by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Gallimard, 184 pp., £15.35, May, 978 2 07 298322 1
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Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journeys to the Extreme 
by Damian Catani.
Reaktion, 392 pp., £27, September 2021, 978 1 78914 467 3
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Céline​ was not a great admirer of Proust. He called him a ‘half-ghost’, far too preoccupied with the doings of an even ghostlier French aristocracy. For this and many other reasons it’s hard to imagine Céline enjoying the thought of their sharing a sudden posthumous literary limelight. Still, there are ways of winning even late games. When significant missing manuscripts by both writers were discovered in 2018 and 2021, the Proust trove amounted to 76 pages, published as Les Soixante-Quinze Feuillets (that was their name before they vanished).* There are said to be 5324 newly discovered Céline pages. What’s more, Gallimard printed only twenty thousand copies of the Proust book, compared with eighty thousand copies of Guerre, the first volume in a publishing project that will include a novel called Londres, and supplements to the works called Casse-Pipe and La Volonté du Roi Krogold.

There is not much to be said – at least, much has been carefully not said – about the recovery of the Proust pages, parts of which were published in 1954 by Bernard de Fallois, in whose archives the full text was discovered when he died. In the Céline case there is a lot to be said and seemingly only one secret remaining: who gave the papers to the person who made public their existence?

Céline and his wife, Lucette, left France in 1944 – no postwar French government was going to look kindly on his pro-Hitler rantings (‘Who has done the most for the worker? … Who is preventing us from going to war? It’s Hitler! … He is on the side of Life’). Even the Vichy regime wasn’t too keen on him. The couple went to Germany, then to Denmark, where Céline was charged (from Paris) with treason, and spent just under a year in jail. His trial in Paris began in 1950. He was found guilty then amnestied in 1951. He and Lucette returned to France later that year. He died in 1961.

The papers left in the couple’s apartment disappeared – were ‘stolen’ according to Céline and to François Gibault, in his introduction to Guerre – when it was requisitioned by the Resistance. In another version of the story, reported by Alice Kaplan in the New York Review of Books of 21 July, they were put in storage and later offered to Céline if he would pay the storage fee. He refused. Either way, the papers came into the possession of someone who wished to preserve them but didn’t want Lucette to profit from their publication. In the early 2000s this person made the papers available to the journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat on condition that nothing would be said about them until Lucette died. Which she did, in 2019, at the age of 107. At that point, Thibaudat announced their existence and Lucette’s executors promptly sued him for ‘concealment of theft’. After a long investigation the court exonerated Thibaudat, but said the executors had to have the papers. Hence the present and future publications.

Guerre looks like a missing chapter from Journey to the End of the Night, but Gibault insists that it’s not. ‘It is not a matter of extracts,’ he says, and it can be dated as ‘coming after the novel that won the Prix Renaudot in 1932’. We may feel it lacks the wit and energy of the previous work, but it has its own sinister charm, and it provides a further hallucinated contribution to Céline’s case against war. ‘I caught the war in my head,’ the narrator says early on, as if it was a deadly disease. ‘It is shut up inside my head.’ We are in Belgium in 1915, and we meet our narrator lying wounded in a forest. He has a broken arm and a buzzing in his head. He is twenty years old. We could say the whole novel is about that noise, an aural interference that will never leave the narrator and which alters his every perception. He gets out of the forest and makes it to a hospital in a small town called Peurdu-sur-la-Lys, a name that rather obviously but still effectively mingles loss and fear. In Search of Unlost Terror might be a title for the book. The narrator leaves the hospital and Europe only at the end of this story, headed, apparently, for his adventures in the novel called Londres.

The narrator – his name is Ferdinand – doesn’t mince words, any more than do Céline’s other narrators. His mother’s tenderness when she visits ‘disgusts’ him, and he writes of his parents ‘snivelling’ or ‘whimpering’ (‘pleurnichant’) as they take off towards the station. He says he has ‘never seen or heard anything as “gross” or “pathetic” [“dégueulasse”]’ as they are. Ferdinand has a great ally in a nurse who sexually exploits her helpless patients, at least one of whom is dead. Even so, like a good practising cynic, he knows how to blackmail her if he has to. When he needs her permission to leave the hospital, he reminds her that he knows about her necrophilic habits. He also boasts about having this knowledge before he uses it. He says he is not going to tell anyone about it, not even his closest friend. ‘It might be useful to me and it was useful to me.’ The main event in the novel reads like a curious replay of the conclusion of Journey to the End of the Night, where a couple quarrel in a taxi and the woman shoots the man. In Guerre, Ferdinand’s best friend is married to a very attractive woman. As seems to befit the moral atmosphere of this sad world, he is a pimp and she is a prostitute. They start to disagree about the distribution of their powers in the town, and she threatens to denounce him to the authorities for a misdemeanour. He defies her and the next thing we read is an account of the friend being arrested and put in chains. ‘Four days later he was shot at his billet near Péronne where his regiment, the 418th infantry, was taking fourteen days’ leave.’

‘I am the devil’s stationmaster,’ says the narrator of Céline’s second novel, Death on Credit. It’s a good metaphorical career for a writer. Not that of a train driver or a conductor, and certainly not that of a passenger. If travel takes us to ‘the other side of life’, as Céline also says, the stationmaster presides over the crossing; he prevents or permits or reschedules traffic. This is the way Céline repeatedly talks about style. ‘Style is a certain way of doing violence to sentences … of having them slightly fly off the handle, so to speak, displacing them, and thus making the reader displace his meaning. But ever so slightly.’ ‘I think I’m a stylist above all,’ Céline also said. ‘All those “great” writers don’t get close to the nerve in my opinion.’ And: ‘What interests me is a direct message to the nervous system … Proust explains too much for my taste … Same business with Gide.’

Slight violence, direct message. In Céline’s own novels the slightness and the directness are often abandoned: this is the devil’s stationmaster after all. Here is how we are to deal, for example, with our weakness:

The best way is to strip the people you fear of the last bit of prestige you’re still inclined to give them. Learn to consider them as they are, worse than they are in fact and from every point of view. That will release you, set you free, protect you more than you can possibly imagine.

‘Worse than they are in fact.’ Pace Céline, though peace can hardly be the right word, this is a very Proustian thought. Only exaggeration allows us to see things as they are, because it makes us too short-sighted to see them any other way. And in any case truth itself often exaggerates, often visibly fails to be as reasonable as it is supposed to be.

Damian Catani suggests that Céline’s novels ‘do not so much provide a damning indictment of mankind, as express frustration at his impotence in the face of suffering’. This is a very interesting idea, but at its best Céline’s writing doesn’t feel frustrated: it feels triumphant in the awfulness of its inventions. For Céline, it’s not enough to see people and cultures as just worse than they are. We have to see them as consummately terrible, as perfectly bad as badness can be. This is not an easy effect to achieve, but Céline arrives at it again and again. It is a form of idealism. As Julia Kristeva suggests, Céline thought bourgeois greed ‘made the Nazis unfit for Nazism’.

Catani’s book seeks to ‘encompass [Céline’s] lesser-known novels’ and to take ‘a bird’s-eye view of the wider literary landscape of which Céline was undoubtedly a part’. It does both these things well, and much else too. But it is haunted by ideas of balance and mediation that may be admirable in all kinds of contexts, but which are miles away from Céline. Catani writes of ‘pieces of a jigsaw that have enabled me to build as balanced and detailed a picture as is possible of this highly complex man and his work’. We can be grateful for the detail and the handling of the pieces, but do we want a balanced picture? Would we believe in such a picture if it was balanced? We can, as Catani says his book does, ‘condemn the antisemitism, while acknowledging the greatness of the writer’. But is doing this ‘to strike a balance’?

Catani also insists on Céline’s moments of compassion, ‘those infrequent but touching moments of compassion in which he recognises the best side of humanity’, his ‘heartfelt compassion for the poor’, ‘the touching humanity of the fiction’. All of these moments and instances exist and they need to be recognised. But they form only a tiny part of the case for the defence, and I think we can say that the devil’s stationmaster would have set them aside.

When Catani attributes Céline’s compassion to his having ‘got to know human nature inside out’, he may be saying both more and less than he wants to say. Céline’s great gift is indeed to picture human nature inside out: not as it is, but as it might be if every ugly truth about it were totally visible. Our job then would be to resist this vision, and to imagine a response to what we can’t resist. As the narrator says in Journey to the End of the Night, ‘one can never be too anxious.’

These matters come to a head when Catani tackles the antisemitism, and especially the crazy pamphlets Céline wrote in the later 1930s. You can hate Jews as much as you like, apparently, as long as you don’t recommend their murder. Catani tells us that Céline didn’t get paid for his racist drivel (and actually now and again criticised the Nazis). He then adds: ‘Nor is there any evidence that he supported the extermination of the Jews, either in his pamphlets, or elsewhere.’ It’s true that not formally supporting extermination is different from recommending it, but the victims would be right to wonder just what the difference is. Catani comes closer to the problem when he says, rather casually, that when Léon Blum became prime minister of France, ‘it did not take much to convince Céline that a “Jewish conspiracy” was being waged against him.’ How much more should it have taken? Why should it take anything at all? If you have the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ to hand, you scarcely need a reason.

This question is explored in the shooting that occurs in the last pages of Journey to the End of the Night. Prior to the event, the narrator reveals that he has brought the couple together as a step towards reconciliation. They should talk. They do. And everything gets worse; angry speech leads to death. ‘We’re never suspicious enough of words,’ the narrator says. ‘They look like nothing much, not at all dangerous, just little puffs of air, little sounds the mouth makes … We’re not suspicious enough of words, and calamity strikes.’

This territory – a place of danger and failed suspicion – is the home of Céline’s fiction, and he returns to it in his later work, especially in what is known as the German Trilogy: Castle to Castle (1957), North (1960) and Rigadoon (1969). These are the books in which he ‘was able to claw his way back to literary fame’, as Catani puts it. There is a difference in the later writing. It is faster, both closer to the facts and more ironic about them. It offers a sort of imitation of impatience, the skilful faking of the text of a journalist whose notes never get beyond being notes. Catani says it is ‘a blend of autobiography, history and fiction’, and this is correct. But it feels like sheer dystopian fantasy, a journey to the end not of the night but of any sort of manageable human world.

Here is a moment from North:

A time comes when you don’t dare to even ask yourself what’s what and nobody tries to understand you! Readers, spectators … want just one thing, for you to be hanged and quick! They want to see your style, your special way of dangling! Don’t write so complicated! The genius of this Civilisation is to have found reasons for the worst paranoid butcheries … The New Look historic trend.

The sequence of events in the trilogy involves Céline’s travels in 1944 and 1945. He is accompanied by his wife, here called Lili, their cat, Bébert, and an actor friend called Robert le Vigan. They leave Paris, stay in Baden-Baden, where a large group of people who have reasons for not wanting to be at home are having a manic non-stop party. The attempt to assassinate Hitler echoes there like a terminal dream: ‘Nothing to be surprised about, reader … the truth is that after the attempted assassination there was no order anywhere.’ Our heroes move to Berlin, which is pictured as large acres of rubble, with a few names and fragments of housing that obscurely evoke what once was a city. Worrying about their safety – spies are everywhere – Céline and company move to a secret medical mission in Brandenburg, and finally get to Sigmaringen, where they meet up with Pétain and the relics of the Vichy government.

Céline has flipped the chronology of the events, so that the first part of the story occurs in the second volume and the second part in the first. North is a good place to linger if we want to get a sense of his extraordinary work in action. ‘We don’t quote from North enough, we don’t know it well enough,’ the critic Maurice Bardèche says. ‘It deserves to be seen on the same level as Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Instalment Plan. On the same level: I would willingly say higher, because of the resonances.’

This is persuasive, and the Berlin sequence in North is a good example of the creation of resonances. People are picking up bricks and stones among the ruins, making neat piles of them, as if this were a work of restoration. ‘Pretty soon there won’t be any sidewalk, too many piles, too high, too wide, pyramids.’ All that remains of the Zenith Hotel, where Céline and his companions are staying, are the rooms themselves: there are no external walls. Across the street is a building that seems to be ‘slung like a hammock between two cornerposts’, its storeys missing. The owner of this mirage is a person who thinks he sees Hitler every day, going to work at the Chancellery as usual. Céline, of course, thinks the man is a spy as well as crazy, a sign that it is time for them to get out of Berlin. They do, but the phantasmagoria only changes location. The last words of the book evoke Napoleon’s retreat from Russia.

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