as social material. Because "all words have the 'taste' of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour," the notion of a word of one's own becomes...
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SOURCE: "Fading Images: The Touristic Itinerary and Spatial Representation in Céline's German Trilogy," in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 16-35.
[In the following essay, Loselle examines the narrative presentation of time and space in Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon, and Céline's role as a chronicler of historical reality and postwar tourist.]
Imagine, Amalia, you're sitting in a room screening a film and the projector jams. Right in the middle of a cross fade between scenes. You see double. The frozen images of the scene just past, and the not-quite formed...
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SOURCE: "Céline and Anarchist Culture," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 321-31.
[In the following essay, Pagès examines right-wing extremism and libertarian discourse in Céline's writing. According to Pagès, "the momentum of anarchic subversion that surfaces in Céline's fiction almost imperceptibly valorizes certain ethical or existential perspectives that are by nature antiauthoritarian."]
It is important to remember one's first impressions of a book. When I first read Voyage au bout de la nuit at the age of sixteen, I felt as though I were entering into an uncensored language, one that bypasses the usual split between the...
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SOURCE: "Céline in Cross-Cultural Perspective," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 513-22.
[In the following essay, Scullion discusses Céline's depiction of American capitalist society, his literary influence on American writers, and his often problematic critical interpretation.]
Reminiscing on his world travels in postwar conversations with Robert Poulet, Louis Ferdinand Céline derided the boundless "commercial optimism" he found animating life in the United States during his visits in the 1920s and 1930s: Americans "tend not to revel in the morose…. When they realize they're no longer perky, they check their pulse and temperature."...
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SOURCE: "Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit: The Nation Constructed Through Storytelling," in Romanic Review, Vol. 87, No. 3, May, 1996, pp. 391-403.
[In the following essay, Silk examines the fictional invention of national identity in Journey to the End of the Night. According to Silk, "it is in Bardamu's relationship to the bourgeois patriotism of wartime France that one can locate a link to Céline's later embrace of fascism."]
Céline's oeuvre, like those of numerous other twentieth-century writers, is strongly marked by the problematic status of the writer's fiction vis-à-vis his politics. For some critics, Céline's anti-semitism and his avowed...
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Buckley, William K. "Céline: The Rumble Under Our Floorboards." Studies in the Novel 21, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 432-9.
Provides an overview of contemporary critical response to Céline's fiction, noting the persistence of reactionary and outdated interpretations of his work.
Clemmen, Yves W. A. "Travel, Fiction, and the Cross-Cultural: Céline and Tournier Experiencing the Other." CLA Journal XXXVIII, No. 1 (September 1994): 46-58.
A comparative study of travel themes and transcultural encounters in Journey to the End of the Night and Michel Tournier's...
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Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) (Vol. 1)
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) 1894–1961
A French novelist, Céline was also a physician.
Céline is almost certainly the only genius in French literature since Proust. In Death on the Installment Plan, he has rendered with a Shakespearian energy and vividness the horrors of an existence in which the "everyday" bears in upon one monstrously, and one doesn't have even the normal amount of unconsciously assimilated mental procedures, let alone consciously shared theories and value-systems, for ordering it and making it intellectually endurable. Other aspects of the book, of course, also cry out for discussion, among them its rhetorical complexities, its humor, its illumination of pre-1914 malaises, its relationship to Remembrance of Things Past and to Bergson, and the high intelligence of its investigation of romanticism….
Death on the Installment Plan is the work of someone who can write convincingly in the prelude that "madness has been after me, close on my heels, these twenty-two years, day in, day out"; and it is informed by a deep concern with the nature and dangers of the various ways in which one can shut out or mentally try to transform realities that one cannot cope with. The disorder in the book is not that of someone who either doesn't know what order is or is defiantly indulging himself in disorder because it is "interesting" to do so. Though there are no norms in the book that Ferdinand can look to with a belief that he should at least attempt to approximate himself to them, and though clearly much of the time he is simply doing what he must if he is to survive at all, nevertheless it is made unequivocally clear that states of atrocious disorder are possible and that they are atrocious.
John Fraser, "The Darkest Journey: Céline's Death on the Installment Plan," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 96-110.
Little wonder that a member of the French Department of one of our best eastern women's colleges recently said to me that Céline was "the secret classic" of the twentieth century and that all sorts of writers derived their initial inspiration from him…. The revival of Céline, like his original recognition some thirty-five years ago, is not merely an artistic phenomenon but a social one. What it portended then unfortunately we know only too well. There are reasons for thinking that it is portentous again now, though it is difficult to guess precisely what it portends. The world hopefully is not going to end in our time or afterwards, but there certainly is an end-of-the-world feeling about many of the aesthetic artifacts to which the young at the moment are attracted. Célinism is a meretricious bore, but Céline himself is certainly anything but that. He is an authentic and extremely diverting satirist, an original stylist, and a very superior intellectual in spite of himself, as one can see from the provocative apothegms which sprinkle his pages as they once sprinkled his conversation.
Milton Hindus, in Western Humanities Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 367-71.
[Céline's] profoundly pessimistic view of society and of man, which was later to have such a great influence, must seem unbearable. It springs from all that is most animal, most visceral in us. The hatred that Céline inspired, and which was fortunate in having political and racial pretexts to hide its real nature, would seem in fact to be organically necessary. Nobody has the right, unless he is himself better than ordinary humanity, to put our noses into our own filth to the point of suffocation. If he assumes this right, then he must suffer the consequences. When Céline spoke of the 'witch-hunt' he was subjected to; when, before his return to France, he complained of being a 'scape-goat', he was not far from the truth….
If the world had not been so 'wicked', if it had given him a chance to live, Céline would have sung moving songs of the past and told fine fairy-tales about the Krogold kings. He dreams of ballets in the moonlight and rustic phantasmagorias. Many of his books, Le Voyage, Mort à Crédit, Guignol's Band, Féerie pour une autre Fois, are poems rather than novels: they transform an unbearable reality into a kind of dark, viscous dream. Céline can evoke the early hours of mornings which are to bring all the day's sufferings, the atmosphere of persecuted, misunderstood, martyred childhood, the nostalgia for an impossible escape.
Above all, he shows himself to be a renovator of language. He was the first modern writer to break the rules of literary language, and to write 'as one speaks'. He gave literary dignity to colloquial expression. This spoken language obeys none of the rules of correct speech; it is full of grammatical mistakes imprecision and repetition, but it is a living, colourful language of flesh and blood which translates emotion and feeling in direct terms. It is very close to exclamation, to the shout and the cry. It brings literary expression back to life. But, of course, Céline is too good a writer to be satisfied with a 'phonographic' language. He submits the spoken language as such to a treatment that breaks it up, sweeps away its fossilized associations and clichés, and when he does not find a phrase ready-made he invents one. He is not a mouthpiece of the man in the street, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who follows his own rhythm…. Unlike many writers, Céline believed in what he wrote.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A.M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 43-4 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
Unfortunately, writers like Céline are often cursed with a coterie of weaklings whose inveterate anemia attempts to conceal itself under uncritical acclaim of brutality. Many a reviewer, unsure of his own judgment, deficient in imagination, eager for cheaply assumed originality as a mask for his inner emptiness, jumped on the bandwagon of Céline, who wrestled with his pallid ghosts and produced the illusion of a tough giant. The monotony of Céline's inspiration, the artificiality of his language and the 'pompiérisme' of his tawdry sentimentality should have become blindingly manifest after his second novel, when he specialized in anti-Semitic vituperation even more sorely devoid of intelligence than that of Hitler. Some, however, stubbornly refused to be disillusioned. Even after the lamentable display of Céline's later pamphlets of insane eructation, some reviewers maintain that he should be granted a place among the chief novelists of our age. But Céline is as artificial in his own way as any of the précieux writers of this century,… as wily in his speculations on the public's gullibility as any concocter of detective stories, and more commonplace as a mind than even the proverbially despised French concierges.
Not only is Céline an exhibitionist, he is also a mythomaniac. Like a number of men of letters, he became unable to separate the semi-fictional characters whom he had projected in his books from his own self. More and more, he became his peevish, shouting, and debunking hero and attributed to himself the picaresque adventures and the grudges of his Bardamu.
Henri Peyre in his French Novelists of Today (© 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, p. 187.
Céline's use of ungrammatical, spoken language as a narrative technique would seem to be a sort of verbal realism, a tearing away of the hypocrisies and artificial refinements of civilized discourse and a getting down to the spontaneous reactions of the living human organism. This is an important source of Céline's savage verbal humor…. Actually, this use of spoken language as a written narrative technique is in itself an artifice. People do not ordinarily write words as they speak them; they tend to lose their ear for language. And Céline's written transcription of contemporary Parisian slang is as conscious, in its way, as Gide's attempts to purify his style of all such surface relief.
Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Ulysses Again," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1968.
Like an Everest thick with soot, Céline is there, daunting, implacable, and more alluded to than grappled with. Perhaps reading him, like Everest-climbing, is a specialized activity requiring schooled nerves, a predisposition to metaphysical anger, and maybe even a certain amount of mania. In my experience, you don't find many people who have read Journey to the End of Night, that fictional bombshell of 1932, in which Ferdinand Bardamu went lunging in search of himself through World War I, the slums of Paris, the jungles of Africa, and the auto factories of Detroit. Your mature reader dismisses Céline as a barfing werewolf (antihumanist, antihuman, self-obsessed, crypto-war-criminal, etc.) and your student reader prefers the pompous naïveté of Hesse. In this age of dewy-eyed righteousness, in which the evil geniuses of power politics are supposed to vanish at the repeated cry of Love!, there seems little room for this man's almost voluptuous saeva indignatio in which satanic improvisation contends with an almost saintly self-disgust.
Paul West, "Hamlet of the Carrots," in Book World, January 30, 1972, p. 3.
Political considerations have too long deprived Céline of his due, at least in the postwar period. It is high time that he be judged on the basis of his work alone. The publication of North in English, in Ralph Manheim's superb translation, is a literary event of major importance.
Richard Seaver, "Céline: Swastika and Cross," in Saturday Review, February 5, 1972, pp. 57-9.
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….
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 [and the] huge expenditure of physical energy that lies behind them, the intensity of the concentration….
Nigel Dennis, "I Bite Everywhere" (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), in New York Review of Books, February 10, 1972, pp. 3-4, 6.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) (Vol. 15)
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) 1894–1961
A French physician, essayist, and novelist, Céline was notorious for the extreme pessimism of his misanthropic view of human nature. His masterful use of argot, popular expressions, obscenities, and fractured syntax illuminated his perception of the madness and chaos that was modern Europe. Madness became Céline's pervasive metaphor for the nature of human existence, and his forceful use of language and disregard for traditional literary style and structure helped place him at the forefront of the literature of anarchistic revolt. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 7, 9.)
[Eleven] years after his death, [Céline's] reputation stands high in France and perhaps even higher in the English-speaking countries. (p. 58)
Céline, according to [Nigel] Dennis, was not only that rara avis, a seminal writer, but a seminal writer whose example inspired other talented writers at the same time as his own successful creations have not been surpassed by any of those who have followed in his footsteps as a writer of fiction. When we consider that the latter group, according to some critics, may include men like Sartre …, Burroughs and Mailer, not to speak of lesser writers like Joseph Heller …, we are obviously confronted with an aesthetic phenomenon of a superior order of magnitude….
Even the cautious academic world, despite the explosiveness of his antiacademic temperament, is beginning to take note of his stature. A very interesting article [by] … Colin Nettelbeck is entitled "Journey to the End of Art: The Evolution of the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline" [see CLC, Vol. 3]….
Professor Nettelbeck's article is notable as the most exhaustive account of the whole of Céline's fictional oeuvre…. (p. 59)
Neither Professor Nettelbeck nor Mr. Dennis suggests any defense of Céline's antisemitism. Quite the contrary. But they suggest that this element in his writing be put into proper perspective with regard to his work as a whole. (p. 60)
My own attention has been attracted, in the last works of Céline, to certain details which have not been commented on by others but which seem to me as interesting as those they have singled out for notice. Towards the end of North, he conceded that his own great sufferings in the Second World War (as a refugee fleeing France because, as he admits, he feared the vengeance of the Resistance upon himself as a notorious fellow-traveller of the Nazis, a "collabo") were not so great as the sufferings of those who experienced Buchenwald. (This realization apparently existed side by side with his … envy of the publicity accorded to Anne Frank and her family.) Also, in a vein reminiscent of one revealed in his conversations as recorded in The Crippled Giant, he calls down a plague on all sides of the conflict indiscriminately, curses Nazis and resisters, and consigns them to destruction in "the same cauldron." (pp. 61-2)
The optimistic forecast of regeneration which Professor Nettelbeck thinks he discerns at the end of Rigodon seems to me little better than a nightmare vision of France and the free West succumbing at last to "the yellow peril" in biological, diplomatic and military terms. He dreams of their being overrun by Mongol hordes who will loot and vandalize all their heaped up goods and luxuries until, sated with blood and conquest, the conquerors themselves pass out into a state of drunken stupor in the wine-cellars of Champagne. The last word...
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Alcohol is singled out by Céline as the weapon chosen by the Jews in order to impose their will on the French—and, of course, to attack the drinking of wine is to undermine one of the foundations of the French nation. Literature and alcohol do not mix. Céline decries the "standardization" of literature in his wine-drenched homeland. Literature has lost, according to Céline, its "authentique émotion, spontanée, rhythmée" …, and thus Céline's own oral style … has been rejected for more "literary" styles, derived from such half-Jewish writers as Montaigne and Proust.
Although Céline portrays himself as one of the victims of this imaginary [Jewish] conspiracy, he has not, as a confirmed teetotaler, succumbed to the temptations of alcohol. And throughout his novels, Céline through his various narrative personnae remains the nondrinker. But although he refuses the intoxication of alcohol, he participates in another form of intoxication, one that is lucid and consonant with the style he has chosen. This form of intoxication is délire (delirium). Céline's use of the substantive délire and the verb délirer is pervasive in his works. Cognitively it signifies the expression of ideas contrary to reality, a state of excitement or agitation. To these two meanings—both indicating essentially a mode of verbal expression—Céline adds a third, archaic meaning—poetic frenzy or inspiration. Contextually, as we shall see, délire will have certain spatial connotations and will be opposed to both drunkenness and insanity.
I would like to examine three modes of delirium in Céline's second novel …, Mort à crédit [Death on the Installment Plan], a novel that Michel Beaujour has called a "constellation of deliriums." My choice of this particular novel has been dictated as well by the nature of its narrator and its particular configuration of narrative voices. Ferdinand is the first of Céline's homonymic protagonists and, analogous to the author, he is both doctor and writer—claiming authorship of Céline's first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit. Mort à crédit employs the "ulterior narrative" pattern that will become typical of Céline's novels. The first part of the novel (the narrative instance) takes the form of a prologue in which Ferdinand situates himself in the present—here as a doctor in the "zone" (the seemy industrial suburb surrounding Paris). The second part of the novel (the story) chronicles Ferdinand's childhood and early adolescence: his growing up in the enclosed, stifling Passage des Bérésinas in a struggling petit bourgeois family, his schooling, his attempts to find and hold a job, and finally his acknowledgement of failure, culminating in his intention to join the army. (pp. 191-93)
For Ferdinand, "la vie" is represented by his patients' poverty and despair. Their fragile protection against life lies in the fleeting pleasure of alcohol or sex. There are more than 14,000 alcoholics and more than 6,000 cases of gonnorhea in the doctor's district. The doctors at the clinic are only slightly less impoverished than their patients. Even Ferdinand's colleague Gustin drinks to escape, though he is intimate with the ravages of alcohol and is himself dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
Ferdinand is differentiated from his medical double by his inability to drink and by the fact that he is a writer. The two are linked to the noises he suffers in his head, his internal, cacaphonous "Opéra du déluge" … which prevents him from drinking and keeps him awake at night…. Ferdinand dates the beginning of his torment back to World War I, thus identifying it with Céline's celebrated head wound…. This head wound will appear in a variety of guises in Céline's novels. But here in Mort à crédit it appears for the first time in a mythical role in the creative process and as a rhetorical device designating that process. The head wound gives rise not to sleepless nights but to a moment of délire, characterized by spatial and temporal disorientation and by hallucinations, which leads to a rupture with the doctor's constituted reality, the social frame of the novel. This break with one mode of existence, with one spatio-temporal frame, combined with Ferdinand's identification as a writer leaves no doubt that this moment of délire functions as a "narrative metalepsis." (pp. 193-94)
Ferdinand's delirium begins in the Bois de Boulogne, where he has taken a young woman, La Mireille, in order to persuade her to cease spreading malicious rumours about him. After a series of hallucinatory visions, he is brought back to his room,...
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Survival as a guilt to be exorcised and which must create its own, nonidealistic style; survival as the only possible fixed value in an inhospitable world: into this category [A.] Alvarez attempts to place those writers who have minimised their moral and literary pretensions [in his essay "The Literature of the Holocaust"].
It is a category which appears, initially, to aid comprehension of certain aspects of the work of Céline. At an early point in the narrator's reminiscences of his childhood, in Mort à crédit, he recounts the visit of the family to the Exposition Universelle of 1900. The exhibition-site is swarming with a vast, frightening crowd. At every turn, at every stand, the...
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Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) (Vol. 4)
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) 1894–1961
Céline was a French novelist and physician. His nihilistic, misanthropic novels employ a unique idiom originally based on Parisian argot. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Céline's greatest books … are: Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à crédit, written at the start of his literary career; D'un château l'autre and Nord, produced during the last decade of Céline's life. Everything characteristic of the writer is contained in these four works: all the main themes and stylistic innovations, every stage of the evolution his writing underwent. In themselves, they constitute a whole, a statement as complete as anything designed to define an author's vision of man's position in the universe. At the same time, they can also be seen as a cycle, for it has been noted that Céline's last great work, Nord, meets and in many respects parallels his first, Voyage au bout de la nuit. (p. 15)
Céline, the arch-individualist among modern French novelists, refuses to be labeled or categorized…. If we wish to do so at all, we must provide only the largest and broadest sort of lineage for Céline. We might then point to his relatedness with the ancient tradition of irrationalist, mystical, obscurantist literature which, in French writing, would link him most closely to the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century and to a tradition which preceded that of the Classical Age with its emphasis on reason, formal beauty, elimination of excess. We might also ally him to this current as it comes to the surface again in the nineteenth century and manifests itself in the rejection of the dictates of classicism.
Linking Céline to particular writers, such as Aristophanes or Rabelais, Rousseau, Voltaire, Swift, and Cervantes, has its attractions. However, while such comparisons emphasize his capacity to produce laughter of a robust or satirical sort, it seems even more important to dwell on Céline's adherence to another, blacker current in literature. It is one filled with militant pessimism and violent derision, denoting a vision that spares nothing of man's existence, and a humor that is no less somber than its poetic strength. This stream flows from Villon to Beckett…. One of its tributaries … is that of existentialism….
Céline's link with existentialist thought is much more crucial than the obvious influence he has exercised on the best known exponent of the doctrine, Jean-Paul Sartre. It is based not only on his ability to figure in the ranks of those who are its precursors—for, like them, he has seen and voiced all the pain, hideousness, meaninglessness, and despair of the human condition—but also on the fact, and this is one of his major contributions, that he has translated his vision into a particularly modern idiom. His work can thus be considered as a juncture of existentialist thought and contemporary style, that is, the eruption of the spoken word into literature. (pp. 17-18)
Céline's contribution is vital not only because it is a journey to the end of past statements on the nature of human existence, but also because it points the way to an expression of these ideas through stylistic means that force the reader into direct contact with basic emotions and spoken language. Thus, the stripping away of protective layers of consolation, illusion, contingency which may serve as palliatives, occurs on two planes at once: the sweeping demand for a tabula rasa is met both by thought and expression. In this resides Céline's unusual power as a writer, as well as the anger or terror of the reader, who is subject to such ruthless and exacting action.
There can be no doubt that Céline belongs in the ranks of the great destroyers. Uprooting secure concepts of existence and literature at the same time, he commits what for many is an unpardonable sin—that of leaving us no refuge of any kind, no exit from the trap he has shown our world to be. The first attack is leveled at beliefs we generally cling to in order to maintain a safe view of our universe: thus, religion is dismissed or rejected; moral codes are proven a sham, an empty shell; human brotherhood reveals itself as a hollow dream. The second uprooting is no less thorough, for traditional literary style is scrupulously dismembered, exploded, destroyed. Céline's entire work—both in theme and style—is an illustration of the view that existence is an endgame played out on a cannibal isle or in a cosmic jungle, in an irrational and vicious setting with a multiple décor of slaughterhouse, asylum, and dunghill. Moreover, this vision is hammered into us in a language as brutal, direct and visceral as raw human emotion—the apparent directness being due to Céline's consummate skill as a writer which allows him to produce this effect of style, while hiding the meticulous craftsmanship that lurks behind it. (pp. 18-19)
Although the impact of Céline is not specific, it runs in a deeper—if often hidden—current. Essentially, it consists of the creation of a new tone, a literary ambiance which pervades an entire sector of modern letters and exceeds the limits of national boundaries or personal orientation and background. It has made possible the indebtedness to Céline felt by French authors of such diverse persuasion as Aymé, Queneau, and Bernanos, as well as the kinship expressed by foreign writers like the Slovakian Céjra Vanos, the Americans Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, among others. (p. 20)
The greatness of Céline resides not only in his stylistic revolt, but also in his having ventured to the very end of an already desperate line of thought and feeling. (p. 25)
Céline's interest … in the falling apart, the liquefication, the melting away of the individual … is a part of that first-hand exploration of all man's lower depths, physical or mental. Madness,… whether confined to the asylum or rampant in that open-air madhouse,… must be illuminated.
The novels are filled with explorations of this nature. From Semmelweiss to Nord, there stretches an almost endless line of "madmen," "nuts," "imbeciles," and other creatures who are suffering from dementia, from alienation of one sort or another. It is, however, more than the description or analysis of madness that interests Céline…. It becomes quite apparent that for Céline there are two kinds of madness: that of victim and that of torturer. For the first, he has compassion; for the second, he reserves a good deal of his anger. Thus, it is only half true that the author feels that "man in his illness is essentially malevolent," since he castigates solely those sick individuals who are also vicious, and spares the harmless or innocent, even if they are mad. (pp. 104-06)
Diametrically opposed to the humanistic ideal which places man on an ever-ascending stairway leading to the perfection of all his attributes, Céline's view emphasizes the downward path, the escalator going to a basement of impotence, futility, absurdity, decomposition…. According to the former, man is lucid, creative, meaningful, capable of joy, dignity, perfectibility. According to Céline, he flees lucidity, is destructive, meaningless, absurd, capable of endless misery, cowardice, prone to continual decay and corruptibility. (pp. 106-07)
It is as if the author demanded true heroism from his audience rather than from his characters…. While the protagonists of the novels are allowed to choose detachment, évasion, apathy, paralysis—the reader is not. He is trapped, snared by the work of art, fastened to his terrible reflection in the mirror, with eyes pried open. Actually, his is the most horrible fate. Céline's attack is directed primarily against him. (p. 113)
Céline does sometimes speak of what is delicate, or filled with emotion; when this happens, the incident or single phrase has the startling brilliance of a luminous stone against black cloth, a piercing point of light in otherwise total darkness. Their very rarity, their intensely lyrical quality, make these passages both striking and deeply moving.
In general, they seem like a momentary pause in the violent storm of invectives, a brief respite in the description of the vicious battle of existence. It is as though Céline, while unleashing the black déluge of his writing, set afloat a small ark of human beings and animals whom he will spare. (p. 115)
[Reality], which in Céline has only the vilest connotations, continually intrudes or forces its way into the realms of the imagination, of fantasy, of art.
In the last works, however, we find a development of a trend already visible in the early novels: reality takes on such a hallucinatory aspect that it is hard to separate it from the realm of fantasy…. The implacable exploration of this delirious reality, as well as the attempts to overcome it by a kind of exorcism, create an important part of the dynamism of these works of Céline. At the same time, one may also note a quest for delirium, as an escape from time, failure, horror. This has already been true for such works as Voyage and Mort à crédit…. In the last novels it is no longer even a momentary truce of this kind, but the briefest of respites, a sudden—if brutal—removal from reality. In the first writing of Céline as in the last, it is clear that one must take the leap if one wishes to turn one's back on existence: "In order to truly flee, one has to pass through the mirror, into the domain of dream or madness." (p. 185)
Erika Ostrovsky, in her Céline and His Vision (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1967 by Erika Ostrovsky), New York University Press, 1967.
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 20th century to proclaim a satanic vision of a 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 19th-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 thorough-going and masterly fashion. It was as if the underdog had suddenly found a voice….
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…. God-defiance or God-rejection, wild satirical exaggeration, scatological and pornographic hyperbole are not novel elements in French literature…. Céline may not have absorbed much of this tradition consciously, but it was in the air he breathed….
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 … 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 … sounds first in Miller, then in Mailer, Kerouac, Baldwin, Ginsberg, et al…. Céline had a lot to do with the development of the poetics of paranoia … [and he] is a novelist only in autobiography…. 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…. 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….
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 '30s 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 behaviour; he just carries on in his usual tone, hitting out in all directions…. The style [of Castle to Castle] 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….
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….
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….
Independently of its moral obtuseness, [its] 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…. 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.
John Weightman, "Céline's Paranoid Poetics," in The, New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1969 by NYREV, Inc.), June 5, 1969, pp. 25-9.
Céline's work stands as a monument to … dissonance, rage, and madness…. When Céline died in 1961, he was still at work on one more novel [Rigadoon], in which he continued to pour forth his vituperation against the lie, against all lies that blind men to their misery.
Yet Céline never really offered any belief in the truth, that is, in any truth beyond the recognition of man's horrible necessity to grow sick and die and of the anguish that accompanies that recognition. Perhaps it is inappropriate to speak of truth and falsehood in Céline's case, for his novels propose a form of discourse that lies beyond the realm of normal verification and beyond the paradox that springs from the antithesis of lie and truth. His novels are, in essence, discourses in the delirium that springs from his intolerable awareness of human misery; and as discourses in delirium, Céline's novels are an inexhaustible source of truths and countertruths.
From his first to his last novel Céline's work can be compared to a journey, or, more precisely, to a flight that leads into the night of existential, metaphysical, and, finally, historical darkness. There are momentary flickers of light in this night, such as Céline's lyricism in Guignol's Band or the joy he finds in the dance. There is also his anti-Semitic polemic, the outrageous pamphlets that constituted an insane effort to bring illumination to the night. Voyage au bout de la nuit first sets forth the theme of flight into darkness and thus serves as a kind of preface to the entire body of Céline's work. It is a preface complete in itself, yet it points beyond itself to the journey that ends in the disaster of Céline's last novels in which he narrates pseudohistorical "chronicles" of his flight across Nazi Germany.
Céline's flight into darkness is more than a physical or even literary journey, for his works trace a descent into a night of another sort, one in which the light of reason has been extinguished. This snuffing out of the light of reason means quite simply that Céline's journey leads to the darkest reaches of madness. Céline's novels present extended travels into the delirium of men, things, history, of existence itself. Madness is his favorite metaphor to explain the nature of being. Hallucination is his favored mode of perception. (pp. 3-5)
[When] Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) appeared on the literary scene in 1932,… Céline's cynicism and denunciations seemed to speak for everyone…. [His] popular, obscene language was like a violent gust of fresh air breaking into the literary climate. The Right and the Left, both Daudet and Trotsky, were ready to applaud Voyage's scandalized portrayal of a society in dissolution as well as its bewildered outrage at man's innate viciousness. Neither group was entirely wrong in its interpretation, for in Voyage Céline had succeeded in writing a work in which a social sense of human exploitation coexisted with a sense of man's incapacity to rise above his dreary propensity for self-destruction. In short, he had composed a radical novel based on reactionary premises. (p. 7)
In terms of the narrative structure Mort à crédit is undoubtedly Céline's best novel. The work is virtually seamless. Céline is in complete control of his narrative material, never losing sight of its development nor yielding to the urge to incorporate extraneous horrors. Mort à crédit is longer than Voyage, but the reader follows its organic unfolding with no sense of formless wandering. The mad rush of events often possesses a forceful if demented logic that carries the reader along at a rapid pace. To a large degree Céline's control of his temporal perspectives in the key to his structural success. He first posits a narrator in an undefined present and then changes the narrative point of view to an earlier point in time. The illusion of two temporal perspectives adds another dimension to the work as it moves chronologically from the earlier time toward the narrator's present. Time lost is recovered—or at least purged—by the structural movement.
The structure of Mort à crédit gives the impression of an author not only firmly in control of his artistic vision but, in one sense, even disengaged from it. This disengagement is a corollary of Céline's choice to present his fictional world in an essentially comic manner; for to see a world as comic is, necessarily, to see it from a vantage point of emotional and intellectual distance…. For both the reader and the author the aesthetics of comedy are founded on disengagement.
To say that Mort à crédit is a comic novel is to say that all elements in the novel are subordinate to its comic vision. Thus one of the main differences between Mort à crédit and Voyage is the difference between the satirical and the comic, though this is not to say that elements of mordant satire are not found in Mort à crédit and that comic devices are not used in Voyage…. Voyage shows that satire can blend into the formless scream of revolt at another extreme…. Mort à crédit presents a vision of a world in which delirious, comic automatons blindly act out their obsessions with predictably cataclysmic results. (pp. 74-6)
From Voyage au bout de la nuit to Mort à crédit Céline considerably changed his approach to the novel…. [However] it is obvious that the deliriously hostile world of Mort à crédit is akin to Voyage's disintegrating world. Common to both novels is Céline's view of life's destructiveness as a projection of the insanity that lies at the core of existence. Understanding Céline's approach to the novel is thus fundamental to understanding the differences between the two works. Rather than trying to combat this madness through a total revolt doomed to failure by its very contradictions, he has chosen to exorcize it through comic reduction. Céline's refusal of his world through comic negation is still a form of protest, but the mechanisms of comedy he so brilliantly uses also show that Céline has accepted madness insofar as it can be transformed into laughter. In this sense, the violence of total rejection has become the hyperbole of extravagant comedy. (p. 77)
Cosmic buffoonery, coming from Céline's pen, is still an accomplishment that many lesser writers would envy. His frantic slapstick and burlesque délire endow the novel with a curious force. As a gratuitous verbal performance, Féerie pour une autre fois probably has no equal in modern literature. Céline is visibly present in his efforts to bend his obsessions and paranoia to fit a mythical mold that will dramatize and explain his very real misery. The reader is inevitably struck with admiration for the very frenzy of Céline's struggle. He sees that Céline is grappling with a problem whose solution can never be found through mere verbal energy, that Céline is wrestling with a personal demon that he tries to shout down—and Céline's volume has never been greater. The greater the incomprehensibility of his disaster, the more Céline seems to believe that his verbal magic can work a counter-spell against the evil that has caused it. Yet the reader also sees that Céline's revolt has turned into a parody of itself. His refusal has become a series of comic obsessions that generate an incredible amount of noise, but represent ultimately no more than a cosmic belch of disgust. Taken together, then, Féerie I and Normance are Céline's last expression of a visceral refusal of the undigested and indigestible past that the earlier novels tried to purge. They are also the first expression of his revolt against history and its collective manifestations of délire that the last novels will present on the scale of nations, if not the cosmos. (p. 168)
Céline's outcry against the incomprehensible unfolding of events that has led to his downfall is, ultimately, grounded in a paranoid clown's view of history as a personal apocalypse…. Yet Céline's refusal to go beyond his own misfortunes reduces his revolt against délire and its eviscerating agent, History, to a sterile caricature. Moreover, in spite of Céline's often brilliant pyrotechnics, in spite of the comic angle of vision his pariah complex gives him, one must regret that Céline's paranoia, seemingly founded on an obstinate will to perceive only what pleased him, appears to be a defense mechanism by which he shields himself from knowledge that could destroy him. Céline could never have been called an intellectual; he always wrote from beneath the solar plexus. But it is more than regretable that his obsessive revolt could not have been tempered, if not by understanding, at least by compassion. In the trilogy of chronicles Céline has lost that sense of compassion that was one of the most admirable sides to the negation he expressed in his earlier works. It is this narrowness that makes these works oppressive, though at the same time it intensifies their comedy. Céline's work ends, then, with a paradox much like the one that began it in Voyage: the very source of the strength of his vision makes it intolerable. (pp. 198-200)
Finally, Céline's legacy is his use of language. Language, délire, comedy, and revolt are inseparable in Céline. It is through his blend of argot, neologisms, popular expressions, and obscenities, through his blend of fractured syntax and popular speech patterns, and through his furious, rhythmic punctuation that Céline emulates chaos, emotional distress, and madness. It should be stressed again that neither his originality nor his stylistic force resides in his use of argot and slang. (p. 210)
The Célinian novel is then, if only through the immediate force of language, one of the most naked revelations of the tormented self in modern literature…. Language mimics madness and destruction in Céline. It also mimics a riotous joy, the joy of shouting down all the misery and injustice with which life can crush a man. It is this exuberance that will not allow us to abandon Céline. (pp. 211-12)
Allen Thiher, in his Celine: The Novel as Delirium, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1972.
Rigadoon completes the trilogy begun with Castle to Castle (1957) and North (1960)…. The book is a sort of Paradisio to the Inferno and Purgatorio of its two predecessors, and it triumphantly concludes Céline's career….
In Castle to Castle, Céline is patiently making a final try for the brass ring, straining to recapture the buoyant energy, the creative self-esteem of Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936), in the face of private wretchedness and public indifference or obloquy. But poignant as is his sense of banishment from the republic of letters, there is a major problem to the book: as he sardonically doctors the hungry, rumor-ridden, backbiting colony of French fascists and collaborators at Sigmaringen, he is inescapably trapped in his own public role as an alleged collaborator, the author of the notorious anti-Semitic polemics of the late '30s and early '40s. He had not in fact been a collaborator, despite his prewar enthusiasm for Hitler's racial policies, and after the war he amply paid for his pestilential anti-Semitism. But in the absence of any hint of remorse for it in the book or any acknowledgment of the scale of the Nazi infamies, there is something edgily disingenuous about his repeated insistence on his postwar sufferings, his scathing counterattacks against his literary accusers, his mordant challenges to the official cliché version of a nobly resisting France. They suggest rather too much a brilliant defense attorney with a shaky brief.
North is considerably more relaxed, partly no doubt because of the favorable reception of Castle…. The book sags a bit toward the end as Céline tries to manufacture some novelistic action, and it is still politically unendearing in places. But there are indications, too, of a certain amount of authorial role-playing, of Céline's presenting himself knowingly as "the foremost living stinker," giving his public their thrills, aware of the duplicity of their attitudes toward suffering and disasters in a disastrous world. And the kind of reader whose imagined complaints about his ramblings and abrasiveness he takes note of at various points is obviously not perceived as hostile….
Céline himself, as he writes [Rigadoon], is consciously nearing sanctuary at last, an anachronistic survivor, the old enmities almost done with, though he goes through the motions for form's sake.
With death near, with the promise of rest and the certainty of his own literary immortality, there is a new and deserved self-acceptance, an acknowledgment of his youthful skills and idealism, his abiding sense of duty, his stubborn endurance….
His works are the most eloquent testimony that we have to the madness of Europe that resulted in the two holocausts. But the eyes through which he regarded that madness, as the present book reminds us, were not only those of the prodigious genius-victim of Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night and the brutal polemicist of the swollen so-called pamphlets. They were also those of the deeply compassionate doctor who wrote that poignant brief study of medical genius and folly, The Life and Work of Semmelweiss (1924). Rigadoon deserves its bugle call, it takes its place alongside Semmelweiss, and the two of them, while not of the stature of his two masterpieces, are the works that most satisfyingly complement them.
John Fraser, "Bulls-Eye," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © The New Republic, Inc.), May 18, 1974, pp. 22-3.
Our short focus may explain why most war novels are so unsatisfactory: they show us a melodramatic theater—tanks, planes, bombs, guns, whole battlefronts—but they don't convey the day-by-day domesticity of a war, they make it exciting, interesting, meaningful, life-enhancing … pornographic! Céline is different. No great battles for him; no omissions either. "I'll tell you as I go along … all the more or less amusing vicissitudes…. [Takes] all kinds of crap to make a world … not to mention a book!" He knows that we don't much like his kind of book, that we'd prefer evasions, rhetoric, the old style: "I guess you think I'm an awful sap…. I could easily have stayed home taking a lofty view of events, and written about the stirring adventures of our intrepid armies of the Great Shit Parade, the way they managed to come home in triumph, [welcomed] by marshals under the Arch …". Well, we did like all kinds of crap, but on the other hand we don't much trust lofty views of events. Pedestals put us off. Women complain that literature falsifies them because writers have so limited a sense of what women are like inside. Wars might validly make the same complaint—but not, one suspects, about the war novels of Céline.
A stylistic innovator and chronicler of grasping, foundering, lower-middle-class Parisian life, Céline was as narrow, suspicious, cynical and elaborately bigoted as the people he described. His anti-Semitism led to his being suspected of pro-German sympathies during the Second World War (actually he had no sympathies), and toward the end of that war he fled—with his wife "Lili" and his cat Bébert—into Germany, where they underwent a complicated odyssey back and forth from Baden-Baden to Berlin, from Sigmaringen to eventual escape into Denmark … where he was jailed for over a year. After the war he was condemned and then cleared by French courts, practiced medicine outside Paris and wrote several novels about his war years.
North focuses on the destruction of Berlin and Céline's first internment; Castle to Castle evokes the black-comic opera world of the Vichy government in exile; and Rigadoon is a travel book, in which we shuttle with Lili, Bébert, and Céline, on trains under bombardment, from one bombed-out city to another, until we reach the illusory haven of the Hotel d'Angleterre in Copenhagen….
[For] the evocation of a world at war, all this is reported by a participant whose mental quirks evoke the mental and emotional reality of life in such a world. Suspicious, ignorant of what's going on and reticent about what he knows, hypocritical, sleepless, insistently factual and yet self-contradictory, self-justifying, cynical and yet living for the moment optimistically, shrewd, shepherding idiot children but abandoning their tubercular leader, looking forward enthusiastically to the death of Europe but willing to risk his life for Bébert—Céline quite deliberately makes us feel the inescapable, mind-rotting horror of endless chaos, the fact of war as Americans have never known it … although we have been inflicting it on others from the air, in Asia now as we did 30 years ago from our Flying Fortresses.
J. D. O'Hara, "War on the Installment Plan," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 2, 1974, p. 3.
"Rigadoon" does not succeed for me. As early as page 44, with the appearance of the lepers, I began to find the voice of the narrator too wayward, and his inappropriate and unexpected reactions to calamities, which in his earlier works made me laugh, became artistically ineffective. Since the background is the real destruction of much of Europe, Céline's smart-aleck tone seems not simply unattractive but inadequate….
Violence is a staple of Céline, and I now think (dismayed because I felt so remote from "Rigadoon," I went back and reread him) that he chooses approaches to the subject which are incompatible. His narrator-protagonist is occasionally on the wrong side of the law, but, verbally aggressive though not physically violent, he frequently insists that he is a physical coward. Yet the narrative voice just as frequently speaks as a connoisseur of destruction, the way an impotent man might become a connoisseur of obscene shows. So, in "Rigadoon," Céline describes with relish how Restif kills the general in command of the soon-to-be-destroyed train, and he establishes his superiority over his audience by knowing more than it does about killing. Sometimes, speaking as the doctor, he assumes professional detachment, but on these occasions he is almost invariably being Dickens' Fat Boy: he wants to make our flesh creep by talking about loathsome diseases and painful deaths, though now and then he just wants to get in a few words about the inferiority of women. The other superiority Céline seeks is in suffering. The Céline protagonist has done nothing to deserve the dreadful things that happen to him; he always hurts more than anybody else, and his pain justifies his hatred…. The Céline narrator is forever alone…. And the concept of the narrator as the lonely coward among millions of heroes, which seemed comical the first time I read "Journey," became less plausible, especially now that specialists, from anthropologists to zoologists, have been fretting that combat creates a unique solidarity among men, a staunchness and fraternity that no other human enterprise evokes….
An artistic difficulty about Céline's racism in "Rigadoon" is that is calls attention to his knockabout, night-club-comedian cast of mind….
There is a coherence in Céline's works, but it represents not so much a consistent comic point of view as it does an enduringly hostile personality who will use any trick to dominate the audience…. Since he regards his reader as his enemy, Céline is alert to outwit him….
And, of course, there is his writing—the style that seems to me as stunning as ever. His use of language—his inventions or discoveries of rhythms, echoes, verbal and tonal surprises—reflects an innocent enjoyment, a playfulness that astonishes, entertains, dazzles. I am troubled now not only because of the use he made of these gifts but because I have so far accepted it. Ought he to have mocked the poor, narrow people from whom he sprang? Ought he to have made fun of their ignorance and ineffectuality? Ought I to have laughed with him? On my first reading of "Castle to Castle," I felt like an accomplice when I joined Céline in deriding men who, whatever evil they had done, were at the end of their rope. Now I do not wish to share his guilt. I find myself saying to Céline what Mrs. Weston says to Emma: "You divert me against my conscience." That is a moral rather than an artistic judgment, but is there not a point at which a moral failure becomes an aesthetic flaw?
Naomi Bliven, "Connoisseur of Destruction," in The New Yorker, June 10, 1974, pp. 129-32.
Nobody knows quite what to do with Louis-Ferdinand Céline …: this multi-personality, split Gemini driven by the passions of Scorpio (with the scorpion's desire to sting himself to death), healer and reveler in destruction, history's clairvoyant and mud-spattered participant, verbal-visionary genius and hack pamphleteer. It is difficult for most of us, living in the either-or world of morality, engaged in the endless, futile struggle to separate good from evil, to cope with the lightning-like ambivalence of genius. We want our heroes to be good. (And yet, Blake: "Energy is eternal delight.")…
If … the reader [of "Rigadoon"] survives [the] opening barrage—which by the time of "Rigadoon" has become almost an obligatory song-and-dance for Céline, a self-parody—he will find a very different Céline, one whose relationship to the reader is conspiratorial, confiding, engaging, variously that of bum to fellow bum, showman to spectator, cold sober crystalline philosopher to suddenly awestruck, silent student….
The trilogy is essentially a firsthand account of the collapse of European civilization, though "collapse" is too polite a word, orgiastic death-throes would be more like it, and "firsthand" is too tame a phrase for a man who planted his own life right in the midst of the sickness and death of Europe and let it rage—reprehensible and Lear-like—through his soul….
[What] is being finally and utterly pulverized in "Rigadoon" is not just a landscape, but the very essence of a civilization—the agreed-upon structure of perception….
As in his other books …, Céline's scalding and secretly moral contempt for human nature, its inveterate selfishness, sensationalism and inertia (which is his vision, and which perhaps lies—as in the eye—right next to his blind spot), exists side by side with his physician's unflinching, unforgiving gaze at suffering and his fundamental care for life.
Annie Gottlieb, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 30, 1974, pp. 6-7.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) (Vol. 7)
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) 1894–1961
Céline, "the first great foul-mouthed rhapsodist of the twentieth century to proclaim a satanic vision of a godless world," was a French novelist and physician.
[Céline's] first novel, Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit), was an immediate success. Critics compared him to Rabelais and Villon, to Joyce and Proust. He has been called a liberator of the language and his volatile suprarealistic prose has been a potent influence on novelists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Queneau, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Packed with exclamations of anguish and anger unsurpassed in the literature of any language or any century, his books are models for the literature of the absurd. His language, a versatile compound of argot, neologisms, and impolite French, is perhaps the saltiest and the richest since the poets of the Pléiade squeezed the language of Rabelais through the Latin wringer. Yet he remains one of the least recognized writers of his generation. (p. 3)
He lived his life much as he wrote his books, confusing the creation and the creator in a manner ironically reminiscent of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Jarry, treating his "public" much as Faulkner treated his—to a medley of fact and fiction designed to satisfy its demands and to perpetuate a mask in which even he appears to have had some faith. (p. 4)
In 1937, he published the first of three anti-Semitic and pacifistic pamphlets, Bagatelles pour un massacre, a book so extravagantly virulent that André Gide mistook it for another Célinean farce. Paradoxically, this bit of thunder, which earned him the support of the fascist and the royalist press and resulted in his postwar exile and imprisonment, contains three of his delicately beautiful ballet scenarios. (Céline, whose art transforms words into gestures, loved the mute and gratuitous expression of the dance and the physical beauty of the dancers, out of which he claimed he could "shape a sort of artificial paradise on earth." Certainly the scenarios present Céline at his most engaging. As opposed to his fantastic realism, his scenarios are realistic fantasy.)
Almost as much has been written about Céline's anti-Semitism as about his novels. Jean-Paul Sartre derives it from a fundamentally catastrophic vision of the world and a Manichaean obsession, a tendency to lash out at the "evil" while turning his back on the "good." Others relate it to his paranoia, to his pacifism, and to his lower-middle-class background. (pp. 7-8)
Virulence in Céline's books is a verbal manifestation of his obsessive dread of violence in addition to his fascination with destruction. For such a man, words are acts, and Céline told one interviewer that readers experienced in his books a rape of conscience. (p. 8)
"The critics object to my speaking argot," Céline remarked to Robert Poulet. "It isn't argot at all! It's a special language, that suits me. I've got a secret recipe." Céline's coherence is largely a function of this language, whose essential qualities he altered very little after Death on the Installment Plan. We may notice a progression from the clear, forceful, conventional but relatively informal, French of Semmelweis to L'Église, where Céline uses popular speech only in the Parisian scenes … and even so makes every possible concession to the cultivated ear. Still, in Journey to the End of the Night, the style was, as he put it, "too literary," so he aimed in his next novel at a "calculated and subtle" simplicity. Céline has been compared to Joyce (whom he read without understanding) as a liberator of the literary idiom, though his language is radically different from Joyce's, an emotive rather than an evocative tool. He was interested not in density or nuance of meaning, but simply, though such effects are not easily achieved or sustained, in direct and forceful communication of sensation. The result is a language spoken by no Frenchman but capable of conveying "pure sentiments" with the artless immediacy of the spoken language, complete with the inevitable gestures. The "pure sentiments" Céline speaks of are the forbidden ones that "all of us share but no one dares express." To express them he concocted a savant mixture of puns, neologisms, obscenity, and finally, argot, with which he seasoned an increasingly choppy but surprisingly literate and polished style. The result is a vehicle capable of carrying everything, a tidal wave—or, to use Céline's own tongue-in-cheek expression, a "métro émotif" (emotive subway) sucking the outer world into its dark maw and spewing it out again reconstituted.
Argot is perhaps the most startling component of Céline's "style," along with the three points of suspension that follow sentence and phrase. These produce the effect of an explosive stutter, in every book from Death on the Installment Plan to Nord. (pp. 12-13)
In later years Céline invented two terms, "lacework" and "emotive subway," to describe his technique. He told Robert Poulet that the writer should leave accurate reporting of life to the newspapers and omit "even from his imaginings" the insipid details of what the reader already knows. In his own work this results in lacunae, in missing transitions and explanations. (pp. 14-15)
Céline's choice of characters is as conventional and appropriate as it is natural to his vision. The thieves, pimps, deserters, con men, cripples and freaks, the charlatans, fools, and clowns that constellate his pages have for centuries been the furniture of low comedy and ribald satire. (p. 18)
If we think of Céline's characters and situations as so many Tinker toy creations, it is clear that the author has discovered the source of the endless vitality that characterizes the painters of the grotesque. (p. 19)
Events conspired to make Death on the Installment Plan Céli ne's best and most characteristic book, his strongest and most balanced production. Written in the full glow of a literary triumph at a time when he was fully aware of the destructive potential of his new weapon, it was conceived before he began to court personal catastrophe with his pamphlets, before he began to suspect that his power could be turned back upon him. The result is a cruel, a brutal, an explosive book, a Gargantuan burst of hilarity released from the pit. But the rage, hysteria, and hallucination are all controlled and masterfully timed. Though the language, the punctuation, and the syntax suggest a sustained stutter of rage, there is little of the redundancy that mars the later books. It is the book of the three points … the punctuated stutter of progressive rage … argot and neologisms … fragments of speech … apocalypses roaring across pages … vitalizing the Rabelaisian catalogues … lighting them … turning them into molten emotion and the fear of the crowd … the violent mob latent in every individual. The pace is swift, the action is varied, and the motifs and themes are consistent without being obtrusive. This second novel, though less broadly satirical, has everything the first one had but with greater intensity and a more personal bite. It makes fewer concessions to literary prejudices and harks back more directly to the main line of the comic tradition, to Aristophanes, Petronius, Rabelais, or Ben Jonson. (pp. 28-9)
For [Céline], writing was always a means of expressing a mature frenzy upon which history and experience could make few marks. True, he saw himself by turns as a clinician, a destroyer, a moralist, a clown, and a stylist who could "resensitize the language so that it pulses more than it reasons." But his work stands unified like a huge altarpiece celebrating in many panels the last judgment in terms of the community of outcasts (or innocents) created by contemporary dislocations.
Céline's fame rests on two books, but his place in history has a broader base. He is the black magician of hilarity and rage, the perverse mirror of twentieth-century energy—a force so dynamic and diverse that it leads inevitably to overproduction and suicide. His vision supplements in our time that of Kafka, Beckett, or Grass, putting a real gun in the hand of the metaphorical fool, substituting explosion for restraint. He stands next to Proust as the painter of a moribund society, next to Joyce as a liberator of language. He is unmatched as a comic genius, the father of verbal slapstick. (pp. 45-6)
David Hayman, in Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers Pamphlet No. 13; copyright © 1965 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1965.
"A style is an emotion," wrote Louis-Ferdinand Céline in 1938 in Bagatelles pour un massacre, one of his three belligerently pacifist pamphlets. (p. 190)
One might also say that a novel is an emotion, a musical transformation of life. For Céline, whom life frequently handled with an unusual degree of violence and cruelty, the creation of novels was an act of pure selflessness, a gratuitous transformation of the world's "cruelties into flowers." If the evaluation of Céline as a man remains to be completed, there is no question of his position as a novelist. Along with Marcel Proust, he is a giant of the twentieth century French novel, a relatively ignored giant in the official canon of criticism, but the strongest subterranean force in the novel of today. While Proust brought to its final perfection the analytical tradition, Céline found a new path, transforming the techniques of naturalism combined with those of poetry into an idiom which is totally of the twentieth century. Only James Joyce in Ulysses attempted an equally radical transformation of the methodology of the novel.
Céline's originality lay above all in the nature of his language, the spoken French of our century employed in what one might call dramatic form. His narratives read like breathless first person statements. They do not tell a story, as in the traditional first person technique. Instead, they communicate directly the impact of experience and the register of emotions of the narrator. The apparently artless scream which is the sound of Céline's novels has frequently led to the complete identification of Céline with his characters. (pp. 191-92)
Céline's novels are meant to be read aloud or heard with the mind's ear. They are essentially aural novels. To the speculation that his technique resembled developments in American fiction, Céline replied that he had not gotten his tricks from books. Rather, he had learned his style of prose in the English music halls, in rhythm, in dance. His aim was not simply to capture spoken language, but "an inner rhythmic language," more like the chansons de geste than like prose. In other words, Céline sought not the actual accent of common speech, but the transformation of spoken language into an ideal spoken language, one which conveys intensely what its original would have liked to convey. It is this quality of distortion or magnification which distinguishes Céline's aural technique from that of American naturalism. While the voice of most heroes or nonheroes in American fiction tends to be a flat, understated one (excepting perhaps in the works of Saul Bellow and company), Céline's characters seem to scream, to chant, to say more than they mean rather than less. Their perceptions of nature are more beautiful and more ugly, their rages wilder, their glooms infinitely darker. All of this is couched in a prose style which sounds like someone speaking. (pp. 198-99)
Art is not reality. European naturalism and realism have forgotten this, Céline pointed out. First of all, human experience is essentially uncommunicable…. Céline [would] answer those critics who consistently construct the life of Dr. Destouches from the novels of Céline [by saying that the] life does inform the novels, providing an imaginative skeleton, as it were, upon which dreams and music come to place their beautiful or macabre cloaks. But it is no longer "real life." Objective existence is unbearable, Céline admitted. (pp. 202-03)
Céline seems never to have believed that writing would change anything or that the voice of the artist could be a force for political or social change. Rather, the lyrical expression of what Baudelaire called "the canvas of vices" was for Céline a demonstration of the one redeeming quality in man, his need for poetry. In a sense, Céline's work is a contradiction in terms: the ugliness described is negated by being described in lyrical terms. This is not a new phenomenon in literature. Villon is an obvious example of the same creative contradiction. But one must understand clearly that for Céline, in contradistinction to many of his contemporaries, the act of writing was not a demonstration of artistic responsibility and engagement. He was not a Catholic moralist like Mauriac or Bernanos, not an exponent of the writer's moral commitment like Sartre of Camus, not a preacher for social melioration like Aragon. Neither was he the spokesman for a special form of individual heroism like Malraux.
One factor distinguished the genuine from the specious writer for Céline, the criterion of experience. He found in the writers he admired the mark of men who had really seen what they described, in other words, a sense of authenticity. This authenticity applied to their expressions of fantasy, to their transformations of the real into dream, as well as to their descriptions of reality. The strongest words of condemnation in Céline's vocabulary were gratuit and triché. He considered the political and social preoccupations of his contemporaries a sign of bad conscience. (p. 206)
Voyage au bout de la nuit is perhaps the most truly modern novel of our century…. As in the works of Malraux, Camus, and Sartre, in Céline's novel death is at the center of all realizations. Céline offers no palliatives, no useful preoccupations, no heroic gestures to mask the fundamental horror…. In Céline's world, which he would have us believe is the world and not the invention of a bourgeois mentality, death is present from the first; it is the fundamental fact of human existence. (pp. 207-08)
André Gide once said of Céline that he describes not reality, but the hallucinations which reality provokes…. But as Céline says in the epigraph [to Voyage au bout de la nuit], "Our voyage is entirely imaginary. That's its force." Imagination, which for him means poetry, is the only key we have to the darkness through which we travel. (p. 209)
In novels with a structure as diverse and fluid as life itself, novels which curse every aspect of his world, Céline may well be the most original writer of his era. Ferdinand Bardamu is the mythical hero of the legend of the present, a story with no conclusion in which his highest realization is that he knows nothing and his most exalted function is to be temporary head of an asylum for the insane. (p. 215)
Rima Drell Reck, "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: The Novelist as Antagonist," in her Literature and Responsibility: The French Novelist in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1969 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1969, pp. 190-215.
Rigadoon, along with the earlier published Castle to Castle and North, composes Céline's final trilogy. Together, the three books deal with the fall of the Third Reich in Germany and the Vichy government in France. For Céline, it was the end of an era of active public life. It was also a time of violence and rapid decay, one which matched his own sense of imminent apocalypse. Rigadoon was Céline's parting gesture, his last curse upon a Europe he felt was doomed. According to the book's preface, he wrote the last words on the morning of July 1, 1961. That evening he was dead. (p. 123)
War for Céline, as for many other modern writers, is the truest mirror of our culture's inner reality. Céline disliked everybody—whites, blacks and yellows, leftists and rightists too. But his bitterest scorn was reserved for the successful, the rational and the happy. The black chaos of an exploding Germany suited his vision of things much better than normal life ever could. For, again like many of his contemporaries, he felt we'd come to a final crisis. Europe is decaying; "putrid" is one of Céline's favorite words. Or it lacks vital energy, the will to dominate and survive. War, and especially modern war, with its mass killings and surrealistic gore, is the strongest metaphor we have for our insane, self-destructive world. But more than a metaphor, war is a central fact of that world.
War is exciting, too. It's a thrill, in the same way amusement parks and horror films are thrills. Céline also feels this, and the wild energy of it all attracts him…. In fact, this excitement is also quite common. Boredom, and the desire for a more "exalted" level of existence, are among the main causes both of modern war and fascism. That Céline himself was a Fascist of sorts is well known. His particular fixed idea, which pops up again and again in Rigadoon, is that whiteness is genetically recessive, and will disappear if whites mix with other races. The idea is absurd in itself, and wouldn't make much difference even if it were true. But Céline's racial theories work on two levels. One is as a rather obnoxious kind of drivel, mixed in with the general chaos of the book. The other is as a symbol for an entire spent civilization. And despite his prophecies of genetic doom, Céline awaits the end with a kind of manic glee….
But Céline is more than that too. In Rigadoon, as in all his novels, he's put his finger on a number of things we all feel. And … he's done so in unusually powerful language. His love of it all, in a way, is his greatest advantage. More than most modern authors, he's able to plunge directly into the burning center, where Europe, in rage and anguish, is tearing itself apart. In so doing, he captures the heat and energy of the final holocaust better than almost anyone else. (p. 124)
David H. Rosenthal, "Céline's Grand Finale," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), February 1, 1975, pp. 123-24.
It is a pity that discussion about the novels and pamphlets written by the writer who called himself Céline should so frequently be dominated by the question of his behaviour during the war….
[The] real interest of Céline does not lie in the catastrophe of 1940 or in the bitter divisions which followed. Céline is a supremely modern writer. To read his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1933, or to read one of his last, Castle to Castle, published in 1957, is to plunge not only into the contemporary world of violence, destruction, disbelief and extinction; it is also to see the problems of artistic creation, with the narrator trying to reconcile the perspective which enters naturally into the process of writing with the meaninglessness and void which are the essence of these books….
[In cafés] Céline would talk violently and contemptuously. He sensed disaster everywhere; he saw unhappiness, disease and death; he denounced conspiracy, wickedness and hypocrisy. He had a gift for telling stories and a weakness for telling those which were impossible…. And his writing is like that. He has probably made few converts. Those authors who claim to have been influenced by him show surprisingly few signs of that influence. Few men will have become more corrupt or more depraved as a result of reading him. But he remains a unique and unforgettable writer….
[In] some ways Céline had said all he had to say in his first novel. In some of his last writings he takes a long time to describe how Europe is going under. The maniacal laughter of the demon king as he sees the world destroyed can become tedious. The language becomes considerably disjointed, and when we are faced simply with "Vroum! vroum! Vloaf, Vloaf," then we are back with the café-entertainer, his grimaces, shoulder-shrugging, muttering and gesticulating. But in all this there is life, even if it is delirium, there is the lyricism of the cities and streets, even if it is destructive and sordid. Behind the denunciation are the glimpses of kindness (the woman who spends her life sewing on buttons tells her husband that now he can afford to buy his newspaper every day, if he wishes).
Behind the ugliness is the beauty of movement, and the fact that there are some places in a city which are so hideous that a man can always be alone in them. Céline quoted Claude Lorrain, who said that the foreground in a picture is always ineffective and that the interest must be placed in the far distance, where falsehoods can take refuge….
[It] is certainly strange that someone who was so inclined to disbelief should have been so credulous about the activities of Jews and Communists. (p. 14)
Douglas Johnson, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 5, 1975.
Sartre, after Céline had become a pamphleteer for the collaborationist faction, excommunicated him from literature as implacably as any priest consigning a soul to outer nothingness. For the Existentialist, Céline ceased to exist. Others, less attached to absolutist doctrines, have made excuses for him, attempting to view his anti-Semitism as a bizarre, if rather noticeable quirk in an otherwise lovable spirit….
In his time and place Céline was not a monster: indeed he was almost a typical, if artistically exaggerated version of the not very bright or successful petit bourgeois gone-to-the-dogs. But, more than this, Céline's views on Jews were a logical extension of his views on life and humanity generally: with him, fear, pessimism and a sense of the reality of evil, were not an intermittent quirk but the presiding passions of his life. His books are written in hate. The sympathy, the pity, the sensitivity for which they have also been acclaimed are there too, to be sure. But these emotions coexist with a fundamental and intractable paranoia. Voyage au Bout de la Nuit and Mort à Credit are not, as has been claimed, realism, but they are one instantly recognisable version of reality—the dark one to which we wake, suddenly, alone, at three a.m. Herein lies their peculiar force….
[A] distinctive element in Céline's books [is] the tone of genteel crudeness, a speech rhythm which is perhaps untranslatable or at any rate is not translated in the passages quoted. Conventional references to him writing in argot are misleading: it is not slang, as such, that informs almost every sentence of his long works, but a subtler and all-pervading coarseness, a lace-matted vulgarity as domestically familiar and unmistakable as human smells. There is no word for this voice, for no one else has written in it, but it is for this that Céline is read, appreciated and remembered.
Gillian Tindall, "Excommunicate," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 11, 1975, p. 56.
["Journey to the End of the Night"] must have been something of an electric storm for its first readers, if one thinks of the Colette and Giraudoux novels being published then like a succession of sunny days. "Journey" used argot as if slang had been approved by the French Academy, punctuation that slid phrases together on a sustained note, and seemed to have rid literary French of its three handicaps, which are rigid syntax, small vocabulary and that compulsive intellectual tidiness that can turn books into filing cabinets….
"Journey" was published in 1933, the year of Hitler. Céline's dark nihilism, his use of street language, the undertow of mystery and death that tugs at the novel from start to finish were wildly attractive to both Left and Right: both could read into it a prophecy about collapse, the end of shoddy democracy, the death of sickened Europe….
There was … nothing to prevent Céline from becoming richer and richer and more and more celebrated, from growing old respected and honored, as writers still are in France, interviewed by reverent critics to the very last gasp about morals, politics, society and God. What went wrong? Hatred, mostly. He hated foreigners, hated Jews, hated himself. (p. 1)
When in 1950 he was tried and found guilty of collaboration … he seems not to have grasped what the verdict was about and to have dismissed from his mind all that he had written and said when his country was occupied by a foreign army. His protest, "From the time the Germans arrived I took no interest in the Jewish question," is so foolish a lie that we can only suppose that he believed the abundant evidence to the contrary had vanished, perhaps by means of the Celtic magic that so attracted him most of his life. (p. 2)
Mavis Gallant, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1976.
If Ezra Pound was wrongheaded, Céline was a monster. That at least two of his books, though long ignored by the academic literary histories, are among the most important that modern France has produced is now being grudgingly admitted, or readmitted, but Céline has not yet been totally forgiven for his treachery. Time, that pardons Paul Claudel, has still some way to run before the dead patriots and defectors alike can, in Eliot's words, be folded into a single party and accept the constitution of silence….
The Voyage, with its relentless pessimism, must not be taken as autobiography, but it is built out of the author's own experiences—war, French colonialism, the industrial hell of Detroit, the cauchemar of New York, journeys which all end in self-destruction. Yet the adventures of the hero Bardamu are shorn of the "motivation" which the films of the Thirties used to persuade us was attached to every human act. Things happen aleatorically; life is meaningless. Death is certain and we try to wait around for it, being pushed minimally by events in the meantime; but death, unlike life, bestows the brief gift of choice: one can at least elect, if one is lucky, how to die. Man is not an animal; he is capable of knowledge even wider than that of the approach of his own end, but the knowledge is of no value, since it cannot lead to the changing of the human condition. (p. 76)
The wretchedness of the Paris life Céline knew as a young man, and from which he escaped into the cavalry, is depicted [in Death on the Installment Plan] with a naturalistic technique that goes beyond Zola (excretion, stink, the working-class pigsty), but it lacks Zola's insights, his balance, above all his underlying philosophy. There is nothing outside the phenomena the narrator observes, either in the drive of the Schopenhauerian Wille or in the engines of history. Naturalism should, after all, be a metaphysic as well as a technique, but Céline can only give us the flux without its springs, the entropy without the thermodynamic law.
This is as much as to say that Céline reads to us like a man of faith more than an existentialist or Marxist. Faith without faith, indeed, but there is a smell of Newman's "terrible aboriginal calamity" in all the meticulously detailed images of decay. This is what human life is like, and nothing can be done about it: there is no political nostrum, no redemptive avatar. And yet the verbal flow, the richness of the vocabulary with its neologisms and argot, suggests an embracing of the condition with a kind of relish. We think of Joyce, but even more of Rabelais. Here is the old paradox of art. The denial of human joy is made through language which is itself a joy. And there is, of course, the Célinian humor, blacker and more bitter than Beckett's.
There is also the Célinian dynamic, a world away from the chosisme of the antinovelists, who fill their world with solid bodies and deny solidity to the human observer. Again, we miss the old-fashioned cinematic motivation: things are live and swift-moving, but without cause. (p. 80)
Céline's literary gifts were evidently not cognate with an ability to think coherently. This unpolitical man, making literature out of the materials of the social reformer, atheist with a kind of religious sensibility, was given to the irrational choosing of scapegoats for his own wrongs and, by an inevitable transition, the wrongs of the persecuted world he knew best. He didn't want reform, he wanted merely to blame. (p. 81)
Anthony Burgess, "In Support of Céline," in Harper's (copyright 1976 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the August, 1976 issue by special permission), August, 1976, pp. 76-82.
[What] is especially fascinating is that whereas Céline the physician displayed … in the conduct of his practice the most kindly concern for human frailty and suffering, Céline the metaphysician-novelist projected in almost everything he wrote the bleakest and most profoundly nihilistic view of the human condition to be found in modern literature. It is entirely possible that this view was exacerbated by his long exposure to the wretched deformities and ravagements suffered by his patients. But what the doctor sought with implicit hopefulness to cure or at least alleviate in the individual case, the writer saw in the general case to be incurable and, perhaps for just that reason, altogether loathsome.
Like so many literary intellectuals—among them Camus and Beckett—who by nature are fundamentally religious, Céline was a disillusioned absolutist who could not abide human imperfection or the prospect of existence in a universe without God, an existence ending necessarily in a meaningless death. The fear of death can become pathological in those who require some idea of transcendental order or design with which to justify life, and Céline in his fear saw no meaning in life beyond the fact that "man's habitual state is to be dying." The only human comfort is to be found in the self-deceiving cultivation of divertissement, some tranquilizing activity that allows a person to forget for a brief time his doomed condition. "You must choose," says Bardamu, Céline's first protagonist, "either dying or lying," and the efforts of human beings to lie their way out of their consciousness of pointless death is one of the central preoccupations of Céline's novels.
His personal hatred of lies was, in fact, so fanatical that he supposed that truth exists only in despair. If man was not a god, then he should be exposed as the fraudulent and disgusting creature he was, an insect worthy only of contempt. The hatred Céline felt so powerfully was of course self-hatred, and he dedicated himself as a writer to spreading a doctrine of hate which ensured that he would win the hatred of others.
When his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, appeared in 1932,… [the] more conservative critics found the novel obscene and morbidly iconoclastic. Yet there were others who responded with the sort of titillated admiration for the offensive in Céline that, particularly in France, helped to secure the reputations of Baudelaire, Beckett, Genet, and other beloved provocateurs of bourgeois masochism. Céline was also given support, as were these men, by the view that if a work is nasty and subversive enough, it must be art, and there is significance in the fact that at least a substantial portion of his reputation as a great writer is the result of the wide acceptance of this view, not only among his then more radical contemporaries but in certain literary circles at the present time. Céline managed, however, with his usual alertness to the danger of not being hated, to produce in his second novel, Death on the Installment Plan, a work of such sordidness and maniacal frenzy that even the most passionate champions of the ugly found themselves unable to bear the book, although that response seems in no way to have affected the opinion now so widely held that Death on the Installment Plan should be judged, along with its predecessor, as the most important fiction Céline produced….
[Concerning the pamphlets,] it must be remembered that politics for Céline was finally only a dialectical framework for the expression of his psychopathology. Behind his hatred of the Jews, for example, was the tangled ambivalence of his self-hatred and perverse lust for martyrdom. It is obvious that for him Jews were a particular threat because he at once identified with them and saw them as rivals for his claim to being God's chosen victim. They became his scapegoat, first, because he needed to project his self-hatred upon others and in so doing purge himself temporarily of his emotional poisons, and, second, because he was anxious to rid the world of his competition. He was also trying through the writing of the pamphlets to offend the reading public so grievously that he would be assured of having enough hostility to nourish his persecution mania for life. (p. 30)
Céline's importance as an artist will most probably continue to be debated for some years to come. But his reputation will surely increase among readers of English as more of his postwar novels become available in translation and the stigma of his political views loses force as a deterrent to an aesthetic appreciation of his work. What can be said with most assurance at this time is that Céline is notable for having expressed in the angriest form conceivable that classic disgust with the human condition in all its aspects that has been the single most characteristic motif in modern literature. In the service of this disgust he produced a neurasthenic fiction—often more than half insane, surreal, and, toward the end of his career, increasingly mystical—which in its day was revolutionary and proved to be highly stimulating to writers of very diverse views and talents. There are many parallels between the metaphysical preoccupations of his early novels and those of Sartre's Nausea, which was dedicated to Céline, and Camus's The Stranger. Henry Miller was heavily influenced, in particular, by Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and the radical technical experimentation in the fiction of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Michel Butor was undoubtedly encouraged by Céline's introduction into the novel of unconventional stylistic idioms and new modes of impressionistic and fantasy projection. Among other contemporary writers who have all evidently learned a good deal from him are Günter Grass and, in this country, William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes, and Joseph Heller. (pp. 31-2)
[Céline has been compared with Joyce. Yet] Joyce tried to create an art that would conform to his aesthetic ideal of stasis, that would arouse neither desire nor loathing, but would embody the subtle soul or epiphany of the experience portrayed. Céline produced a vigorously kinetic art that was the embodiment of his loathing. Joyce was at all times the master of his subject. Céline was the obsessive servant of his, and he had really only one subject—the hateful horror of existence. That subject locked him in as tightly as it locked out his humanity. If he had been blessed with Joyce's power of self-detachment, he might have found the freedom and the wisdom to see beyond his agony and to make that fundamental assent to life that an artist, with whatever skeptical reservations, must ultimately make before he can be considered qualified for elevation to greatness. (p. 32)
John W. Aldridge, "Despair on the Installment Plan," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 7, 1976, pp. 27-32.