Celine’s anti-Semitism troubled me a lot, and it still does. I was far from the only person to find in Celine’s “ordinary” fiction a genuinely extraordinary sensibility who seemed to have divined what life is all about, and given it both barrels – a savage view that was ameliorated by humour, somehow salvaged by it.
And I was far from alone, too, in being confused by the writer’s revelation that he was, to put it mildly, down on Jews. (A contemporary in the 1930s, when the first of his anti-Semitic ravings was published, thought it was a satire). It seemed contradictory, and Celine himself later admitted as much in a somewhat left -handed way – “I got mixed up in stuff that was none of my business”. But he never resiled, never said “I got it wrong”. Far from it, he went out of this life as persuaded as ever that Jews were the enemy…
…but the enemy of what? Celine’s larger message was one of the futility of life for the individual; his most famous bon mot was “the truth of this life is death”. Why care if the Jews are in control of everything if even the Jews who are in control of everything are under the control of the grim reaper? Celine’s terrific strength was to juxtapose and even portray as humorous the sad reality of physical life and death. In one of his most famous scenes, a trip over the English channel turns into a vomit parade, in which the deck is awash with the stuff and our hero, the hapless Ferdinand, retches and retches till he has just one something left…out it pops: a strawberry.
Celine delivered this strange amalgam of horror and humour with a vigorous style he refined to deliver through the ellipse (…), a punctuation that few writers since have felt compelled to emulate, at least to the same degree. He scoffed at this invention of his – “my three little dots! All the real writers will tell you what to think of it…”. Except that when quizzed as to who the real writers were, he always mentioned three Frenchmen who are even more forgotten than he, presumably for literary rather than political reasons. Since he also said (in his last book), “In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school”, it seems that he had a better idea of his ultimate literary reputation than he sometimes let on.
Celine regarded his writing as a form of impressionism, and he sometimes compared his work to the French impressionists, but the virtue of the ellipse in his hands was to a kind of cubist writing, with the perspective of the narrator jumping from phrase to phrase, seemingly “stream of consciousness” but very artfully contrived.
Kurt Vonnegut in a much-quoted and republished essay said that “every writer” is in Celine’s debt. I’m not sure this is so. But certainly many writers are, and those whose work bears the hallmark of his sensibility include Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Tom Wolfe, whose non-fiction attack on art criticism The painted word, is written using the ellipse, but whose first novel, Bonfire of the vanities was clearly written in a Celinian style.
I wrote my first three or four novels using the ellipse; I liked it for its ability to shift perspective so rapidly, and, as Vonnegut said, give the writing an instant immediacy. While most of my readers didn’t complain, enough of them did that I later went back and reworked those books to remove most though not all of them.
The ellipse was really the least significant of the many ways Celine affected me. He freed me to write more energetically and adventurously, not to fear criticism – his took the savagings he got on the chin, but got his own back in his writing – and to aspire to write the black humour that seemingly so effortlessly flowed off the nib of his pen.
I have been to many of the places Celine put in his books, most notably the sleepy town in Germany, Sigmaringen, where he set his fictionalised account of the last days of the Vichy government, Castle to Castle. I have stood outside his last home in Meudon, outside Paris, and at his grave in the nearby cemetery. The shopping arcade where he spent some of his youth is still there too, and one can see the narrow staircases in the small shops of the type his mother lamely mounted and descended many times a day. And I have puzzled over this man who as a doctor spent much of his non-literary life treating the poor, who worked for the League of Nations as part of what is now the World Health Organisation, aiming to eradicate diseases affecting the poor the world over, who maintained he was a devout pacifist after being decorated for bravery in the First World War, yet volunteered on the outbreak of the second, and before this, had “warned” his countrymen not to fight because the Jews were the cause of it all.
I don’t have a way to explain Celine. I wish I did. Henry Miller, a writer who took much of his style from Celine, said that Celine lived within him and always would. He was that powerful a personality, shining through his work.
Certainly the last twenty years have seen his reputation, if not restored, certainly altered for the better. Many of his later works have been translated into English, there have been numerous biographies and literary studies, and if they all try to grapple with his hatred of Jews, none succeeds in explaining it to my satisfaction anyway. And recently the first of his anti-Semitic broadsides,Bagatelles for a massacre, was translated into English and made available in e-reader format, with “trifles” instead of “bagatelles” beginning the title. Non-francophone readers can now read it for themselves, and make up their own minds.
For me nothing can undo Celine’s terrible attacks on Jews, not least because he was such a gifted writer he was more effective than most turgid anti-Semitic lunatics.
People try to explain away other anti-Semites – Wagner, for example. Yet when I listen to Wagner, I feel I hear in his music the limitation, the thwarting of potential, that is implied by something so self-evidently foolish as anti-Semitism. Perhaps Wagner was a great composer, but he was not as great as he may have been had he overcome his demons.
I guess that is how I feel about Celine – a powerful writer, able to transform our understanding of the world, but how much more powerful might he have been had he seen his hatred of Jews for what it was, and laugh at it as he laughed at his father’s anti-Semitism in his second novel.
At least an eight star effort. Give yourself more if you like, and paste them into your notebook.