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.