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...
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