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.