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.

Both volumes of Féerie were written in the late 1940s and early 1950s: begun in exile and prison in Denmark, completed after his return to France in 1951. The first volume, which was translated into English in 2003, is a genuine prison novel, set in Céline’s Danish jail and propelled by the rage of the prisoner. Prison in Féerie I is an engine for Céline’s howls and imprecations rather than a place where much happens in any conventional novelistic sense. From his cell he looks back at his bohemian life in Montmartre in the closing days of the Occupation, as neighbours circle him like vultures, waiting to hand him over to the Resistance or at least be the first to take his apartment should he escape. More even than in Céline’s previous books, we’re meant to understand everything as essentially true to the facts of his own life: ‘Céline’ is Céline, his wife is his real wife, and so on. At times he is nostalgic, evoking Montmartre as it had been; at other times he rails against the ungrateful bastards – opportunistic members of the Resistance, second-rate writers, the French ambassador to Denmark – who betrayed him, tried to have him extradited, or simply didn’t appreciate his supreme contribution to French literature.

In its final pages, Féerie I trains its sights on one figure in particular: the cripple Jules, modelled on the Expressionist painter Gen (Eugène) Paul. In the 1930s and 1940s Gen Paul had been a close friend of Céline. He had appeared – not as ‘Jules’ but under the nickname ‘Popol’ – in the 1937 Bagatelles pour un massacre, Céline’s first and most widely read anti-semitic polemic. At the time, being characterised as a raging anti-semite wasn’t a problem for Gen Paul, but during the purges following the Liberation it didn’t help his public standing. He tried to distance himself from Céline, and Céline – who often turned brutally against his friends – eventually turned against him. In Féerie I he is punished by being cast as a legless lecher who hangs around Montmartre trying to seduce young girls as well as Céline’s wife.

The second volume appears to have a narrower focus. Its working title was ‘Bombardement Montmartre’, and it revolves around a single event, the bombing of the Porte de la Chapelle metro station on 21-22 April 1944, which Céline had watched from his fifth-floor apartment near the top of Montmartre. In reality, the bombing caused limited damage. Normance proposes an alternative version: the air raids are a sign of the coming apocalypse, the entire sky is illuminated like a monstrous 14 July fireworks spectacle, and all Paris is about to be obliterated from above:

the buildings on Avenue Gaveneau are rising up in the planes’ wake! … no kidding! … following them! taking off after them! the whole avenue! … all the little hotels are darting from one shadow to the other! … It’s mind-boggling! … now the bigger buildings are rising too! lifting, flying off! … the sirens are still meowing, not the same pitch as the planes, but almost … as if the entire horizon was draped in lace … a delicate net of lights … searchlights, tracers, sizzling bullets … you can see the Enghien slopes! … and the mountain pass towards Mantes, Meulan, the silver loops of the Seine … now, because of all the explosions, the Seine is boiling over!

Then something strange happens: Céline sees a familiar figure perched on top of a nearby windmill, the Moulin de la Galette. It is the cripple Jules. In Féerie I his role had been unsavoury but minor; here, the artist is beckoning the planes on, and Céline concludes that he is directing them like a maestro conducting his orchestra. In the delirious frenzy of Céline’s prose the cataclysm of the air raids and the sinister orchestrations of the mad Jules fuse: Paris is burning, and a lecherous crippled painter (admired for the strange beauty of the performance, loathed for the destruction he’s inflicting on Montmartre) is to blame.

Much of the first half of the novel is devoted to this delirium; when Céline’s interest in Jules begins to wane, other grotesques from the neighbourhood take his place. The first of these is Normance, an obese man who mostly sleeps and snores through the air raid. Eventually the other neighbours use his enormous body as a battering ram to break through a door. In the last third of the novel, with the raid itself over, the mayhem continues in Céline’s lurching apartment building and in the street below, resulting in a kind of urban phantasmagoria: residents stockpile alcohol to sell to the invading Americans, a naked woman joins Jules on the windmill, an actor in the building next door sits quietly at his dining table, waiting for the arrival of Churchill, Roosevelt and the pope. Cél-ine himself is busy trying to stay alive and save his cat.

The action of Normance, then, bears almost no resemblance to the events of 21-22 April 1944. But then Céline was never interested in documentary realism. All his work, from his fiction of the 1930s to the magnificent late novels, displays a complex interplay between the detritus of autobiography and the anti-realist drive of phantasm. In the two volumes of Féerie pour une autre fois he confronts this apparent paradox explicitly. While endlessly declaring that the novel is a faithful re-creation of the bombing of Paris, he both anticipates the criticism that the book is a demented fabrication (‘“Ah,” you’re saying, “what a bastard! this cantankerous cuckold’s absolutely out of his mind! … none of this really happened!”’) and responds to it with fury (‘I’m telling you everything exactly as it happened … I’m not exaggerating a bit! You want surprises, just wait!’). And then, after all its ranting and Grand Guignol chaos, Normance ends with a brusque dismissal of anyone who doubts its veracity: ‘and those are the facts, exactly.’

But for Céline this is a subterfuge. A less devious allusion to the real comes in the epigraph to Féerie I: ‘The horror of reality! All places, names, characters, situations set forth in this novel are imaginary! Absolutely imaginary! No relationship whatsoever with any reality whatsoever! It’s only a Fable and even at that! … for another time!’ This appropriation of a familiar disclaimer could be the inscription to any one of his novels. As early as Voyage au bout de la nuit, delirium and its distortions have the power to rout any kind of conventional realist representation. In his short 1933 ‘Hommage à Zola’, Céline declared that naturalism had become ‘almost impossible’ in his own era: ‘you would never get out of prison if you recounted life as it is … Reality today would not be permitted for anyone. All we have are symbols and dreams!’

For the 2003 translation of Volume I of Féerie, the title was rendered as ‘Fable for Another Time’, but that’s not quite right. The word féerie is impossible to translate well, but the best choice might be ‘enchantment’, since what Céline is evoking are the Fin de Siècle pantomime spectacles – the ‘théâtres de féerie’ – that he knew from his childhood. The féeries were theatrical chiaroscuros, full of magic and menace. In sensibility they were similar to quintessential Célinian episodes like the fantasy childhood sequences in Mort à crédit (1936) and, of course, to the Montmartre air raids of Normance, in which bombs generate a tremendous quantity of both light and dread. And so ‘féerie’ pushes back against facts: the fantastical brightness of cataclysm overwhelms the conventions of explanation and scrupulous description that we might find in other novelists but which Céline so detested.

What makes this relationship more complicated is another of Normance’s keywords: ‘chronicle’. The genre of the chronicle – and the idea of Céline as a chronicler rather than a novelist – has been thought to apply to the three books that followed the two volumes of Féerie pour une autre fois: the so-called German trilogy of D’un château l’autre (1957), Nord (1960) and Rigodon (published posthumously in 1969). These books trace Céline’s peregrinations through Nazi Germany as it was collapsing in the closing months of the war. Céline maintained that they were largely factual accounts of his blackly picaresque escape from newly liberated France through Baden-Baden, Berlin, Sigmaringen (the castle refuge of Vichy in exile), and other stations along the way to Denmark. In writing the trilogy he claimed to have been inspired by the medieval chroniqueurs, and he understood, correctly, that the public were more interested in reading about the disintegration of Nazi Germany from someone who was a witness to it than they were in a highly fantastical rendering of the relatively insignificant bombing of Montmartre.

But it’s in Normance that Céline first hits on this self-image: ‘I’m just a chronicler, that’s all! … all I have is a little talent for chronicling … it’s nothing but a mishmash? fine! but since it’s direct experience, what counts most is the chronicler’s integrity!’ And yet it isn’t clear what Céline is really chronicling in this effectively anti-historical book. He seems to provide an answer on the opening page: the volume is dedicated to Pliny the Elder, who insisted on observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, tried to rescue friends from the volcano, and died in the attempt. Pliny is there to observe and to warn, to be a witness to the demise of a civilisation. But what Céline admired about Pliny was his martyrdom. Céline’s sense of victimhood was vast, and his persecution complex marks every page of Normance; he saw himself as a martyr too, condemned for his commitment to his art, and for saying atrocious things that were allowed in 1937 but which after the Liberation led to reprisals.

The two volumes of Féerie pour une autre fois, together with his short 1955 book Entretiens avec le professeur Y, a manifesto for the self-image of the novelist, represent Céline’s protracted effort to salvage his reputation, to settle scores with his enemies and to find some way of forging a remaining path for himself in fiction. The political danger had passed; the amnesty had been granted; he would not be executed like his fellow collaborator Robert Brasillach. But that was precisely the problem. To be forgotten, to cease to matter in French literature: that would be a fate more repugnant than being (in his words) the ‘abominable snowman’ of French literature.

And so he had to rehabilitate himself, somehow. In this respect the first volume of Féerie pour une autre fois is the case for the defence, and the second volume is the performance of that defence. In the first, Céline castigates his adversaries and explains that all along he was just trying to save France and the French language from themselves. In the second, he launches the spectacle: an attack in which he, along with the rest of Montmartre, is under siege. The two volumes complement one another through their asymmetry, and together they represent the novel as warning, as vindication and as revenge.

The dedication to Pliny tells us something about the nature of Céline’s defence of his art: Féerie, especially Normance, would be the novel as volcano. The ambition is clear from Céline’s rendering of the vivid colours of the bombardment, which streak through the sky and the city like lava from Vesuvius (‘all of Paris is incandescent! all of Paris is a sea of flames! … the phosphorus is flowing out, spilling over’), though ultimately Normance is a volcano of sound rather than image. Céline had described bombings in earlier novels, but never with this onomatopoeic force. The entire book reverberates with the noise of ‘babboom!’ and ‘vrrr!’ and ‘varrrrroooom!’ Céline had always thought of himself as a writer the choreographed rhythm of whose sentences was all-important; in Féerie I he calls his novels up to that point ‘3000 pages of sheet music that have turned into prose’.

Of course, this style is a permanent challenge to anyone who has the courage to translate Céline. With Normance, Marlon Jones has done as good a job as anyone could hope to do, even while taking note, in his introduction, of Céline’s contempt for translators. Céline called them ‘trouducteurs’, a neologism merging the words for translator and anus. It is a warning – if any were needed – against trying to translate Céline who was constantly at work besmirching and enriching the French language with his unrelenting inventions.

But neologisms and sonic blasts can’t allay our anxiety about Normance’s place in Céline’s extended self-defence. This is a book about the Allied air raids of Paris that is totally apolitical. There is virtually no reference to dates or events, to historical personages or political parties, to right or left, to geopolitical context, to ideology. This had not quite been the case in Féerie I, and it would not be the case in the subsequent trilogy: Normance operates in a bizarre political void. How does Céline imagine those planes dropping the bombs? Who is co-ordinating this destruction of Montmartre? It is not politics or history or war that is causing the bombs to rain down, it is Jules: the crippled painter, Céline’s aspiring cuckolder, who sits on top of a nearby windmill to give instructions to the bombers above. There is almost no reference to the identity or the nationality of the people inside the planes, no interest in de Gaulle or Pétain, no allusion to the political situation in France in April 1944.

Nor is there any acknowledgment of Céline’s own politics, beyond the fact that he is apparently hated by so many of his countrymen. As the bombs fall, he doesn’t mention that a few years earlier he had been calling for the annihilation of the Jews. He either refuses or fails to let the highly idiosyncratic staging of his own persecution take political form. Throughout Céline’s life and career politics was always subservient to self-defence and self-pity. This is why he was never of much use to Vichy or the Nazis, unlike many of his fellow collaborators: he was never manageable politically, and his anti-semitism was, as Gide and even Brasillach suspected, too grotesque to comprehend, or to rely on. And it’s why this berserk and minatory novel of 1954 immerses us in blasts of noise and light, as if to deafen and blind us to the meanness of politics by a torrent of energy and words.