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...
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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.