Louis-Ferdinand Céline - The dark side of On the Road: instead of seeking kicks, the French narrator travels the globe to find an ever deeper disgust for life

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of Night, Trans. by Ralph Manheim, New Directions; Reprint ed., 2006.
read it at Google Books


The dark side of On the Road: instead of seeking kicks, the French narrator travels the globe to find an ever deeper disgust for life.
Louis-Ferdinand Celine's revulsion and anger at what he considered the idiocy and hypocrisy of society explodes from nearly every page of this novel. Filled with slang and obscenities and written in raw, colloquial language, Journey to the End of the Night is a literary symphony of violence, cruelty and obscene nihilism. This book shocked most critics when it was first published in France in 1932, but quickly became a success with the reading public in Europe, and later in America where it was first published by New Directions in 1952. The story of the improbable yet convincingly described travels of the petit-bourgeois (and largely autobiographical) antihero, Bardamu, from the trenches of World War I, to the African jungle, to New York and Detroit, and finally to life as a failed doctor in Paris, takes the readers by the scruff and hurtles them toward the novel's inevitable, sad conclusion.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was the pen-name of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (1894-1961). Journey to the End of the Night, first published in 1932, is a semi-autobiographical novel that has been hailed as a masterpiece, with some justification. Its uninhibited, vernacular style makes it almost contemporary, perhaps even timeless.
The main character (and first-person narrator) is called Ferdinand Bardamu and is the author's alter-ego. His life takes him from World War I to French Colonial Africa, to the USA and then back to France, where he becomes a doctor, practising among the poor, then later among the insane. The question of quite how much of this story is *fiction* and how much is *autobiography* becomes irrelevant from the very start of the novel, as it begins with the words "Travel is very useful and it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our own journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It's a novel, simply a fictitious narrative" (p.7).
Céline has some interesting ideas about truth and fiction. As if to remind readers they're in the realm of the latter, he deliberately includes false geography of Paris, distortion of French history and characters' names based on sexual puns. Also, the reader cannot entirely trust Bardamu. His voyage from Africa to America defies belief and may be a delusion. Molly, his girlfriend in America, notes that he roams "around all night dreaming" (p.213). Are we merely privy to the narrator's waking dreams?
Bardamu comes across many liars. A girlfriend, Musyne, tells bogus war stories. "She had a gift for locating her fantasies in a dramatic faraway setting that gave everything a lasting glow. It often struck me that when we combatants would spin yarns they tended to be crudely chronometric and precise. But she, sweet creature, worked in eternity. Claude Lorrain was right in saying that the foreground of a picture is always repugnant and that the interest of an art work must be seen in the distance, in that unfathomable realm which is the refuge of lies, of those dreams caught in the act, which are the only thing men love" (pp77-8). Later in the book, Bardamu is "exasperated and dismayed" (p.354) to hear his friend Robinson lying at a party.
Yet Bardamu himself lies. After he hears Robinson lying, he finds himself "invaded by pride" and starts doing so himself: "Tangled in phrases and cushions, fuddled by our collective effort to make one another happy, more deeply, more warmly happier by the spirit alone since our bodies were replete, we did everything possible to suffuse the present moment with all the pleasure in the world, with every marvel known to us in and outside of ourselves, so that our neighbour might at last get the full advantage of it and confess to us that this was just what had been lacking for so and so many years to his eternal happiness!" (pp.355-6). Bardamu lies throughout the novel. He lies to a poet who wants to write about WWI heroism: "Luckily, when it comes to heroism, people are willing to believe anything" (p.95). He lies to an employer, Baryton, about his travels, to impress him: "All my peregrinations were served up, related at length, doctored of course, made suitably literary, amusing" ( p.364). To Baryton, Bardamu jabbers "about anything under the sun in line with his tastes or recommendations, like a human talking machine" (p.377).
Bardamu has much to say on the purpose and nature of lies: "...if there were no more lies to tell. People would have practically nothing to say to one another" (p.193). His lies are "inspired by boredom" (p.376). On occasion, Bardamu fears the truth. "That's what exile, a foreign country is, inexorable perception of existence as it really is, during those long lucid hours, exceptional in the flux of human time, when the ways of the old country abandon you, but the new ways haven't sufficiently stupefied you as yet" (p.194). Lies seem to give meaning to existence. "The truth is death," says Bardamu. "You have to choose: death or lies" (p.183). He associates confessing secrets with death, or at least a kind of death: "We won't be easy in our minds until everything has been said once and for all, then we'll fall silent and we'll no longer be afraid of keeping still" (p.290). He also points out the disadvantage of being human: "A dog only believes what it can smell" (p.91).
Journey to the End of the Night is fascinating in the way it portrays life, travel, happiness, unhappiness, memories - but most fascinating of all is its concept of *night*. Céline uses the word both metaphorically and literally. One manifests itself in the other. Sometimes the literal "night" is used as a clue to what is about to happen on the metaphorical level: Bardamu, walking along, is "black and shapeless, in the night" (p.306) and Robinson's girlfriend Madelon, while sitting in a cab, "kept her face turned toward the outside, toward the landscape, toward the darkness would be more like it" (p.427). These are hints.
Night is a metaphor for an internal darkness. "I had developed a taste for shady undertakings" says Bardamu. "...you want to understand, and after that you never leave the depths" (p.335). Is it this desire to understand that takes him into the darkness? "You're sure to find whatever it is that scares all those bastards so" he says to himself. "It must be at the end of the night, and that's why they're so dead set against going to the end of the night" (p.200). He and Robinson's involvement with the Henrouille family takes him there: "I couldn't see any objection to all of us together drifting deeper and deeper into the night" (p.294). Protise, an *accomplice* of sorts, "was simply joining us in the night" (p.300). It is not only the Henrouille family but the entire poverty-stricken rancid suburb where Bardamu works that has this dark pull: "Before you know it, you're deep in the noisesome regions of the night" (p.327). Sometimes Bardamu laments being *in the night*. He recalls the words of an executed army corporal and longs to ask him what he had meant all those years ago but the man is dead and Bardamu can only tell himself that "we just have to go on alone in the night. We've lost our true companions, and we didn't even ask them the right question" (p.332). At one point Bardamu is happily filled with food and drink but tries not to doze off: "Keep it for the night, that's my motto! Always be thinking of the night" (356). He defines despair as a lack of sleep: "If someone tells you he's unhappy, don't take it on faith. Just ask him if he can sleep... If he can, then all's well" (p.375). Tellingly, Robinson is described as being "always a little short o f sleep" (p.428). Eventually, Bardamu sees himself as having gone further into the night than Madame Henrouille and can no longer talk to her: "You need a heart and a certain amount of knowledge to go further than other people... she couldn't get down to where I was... There was too much night around me" (pp.404-5).
Is the end of the book the end of the night? I can't exactly say. There is a sequel - Death on Credit - but Céline wrote "Of all my books it [Journey to the End of the Night]'s the only really vicious one... That's right... The heart of my sensibility." - Barry Kavanagh 

'I'd give all of Baudelaire for an Olympic swimmer," Céline insisted. It's a provocative statement, typical of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, who used the nom de plume of Céline. Doctor, linguist, shagger of showgirls and noted antisemite, Céline is now widely acknowledged as the greatest French prose stylist of the 20th century, despite, or perhaps partly because of, the controversy that still dogs the man and his work.
I have French friends who point-blank refuse to read Céline because of the antisemitism, but there is a strong tradition in France of not just indulging, but almost demanding bad behaviour and outrage from its writers (I refer you to Houellebecq, Gide, Cocteau, Colette, Genet and Baudelaire). It tells you a lot about France, in terms of both literature and politics, that after disgracing himself during the Hitler years, Céline was back on the shelves in 1949.
Céline has always had a loyal if small, following in the US with the beats and other beardy counterculture intellectuals (they like to skip over the Jew-bashing, but hey, Ezra Pound got away with it too).
His popularity was based on two opposing elements in his work. The often colloquial, coarse and simple vocabulary he employed (his man-of-the-people credentials, the telling-it-like-it-is, although Céline also has a Captain Haddock-like talent for recherché invective) is heightened by the absence of long, aristocratic, Proustian sentences. But the straightforward language is coupled, especially in the mid-period work, with a modernist disdain for clear exposition and holding the loathsome bourgeois reader's hand. So, boosted by his antiwar spleen and snarling at authority, Céline pulls off the trick of being Henry Miller, John Steinbeck and James Joyce all at the same time.
In Guignol's Band and its sequel London Bridge, you really have to pay close attention to the action to know exactly what's going on, although it's the ride with language that you're paying for – what the French critics often refer to as Céline's "délire".
Journey to the End of Night is Céline's first novel. Published in 1932, it made him an instant literary star. With typical immodesty, Céline felt he was robbed of the Prix Goncourt (won by the now obscure Guy Mazeline) but it didn't matter. Trotsky, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were fans (how the left loved him then).
Journey to the End of Night is the most novel-like of Céline's writings. It has a huge scope, full of pent-up experience and dark lyricism, starting off with the first world war (where Céline served as a professional soldier), encompassing the French African colonies and the industrial might of Detroit (again drawing on the author's own travels). It's like All Quiet on the Western Front, Heart of Darkness and The Grapes of Wrath squeezed into one budget edition. All this is served up with Céline's wit and cynicism, although his characteristic slangy style isn't operating at full power, and there is a stab at a plot. The narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, follows a character called Robinson (a nod to Crusoe), through these locations. It's one of the longest road-trips in literature.
For all the vulgarity and argot present in Journey, the most striking aspect of the book is the energy and industry involved. In some of his later interviews Céline suggested that he wrote for money. There's no doubt that, in common with many individuals with little money, Céline was concerned with cash, but Journey wasn't an attempt to produce a bestseller; it was an attempt to be number one, to take over, to kill everyone else in the room.
The book's triumph is in its tone. Writers had used it before, but I'd maintain that Céline's great contribution to modern literature is the elevation of sarcasm, of a mordant, sneering cynicism (what the French call narquois) to an art form, a tone that would become a staple of late-20th-century writing, through to Johnny Rotten gurning at his audience.
I've never been able to find any evidence for the influence, but JD Salinger studied French and was in France during the time of Journey's success. Maybe it's just synchronicity, but I have this feeling that Holden Caulfield has a fragment of Bardamu in him, although, of course, his disaffection is much kinder and more soulful than Céline's.
Mea Culpa, Céline's denunciation of the Soviet Union after a tour in 1936, cut off most of his support from the left, but it was his "pamphlet" of 1937 that was to do him considerable damage. Always referred to as a pamphlet (overlooking the sense of "lampoon" in French usage), Trifles for a Massacre is in fact a novel-length text, parts of which are some of the weirdest things I've ever read, seemingly predating postmodernism, William Burroughs and the theatre of the absurd, and truly deserving of the title "delirium". It's out there with Finnegans Wake (although two years earlier), and but for the fact it hadn't been synthesised yet, you'd be wondering if Dr Destouches hadn't scored a tab of LSD.
A few of the derogatory swipes against Jews here might be interpreted as a sort of Swiftian satire (Gide apparently thought Céline was joking), but in case the reader was in any doubt we get the hackneyed charges of an international Zionist conspiracy from Hollywood to Moscow again and again, and Céline does actually liken Jews to "bugs", although he states that as individuals he has no problem with them. Publishing an antisemitic harangue in 1937 with the word "Aryan" in the text and "massacre" in the title is a tough one to explain away, especially as he wrote two more similar fulminations.
Was Céline a fascist? Not quite, although his rabid antisemitism (and by extension his anticommunism) made him popular in those circles. Was he a collaborator? He was convicted for it after the war, although with calm hindsight you could argue he wasn't; but many of his associates were collaborators, and he was just standing too close to them. During the war he actually wrote to the Germans asking for help in obtaining tons of paper so his work could be printed (an act of ego comparable to PG Wodehouse taking up the mike for the Boche while interned).
Guignol's Band was published in 1944, and like much of Céline's work revolves around the first world war. Céline was lucky to get out of it early on, receiving a "Blighty one" and being posted to London, where Guignol's Band is set. Curiously, the narrator is also called Ferdinand, and he gives a foreigner's view of wartime London, as the low-life characters he meets in pubs and brothels are seldom English.
It's no surprise that Irvine Welsh is a fan of Céline; if you added a nae or two, some heroin and a sprinkling of four-letters words, Guignol's Band could be his new novel.
Céline's artistic manifesto is promulgated in a preface to Guignol's Band. He announces, among other things, "I annoy everyone" and "Jazz toppled the waltz … you write 'telegraphically' or you don't write at all." Guignol's Band is almost the final stage of Céline's "telegraphic" style, the nearly complete reliance on ellipses and exclamation marks. It's not easy to write a pastiche of Gide, Proust, Giono, Mauriac, Sartre or Camus, but you could teach a six-year-old to do Céline. It's a simple, but highly effective invention.
Guignol's Band assures us that there are some things that never change. "He couldn't be employed," Ferdinand says of a Slav, "and then he really drank too much, even for England." One of the pimps makes the joke that has survived to this day. The weather's not that bad in England: it only rains twice a year … for six months at a time.
London Bridge continues Ferdinand's story as he gets involved with a gas-mask project and an underage girl (preempting Nabokov, although London Bridge didn't get to the bookshops until 1964). Céline's account of a Zeppelin bombing raid is one of the highlights of the book.
Alma's reissued editions rely heavily on past American translations, so some of it may sound odd to British ears, given the British setting. There is also a particular problem with Céline in that he falls very much into the untranslatable bracket; much of his appeal is in the tone and musicality of his language, and its vast register. He needs a translator of genius rather than mere skill.
London Bridge had to wait 20 years to reach the bookshops because Céline chose to decamp with the Vichy government and ended up incarcerated in Denmark for 18 months. He toyed with the idea of doing a third volume of Guignol, but got no further than an outline, which is in the Pléiade edition of his works, the ultimate accolade for a writer in France.
The period on the run and in chokey gave Céline the inspiration for his final great performance, the Château trilogy (and of course, a trilogy without an ounce of repentance – Céline just doesn't do repentance – but rather a lamentation on his persecution).
Here, because, I assume he was revelling in the freedom of not caring about popularity any more, and because the story as such consists of Céline wallowing in himself, along with undramatic incidents and conversations, his style stands naked. Pure style, nothing else.

For me, Céline's best work is at the beginning and the end, Journey to the End of Night and the Château trilogy (he badly needs an editor in both Guignol's Band and London Bridge, which I find a bit meandering and overwritten). Born in the shadow of entrenched realism and naturalism, Céline ripped up the textbook. He wasn't the first French writer to use a colloquial style, but he was the first to use it so relentlessly and powerfully, to create a brand, the rant, whether it was delirious, lyrical or raging. If you read French, his prose is simply mesmerising.
There is a shamelessness and an uncrushability about Céline that many successful writers have (in an Anglo-Saxon context Daniel Defoe and Jeffrey Archer come to mind). Part of Céline's appeal is that you can't imagine him holding back, not saying something for fear of offending. Offending was his business. And he worked for it. If you listen to recordings of his interviews, you hear the rapid, insistent speech of a determined man.
Allegedly, he died on the day in 1961 when he finished his last book, the final Château volume, Rigadoon (where the Jews have been replaced by the Chinese as his chief bugbear), dedicated "To Animals" (behind the nihilist, a softy with a parrot and a cat). In Rigadoon he makes this prediction: "I'm absolutely Pléiade … like La Fontaine, Clément Marot, Du Bellay and Rabelais eh! And Ronsard! … I tell you if I keep a little cool, in two, three centuries I'll be helping people sit the baccalauréat …" He was in the schools 30 years later. - Tibor Fischer

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Death on the Installment Plan, Trans. by Ralph Manheim, New Directions, 1971.
read it at Google Books
Death on the Installment Plan is a companion volume to Louis-Ferinand Céline's earlier novel Journey to the End of Night.
Published in rapid succession in the middle 1930s, these two books shocked European literatue and world consciousness. Nominally fiction but more rightly called "creative confessions," they told of the author's childhood in excoriating Paris slums, of serves in the mud wastes of World War I and African jungles. Mixing unmitigated despair with Gargantuan comedy, they also created a new style, in which invective and obscenity were laced with phrases of unforgettable poetry. Céline's influence revolutionized the contemporary approach to fiction. Under a cloud for a period, his work is now acknowledged as the forerunner of today's "black humor."

During the Thirties, Louis-Ferdinand Céline shocked the literary establishment with the release of two novels: Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936).  Both novels acted as companions to each other, focusing on different parts of re-imagined autobiographical material set within fictional narratives.  Ralph Manheim, the translator of Death on the Installment Plan, dubbed the genre “creative confessions.”
The original French title is Mort à crédit, a staccato-sounding title that became translated as Death on Credit by John H. P. Marks.  The book braids together the strands of comedy, despair, and debt, since nearly all the characters suffer personal and financial ruin.  Reading the book today has a special resonance is Céline’s being “profoundly affected by the mentality of the petits bourgeois and lumpenproletariat among whom he grew up, by their cynicism, their deep distrust of their fellowmen, their persecution mania.”  The current economic and political situation, combined with the common American experience of crushing personal, school, and medical debt, make Death on the Installment Plan especially resonant and relevant reading.  Céline transfigures suicide-inducing despair and calamity into Rabelaisian comedy.  Faced with debt, war, and hypocrisy, sometimes all one can do is point and laugh.
Céline combined scabrous wit, unsentimental depictions of human behavior, hallucinations and rants.  While Journey tells the tale of Bardamu-Céline’s experiences in World War I, French colonial Africa, and postwar Paris, Death focuses almost entirely on the childhood experiences of a fictional character named Ferdinand.  Journey is written with standard paragraphs and sentences, whereas Death introduces the reader to the reader to the notorious three dots (…).
To readers unfamiliar with Céline’s style, the three dots can be a point of contention.  Unlike English, where the ellipses are seen as pauses and breaks, the French read it in the opposite manner.  The three dots function as a means to push the reader forward.  As Céline’s later works testify, he pushes the forward momentum of the reader to near delirium, practically sacrificing continuity and comprehensibility.
The plot of Death is that of a bildungsroman, a picaresque series of events in Ferdinand’s childhood.  The novel begins with the adult Ferdinand suffering hallucinations from an illness and the hallucinations gradually transitioning into his childhood memories.  Young Ferdinand is one of the great charismatic bastards of modern literature.  A walking Id.  He cheats, he steals, he screws around, and still comes across as a charmer.  Part of Ferdinand’s charm finds its genesis in the impoverished slums of Paris.  His parents sell antiques, although it seems like they peddle junk to the gullible.  His father is a benighted employee at an insurance company, slaving away and enduring the persecution of co-workers.  His mother works on lace and tries to get rich customers to buy her wares.  Instead of the upward bound trajectory in something like Horatio Alger, the situation remains Sisyphusean.  All the labor, effort, sweat, blood, and tears yielding nothing but a desperate attempt to avoid total ruin.
Throughout the novel, Ferdinand has to deal with persecution manias of the petit bourgeois and the accusations made against him.  Through an act of carelessness, he loses an expensive golden brooch made by his employer.  In the end, Ferdinand is unable to explain what really happened and his parents suffer the penalty of having to pay back the employer.  His critique of the Symbolist-style decorative arts sold by his employer, Monsieur Gorloge, is hilarious:
Everything we opened was horrible … nothing but gargoyles and bottle imps … made out of lead, turned and tortured, fussed and finicked … it turned your stomach … The whole Symbolist orgy … Chunks of nightmare …  A putty “Samothrace” … more “Victories” in the shape of little clocks … Necklaces made out of Medusas, coils of snakes … More chimeras … Hundreds of allegorical rings, one crappier than the next … My work cut for me … All those things were supposed to be put on fingers, on belts, or stuck on ties.  Or hung on somebody’s ears … It was unbelievable! … Somebody was expected to buy them?  Who?  Great God, who?  No form of dragon, demon, hobgoblin, or vampire was missing … A complete collection of nightmares … A whole world of sleepless nights … The manias of whole insane asylums served up as trinkets.  I was going from punk to horrible … Even in my grandmother’s store on the rue Montorgueil the most moth-eaten white elephants were things of beauty by comparison.
The passage is reflective of Céline’s playful propulsive style.  Ferdinand detests the sensational and claustrophobic style of Symbolism, prevalent during the corrupt rule of Emperor Napoleon III.  The recent defeat suffered by France into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870s still lingers over the novel.  The military defeat, the aristocratic decadence, and stylistic garishness would push many to seek solutions in other forms of government.  But in this work, Céline’s later political transgressions remain in embryo.
 Disaster and financial ruin are commonplace in the novel.  What would seem like raw material for a work of agonizing despair become bawdy comedic set-pieces.  All of this set against a writing style by turns poetic and obscene.  For a piece written in the Mid-Thirties, it sounds eerily similar to that of Goodfellas and the Wire.
After time spent interned in an English boarding school, Ferdinand gets a job with Courtail des Pereires.  Courtail runs a scientific journal called the Genitron that caters to inventors and owns a hot-air balloon, the Enthusiast.  Courtail and Ferdinand barnstorm the country, putting on ballooning exhibitions, until the fixed-wing aircraft puts an end to that lucrative business.
Courtail is yet another victim of technological progress.  Stubbornly grasping his dream, he refuses to believe that the airplane will succeed.  He calls it a fad and presses on.  But it is a motif that drives the novel, whether it is his mother trying to sell her bolero jackets even after they have fallen out of style or his father refusing to use the new-fangled contraption called “the typewriter.”  Obsolescence and ruin follow the characters like Death itself.  Sometimes the only escape the characters have from creditors hounding their ankles is the sweet embrace of death.
Near the end of the novel, one feels the jagged wheels of change overtaking society.  Ferdinand has become physically fit from his misadventures.  He yearns to escape the hell of poverty and desperation.  The escape hatch would be entry into the military service.  The greatest joke remains the one unspoken because its horror is too great.  The book began in the fetid twilight following the ruin of the Second Empire.  The book ends with the promise and glory associated with the War to End All Wars. - driftlessareareview  

Journey to the End of the Night was Céline’s first novel and his most famous, but not his best; that honor goes to his later works. And while I have a soft spot for Journey, I’ll readily admit that Death on the Installment Plan is the superior novel in terms of content and form. Céline had further refined his disjointed, elliptical writing style, bringing with it an increasingly cynical, bleak view of the world he inhabited.
Compared to DeathJourney is a children’s book; this is where the true darkness begins.
Death on the Installment Plan is both sequel and prequel to Journey, continuing the misadventures of his literary surrogate Ferdinand Bardamu. The opening picks up where the previous novel left off; Bardamu is a struggling doctor in the Parisian slums, regularly cheated by his poor patients and abused by his friends and co-workers. Céline’s narration frequently blurs the line between reality and fantasy, to the point where they become indistinguishable:
The grass is full of them, thousands are pouring down the drive. More and more of them come stepping out of the darkness… The women’s dresses are in tatters, tits torn and dangling… little boys without pants… they knock each other down, trample each other, toss each other up in the air… some are left dangling from the trees… along with smashed-up chairs… An old bag, English, comes along in a little car and sticks her head out the window so far it almost falls off… she was beginning to get in my way. Never had I seen eyes so full of happiness. “Hurray! Hurray!” she shouts without even stopping her car. “Great stuff! You’ll crack her ass open. You’ll send her sky-high. You’ll knock the eternity out of her. Hurray for Christian Science!”
While the initial hundred pages of Death are styled like Journey, Céline’s ellipses become more prominent as the narrative slogs on, imitating the fragmented and whirlwind nature of life itself. Despite both this and the language barrier, Death is an absolute joy to read, as Céline’s prose and humor had me cracking up every other paragraph. Much like in Journey, French vernacular phrases and references that can’t be translated in English are placed in a glossary at the end of the book, though there are thankfully far fewer of them.
After a violent visit from his mother, Bardamu moves into discussing his childhood; his frequent beatings at the hands of Auguste, his failed insurance clerk father, and routinely emasculated by his mother. Of course, young Ferdinand does his best to be a complete weirdo, constantly talking about how he always had “shit on [his] ass” because he was too busy to wipe, stinking up everywhere he goes with his reek. Sent to work as a salesman, he gets fired for slinking off to the back storerooms to slake his masturbation addiction:
Along around five o’clock he went out for a cup of coffee, and I took the opportunity to take my shoes off for a minute up in the stockroom. I’d do it in the can too when nobody was there. So one day those cocksuckers go and tell the boss. Lavelongue did a hundred-yard dash, I was his obsession… He was there in two seconds flat.
“Will you come out of there, you little skunk? Is that what you call working?… Jerking yourself off in every corner you can find… Is that your way of learning the trade?… Flat on your ass with your dick in the air!… That’s the younger generation for you!”
Every attempt his parents make to turn Bardamu into a productive member of society fails. They apprentice him to another businessman, where he gets fired for jacking off on the job again. They send him to a boarding school in England, where he flunks out after pigheadedly refusing to learn a word of English and spending his free time getting handjobs from a retarded kid. Finally, they apprentice him to the inventor-cum-con man Courtial des Pereires, a schemer constantly trying to scam money for his next big project.
This is the true darkness of Death: Céline turns his cynical gaze on himself. Any emo idiot can cry and whine about how other people are cruel, stupid and greedy; it takes true courage to apply that same standard to yourself. Furthermore, at no point does Céline ask for sympathy. He recognizes everything that happens to him, from his dalliances with the diseased slut Mireille to his scamming with Courtial as the font of comedy that it is, playing up the humor in life’s pointlessness. In this, his characterization is far stronger than his bathetic contemporaries, to the point where inanimate objects such as the Génitron (Courtial’s maze-like laboratory) and the worn-out hot air balloon that Bardamu is constantly forced to patch up become characters in and of themselves.
And it’s these reasons why Céline is the greatest author of the twentieth century.
Death on the Installment Plan, Journey and Céline’s other novels capture not just the atmosphere of everyday life, but it’s very essence. The fragmented sentences, the ellipses, the constant shifting of places and people all imitate the rush of life itself, the nature of human existence as a long series of half-remembered events. Céline’s work exists at the intersection of reality and memory, where history fades into the recesses of our imagination, bluster and senility and confusion blending together.
And while life might be cruel and short, it’s still funny as all hell.
If you haven’t read Journey to the End of the Night, read that first, but otherwise, Death on the Installment Plan is a glorious triumph. It may not be for the faint of heart, but good art rarely is. -

“Céline is my Proust!” Philip Roth once said. “Even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books… . Céline is a great liberator.” Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born on this day in 1894. He was a French writer largely remembered for his first novel “Journey to the End of the Night,” a loosely biographical work teeming with disease, misanthropy, and dark comedy. He was decorated for bravery in the First World War, and wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the run-up to the Second, after which he was declared a national disgrace and imprisoned for collaborationist sympathies. Céline, in short, is one of the great problems in twentieth-century literature: you find yourself irresistibly drawn in by the fearless singularity of his vision, even while aware of the appalling place to which it led him. What’s striking is how absent his grievous opinions are from his great novels where one can occasionally glimpse a gentle humanist buried beneath a bitterly stung idealism.

Everything that Céline became was an act of will. From a modest background, he was taken out of school early to work in trade, but he seemed unable to hold down jobs. The First World War—in which he was wounded while voluntarily undertaking a dangerous mission—freed him from this humdrum future; he educated himself relentlessly and came out of the war determined to be a doctor. He worked as an obstetrician and later in a public dispensary for the poor. The mind that emerged from this background is defiant, obscene, unsparing, willfully provocative, but it is also entirely without vanity.
Céline does not attempt a novel of ideas. His work has little in common with that of his contemporaries Sartre and Camus. And he defies the expectations of more traditional fiction—any impulse towards heroism, transcendence, escapism are absent. One is forced to read Céline in a different way—to not only share his perceptions but to somehow feel them. With his speech rhythms, his slang, his heavy use of ellipsis, he embroils you in the writing. But this is much more than a trick of style; it is the work of a wildly original imagination. His writing is intensely physical: a New York subway train is “a cannonball filled with quivering flesh”; he describes the “long, oozing house fronts” of the poor Paris suburbs and the “rickety dribbling children with nosefuls of fingers.” His experience as a soldier and doctor perhaps account for a biological fixation in his imagery and a perspective of pitiless objectivity. Here he is describing the act of speech:
When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. The corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth which screws itself up to a whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of fetid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment … Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state—that’s the unconscionable torture. (“Journey to the End of the Night”)

While using language to persuasively undermine itself, this passage captures the essence of Céline’s deepest comedy: the energy of the writing versus the sense of utter futility he conveys. The sheer stylistic exuberance with which he puts forward character is often in devastating contrast to the pointless, calamitous schemes in which they are caught up. The best example of this is the editor, writer, and inventor whose insane and increasingly manic moneymaking schemes make up a third of “Death on the Installment Plan”:
Courtial des Pereires himself never stopped producing, imagining, conceiving, resolving, making claims … his genius tugged at his brains from morning to night…And even at night it didn’t rest…He had to hold tight to resist the torrent of ideas…And be on his guard…It was incomparable torture … Instead of dozing off like other people, he was pursued by chimeras, new crazes, fresh hobbies…

The artistic energy Céline puts into creating this character, crafting one episode after another of virtuosic absurdity, seems of a piece with his own description of the novel’s paradox: “For me, you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on. That’s what “Death on the Installment Plan” is, symbolically, the reward of life being death.” Céline draws his vitality, his linguistic life from a joy in describing human action that comes to nothing.
There is no room for pathos in Céline’s vision. He seems almost to fear it—as if it might be a mere literary indulgence. Although he describes the most wretched, pitiful scenes, he is always quick to undermine our sympathy. In “Death on the Installment Plan,” waiting for a train at Gard du Nord, Ferdinand is embraced by his mother’s “misshapen carcass”:
“I was terribly ashamed […] She hugged me so hard, with such a storm of emotion, that I reeled…On those occasions the tenderness that welled up from her misshapen carcass had the strength of a horse…The idea of parting drenched her in advance. A howling tornado turned her inside out, as if her soul were coming out her behind, her eyes, her belly, her bosom…it hit me in all directions, it lit up the whole station… […] I didn’t dare admit it, but in a way I was curious…I’d have liked to know how far she could go in her effusions…From what nauseating depths was she digging up all this slop?“

Running through this scene is the shame the family feels in an unfamiliar public space so far removed from their usual poverty-stricken surrounds. They cling to one another at the station, feeling miserably exposed, “timid, furtive.” But having set this up, Céline undercuts it with his curiosity about his mother’s emotions, her “slop.”
Céline’s autobiographical self is largely good-natured, sensitive to the discomfort of others, but unable to offer solace. One feels that he would consider it somehow dishonest, and that this is not a grand principle or a pose, but an instinct. Pulling against the bog of misanthropy in Céline’s work is a modesty, a naivety even. In “Journey to the End of Night,” Bardamu (his alter-ego) is at a trading post, deep in the African jungle, with an army officer who confides in him about his orphaned niece whose education he is paying for with money from various illicit trades with the natives. Céline writes how the officer tells the story in a “strange bumbling voice” and “blushed crimson, as if her had done something absolutely indecent.” Bardamu feels his distress and instinctively knows he “ought to help him tell his story,” but he is at a loss at how to respond to it: “I didn’t know what to say, I had no experience, but his heart was so superior to mine that I went red in the face.”

In Céline’s world, human suffering is on the same footing as human pleasure; there is no system of abstract truth to which one can appeal. “A time comes when you are all alone,” he writes in “Journey to the End of the Night,” “when you’ve come to the end of everything that can happen to you. It’s the end of the world, even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore, and you have to retrace your steps, to go back among people, it makes no difference who.” There is something touching about this insight from one of literature’s most infamous misanthropes: the only place where, finally, we might find shelter from our suffering is in company—among people.
Céline returned to France in 1951, having been granted amnesty. He never renounced his former views and seemed to remain largely unrepentant, but in an interview in 1957 when asked about his anti-Semitism, he said, “My great sin in this was pride and, I’ll admit it, vanity, and stupidity.” In this utterance, he cites the very qualities that never mar his fiction. During another interview on TV that same year, he appears like a corpse, completely ravaged, sucked dry from the inside. The interviewer asks what message he hopes to impart about people before he dies: “Ils sont lourds,” (“they are heavy”), he says over again. - Adelaide Docx

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Conversations with Professor Y, Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.

“Here’s the truth, simply stated . . . bookstores are suffering from a serious crisis of falling sales.” So begins the imaginary interview that comprises this novel. Professor Y, the interviewing academic, asks questions that allow Céline, a character in his own book, the chance to rail against convention and defend his idiosyncratic methods. In the course of their outrageous interplay, Céline comes closer to defining and justifying his poetics than in any of his other novels. But this is more than just an interview. As the book moves forward, Professor Y reveals his real identity and the characters travel through the streets of Paris toward a bizarre climax that parodies the author, the critic, and, most of all, the establishment.

Professor Y is a fictional foil for the author's digs at formal literature, and much of Conversations is hilarious. Celine is self-mocking as he tries to get his name back into circulation. He compares an eager genius to the new Big Bubbly soap product, is adamant in his revulsion at the ascendancy of ideas over emotion and is passionate in his desire to capture the immediacy of conversation on the page. (...) Conversations is essential for Celine fans, and a good, if tame, introduction for the uninitiated." - Nancy Ramsey, The New York Times Book Review

"(A) modern classic of irony and burlesque (.....) He sends the reader roaring through an "emotive subway", giving the impression of immediacy and a voice inside the head." - Karl Orend

In 1944, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of the novels ''Journey to the End of the Night'' and ''Death on the Installment Plan,'' fled his native France. In the preceding decade he had written pamphlets blaming the impending war on industrialists, literary figures, politicians and Jews. His anti-Semitism became increasingly virulent, when the Occupation years ended in 1945 he went into exile in Denmark, where he was imprisoned for over a year for collaborating with the Nazis. Given amnesty by France in 1951, Celine returned, and found that his work was largely ignored. In ''Conversations with Professor Y'' he set out to restore his reputation as an innovative literary stylist. The book appears here in English for the first time, alongside the French text, in a solid translation by Stanford Luce, a professor of French and Italian at Miami University of Ohio. Professor Y is a fictional foil for the author's digs at formal literature, and much of ''Conversations'' is hilarious. Celine is self-mocking as he tries to get his name back into circulation. He compares an eager genius to the new Big Bubbly soap product, is adamant in his revulsion at the ascendancy of ideas over emotion and is passionate in his desire to capture the immediacy of conversation on the page. ''The emotion of spoken language through the written form! Just reflect on that a bit, dear Professor Y! get your noodle in gear!'' Poor Professor Y! This dull academician (whose most intelligent comment is ''Why, holy moly! you're afloat in dialectics!'') is led on a dizzying tour of Paris, overwhelmed by a crazed author who claims he's on the brink of a revelation just when the professor expresses a need to find a bathroom.
''Conversations''is essential for Celine fans, and a good, if tame, introduction for the uninitiated. - Nancy Ramsey

Céline's Conversations with Professor Y is a bizarre literary oddity. The French author hadn't fared too well after World War II, given his fascist sympathies (and writings). Imprisoned in Denmark for a year and a half, he was only able to return to France in 1951, after being amnestied. Even then he -- and his works -- weren't exactly made to feel welcome. What to do ? Write a fictional interview in which he explains himself and his genius !
       As Stanford Luce explains in his useful Introduction, Conversations with Professor Y was to be: "the vehicle for his rebirth in French literary circles". Since Céline can't stop being Céline -- for better and for worse -- the result is an over-the-top literary joyride careening out of control. Knowing he wouldn't be able to endear himself with the public or -- especially -- those literary circles, he tones down the politics (a bit) but otherwise goes on his usual take-no-prisoners, head-over-heels rampage. And what fun it is.
       The narrator -- Céline -- has some trouble finding an interviewer, suitable or otherwise, but finally settles on a sucker willing to play the role, a proper antagonist (as antagonism is practically Céline's lifeblood). He's not an ideal foil, but that's part of the point -- who, after all, can keep up with the author misunderstood and underappreciated by one and all ? The man he styles as 'Professor Y' is, in fact, revealed to be a Colonel Réséda less than a third of the way into the book; it's no surprise, either, that he also has a manuscript he hopes to see get published .....
       Céline constantly badgers him about not taking notes, not paying attention -- and the page count. Ultimately, of course, he doesn't even let the interviewer's account stand (or rather: he doesn't bother with it): this is his own version -- Céline's recollection of the dialogue, along with his asides. For Céline there aren't two sides to an issue, or a conversation. All he knows is the monologue -- and even though it's a fiction, he can't imagine it from the other's point of view. As to objectivity ... sure, there's some self-deprecating humour, but this is all very much Céline's show -- and Céline on show.
       At least he's fairly honest about it (including about being pretty full of himself). He lets the force of his personality overwhelm the interviewer; by the end, the poor guy is left passed out in the publisher's office .....
       It turns out that part of the reason the interviewer isn't as attentive as Céline would like is because of a need to take a piss; showing a wicked sense of humour, the trained medical doctor Céline is willing to lend a helping hand even here:
     "I'm a bit anxious right now ..."
     "Oh ?"
     "Prostate acting up a bit."
     "I could take a look ... but not in the park ! ... later on ! later on !"
     He thinks I'm kidding ...

       The book is written like pretty much all of Céline's books -- i.e. it features his distinctive style. There's the liberal use of the exclamation point (only Tom Wolfe rivals Céline in the (over)use of that), as well as the constant use of the ... three-dot break to move things along. The interviewer naturally addresses this gimmick:
     "Yes, but even so, your three dots ? ... your three dots ?"
     "My three dots are indispensable ! ... indispensable, thunderation ! ... I repeat: indispensable to my metro ! you understand, Colonel ?
     "Why ?"
     "To set my emotive rails on ! clear as day ! ... on the roadbed ! ... you understand ? ... they won't hold up by themselves, my rails ! ... I need ties ! ... "
     "What subtlety !"

       (See, he does have a sense of humour about it .....)
       Céline places a lot of emphasis on this style and what it's meant. Or at least what he thinks it has meant:
     "Colonel, see here ! ... my 'emotive yield' style ... let's get back to it ! despite being a modest discovery, as I told you, take that for granted, it does shake up the Novel even so in such a way that it will not recover ! the Novel no longer exists!"
     "It no longer exists ?"
     "I express myself badly ! ... I mean that the others no longer exist ! the other novelists ! ... all those who have not yet learned to write in 'emotive style' .. breaststrokers disappeared once the crawl was discovered ! ...

       (Someone needs to tell this guy he's no Joyce ... but, no doubt, his distinctive voice was a useful break-through.)
       What really gets to Céline is, of course, that those damn other novelists still do exist. Not only that: they enjoy much more success than him. He can have nothing but contempt for them (and he doles it out nicely throughout the conversation) but he can't escape the fact that he hasn't wiped them out.
       What an unfair world:
I bawl out the truth ! the others, those well-loved writers, are beseeched, revered ! every word they utter ! ... even their silences are revered ! their interviewers swoon !
       Céline -- who for the life of him can't shut up -- is understandably frustrated. He bawls away, and yet ... and yet .... ! (Tellingly, however, he does succumb, and if he can't get his (fictional) interviewer to swoon, he can at least affect the same result by rendering him unconscious (the state he presumably deems most appropriate for him).)
       Céline takes on the literary establishment with considerable gusto, swinging wildly all around him (and landing a few very nice punches) -- and he's none too soft on the reading public, either. Literary awards and the academy are obviously beneath contempt:
       "Anyone with a high school diploma can toss a Goncourt prize-winner together in six months ! a good political record, a good publisher, and two, three grandmothers scattered around Europe, and he's on his way !"
       Yes, here's a man who knows how to win friends and influence people ..... (But he recognises his weaknesses, too: in response to that little outbursts he has his interviewer chide him pitch-perfectly: "Vous rabâchez Monsieur Céline !" ('You're rechewing your cabbage, Mr. Céline !').)
       And there's something to be said for how true to himself and his vision he is. Because there's something to his writing. A lot, in fact: Céline is one of the 20th century greats. He understood:
I'm going to set you straight once and for all: men's opinions don't count ! dissertations ! decrees ! froth, gibberish ! ... yecch ! the thing itself, that's what counts ! the object, you know what I mean ? the rest, academics, social pother.
       Of course, not even his fictional interviewer can be set straight, not once and much less for ever, and that's where Céline gets stuck. But he recognises the futility. Yes, he rails against it, but he's also laughing at himself, and invites the reader to laugh with him (and it's hard not to: Conversations with Professor Y is a very, very funny book).
       He harps a lot on his little gimmick, trying perhaps too hard to convey the significance of his innovation:
     "Emotion through written language ! ... written language had run dry in France, I'm the one who primed emotion back into it ! ... as I say ! ... it's not just some cheap trick, the magic that any asshole can use in order to move you 'in writing !' ... rediscovering the emotion of the spoken word through the written word ! it's not nothing ! it is miniscule, but it is something ! ..."
       Certainly, this book too runs high on emotion, but despite all the criticism and take-downs and put-downs, it's less angry than almost joyful. Céline positively revels in his attitude. The interviewer complains early on: "You're so pretentious you're grotesque !" but you can practically see Céline grinning ear to ear at that compliment.
        This edition -- originally published by Brandeis University Press in 1986, and re-issued by Dalkey Archive Press in 2006 -- is a bilingual one. Céline is playful not only with punctuation but also language, and it's great having the French original side by side with the translation. Luce actually does a very good job (coming up with some nice solutions to a variety of coinages and phrasings), but it's nice also to have Céline's original.
       Luce's Introduction is also useful -- properly introducing the text. There are also Notes explaining Céline's references; there might even be too many of these -- including some which verge on the ridiculous:
  33. Brichantzky: It is difficult to find any information on this supposed teacher of the dramatic arts.
       (Difficult or impossible ? If merely difficult, then the note is entirely inadequate; if impossible, it is badly worded. Either way, the reader has been told nothing.)
        This is an imperfect work -- Céline does lose a bit of focus -- but it is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended. - The Complete Review

I found Celine's Journey to the End of the Night extremely disappointing specially because I had wanted to read it for such a long time. (I had mentioned it briefly here.) I thought may be I didn't pay enough attention and was impatient, and so I decided to pick up another one of his books. Death on the Installment Plan is another of his famous work but Conversations with Professor Y sounded more amusing (and it was very short too) so I picked it up.
The book is indeed a very amusing little literary oddity. It will make sense only in the light of story of Celine's career after the second world war. In short, after his first two books, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Installment Plan were published to great critical acclaim (and also shock and bewilderment) he undertook to write a series of quasi-political pamphlets, which were violently anti-semitic, anti-Russian and anti-communist. The language he used was so extreme that even the fascist establishment in France shunned away from him and his writings. At the end of the war, with the looming defeat of the occupation forces, and fearing vengeful and retributory justice he ran off to Denmark where he was soon imprisoned and had to serve a jail sentence for more than a year. Only a few years later the French government granted him an amnesty and he returned to France. By that time the reading public and the literary establishment had either completely forgotten him and his early works or were actively hostile to it.
Goaded by his publishers, he then wrote Conversations With Professor Y in order to put forward his side of the story. It is however far from being a work of mea culpa - there are no signs of remorse or desire for atonement anywhere in the book. Instead it is totally the opposite - an egomaniacal self-portrait full of delusions of grandeur. He for example says that he has killed off the traditional novel and traditional novelists with his "little technique." Everything he says is undercut by a tone of self-mockery and self-deprecatory humour which though being often hilarious still makes him look like a sort of creep in the end.
As the title makes it clear the book is a fictionalized interview of Celine with the eponymous Professor. It is however Celine's version of what happened during the conversations. The professor always remains in the background and he hardly gets a chance to speak or ask any real questions. Most of it is either Celine's monologues or else his speculations about the reactions of his interviewer. Half way through the novel the professor turns out to be someone else but nothing else really happens. This is all just a collection of Celine's thoughts on literature and the official French literary establishment and as expected he has pretty strong views and opinions on everything. One main motif of the monologues is what he calls his "little technique" - the way he reproduces the cadences and intensity of oral language in his writing and the "emotive" style of writing that results from it. As he says in Journey, Mind creates lies and only visceral emotional experiences can be spontaneous, authentic and so true. Everything else is just falsehood and lies. The official mode of literary language with stiffness and deliberate sentence constructions, he finds dull, banal and sterile. He also explains why there is so much of "I" in his novels (without which lyricism is not possible he says), why he doesn't like ideas in novels and why there are so many "three dots" in his writings! Most of it is very hilarious and easy to read. The interviewer for example has to go pee but Celine continues to hold forth and chides him for not paying attention. He is also very self-conscious of number of pages of interviews he has given. In between all this he pours scorn on officially celebrated literary figures like Romain Rolland or Francois Mauriac. There is not much of misanthropy here. The rants are much more good humoured here than Journey to the End of the Night. It is only the context of his biography that gives all this an ugly subtext.
The book has an excellent and very informative introduction by Stanford Luce who also translated it. This is short and amusing read though it may be of interest only to Celine fans. There is a brief review of the book at the complete review. Finally a brief extract from the book which will give a flavour of the writing. (Frankly, I was a bit giddy with all the ellipsis and exclamation marks after I finished it in one sitting.)*****
"Don't worry!...Don't be afraid! Politics is anger!...and anger, Professor Y, is a mortal sin! Remember! an angry man runs off at the mouth! all the furies charge after him! tear him to shreds! that's justice!...as for me, Professor Y, you know? they won't catch me at it again! not for a kingdom! Never!"
"What do you say about a little philosophical debate?...are you up to it?... a debate, let us say for example, on the mutations of progress through the transformations of the Self?..."
"Oh, my dear Professor Y, I'm willing to respect you and all...but I'll tell you flat out: I'm against it!...I have no ideas, myself! not a one! there's nothing more vulgar, more common, more disgusting than ideas! libraries are loaded with them! and every sidewalk cafe!...the impotent are bloated with ideas!...and philosophers!...that's their trade turning out ideas!...they dazzle youth with ideas! they play the pimp!...and youth ie ever ready, as you know, Professor, to gobble up anything to go ooh! and ah! by the numbers! how those pimps have an easy job of it! the passionate years of youth are spent on getting a hard on and gargling ideaaas!...philosophies, if you prefer!...yes sir, philosophies! youth loves sham just as young dogs love those sticks, like bones, that we throw and they run afer! they race forward, yipping away, wasting their time, that's the main thing!...so just look around at all the imposters endlessly playing their games, tossing their little sticks, their empty philosopher sticks...and youth moaning in ecstasy, trembling with delight!...so grateful!...the pimps know what it takes! ideaaas, and still more ideaaas! syntheses! and cerebral mutations!...toasted with port! with port, every time! and symbolic logic! wonnnderful!...the hollower they are, the more youth can lap them up, gorge themselves! everything they find in those hollow little sticks...ideaaas!...playthings! now you, Professor Y, may I say with no intent to outrage, you've got the breezer of an intelligent man! a dialectician even!...you hang out with youth, of course! I bet you stuff their little noggins! you live off of them, don't you, off of youth! how you must adore youth!...their impatience, presumption, idleness!...you're probably a casuist even! am I right?...probably can out-casuist Abelard!...so you're in fashion!" - marcelproust.blogspot.com/2008/07/celine-conversations-with-professor-y.html

I’m a huge Louis Ferdinand Celine fan. Sometimes a tough position to defend due to his anti-semitism. But there’s no questioning the brilliance, the passion, and the importance of his writing. Biting satire, pitch black comedy, explosive language, passionate misanthropy, and those damn dots…rewriting the book on ellipses. Most folks, if they’ve read Celine, have gone for the early classics. The brilliant Journey To The End of The Night and the great coming of age story Death on The Installment Plan. I’d venture to say that his final trilogy, consisting of Castle To Castle, North and Rigadoon…which he finished the day before he died, may in fact be his best works. Those three novels are an absolute phantasmagorical and singular look into the fall of the Third Reich, chronicling Celine, his wife and their cat Bebert’s journey from France, through war-torn Germany and on toward Denmark.
Why bring all of this up now? Well, I just finished reading Conversations with Professor Y. In a sense, this is his come back novel. Celine, certainly according to Celine, was public enemy number one in France post WWII. Rather than take the chance of being tried for war crimes or being lynched by an angry mob, Celine headed for Denmark, ultimately spending a couple years in jail while the Danes figured out what to do with him. When he returned to France, he was a forgotten man, his books were out of print and he still was politically tainted. His publishers suggested he write a new novel to re-introduce the French to Celine. What he came up with was Professor Y…a faux interview, where Celine, in the guise of the bumbling Professor Y, interviews himself. It’s Celine at his crankiest and most embittered. Publishers, the movies, the reading public all come under Celine’s withering gaze. It’s a manic laundry list of complaints, all the while, Celine arguing for his place in history, as the man who brought the passion of the spoken word to the written page. He’s right of course, and the list of authors he went on to influence is impressive. But it’s a strange and bold maneuver for a comeback.
Not sure that this is a place where the uninitiated should start, but it’s a great read and a must for any Celine fan. Professor Y fits in nicely alongside Castle to Castle, a novel where Celine spends an awful lot of time not talking about WWII, but instead complaining and chronicling his aggravations as an aging, penniless country doctor. It’s hard being Celine. - Plotbox

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Semmelweis, Trans. by John Harman. Intro. by Philippe Sollers. Atlas Press, 2014.

"It is not every day we get a thesis such as Céline wrote on Semmelweis!" - Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) is best known for his early novels Journey to the End of the Night (1932), which Charles Bukowski described as the greatest novel of the last 2,000 years, and Death on the Instalment Plan (1936), but this delirious, fanatical and unreasonable biography predates them both.
Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), now regarded as the father of antisepsis, was the first to diagnose correctly the cause of the staggering mortality rates in the maternity hospital in Vienna; his colleagues, however, rejected both his reasoning and his methods, thereby causing many thousands of unnecessary deaths in maternity wards across Europe. This episode, one of the most infamous in the history of medicine, along with its disastrous effects on Semmelweis himself, is the subject of Céline’s semi-fictional evocation, one in which his violent descriptive genius is already apparent. It is the passionate account of a man persecuted for the simple fact of revealing the truth. The overriding theme of Céline’s later works finds its first expression in this book - a caustic despair, verging on disgust, for humanity as a whole - but it is here tempered by a surprising humanity.
Originally written as a thesis towards his medical doctorate in 1924, Semmelweis was not published until 1936, after the novels which had made him famous. By then Céline was on the verge of actions that were to cause him to undergo, in his own eyes at least, a persecution strikingly similar to that suffered by the hero of this, his first literary work.

"Elegantly produced, in a fine translation, incorporating Céline’s 1936 corrections and an illuminating introduction by Philippe Sollers, John Harman’s version of Semmelweis is essential reading for anyone interested in Céline. The most accessible of his books, it should be required reading for feminists and for everyone in the medical profession." - Karl Orend

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a medical doctor, and he wrote this, his dissertation, on Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865), the doctor best known for making the connection between puerperal ('childbed') fever and (un)sanitary practices of the day, realizing that proper antiseptic procedures could drastically reduce the incidence of infection.
       Céline notes that Semmelweis' own unlikely (and decidedly un-medical) doctoral thesis, Tractatus de vita plantarum ('On the Life of Plants') is a mere: "twelve pages of dense poesy, and rustic imagery [.....] an excuse to celebrate the characteristics of the rhododendron, the Easter daisy, the peony". Céline's Semmelweis isn't that much longer, and while at least its subject-matter is closer to the medical, also seems an unlikely dissertation-work for a doctor. Publisher Atlas print: "File under: Fiction" on the back cover -- presumably because potential readers are more likely to pick it up if they find it shelved besides Céline's other work than if looking for a Semmelweis-biography, but there's no question that it also reads more like a 'creative' work than what we now expect from biography (and, especially, any sort of academic dissertation).
       Semmelweis is, ostensibly, factual, but Céline-the-author is certainly already at work here: describing the world Semmelweis was born into, he writes:
Humanity was getting bored, it burned a few Gods, changed its costume and paid off History with a few new glories.
       Grand pronouncements come easily to him:
     In the Story of time, life is nothing but a delirium, the Truth is Death.
       In his Preface to a later (1936) edition of the work he introduces it as: "the terrible story of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis", and it is easy to see how he -- like many others after him (see also, for example, Jens Bjørneboe's play, Semmelweis) -- was attracted to this dreadful human fate: a brilliant but intemperate young doctor who has a brilliant insight; a powerful, crushing old guard that refuses to admit the obvious (and fights against it with everything at its disposal), senseless deaths continuing, -- and, finally, the hero's descent into complete madness (culminating in tragic, apposite deaths).
       Céline is well aware of how little science there was to medicine yet when Semmelweis studied it:
     As for medicine, in this Universe, it is nothing but a sentiment, a regret, a compassion more active than others, and virtually ineffective in those days when Semmelweis was coming to grips with it.
       The descriptions of the wards Semmelweis came to work in are horrible -- Céline not needing to go into any sort of detail, but just conveying the general impression (and dread), and the awful statistics (which, at least, seem to have been carefully recorded).
       Most shocking, of course, is that the evidence Semmelweis offered, and the experiments he wanted to pursue in order to ascertain cause and effect, were thoughtlessly and scornfully rejected -- Céline putting it beautifully-awfully (in John Harman's consistently fine translation):
     They preferred, out of a bizarre touchiness, to remain in their purulent stupidity, and continue their game of gambling with death.
       Oh, yes, Céline might have been writing his doctoral dissertation here, a step necessary for him to pursue a medical career, but clearly there's already a completely different kind of writer longing to get out.
       Semmelweis was a complicated -- and understandably frustrated -- man; comparing him to one of his (more successful) mentors, Céline suggests:
Škoda knew how to handle men. Semmelweis wanted to shatter them. An impossibility. He wanted to thrust himself through every stubborn door, he injured himself cruelly. Those doors would not open until after his death.
       Semmelweis' story, no matter how it is related, is a fascinating one. It's also great material for an author like Céline, himself always combative and often frustrated by the establishment and status quo, and he does not disappoint with his treatment. Semmelweis is a gripping, moving, appalling read. Some of the historical detail can be debated, but the thrust of Céline's argument, and the power of his writing are undeniable.
       Well worth seeking out. - M.A.Orthofer

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Normance, Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.

A landmark event: the last of Céline's novels to be translated into English, this account of an air attack on Paris during World War II shows a hallucinatory, altered space in which human aggressions, appetites, and suspicion come boiling to the surface in preposterous dimensions. A frantic narrator, in search of complicity, relates the story of an apocalyptic ballet that leaves reason and order in shreds, as bombing turns Montmartre into an underworld teeming with dirty deeds, while our guide resists the inhumanity with animal desperation and robust hilarity. Céline animates the events with the exuberance and speed of his narrative style, fully developed and uninhibited, and fully his own.

Céline, a doctor by trade, took the French literary world by storm in 1932 with Journey to the End of the Night . Then he destroyed his reputation by writing anti-Semitic hate tracts during WWII. Exile and a brief imprisonment followed. His early works changed international literature forever, but his later books, written during a period of self-inflicted, backhanded infamy, crystallized his inimitably visceral style and misanthropic attitude.
This is the last of Céline’s novels to languish untranslated. The adroit Marlon Jones has produced an English text that compares with the brilliant translations of Ralph Mannheim (who brought Journey and Death on the Installment Plan into English). Even at his most lucid, Céline’s prose reads like rapid bursts of slangy, profane argot—problematic enough in its own right—issued in a dramatic and confrontational style. True to form, this narrative is practically shouted in short exclamation-pointed bursts (connected, or disconnected, as it were, via ellipses) by a frenetic doctor-narrator named Ferdinand who endeavors to tell the reader about the allied bombardment of Montmartre in April 1944, “baroom!” and “baboom!” and all. The explosions are enough to make the furniture dance around the room, but Ferdinand attends mainly to his beloved cat, Bébert; his girlfriend, Lili; and Jules, a humpbacked local artist he despises. As the destruction of Paris grows more surreal, Ferdinand’s invective against Jules follows suit, and Ferdinand convinces himself that Jules is conducting the entire offensive from atop a windmill. Lili and Ferdinand head to the lower floors of the building to search for their cat, finding that their neighbors, including the Normances, an obese man and his undersized wife, have taken cover under furniture. The bombardment worsens, civilization breaks down, the rooms flood with bodily fluids of all kinds, residents loot a hoard of liquor in a mad bacchanalia, and the giant Normance turns murderous.
Truly, there isn’t much of a plot, and readers who pick this up are going to pick it up because they’re already fans of Céline’s work. Love him or hate him, Céline transformed 20th-century literature, and his influence in American letters is undeniable, hence the importance of this novel: it’s the last missing piece of Celine’s lifework to appear in English, and it provides fresh evidence of why this frustrating, misanthropic and inspired writer is still worth reading.  - Publishers Weekly

In 1954 Louis-Ferdinand Céline was still a pariah in France: a collaborator during the Occupation (it had ended only a decade earlier), a notorious anti-semite (his bloodthirsty ‘pamphlets’ dated from as recently as 1941), and in the view of many Frenchmen, the undeserving beneficiary of a 1951 amnesty that allowed him to return to France from Denmark, where he had taken refuge – and served over a year in prison – after the war. But for Céline there was something far worse than being hated, and that was being forgotten. He was certain he was the only living writer of any value, but the public and the critics – wasting their time reading Sartre – were ignor-ant of this essential truth, and perhaps even unaware that Céline was still writing novels. His publisher, Gaston Gallimard, warned him that his new novel, the second volume of Féerie pour une autre fois, risked selling as few copies as the first, which had been disparaged by some and ignored by others on its publication two years earlier. They would therefore need to release the book under a new title, rather than calling it Féerie II. It was published that June as Normance.
In the event, it fared even worse than its predecessor. Critics, including those partial to Céline, found it incoherent and too long; its sales were abysmal compared to the immense success of his early fiction (not to mention the smaller but real success of his Jew-baiting screeds, Bagatelles pour un massacre and Les Beaux Draps). But the two volumes of Féerie pour une autre fois are pivotal in the formation of Céline’s persona: they are the first novels in which he sheds his previous cloaks of pseudonymity (‘Bardamu’, ‘Ferdinand’) and calls himself ‘Céline’. (His real name was Destouches.)
Nearly 50 years after his death, Normance is the last of Céline’s novels to be translated into English. He has always had a sizeable Anglophone readership, especially in America, where novelists from Henry Miller (‘I don’t care whether he’s a Fascist … he can write’) to Kurt Vonnegut (‘every writer is in his debt’) to Philip Roth (‘Céline is my Proust!’) have declared their loyalty to his radical voice. Normance was probably unknown to these writers, but its style and ambitions would be largely familiar. We need only look at a single page of this book or of any of his novels after Voyage au bout de la nuit – the exclamation marks like spittle or gunfire, the ellipses forbidding us to catch our breath – to be reminded that Céline looks, and sounds, like no other novelist. In Normance the voice erupts at the highest decibels: ‘my voice! my instrument! … vocal cords worn out howling!’ It blurs into paranoid rant: ‘everyone who’s ever done me wrong, robbed me, repudiated me, pillaged me …’ It burns its fuel on misanthropy: ‘when it comes to human beings, I’m only interested in the sick … the ones who can stand up are nothing but mounds of vice and spite.’ And it does all this in the guise of autobiography, or pseudo-autobiography: one reason for Céline’s influence on these Americans and many other writers too. - Aaron Matz

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.
For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.
He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Bébert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:
We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!
Amongst all the narrative shrapnel and the suffocating prose, we are forced to conjure up the horror of war, the imaginings of how destruction tastes and smells what it feels like. There is no other option and that is Céline’s redemption. Just as if you unwillingly placed in the middle of a battle zone, you beg Céline to stop, to change, to quit pounding away at the repetitive circle of the same scene we are forced as readers to walk in, hoping for any chance to escape. But he is unrepentant. He spares no acrimony for himself, his characters and especially his readers:
I’ll accept all your criticisms, your insults, but only as long as you’re not one of those book-borrowing, cadging, and then re-lending types! plague of humankind! If you got your claws on this book by the “let me just borrow it for a while and I’ll give it back” method, you can just keep quiet . . . naturally, by today’s standards, you’re quite right to do it this way! . . . you can say books should be stolen rather than bought without anyone batting an eye . . . it’s even sort of a matter of honor to never buy a book . . . not one person in twenty who’s read your work actually paid for it! pretty sad, eh? if we’re talking about ham, you think one slice can feed twenty people? or that forty asses can cram into on seat at the movies? . . . smile and say hi, poor plundered scribbler! although what’s worst of all is their utter contempt for your work after they got it for free! . . . the way they trash your writing, loathe it, use it to wipe their asses, don’t understand a fucking thing, run off to sell whatever’s left on the riverbanks . . . you’ll say, but there’s a solution! just drown all the loaners! And borrowers with them! imagine, letting the people who actually pay for my goods get screwed . . . fine! the grocer expects you to heckle him a little over the herring . . . but try to rip him off? call the police! . . . isn’t it horrible that I have to babble and clown for nothing? me, who’s paid out so much himself! . . . just the thought of being robbed makes me go pale, I start suffocating worse than I did in the ogre’s fists! . . . my blood, heart, nerves coagulate . . . worse than Delphine! . . . some guy comes up and asks, “Can I borrow that?” I lose consciousness! . . . and then this! look! this philosophy! . . . you can have it! hey there, you squandering slut of a muse, enough’s enough!
This is the type of vitriolic and sarcastic rant that abuts against another, with anger ebbing only when Céline needs to catch his breath. The immediacy of this narrative holds value for it’s literary ingenuity and witness to World War II, but it also reminds us of our own recent catastrophes in the United States, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina. Destruction is cruel and pitiless and inescapable.
But as you read the last sentence, two competing but equally powerful feelings will converge within you—relief and anger. You have survived the Céline’s literary blitz . . . and be thankful that you weren’t really there. - Monica Carter

Paul Celan wrote the poem “Todtnauberg” after his meeting with Martin Heidegger in July 1967, six years after the death of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In two of the multiple analyses of this poem, Celan is either attempting a rapprochement with Heidegger or is demanding an apology from him. Heidegger’s National Socialist stance, his “Heil Hitler”s following his Rektoratsrede, his treatment of (or lack of positive action for) Jewish philosophers and colleagues such as Edmund Husserl, and his post-war silence or double-speak about his Nazi leanings are now mostly forgotten. Philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and, more recently, Bernard Stiegler have rehabilitated Heidegger’s philosophical reputation. (Admittedly, while still alive, Emmanuel Levinas remained Heidegger’s most vociferous critic.) Another Nazi apologist, Paul de Man, who during WWII wrote a number of anti-Semitic articles for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper Le Soir, provides us with a subtitle for a critique of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Normance – The Resistance to Theory.
In 1945, while Heidegger found himself banned from teaching throughout Germany and Paul de Man embarked on an academic career which would eventually lead him to teach at Harvard, Louis-Ferdinand Céline crossed a defeated Germany to find exile in Denmark where he was later convicted of being a collaborator. After an amnesty, he returned to France in 1951. In the period between 1932 (the year Heidegger stood for election as rector of the University of Freiburg) and the end of WWII, Céline had written his most famous novels: Journey to the End of the Night (1934), Death on the Installment Plan (1936), and Guignol’s Band (1944): plus other works including Mea Culpa (1937), Trifles for a Massacre (1937), School for Corpses (1938), and A Fine Mess (1941). Fable for Another Time (1952) is the first volume to which Normance, originally published by Editions Gallimard in 1954, is the follow-up and the last of Céline’s novels to be translated into English. (Coincidentally, 1954 was the year Heidegger published Was heisst Denken? [What Is Called Thinking?] a copy of which he presented to Paul Celan.)
The Resistance to Theory I – Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel.
Resistance to Theory II – Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar:
“Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines.”
“—just then—
—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican.”
Compare to Céline’s:
“I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!”
Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante‘s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.
Resistance to Theory III – Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narrator of Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.
“…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them…”
As the translator Marlon Jones states in his informative introduction, this is not the easiest of Céline’s novels. If you haven’t read Céline before, Mr Jones suggests you start with Conversations with Professor Y. I would start with Journey to the End of Night and then Death on the Installment Plan. At a time when Heidegger is being championed by a new generation of writers and thinkers – Tom McCarthy, Simon Critchley, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Maxi Kim, and Lee Rourke, why not attempt what Paul Celan may have been trying in “Todtnauberg” and not reproach Céline for his political actions but begin a rapprochement on the basis of his compulsive compassion and the quality of his extraordinary novels?
Postscript: This is what we are battling against. Two articles on The Guardian Books’ webpages. The usually laudable writers’ organization PEN has denounced a Slovak literary magazine for publishing the poems of former Bosnian leader Radovan Karadzic. Why? If Karadzic is guilty of crimes against humanity, his poems – unless they are Betjeman-esque – are not guilty, and should not be held to political account. Secondly, the American Library Association has published its list of the ten most challenged books (that’s not as in literarily-challenged or PC for piss-poor) that the “public” would like to see banned from library shelves – now, that’s Fascism with a capital F. - Steve Finbow

In the early hours of 21 April 1944, the combined might of the British and US air forces launched a series of raids on the northern edges of Paris. It was the first time the city had been bombed since the First World War. The assault went on for two days and the results were horrifying – a convent destroyed, entire apartment blocks wrecked, more than 600 people killed, and the quarter of Montmartre drenched in sewage and blood. From the Allied point of view the raid was high-risk and possibly counterproductive: the Normandy landings were only months away and the bombing might have made an already volatile population even more pro-German. In fact, the raids infuriated ordinary Parisians, and gave Marshal Pétain reason to rail against the brutality of the Allied forces.
It is those deadly nights that are the background for Normance, here published in English for the first time and not really a novel, but rather a highly poeticised account of life at street level under the onslaught. There is no real story as such, but rather a nightmarish description of a group of neighbours in Paris – loosely based on Céline and his entourage – who find themselves bombed out on to the streets of the city and into a mini-apocalypse. They drink, argue, search for a lost cat, and look for shelter in the Métro and the local bar. The prevailing tone of delirium and ever-present danger makes this no easy read: Céline’s prose is elliptical and staccato, driven by the nerve-shredding tension of surviving a city under siege. Most crucially, the text is written with all the demonic and feverish logic of a hallucination. The effect is mesmerising; in a translation that is fluid, elegant and faithful to the original in both tone and meaning, Céline more than justifies his reputation as one of the best writers of French prose of the 2oth century, on a par with Proust and Camus.
This book is also both compelling and disturbing because it was written by and from the point of view of a virulently pro-Nazi anti-Semite. Céline became famous in the 1930s as the author of the bestselling Journey to the End of the Night, an account of Parisian lowlife that was praised by Gide, Trotsky and Orwell. By the end of the decade, Céline was notorious as the author of a series of “pamphlets” that called for the extinction of the Jewish race and argued for Hitler as the saviour of Europe. He welcomed the arrival of the German forces as “a necessary tonic”, writing: “If you really want to get rid of Jews then you need racism: and it must be total and inexorable. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”
By 1943, Céline’s only disappointment was that the war had not been destructive enough. Unsurprisingly, by the time he came to write Normance, he was one of the chief targets of the Resistance, which posted small black coffins to warn him that he was under sentence of death. When the war was over, Céline barely escaped a firing squad, retreating to his lair just outside Paris after a spell in prison, snarling and unrepentant, muttering still about Jewish conspiracies and the end of the world, his hatred clearly more pathological than political.
But this is precisely why it is essential to read his work. Normance uncovers the real emotional climate of Paris during the Occupation in all its ambiguous, terrible complexity. This is shocking only because the English-speaking countries have never taken seriously the deep reservoirs of poison that ate away at French political life in the 1930s. But the signs had already been there in the art of the period – in a generation that hated the French Republican tradition enough to betray it. By this logic, Céline is not only a great writer, but a prophet, one of the truest and most authentic literary voices of the French 20th century. - Andrew Hussey

review by Thomas McGonigle

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Fable for Another Time, Bison Books, 2003.

Fable for Another Time is one of the most significant and far-reaching literary texts of postwar France. Composed in the tumultuous aftermath of World War II, largely in the Danish prison cell where the author was awaiting extradition to France on charges of high treason, the book offers a unique perspective on the war, the postwar political purges in France, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s own dissident politics.
The tale of a man imprisoned and reviled by his own countrymen, the Fable follows its character’s decline from virulent hatred to near madness as a result of his violent frustration with the hypocrisy and banality of his fellow human beings. In part because of the story’s clear link to his own case—and because of the legal and political difficulties this presented—Céline was compelled to push his famously elliptical, brilliantly vitriolic language to new and extraordinary extremes in Fable for Another Time. The resulting linguistic and stylistic innovation make this work stand out as one of the most original and revealing literary undertakings of its time.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Castle to Castle, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

With an undercurrent of sensual excitement, Céline paints an almost unbearably vivid picture of society and the human condition.

It is Germany near the end of World War II, the Allies have landed, and members of the Vichy France government have been sequestered in a labyrinthine castle, replete with secret passages and subterranean hideaways. The group of 1,400 terrified officials, their wives, mistresses, flunkies, and Nazi “protectors”—including Céline, his wife, their cat, and an actor friend—attempt to postpone the postwar reckoning under the constant threat of air raids and starvation.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Rigadoon, Trans. by Ralph Manheim, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

Completed right before his death in 1961, Rigadoon, the most compassionate of Céline's novels, explores the ravages of war and its aftermath.
Often comic and always angry, the first-person autobiographical narrator, with his wife and their cat in tow, takes the reader with him on his flight from Paris to Denmark after finding himself on the losing side of World War II. The train rides that encompass the novel are filled with madness and mercy, as Céline, a physician, aids refugees while ignoring his own medical needs.
Céline's inventive style and black humor profoundly influenced many writers who came after him, including Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. As Kurt Vonnegut states in his introduction to this edition, "[Céline] demonstrated that perhaps half of all experience, the animal half, had been concealed by good manners. No honest writer or speaker will ever want to be polite again."
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, North, Trans. by Ralph Manheim, Dalkey Archive Press; 2nd ed., 1996.

In this novel, Louis-Ferdinand Céline offers us a vivid chronicle of a desperate man's frantic flight from France in the final months of World War II.

Accompanied by his wife, their cat, and an actor friend, our autobiographical narrator Ferdinand leaves Paris for Baden-Baden (a World War II hideaway for wealthy Germans), is then sent to a
bombed-out Berlin, and finally leaves for Denmark in search of the gold he had stashed there prior to the war. With the Third Reich in ruins and the Allied armies on Ferdinand's heels, North combines documentary realism with hallucinatory images, capturing the chaos of war and its toll on both victim and victimizer.


Louis-Ferdinand Céline, London Bridge, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.

In this widely acclaimed translation, Dominic DiBernardi expertly captures Céline's trademark style of prose which has served as inspiration to such American writers as Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller.

One of the last major untranslated works by France's most controversial author, London Bridge is a riotous novel about the London underworld during World War I. Picking up where Guignol's Band (1944; English translation 1954) left off, Céline's autobiographical narrator recounts his disastrous partnership with a mystical Frenchman (intent on financing a trip to Tibet by winning a gas-mask competition); his uneasy relationship with London's pimps and whores and their common nemesis, Inspector Matthew of Scotland Yard; and, most scandalously, his affair with a baronet's 14-year-old daughter, an English angel whose descent into vice is suspiciously smooth. He dreams of escaping with her to America to start a new life, but he, his mystical partner, and his under-aged mistress finally awake to reality crossing windswept London Bridge.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Guignol's Band W W Norton, New Directions Book edition, 1969.
Celine's third novel, first published in 1944 but dealing with events taking place during the First World War, Guignol's Band follows the narrator's meanderings through London after he has been demobilized due to a war injury. The result is a frank, uncompromising, yet grotesquely funny portrayal of the English capital's seedy underworld, peopled by prostitutes, pimps and schemers.

In Guignol's Band, first published in France in 1943, Céline explores the horror of a disordered world. The hero, the semi-autobiographical Ferdinand, moves through the nightmare of London's underworld during the years of World War I. In this distressing setting, he meets pimps and prostitutes, pawnbrokers and magicians, policemen and arsonists. He sees social and physiological decomposition as these processes unfold along parallel lines of development. The illusions of existence are nakedly exposed. The narrative erupts in Céline's characteristic elliptical style. His splintered sentences and scatology reflect his fury at the fragmentation of experience and at his own impotence in the face of it. Out of his rage, he forces the meaninglessness back on itself, and the exuberance of his struggle triumphs in the comic exaggeration of satire. Ultimately, his subject is not death but life, and he responds to it by a strengthened commitment to the sensual and concrete. His hallucinatory world is so vividly realized that it does, indeed, challenge the reality of the reader's more conventional world.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, The Church: A Comedy in Five Acts, Green Integer, 2003.

The Church, one of Céline's few dramatic works, was written in 1933, just one year after his great masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of Night). The play is a highly satirical work that mocks almost all races and religions, typical, in part, of Céline's diatribes. Yet here also is a work of great wit, sharing Céline's great comedic-tragic vision of humankind. One of the most noted writers of the 20th century, Céline is also the author of Death on the Installment Plan, North, Rigadoon, Castle to Castle and Ballets without Music, without Dancers, without Anything, the last recently published by Green Integer.

Front Cover
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything, Green Integer

Celine's fascination with ballet spans his literary career: three of the pieces in this volume were written around the same time that he published his great novel, Voyage au bout de le nuit, which he dedicated to the dancer Elisabeth Craig. At the time of his death, according to his wife - also a dancer - he was planning a book devoted to dance, and in 1936, after finishing his second novel, he visited Russia, where he hoped to have some of his ballets performed. None were, but he continued nevertheless. This is the collected works, published for the first time in English.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Death on Credit, Trans. by Ralph Manheim, Calder, 1989.

The Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. 

Uncovering Céline by Wyatt Mason

The Paris Review Interview

Notorious Anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline and the Jews Who Read Him

Paris is Burning : Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Vision by Sten Johnson


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