Edited by Henri Godard and Jean-Paul Louis
2,034pp. Gallimard. €66.50. 978207011604 I
Le Grand Macabre
The constant voice of a pivotal writer in the history of the modern novel, who pours out inhuman tracts
Once again, it is Celine's hour. As it was in the winter of 1932-3 when the Journey to the End of the Night exploded - there is no other word - altering crucial aspects of the French language and of the compass of fiction in Western literatures. Books by and about Celine crowd the displays of Parisian bookstores. Re-editions, paperback versions teem. Reportedly, Sartre, whom Celine loathed for his political opportunism and second-hand philosophy and whom he savaged in À l'Agité du bocal in 1945, declared not long before his own death, "only one of us will endure: Celine". A verdict to be enlarged and qualified by the realization, now a banality, that two bodies of work lead into the idiom and sensibility of twentieth-century narrative: that of Celine and that of Proust.
Ceine professed contempt for Proust's "Franco- Yiddish", for his involutes syntax and homosexual mendacities. He is "the Homer of the perverts". In a letter to Lucien Combelle on February 12, 1943, Celine defines Proust's style as Talmudic: "Le Talmud est à peu près bâti, concu comme les romans de Proust, tortueux, arabescoide, mozaique desordonnée - ... Mais au fond infiniment tendancieux, passionnement, acharnément .... enrobage des élites pourries, nobiliaires, mondaines, inverties . . . en vue de leur massacre. Epuration" (note the barbed punning on "arab", on "Mosaic", and the use of epuration two years before that term was to assume its murderous connotations). Celine makes one concession only:
Proust's rendition of his grandmother, réussi and justly marvelled at by "all Aryan critics". Celine senses that the Recherche is his only true rival. But as he informs Claude Gallimard (November 3, 1952), it is he, Celine, and not Proust who has inspired Joyce, Faulkner, Henry Miller, Jean Genet and lesser fry. All of "Midnight's children" were to be his.
In his invaluable Dictionnaire Celine (2004), Philippe Alméras lists twenty-seven different lives in one protagonist. Many of these have been studied and recounted. From the outset, Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches is a traveler. The schoolboy visits England and learns English in which he will write letters. He is sent to Germany and acquires a halting familiarity with the the language. Conscripted in 1912, marechal de logis and cavalryman Destouches is an unsparing witness to the ensuing catastrophe:
"II y a une quantité énorme de viande et de sang répandu qui prête reflexions amères". He is mesmerized by what he foresees as "the agony of the German empire" and by the hell of combat. The severe wound that Celine suffers on October 27, 1914, will affect him for life. Henceforth, decorated and partly maimed, he will define himself as a victim, invalidated in body and soul. Both the French nation and homicidal mankind owe him reparation. Women, beginning with the nurses in the army hospitals, are destined to look after him, to be pliant to his needs. In these, the erotic plays a complex but often marginal part. Disgust at those who elude military service, at profiteers and patriotic politicians, is boundless.
The first "Celine" dicta begin to surface. 'J’ai horreur des Noirs"; "Certain beings are predestined to be slaves". Though outwardly victorious, France faces a diminished and corrupt future. Having studied infectious diseases and public hygiene, qualifications that will lead to a distinguished thesis on Semmelweis, Destouches, as he still names himself, spends several years in French Equatorial Africa. His medical activities alternate with the supervision of cocoa plantations. His experiences and the letters in which he reports them are similar to those of Rimbaud in Ethiopia. The years that follow find Dr Destouches studying problems of public health on behalf of the League of Nations, missions which take him to Geneva and the United States, where he falls in love with Elizabeth Craig, the first of many dancers who will people his volcanic career. Women and ballet come to crystallize Celine's ideal of lightness within action, within meaning. If there is a conventional bite of anti-Semitism in a letter of late October 1916 - French literature is sentenced to being Jewish, which is to say "morbid, mercantile, hysterically patriotic" - there is at the same time an attach ment to the philosophy of Bergson. Far more emphatic is Celine's professed detestation of marriage, his strident resolve to be alone.
Before long he was at work on Voyage au bout de la nuit. Composition most probably can be dated as from the end of December 1929. Gallimard’s rejection of the manuscript, an editorial howler ironically parallel to its initial rejection of Proust, and the last minute failure of the leviathan to obtain the Prix Goncourt, confirm Celine's darkening misanthropy. "I rejoice only in the grotesque and at the frontiers of Death." But his certitude as to the stature and future of his book lever wavers. It is "une oeuvre sans pareille" and "the great fresco of lyric populism" beyond anything in Zola. Its very punctuation, those famous dashes and exclamation marks, constitutes a revolutionary act. Sales, moreover, were mountainous.
Here, also, Celine's clairvoyance is almost eerie. As early as April 1933, he predicted that Hitler would come to dominate Europe. 'Tomorrow all Europe will be fascist and Céline will be imprisoned." The prophecies become more graphic after a visit to Berlin: “Il se prépare là-bas (et pour ici) d'autres infections, d'autres immondes diversions sadiques monstrueuses. Des peuples entiers affamés et masochistes". In order to prevail, Hitler would have to invade the Ukraine. This in 1935. What Western statesman or political scientist, what Churchill or what Keynes displayed any comparable foresight? Céline's comments are like reasoned hallucinations. His insights into the "opaque sloth" and terminal pathology of the European spirit remain haunting. Glints of anti-Semitism persist, but are as yet fitful.
It was during 1936, after Celine had found the USSR to be "an ignoble bluff', that his Jew hatred became obsessive and nauseating. The Jews are infecting the world and will be victorious everywhere. New York is nothing but a ghetto fuelled by their plutocracy. Zola ,vas an Italian Jew in the pay of the Dreyfusards. Celine now begins spitting out his loathsome "pamphlets" which are in fact interminable tracts denouncing all Jews. It is they who brought on, and profited from, the First World War and the Bolshevik infamy. It is the Jews whose international intrigues will renew Armageddon and prevent that Franco-German entente which aone could safeguard Europe. "I am writing an abominably anti-Semitic book": Bagatelles pour un massacre. After which there will be L'École des cadavres and Beaux Draps. Quotation from any of these screeds is sickening. They are the pornography of hatred.
Philippe Sollers, who has been writing enthusiastically about Celine since 1963, knows that these texts are "à la mesure, verbalement" of the mass murder they invoke and will help generate. He poses the bewildering question: how are we to grasp the fact that Celine's deranged racism did not negate his literary genius? How can it be that Celine's nihilism "sous sa forme de passionnalité vociférante antisemite" produced masterpieces? A contradiction which a case such as Ezra Pound's cracker-barrel attacks on Jews does not parallel (ugly and infantile as these are).
The sources of Celine's mania remain somewhat obscure. Memories of his wartime anguish had become cancerous. The Jews were self-evidently implicated, an appalling irony, in the possibilities of a recurrent horror. "Rather Hitler than Blum" was a slogan and sentiment shared by numerous Frenchmen. The descent of Western values into frenzied financial speculations, the adulation of the pure and applied sciences, the salient role of Jewish messianic instincts in Marxist socialism (some of whose therapeutic ideals he actually shared), warped Celine's judgment still further. But even this witches' brew falls short of an explanation. The demonic derangement reaches deeper: "le fanatisme juif est total et nous condamne à une mort d'espèce atroce, personnellement et poétiquement totale". Celine has come to abominate the human species. La juiverie is not the bottom line: "l'homme suffit!". But the inextinguishable Jew somehow embodies the contagious vitality, the pandemic of the human species as a whole. As the acid witticism has it: "the Jew is like other men but more so" (there will be echoes of this reading in Sartre's essay on the Jewish question). Thus extermination may be the only logical conclusion.
Celine's conduct during the Occupation was characteristically idiosyncratic. He authorized the publication and reissue of his infamous tomes. Together with other literary collaborators he accepted an official invitation to Berlin in March 1942. His monomania worsened: Racine's plays Bérenice, Esther and Athalie are nothing but a "vehement apologia for la Juiverie". Stendhal is manifestly a Jewish freemason. Marx's Jadishness is preferable to Montaigne's (who may, possibly, have had marranos antecedents). Even Maurras turns out to be a crypto-Jew. Celine informs the fascist leader Doriot that Jews must be swept away like faeces. Simultaneously, Celine took no part in German-commandeered cultural displays or propaganda, and voiced private disgust at the fate of individual Jews and résistants (who had quarters, of which he was perfectly aware, in his own apartment building).
These antinomies climaxed in a scene which, if true, almost defies imagination. At a soiree in the German legation, he leaps to his feet and performs a dazzling imitation of the Fuhrer's voice and gestures, and instructs his terrified hosts that Hitler will lose the war because he is not anti-Semitic enough! The assembled dignitaries are said to have scattered in panic. This episode exactly counterpoints the grand macabre of Simone Weil's refusal of Catholic baptism because the Church of Rome was "still too Jewish".
Celine and his wife fled Paris on June 17, 1944. After a spell at Petain's phantom court in Sigmaringen, they made their way through the charred apocalypse of the collapsing Reich, reaching Denmark in March 1945. The years there proved purgatorial. Celine's spell in prison was harsh, as were the psychological and material constraints during his enforced exile on the Baltic coast. At every stage, Celine fought like a cornered wild cat against the persistent threat of extradition to France where he had been sentenced in absentee and would, he was certain, have been executed like Brasillach or assassinated like his fascist publisher, Robert Denoel. Celine raged against the suppression of his writings and would-be piratical publishers. He sought to refute the howling testimony of his detractors. He denied any involvement in Nazi atrocities, and even strove to obscure his anti-Semitism. Gangsters, profiteers, masters of ambiguity such as Gide and Sartre were flourishing while he, Celine, infirm, gagged and near destitution, was being made it scapegoat for France's hypocritical attempts to lie its way out of defeat and self-betrayal.
The Lettres de prison and the Lettres des annees noires display Celine's rhetoric at its most resourceful. Efforts at rehabilitation began as early as 1948. Very gradually, Celine's name could be mentioned without automatic anathema. More or less covertly, some of his writings inched their way back into circulation. Amnesty came in April 1951. By July, the Celines were back in France. Now began the fierce struggle against continued ostracism, against the silence of retribution that stifled Celine's writings. His demands for republication, for objective critical recognition, became clamorous. In 1956, the walls began to come down. The Voyage was issued in paperback, proving to be a revelation to younger readers and would-be imitators. Gallimard announced that the Voyage and Mort a credit would enter the Pleiade, a consecration for which Celine had striven tirelessly. His status as a "classic" was in sight.
It was during these bitter years that Celine, isolated in Meudon, largely sequestered by contempt and organized oblivion, produced a trilogy of fact-fictions which towers in modern literature. D'un Chateau l'autre, Nord and Rigodon match, if they do not surpass, the force, the stylistic mastery of the Voyage. They contain scenes which, using the word with care can be qualified as "Shakespearean". Too deaf to hear the approaching RAF fighter, Petain strides along on his morning constitutional with seeming heroism and sovereign indifference to danger. The sleazy buffoons of his retinue, aware of the swooping plane, do not know whether they should scatter for their lives. We are in the realm of Falstaff, though darkened. Bébert, surely the most famous cat in twentieth-century letters, leaps from the northbound train in terror. The entire horizon is that of a city in flames. Celine bounds after his beloved pet, desperate for rescue. The episode rivals Dante's Inferno, albeit with a touch of tenderness. Sollers entitles Celine "a specialist of Hell", one who in his own words knew death to be his "permanent mental horizon". Rigodon is the name of a quick-step dance, popular in the Baroque. Here Celine aims to enact that lightness and adroit elegance which had always drawn him to ballet.
The old Celine still hisses. Gallimard is "a ghetto of pédégaulloresistants". He wishes to hear more about the negationnistes, the deniers of the Holocaust. The politics, the editorial practices, the books being produced around him are mostly garbage. But he is now confident that history will place him "between Rabelais and Dostoevsky". Celine completed Rigodon on the very eve of his death on July 1, 1961.
A major part of Celine's correspondence has already been available. It includes his letters to the Nouvelle Revue Francaise and his loyal supporter there, Roger Nimier, to his cherished translator Marie Canavaggia; to Albert Paraz, to Lucien Rebatet, to his lawyers in Denmark and France. Further letters have appeared in various memoires and cahiers. The Pleiade selection features all the editorial annotations and chrogical material emblematic of that monumentalizing imprint. Such voluminous erudition would both have exasperated and flattered Celine. His views on literary scholarship were less than amicable. The principles of inclusion are not altogether clear when so much has been previously published though often in truncated versions. Unlike Flaubert or Proust, Celine did not make works of art of his letters. He writes them as he breathes. The constant is his voice: argotic, raging, derisive, imperious, and sometimes strangely gentle. As the editors note, this gentleness emerges most distinctly in the letters to the three most important women in his life. What takes shape across the 2,000 pages of this collection is a biography in motion, an inventory - both fascinating and repellent - of "works and days".
Nevertheless, the obvious dilemma persists. Dr Destouches was a caring physician devoted to the poorest, most infirm of his patients. His love of animals, strays included became legend. Celine's Jew-hatred is monstrous. Indistinct analogies lie to hand Wagner's racism, Proust's resort to sadistic, voyeurism, Heidegger's engagement with Nazism, Sartre's mendacities in respect of Stalin and Mao. Aesthetic, philosophic eminence is no guarantor of humane liberalism. The Celine case differs. Here is a writer of decisive stature, pivotal in the history of the modern novel, who pours out inhuman tracts. These are couched in an idiom whose yawping vulgarity, whose infantile, scatological filth make quotation emetic. Inferences of some mode of schizophrenia are facile. At some level the same magma is churning in the dynamics of Voyage au bout de la nuit and of Nord as in the Bagatelles. The man of incensed compassion summons the butcher. What memories begot this amalgam? "Je n'oublie pas. Mon délire part de là."
The Celine case is, I believe, a singularity (Praise be.)