Doctor No

John Sturrock

In November 1931, La Gazette médicale in Paris carried a curiously vehement piece on the treatment of bleeding gums. It was signed Dr Louis F. Destouches and it took issue, in a blizzard of exclamation-marks, with the medicine of the schools, asking what good the professoriat and the textbooks were to a confused general practitioner, who wanted to do something simply therapeutic for his patients. This irascible, very literate broadside modulated in the last few lines into a puff for Sanogyl, a new remedial toothpaste, and it was the last thing that Dr Destouches published before his prodigious debut in fiction one year later, as Louis Ferdinand Céline, the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. There were foretastes of Céline in the truculent medical journalism and puffery of Destouches, but nothing to compare with the epochal vituperation with which the Voyage is filled; if he was to keep a practice the doctor required a cover. Céline was that cover, a first name borrowed from this unfamily-minded man’s one commendable relative, the grandmother who had been a fount of refreshing sarcasm for him when he was a small boy but who had died when he was ten. The Voyage raised the name Céline instantly to the heights, but he kept Destouches on too, as an alias to practise medicine under, up to, during and even after the Second World War.

Céline made money and leisure for himself from his books but he never let doctoring altogether go. His surgery hours were the writer’s field-work, because then he could be the licensed voyeur of the hurts and privations of his (working-class) patients. Medicine had no cure for death, so his regard for its usefulness was limited, but he valued the company of the poor and unhealthy because they had two strong reasons to feel insecure, and that to him meant that they were informed human beings, who could see life for the hostile and precarious experience it was. So Dr Destouches stayed on as a benefactor, and as someone interestingly distinct from the impious Céline, the foul-mouthed anarchist who had written the Voyage and who later became the most recklessly abusive of French anti-semites in his pamphlets, ‘Bagatelles pour un massacre’, ‘L’Ecole des cadavres’ and ‘Les Beaux Draps’. There was a moment, after the war, when the virtues of Destouches may have saved Céline from suffering further for his trespasses: in 1951, when the charges of wartime collaboration against him were re-heard, the examining judge is said not to have realised, or to have been told, that the good doctor, against whom there was no really damning evidence, was also Céline, the author of such unforgivable books. Destouches/Céline got their clearance and could come back to France, after six years of a hugely resented exile in Denmark.

Bleeding gums were just what the doctor ordered, to make Céline’s case against the abstractions of academic medicine. As forms of bodily decay they are neither distinguished nor complicated enough to interest the Faculties; but then there is a cruel divide between the Faculties and the GP. Céline cared only about treating disease, he resisted the idea that he should understand it as well; he put welfare ahead of technique. This, however, does not make him into a saintly altruist, toiling magnanimously in the back streets of Paris; his motive for practising as and where he did was as much revenge, on the bourgeois medical establishment of which he had briefly been a part but with which he had broken, and which in its moneyed smugness knew nothing, he protested, of the abjections of proletarian life. This was a role he had first prescribed for himself in the extraordinary thesis which he presented when he was qualifying (had the professors been as dim and narrow-minded as Céline claimed they were, they would have thrown it angrily out). There was more of biography than of medical information in what Céline wrote, and years afterwards the thesis was published, on the back of his first novels, as La Vie et l’oeuvre de Semmelweis. Semmelweis was to him a gratifying discovery, a Hungarian doctor in the mid-19th century who was the first to realise that puerperal fever was a killer in labour wards because obstetric staff did not sterilise their hands or instruments. He was not listened to by the authorities in Vienna where he worked and young women continued to die. In the end, in Céline’s telling of the story, Semmelweis is literally maddened by his failure to get others to see that he is right and infects himself deliberately. Céline had the facts of the case somewhat askew, but never mind: he tells a disheartening story with precocious verve, and takes an unholy pleasure in its moral: that Semmelweis, genius, poet and, finally, an outcast, was punished for having wished his fellow human beings too well.

Even in the grey columns of La Gazette médicale then, Céline could but air his consuming grievance, that life is ghastly but that not everyone seems to know it. He did know, he had had ghastly experiences, and if the world was to go on fiddling while he alone burned, then he would write his ghastly experiences up and share his hard-earned misanthropy with others. Journey to the end of the night was a formidable, monstrously accomplished start to this programme, the first instalment of an oeuvre all of which was to be devoted to the more or less apocalyptic portrayal of human society in moments of vicious disintegration. Céline’s finest books – Journey to the end of the night, Death on the Instalment Plan, and two that he wrote after 1945, Castle to Castle and North – are a brilliantly warped commentary on what he wanted us to know he had been through in his life, from a stinted, inhumane childhood in Paris in the opening years of the century to a last decade of sour, fulminating reclusion on the slopes of Meudon after 1951.

The experience that counted for most – Céline often said, for everything – was the 1914-18 War. When that began, he was already in the Army, a regular, having signed on in the Cavalry in 1912, at the time of his conscription. In November 1914, by then an NCO, he was wounded. How bad his wound was is the sort of question you get used to asking about Céline, so as to establish where and why he took off into fantasy out of disappointment with the facts. Serious, he himself repeatedly said, so that his body was never right again: he had an irreparable arm injury, as well as concussion, from a bursting German shell. A smashed right arm only, according to the official records, though that was bad enough to get him invalided out of the Army in 1915. But as the years passed, Céline built up his wound, blaming on it the headaches and the tinnitus he suffered from permanently, and going on in more extreme fits of self-commiseration to hint at a trepanning. He was a sensualist and an idealiser of bodies, and his own impaired one was the receipt he could afterwards show for his real but costly patriotism in 1914. Together, his medal and his disability pension authorised his racial blasts, in the later 1930s, against the warmongers – that is, against the Jews – in whose cause no sacrosanct French bodies were to be wasted.

Journey to the end of the night is a novel in the first person, and in what a first person: that of Bardamu, the most blackly humorous and disenchanted voice in all of French literature. And the hardest to resist; for this is a novel to do with persuasion, written in an aggressive yet insidiously rhythmic spoken French, able both to scandalise and charm its first, genteel readers. Céline re-created spoken French as a written form, and he did so because he so loathed respectability: he is a wonderful exponent of slang, of bawdy and of popular syntax, all of them as a corrective to the hypocrisy of received usage, that bland embellishment of a vile world. Yet scathing though it is, Céline’s own French is the very opposite of casual, and he hated people to think it might have come easily to him; he worked, and enormously long hours, to elevate it into a rhetoric that could actually persuade, into ‘the little music’ he always wanted to hear, as the moving force in all his prose. Rhetoric comes openly into his books, as a power of words both to inflict injury on others and sardonically, in extremis, to placate others when they threaten to inflict injury on you. It comes in at the very start of Journey to the end of the night when Bardamu is seduced into the Army by the sounding brass of a military band. His reason thus clouded, he follows the music to its home inside the barrack-gates, which then clang fatally to behind him. He is not a volunteer but a sucker, and the war is his punishment.

Here we must have another fact about Sergeant Destouches: he was a brave man, indeed a minor hero of the first autumn of the war. Before he was wounded he had carried a message under heavy fire, and done well enough to win a Médaille Militaire. He was just the sort of young man his anxious country then needed, and prized. Unlike the laughably egotistical Bardamu. Once the war is under way, he on the contrary is introduced into that state of lucid fearfulness which Céline pretended was his ideal and his inspiration, on the grounds that the chronically fearful alone see life as it truly is and human beings as they so unpleasantly are, the murderous enemies one of another. Instead of the fatuous courage of the blood-letters all around him, Bardamu has imagination, which is perhaps a curse but certainly a privilege. His very rational desire is to foutre le camp, to desert, or else to get taken prisoner by the other side, and there sit things safely out. The others, whether crassly bellicose officers or passive, uncomprehending men, go dumbly to their annihilation, because they have no imagination and death doesn’t much trouble them. But death troubles Bardamu greatly; to avoid it, to live longer, is the one good he can recognise and the battlefield is a terrible and lonely place in which to come once and for all to this simple, carnal philosophy.

It was not of course Céline’s philosophy. He had no great horror of death, but he was glad to use it as a prospect to frighten others into sharing what he believed was his own realism. In Bardamu he is trying out his new freedom as the vilifier of humanity, breaking free of the obligations and hindrances of real life through the irresponsibility of his language. To be strong, he declared, was to recognise the wickedness in people, and to judge them as worse than they in fact are. He had a slogan: Il faut noircir et se noircir, and this was both a compulsion for him and a literary method, since the fearless blackener of his own kind has also to be a fabricator when it comes to writing, not the plain reporter on life as we know it but a conscious visionary. His books had to be so very evidently ‘spoken’ because Céline, or Destouches, knew that he was playing a double game. He could not afford to disappear without remainder into the voice he had created, when the strength and pathos of that voice derived from its being recognisably other than his own. Perspective was all, and the effect he wanted to give was one of – his own word for it – ‘delirium’. Delirious his books very convincingly are, even this first, relatively traditional one, written before he had taken full possession of his style – in the later books, the narrative is forever being overborne, if not strangled by dynamic commentary. The foremost scenes of Journey to the end of the night are quite vividly unreal, not least the killing-fields of Flanders, where the rebelliously imaginative Bardamu finds that even in such horror there can be féerie, or a quality of the fairy-like, that as a spectacle the slaughter has a power of enchantment.

Four of the educative stages of Céline’s earlier life are put to such use in the novel, which contains more of the 20th century than the 1914-18 War and more of the world than France. From the front line Bardamu is taken back to a rousing convalescence among the shirkers and jingos in Paris, and to hospitals where the damaged soldiery is being patched up ready for a quick return to the trenches. Bardamu, however, enrols as a civilian, in a West African trading company, just as Céline had, in 1916-7, when he went to French Cameroun. In the novel colonial Africa is superbly traduced, a torrid focus of malevolence, disease, brutishness and corruption – a second war-zone, in fact, with terminally stupid whites acting as officers and cowed blacks as their disposable auxiliaries. From Africa, Bardamu escapes, in a fever, to the United States, an almost bearable place by comparison, even if his first job there is as a counter of fleas among the waiting immigrants on Ellis Island. But then Céline quite liked America, for having given him two sources of pleasure: the cinema, which dealt, as he wanted to, in states of ‘delirium’, and girls, because American girls had the muscular, dancers’ legs that he thrived on, and so supported, or more likely explained, his incongruous liking for the ballet.(One of the weirder inclusions among the savageries of ‘Bagatelles pour un massacre’ is scenario ideas for ballets, ideas which the choreographers would never take up, so stoking Céline’s fury in a different direction.) Finally, Bardamu returns to Paris, to a quarter of the city pointedly renamed from Céline’s own Clichy, as Garenne-Rancy, and to the squalor of an underfunded medical practice, reachable by way of ‘his street’, to wit the Boulevard de la Révolte. Here his education in the internecine ways of men and women is completed.

The last half of the novel is also, very slenderly, plotted. It has a love-plot, with a sadistic outcome. Bardamu has a double in the book, called Robinson, who turns up regularly but more or less at random, in Flanders, in Africa, in America and then back in France, and who is Bardamu’s callous tutor in human iniquity: he has no saving graces at all. Yet a girl, Madelon (the name is suggestive: ‘La Madelon’ was a famous, patriotic World War One song in France), finally declares that she loves him. Robinson, however, will have none of being loved, the mere knowledge disgusts him, and he ends up being shot and killed by the unrequited Madelon in a taxi. This clumsy little melodrama is not Céline’s tardy concession to the genre of fiction on which he had entered, because it is more personal than it looks. He was himself at his most brutal, in life, when most nearly threatened with a lasting affection. He had cast off his first wife and daughter before he started writing Journey to the end of the night, after a short and disorderly union, and claimed never to either feel love nor require it. He was convivial as a man among men, certainly up until 1939, and lustful, but nothing obvious besides, with women; he could be virulent in turning away women’s feelings that asked anything more of him.

The execution of the defiantly immovable Robinson is a sort of voluntary martyrdom; Robinson, it turns out, had principles after all: he needed only to say the lying word that would have been absolutely in character to stay alive. His fate is an anticipation of Céline’s, as Céline managed to see it, the fate of anyone whose voice carries truths too harsh to be borne. In later life Céline wanted to believe that he had been crying all this while in the wilderness, that the great service his rhetoric had done was less to warn the world of what was coming to it than to invite his persecution. After the Second World War and in the knowledge of the death-camps, he was still capable of writing as if it was he, and not the Jews, who had suffered an extreme injustice. He had aspired to benevolence, like the wretched Semmelweis, and for such a folly there is a price to pay. In Journey to the end of the night the extremely scarce instances of human kindness stand garishly out, and teach a perverse lesson. In a sweaty outpost in West Africa, Bardamu comes upon a rare altruist, Sergeant Alcide, a colonial soldier mouldering away there for a gallant purpose, of sending the money he saves (or swindles out of the locals) home for the education in France of his orphaned and, for good measure, crippled niece. His is generosity at a distance, the thousands of miles between Bikomimbo and Bordeaux enabling a benefaction that could more practicably have been arranged from closer to. Alcide’s sacrifice moreover has to be made for a child, because children alone are worth a sacrifice, or so Bardamu would say. His one great grief in the novel is his inability as a doctor to save the life of a sick boy in Rancy, little Bébert, who dies of typhoid. The name, revealingly, is one that Céline later transferred to his favourite cat, as if to establish a community of innocence between the two of them. More mature creatures could command no such tenderness from him, even if, as Bardamu, in futile attendance on the dying Robinson, he recognises that a loving concern for the lives of others could alone make a man ‘greater than his mere life’. Bardamu has far too little of that; he is a lost, blackened soul.

The life of Bébert the cat was the subject of an earlier book on Céline by Frédéric Vitoux which was a clever way of coming obliquely at the master. He has now written the real thing, a long and very good life of Céline. It is sharper and more professional than the only other biography there has been, that published seriatim, in three volumes, by François Gibault, even if it does not add much that I can see to the great amount of information Gibault provided. Vitoux scores in just one place: he has been the confidant of Céline’s widow, Lucette Almanzor, and quotes freely and movingly from her account of their post-war menage, when she was giving ballet lessons on one floor of the house in Meudon and he was continuing to write obsessively on another. She was mysteriously loyal to a man daily more farouche, and who lived to work, to the extent of dying 24 hours after the final revision of his last manuscript.

Ralph Manheim’s new translation of Journey to the end of the night has taken a puzzlingly long time to be published here – it is copyrighted 1983. Why five whole years? Could it be that translator and publisher were not on good terms? It could, if the letter of apology (‘Dictated by John Calder and signed in his absence’) inserted into the review copy is anything to go by, in which the publisher climbs shamefacedly down over two changes made to the text without Ralph Manheim’s permission: ‘This terrace is for jerks’ has been changed to ‘This terrace is only for the hard-boiled eggs,’ and ‘Don’t be an ass’ upgraded to ‘Don’t be a cunt.’ We should all stand with the translator over this: the ‘hard-boiled eggs’ are a mistaken piece of literalism, and as for ‘cunt’, that in the French is merely c ...

Manheim’s is only the second translation of the novel to have been made, so the question is simple: does it improve on the John Marks version of 1934? Unquestionably it does. It doesn’t have the urgency or virtuosity of the French, but then no translation of Céline ever will. Manheim, however, is racier and verbally more enterprising than the inhibited Marks, and has also tried to liven up the punctuation, to take his version closer to a spoken English. A comparison: first Marks:

If one wanted to be respected and decently treated there was no time to be lost in hitting it off with the civilians, because as the war went on they became rapidly more unpleasant. As soon as I got back to Paris, I realised this. The women were on heat and the old men had greed written all over them; nothing was safe from their rummaging fingers, either persons or pockets.

As against:

If you wanted to be respected and looked up to, you had to be double quick and pal up with the civilians, because they were becoming more and more vicious as the war went on. I saw that right away as soon as I got back to Paris. It also became clear to me that the women had ants in their pants and that the old men were talking big, and had their fingers all over the place, in arseholes, in pockets ...

The choice comes down then to ‘persons’ or ‘arseholes’. In the French it is culs, so the arseholes have it; the Marks translation is now redundant.