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 can hear in the distance the muffled sound of bombs falling on Berlin.
In addition to the members of the von Leiden family, which owns the estate, Zornhof houses Polish serving girls, employees of the Health Ministry, French forced laborers, and conscientious objectors. Consonant with its name, Zornhof is a place of hatred, spite, and intrigue, notably on the part of the Baron von Leiden and his wife Isis. The Baron is a misanthropic cripple. His wife (ironically named after the Egyptian goddess of medicine and marriage) is obsessed with killing her husband and attempts to lure Ferdinand into becoming her accomplice. The Baron’s father is a senile octogenarian who, one morning, dressed in his World War I uniform, rides off toward the front, only to be seized and severely beaten by a band of deranged prostitutes who have escaped from Moorsburg. Isis procures a hallucinogen which she gives to the Russian prisoner of war who carries the Baron from place to place. Disoriented by the drug, he drowns his master in a manure pond.
Ferdinand and his companions make every effort to avoid becoming involved in the antagonisms that imprison the von Leidens. When Le Vigan confesses to the murder of the Baron, Harras is called upon to restore order. Ferdinand and Lili receive permission to visit, as tourists, the northern coastal town of Warnemunde, where they hope to find a boat that will take them to Denmark. Obliged to return to Zornhof after their mission proves fruitless, they discover that Ferdinand has been assigned to administer to the health needs of the colony of Vichy government officials that the Germans have transferred to Sigmaringen.
The population of Sigmaringen has been swollen beyond capacity by large numbers of pro-Nazi refugees seeking protection from the advancing Allied armies and the Resistance forces. The highest officials of the Vichy government, including Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval, live in the luxury of the immense Hohenzollern chateau that dominates the town. Others, like Ferdinand and his wife, must find shelter in one of the town’s inns and fend for themselves. Many of Sigmaringen’s inhabitants, particularly those living in the castle, continue to delude themselves with visions of a final German victory that would draw upon hidden armies and secret weapons. Ferdinand sardonically mocks their fantasies and endeavors to deal with the realities of the situation into which he has been placed. Although the inhabitants of the castle lack for nothing, the numerous French refugees that he attempts to treat are not so fortunate, given the scarcity of medical supplies, poor nourishment, and overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.
The death of a French official provides the opportunity for Ferdinand, as a member of the delegation attending the funeral, to travel to the town of Hohenlychen, twelve hundred kilometers north of Sigmaringen. His real purpose in going there is to obtain permission to practice medicine in Germany, as a means of enhancing his security and facilitating his eventual escape to Denmark. The German officer who is supposed to provide the requisite papers does not appear, and Ferdinand must return to Sigmaringen empty-handed and still very uncertain about his future.
The concluding volume of the trilogy deals with the passage from Sigmaringen to Copenhagen. Having made one more fruitless trip to the German coast to look for a boat that will take them to Denmark, Ferdinand and Lili stop briefly at Sigmaringen—Ferdinand has been relieved of his medical duties—before heading north again. Le Vigan will not accompany them, having decided to travel to Rome. The couple is placed in a locked boxcar along with members of a pro-Vichy commando unit. Their first stop is Oddort (Oddplace), a locale that is nothing more than a railroad station; those refugees unfortunate enough to stop there are executed. Warned in advance of the deception, the commando team kills the commander of the station and his guard. Ferdinand and Lili flee to nearby Hanover, a city in flames from Allied bombing. When they board their next train, they find themselves in a car filled with retarded children. The Frenchwoman supervising the children becomes too ill to care for them and places Ferdinand and Lili in charge of the group. A delay in their departure permits adults and children to wander among the ruins of Hanover, exploring buried sections of the city through fissures left by the bombs. Having resumed their journey north, Ferdinand and Lili are able to convince the officials at the Danish border that they are the children’s escorts and are thus allowed to make their way to Copenhagen. The apparently peaceful streets of the Danish capital, however, do not reassure Ferdinand. He compares the city to the decor of a play, a decor that will collapse all around them, he indicates, with catastrophic results.
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