An observation on Céline by Céline

In one of the reading groups I frequent which is dedicated to French literature, there has been some consternation of the incessant use of ellipses in Céline’s novel, Mort à crédit (Death on Credit or Death on the Installment Plan). I seem to recall that this novel tended to overuse the ellipses but I had already formed an opinion of quirky or even radical stylistic forms in contemporary literature and was generally accepting whether the author is Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Mark Z. Danielewski (see my earlier note).

One passage I hi-lited in Normance may give Céline’s side of this question:

You’ll probably say, “this chronicle of yours is pretty jumbled!: …Is there anything neat and tidy in Deluges? … times like these? … let me tell you, anyone who makes a nice, calm story of it, keeps everything in order, is a hell of a liar! impossible even to tell a proper story about the wind and noise! sweeping down, right on his head! … I mean, just think about it! … a hundred things happening at once! …

I have less trouble with the ellipses than with the extensive use of the exclamation point; and let’s not even consider the authors who insist on extended passages in italics or even in ALL-CAPS!

Normance

In the last post on Louis-Ferdinand Céline I mentioned that I was reading his novel, Normance. This novel (which I am still reading) tells the story of the bombing of Paris during World War II. The original title—Féerie pour une autre fois, II—makes it clear that Normance is the sequel to Fable For Another Time. Here is an excerpt from the blurb on the back cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of Normance:

… this account of an air raid on Paris during World War II throws the readers into a world in which human aggressions, appetites, and suspicions 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 turn Montmarte into an underworld teeming with dirty deeds, our guide resists the inhumanity with animal desperation and twisted hilarity. Céline animates these events with the exuberance and speed of his unhinged style, fully developed and uninhibited, and fully his own.

Céline is an author you must experience. If you are new to Céline, start with his first novel, Journey to the End of Night.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline is one author you can love or hate, but you cannot ignore. Céline’s real name was Louis-Ferdinand Destouches:  the Céline was his grandmother’s name. Céline was a practicing doctor (much like William Carlos Williams), an anti-Semitic Nazi supporter, and a modern stylist who changed the voice of fiction for future authors.

One of the first things you notice about Céline is that he writes a very scattered prose, generally linked together with his signature ellipses. He writes as people think, not in nice complete sentences but in bursts of insight. His ellipses compare nicely to the colons employed by António Lobo Antunes. Céline’s major influence on literature was his successful use of argot—street slang—in his novels. Zola had unsuccessfully attempted this use of street slang years before but it was not well received. It may be argued that Céline changed the voice of fiction forever.

Here is a snippet of Céline taken from Normance, part of an extended description of the bombing of Paris.

 The sky tears open to the left, right there! … brrac! in the South! so it has to be Drancy! Drancy’s taking a pounding! a golden cataract from on high … a river of clouds … yellow … and then green … you don’t see this every day, this bank of flames cascading, spurting, flooding over … I already told you about it, but all the same, really, you’d think the sky itself was melting … and from below you can see streets rising from the ground … lifting right up … going up like snakes on fire … twisting … bending from cloud to cloud … a whole church takes off, goes belly up, the spike of its bell tower burning, like some kind of giant thumb! … it’s amazing! flipped over on us! … the church in Auteuil … I told you! … upside down … but not burning too much, really … more like reflections … ah, for you it’s different … it sails on! … takes off, what do you know? … painting’s not my thing, I’m not rendering the effects well … the effects! I’m not up to the demands of the deluge! you’d need a pictorial type … all I have is a little talent in chronicling … Ah, but Jules, him, you bet I’m keeping an eye on him! an artist? he’s more than just an artist! I don’t let him out of my sight! let him pitch! glide! he won’t fool me!

Céline’s work is clearly autobiographical at times but we should never forget that it is still fiction.

I have used the following bibliography to guide my reading of Céline:

  • La Vie et l’œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis, Ph. D. thesis, 1924 (English: The Life and Work of Semmelweis, tr. by Robert Allerton Parker, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1937)
  • La Quinine en thérapeutique, 1925, published as Docteur Louis Destouches (untranslated)
  • Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932 (English: Journey to the End of the Night, tr. by John H. P. Marks, 1934)
  • L’Église, 1933 (English: The Church, tr. by Mark Spitzer and Simon Green, Green Integer, 2003)
  • Hommage à Émile Zola, a 1933 speech published in 1936
  • Mort à crédit, 1936 (English: Death on Credit, tr. by John H. P. Marks, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1938 – aka Death on the Installment Plan (US), tr. by Ralph Manheim)
  • Mea culpa, 1936 (English: Mea Culpa, tr. by Robert Allerton Parker, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1937)
  • Bagatelles pour un massacre, 1937 (English: Trifles for a Massacre, translated anonymously, available as free .pdf)
  • L’École des cadavres, 1938 (English: School for Corpses, untranslated)
  • Les Beaux Draps, 1941 (English: A Nice Mess, untranslated)
  • Guignol’s Band, 1944 (English: Guignol’s Band, tr. by Bernard Frechtman and Jack T. Nile, 1954, Vision Press., London)
  • Réponses aux accusations formulées contre moi par la justice française au titre de trahison et reproduites par la Police Judiciaire danoise au cours de mes interrogatoires, pendant mon incarcération 1945–1946 à Copenhague, 6 November 1946 (English: Reply to Charges of Treason Made by the French Department of Justice, tr. by Julien Cornell, South Atlantic Quarterly 93, no. 2, 1994)
  • Casse-pipe, 1949 (English: Cannon-fodder, tr. by Kyra De Coninck and Billy Childish, Hangman, 1988)
  • Féerie pour une autre fois, 1952 (English: Fable for Another Time, tr. by Mary Hudson, U of Nebraska Press, 2003)
  • Normance − Féerie pour une autre fois II, 1954 (English: Normance: Fable for Another Time II, tr. by Marlon Jones, Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
  • Entretiens avec le Professeur Y, 1955 (English: Conversations with Professor Y, tr. by Stanford Luce, Dalkey Archive Press, 2006)
  • D’un château l’autre, 1957 (English: Castle to Castle, tr. by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, New York, 1968)
  • Nord, 1960 (English: North, tr. by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, New York, 1972)
  • Le Pont de Londres − Guignol’s band II, published posthumously in 1964 (English: London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II, tr. by Dominic Di Bernardi, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995)
  • Rigodon, completed in 1961 but published posthumously in 1969 (English: Rigadoon, tr. by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, New York, 1974)
  • Trifles for a massacre, first edition in English, Les Editions de La Reconquête, Asuncion, 2010.

Right now I’m reading Normance which is the last of Céline’s major works translated into English. I know there are those that find Céline in translation difficult to accept since the argot of France is not the slang of America. The problem, I understand, is that in translation the novels lose their “frenchness.” I suppose this is a concern but since most people don’t know what slang is French and what is English or American, I don’t suspect it should interfere with the reading.

[Note: Previously included video of Céline interview no longer available.]