Celine encore – part one!

09 Sep


This blog is mostly about writing, and this, its 19th instalment, is yet more about the French novelist Celine, whose influence on me I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s rather long – dear reader, please accept my apologies for this. You don’t have to read it though of course I hope you do, and enjoy it.Originally I was going to write about something else – about greatness, what it means and why it matters, and I’ve got the bones of this stored quietly away as a draft. But I decided to go back to Celine partly because of my thinking about greatness. Celine has affected me more than any other “modern” (meaning 20th century and beyond) writer, and I am far from alone in being influenced by him. In my opinion he was a great writer but not a great man, and not everything a great writer writes is great.
Celine’s anti-semitism, as I wrote in my earlier post, has troubled me for a long time, but it was difficult to get a real handle on it as the so-called “pamphlets” he wrote that included these wild-eyed views were hard to find even in French, and not translated into English. However “Translator Anonymous” a few years ago did translate the first of his three “anti-semitic” “pamphlets”, Bagatelles for a massacre as Trifles for a massacre and posted it on the internet. Trifles is only available in this form, it’s free, and I’ve got it on my e-reader. The translation is actually very good as a translation, but there is a large number of literals and the formatting means many of the notes (that reveal the quality of the translation) appear in odd places in the text.
The translator says in a short introduction that it has never been illegal to publish Trifles because of its anti-semitic content but that Celine’s widow has never given permission – implying that she is still alive (she would be at least 80) and that the translation is illegal on copyright grounds. Readers should be able to make up their own minds about Celine’s views, the translator says. Well, I am a pretty keen believer in copyright, but it’s out there now, so I’m reading it. And there is a perhaps specific case to be made for new editions and translations of Celine’s most scurrilous works: the translator has a point.Though I am only half-way through Trifles there are some things about it that are worth saying now.One of Celine’s techniques as a writer was to intersperse “lucid” prose with “delirious” episodes, usually as a consequence of the narrator’s having got malaria many years previously. The first time he used this technique was in his second novel, Mort a credit variously translated as Death or Credit or Death on the Instalment Plan, but he used it frequently after that, and in the first part of his final trilogy, Castle to Castle, he employed it with terrific effect to bring the past into the present and justify his reprise of wartime experiences, and his sometimes crazily expressed views about life.

Yet in this “pamphlet”, which is in fact 344 pages long, and technically at least a novel, he does not use this technique. There aren’t any excuses: this is straight from the lip in every respect. Unless the narrator – Celine always uses a narrator – wakes up suddenly at the end, this raving is compis mentis raving.

And while it’s a novel with a narrator, it’s a novel in which the author takes back the wheel whenever he pleases, and forgets about being “Ferdinand” and becomes Celine.

He’s got a lot of anger, and a lot of targets to shoot at with that anger. It’s not just about Jews, even though he manages – sometimes with incredible cunning – to find them behind practically everything he doesn’t like.

It’s these other things that are worth talking about now; I’ll wait till I’ve finished the book to talk about the anti-semitism in more detail.

Celine could really write; he had a gift for it. Much of Trifles is screamingly funny – and extremely filthy in ways that could even today render this book unpublishable by reputable publishers. One of his literary biographers said that when he was tried in absentia after the war – he had made a dash to Denmark – that the audience, there to watch his figurative flaying, burst into laughter when excerpts of Trifles were read.

But he lost control of his imagination at some point. He took himself too seriously, and it looks to me that this book began this sad chapter in his life. Even if there were no anti-semitic elements in it,Trifles is not a great book because it is so over-written. He makes some acute points about other aspects of life, and there are turns of phrase that are wonderful. But there are too many of them, by a very wide margin.

The following two novels/pamphlets (L’ecole des Cadavres and Les Beaux Draps) have not been reprinted or translated, but the supposedly more serious novels, and fragments have been: Casse-pipe (Cannon-fodder), an excerpt from an apparently much longer work that was lost when his belongings were ransacked in the closing days of the war; Guignol’s BandLondon Bridge, and Feerie pour une autre fois translated as Fable for another time, with its sequeal Normance. Apart from Guignol’s band, which for other reasons is not a great novel, all these share the quality of being over-written to a fault.

Celine only returned to a more settled narrative form with Conversation with Professor Y before embarking on the trilogy that was his final work.

External sources suggest that Celine really believed he had developed a new and even revolutionary style in that middle period of his life and that the over-elaborated and repetitive quality of these books was an asset rather than a turn-off. He imagined for example that Normance, an account of the bombing of Paris in 1944, would restore his reputation; it didn’t. What he thought was a tour-de-force was an oppressive bore: he wrote in the preface to Guignol’s Band that writers in the future would “telegraph or you won’t write at all”, a lesson the master all too evidently forgot.

Trifles seems to have been the first of these too-much tangos. A previous non-fiction essay on his trip to the Soviet Union, Mea Culpa, was admirably concise.

And in a writing sense, that’s a real shame. Setting the anti-semitism aside for the time being, there is a great deal of value in Trifles that is squandered, sometimes because it is sandwiched in among screeds of raving, and sometimes just because he goes on too long about it, making the same point again and again. “The novel as delirium”, as one of his biographers called it, becomes the novel as tedium.

Celine’s first novel, Journey to the End of Night, was translated into Russian after it was published in 1932 apparently under the mistaken impression that the author was a communist, but the Soviet royalty system meant Celine could only spend the money in the socialist paradise, so he went. To say he wasn’t impressed is a very mild way of putting it. Mea Culpa was a precis; Trifles gives the detail and it’s not a pretty sight. Celine’s insights into Soviet life deserved better.

It is possible that Celine was an alcoholic who gave up drinking without the benefit of a programme like Alcoholics Anonymous; later in life he said he drank only water, and in Death on Credit he has an account of his narrator’s loss of control after drinking. Trifles includes a broadside against the French fondness for drink, in particular but not only wine, that should give pause to people who think that the French people are civilised drinkers unlike say, Scots or New Zealanders, or Russians.

Trifles also has full measure of Celine’s views on literature and on writing, especially  the French literature of his time. He is not very nice either to English and American fiction.

Celine didn’t think much of his French contemporaries. He believed they lacked the experience of life that made writing worth reading, and that they lacked skills that made writing worth doing. Focusing on grammar, rooted in the classics whose very fact of translation or rendering in another tongue made them unworthy, they made for a literature of “imposture” able to survive only by virtue of a monstrous profession: teachers.

There is something in what he says about literature, and it is worth noting that the writers he castigates, who are perhaps still read in French – Anatole France, Francois Mauriac, Andre Gide, and others of that period – are almost unread today in other countries unless as class assignments.

Something, of course, isn’t everything. In my own writing, I hope that my experience and the lessons I have learned from it are the basis for “what I have to say”. I write because I do think I have something to say that is worth reading. But writing has to have form; it has to have some kind of “grammar”; writing in a genre, as I do, means accepting some exterior rules and disciplines. Even Celine, with his revolutionary style, was published in books. They have pages that readers turn…even e-reading, like this, makes a pretense of the physical page.And teaching is necessary in life, whether by a parent or a someone at the front of a classroom.

Celine had no doubt of his own contribution to literature; in his last book, Rigodon finished the day before he died, he said that “in two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school”. That’s a ways away yet, but as time has gone on, an increasing number of studies of his life and work have appeared along with translations of his “more serious” oeuvre. For a writer most people have never heard of, there is an impressive number of literary biographies in English – at least six. The University of Texas in Austin has a Celine collection, and there is a French-language society devoted to organising symposia on him. So in the legacy game, he seems to be winning.

Trifles sheds some explanatory light on Celine’s craziness that makes him a tragic figure, but it is possible to go beyond that and find a deeper social tragedy in this twisted figure. There is more to say…

Those of you still here are entitled to at least have a galaxy of stars, beaming happy ones to light up your day…your month…your life.

Thanks for reading.


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Published on September 08, 2012 20:37 •


Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Celine encore – part one!

  1. Joleene Naylor

    September 16, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    Sounds like a hard read and also like he needed an editor or three. though if he had gotten too big for his boots he probably would not have thought he needed one 😉 Alas, that happens all too often, which is why one needs a harsh – but not mean – who will detail their complaints and suggest to one how to fix them. these are hard to find.

    I’ve noticed lots of authors who say the same thing repetitively, and do it myself in the rough drafts. i don’t know if it is just the obsession of the idea, or the fear that the audience just won’t get it that causes it. something to think about. 🙂

  2. Steve Evans

    September 16, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Yeap. Am still reading this book but the repetitive stuff does get me a bit. If it was half as long, it would be five times as good sort of style. But there is more too…when I finish it will write another post…


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