Varrrroooom!

Aaron Matz

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.

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