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The Novels

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

This trilogy of novels, Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon, informally known as the wartime trilogy, traces the journey of the protagonist, Ferdinand, from Paris to Copenhagen in the wake of the collapse of the German war effort. Denounced as a collaborator for his anti-Semitic writings and consequently threatened with death by the Resistance, Ferdinand flees his Montmartre apartment to seek the relative political safety of Denmark. Earlier, he hid money from royalties there to provide for such an occurrence. Each volume of the trilogy begins with a preface by the narrator-author, an older and more cynical Ferdinand, who informs the reader of his present situation. He has settled in the Parisian suburb of Meudon and resumed his medical practice after several years of detention in Denmark. Throughout the trilogy, he asserts that he was made a scapegoat by the French government and never aided the Nazi occupiers of his country.

In the prefaces to the first and third volumes of the trilogy, Castle to Castle and Rigadoon respectively, the narrator’s return to his past, a narrative metalepsis, is effected by means of a hallucinatory experience. In the first example, he “sees” a boat moored nearby, and among its mysterious, hooded passengers he recognizes several acquaintances from the war years, some of them long since dead. In the second case, Ferdinand is caught in a rainstorm while attempting to fend off interviewers who are intent upon verifying that he is as loathsome in person as his public image would have him be. His subsequent illness is aggravated by a recurrence of the malaria he had contracted in Africa. The resultant delirium and hallucinations dredge up materials from his past. Hence the trilogy opens and closes with a signal to the reader that what will be—and has already been—related is to be read as a fiction, a creative delirium, no matter what autobiographical elements from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s notorious past may have served as its point of departure.

The three novels do not adhere in their internal order or that of their publication to the chronology of Ferdinand’s journey: North should have been the first novel of the trilogy and Castle to Castle the second. Critics have remarked that this inversion was a result of Céline’s perception that a novel that dealt with the officials of the collaborationist Vichy government, as does Castle to Castle, would sell better and thus more quickly reestablish his reputation, which had suffered after his return to France following his long exile in Denmark. The narrator gives a different explanation, stating that his violation of chronology is a sign of artistic freedom as well as a reflection of the disorder of the period he is describing.

Ferdinand, in the company of his wife Lili and the actor Le Vigan, begins the narration of his journey (according to the chronology of the events) after the trio has crossed the German frontier and arrives in Baden-Baden. Untouched as yet by the fighting, this resort city with its luxury hotels and famous casino is an oasis of tranquillity for the rich and powerful. The war finally comes to Baden-Baden, in the form of mass arrests following the unsuccessful officers’ plot to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944, and Ferdinand and his companions are forced to leave the resort for war-ravaged Berlin.

Ferdinand discovers that he too has been marked by the ravages of the war. He begins to limp when he arrives in Berlin and notices that he has aged to the point that his face no longer matches the photograph in his identity papers. An acquaintance, Dr. Harras, a medical officer in the SS, invites the trio to share his well-furnished underground bunker. The presence of these French refugees arouses suspicions, however, and Harras is obliged to move them to Kranzlin—called Zornhof (anger estate) in the text—a vast property some one hundred kilometers north of Berlin. In the nearby town of Moorsburg, there is a refuge for diseased prostitutes. One...

(The entire section is 1,472 words.)