Roaring Up from the Depths
By Steve Finbow.
Paul Celan wrote the poem “Todtnauberg” after his meeting with Martin Heidegger in July 1967, six years after the death of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In two of the multiple analyses of this poem, Celan is either attempting a rapprochement with Heidegger or is demanding an apology from him. Heidegger’s National Socialist stance, his “Heil Hitler”s following his Rektoratsrede, his treatment of (or lack of positive action for) Jewish philosophers and colleagues such as Edmund Husserl, and his post-war silence or double-speak about his Nazi leanings are now mostly forgotten. Philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and, more recently, Bernard Stiegler have rehabilitated Heidegger’s philosophical reputation. (Admittedly, while still alive, Emmanuel Levinas remained Heidegger’s most vociferous critic.) Another Nazi apologist, Paul de Man, who during WWII wrote a number of anti-Semitic articles for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper Le Soir, provides us with a subtitle for a critique of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Normance – The Resistance to Theory.
In 1945, while Heidegger found himself banned from teaching throughout Germany and Paul de Man embarked on an academic career which would eventually lead him to teach at Harvard, Louis-Ferdinand Céline crossed a defeated Germany to find exile in Denmark where he was later convicted of being a collaborator. After an amnesty, he returned to France in 1951. In the period between 1932 (the year Heidegger stood for election as rector of the University of Freiburg) and the end of WWII, Céline had written his most famous novels: Journey to the End of the Night (1934), Death on the Installment Plan (1936), and Guignol’s Band (1944): plus other works including Mea Culpa (1937), Trifles for a Massacre (1937), School for Corpses (1938), and A Fine Mess (1941). Fable for Another Time (1952) is the first volume to which Normance, originally published by Editions Gallimard in 1954, is the follow-up and the last of Céline’s novels to be translated into English. (Coincidentally, 1954 was the year Heidegger published Was heisst Denken? [What Is Called Thinking?] a copy of which he presented to Paul Celan.)
The Resistance to Theory I – Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel.
Resistance to Theory II – Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar:
“Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines.”
—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican.”
Compare to Céline’s:
“I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!”
Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante‘s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.
Resistance to Theory III – Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narrator of Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.
“…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them…”
As the translator Marlon Jones states in his informative introduction, this is not the easiest of Céline’s novels. If you haven’t read Céline before, Mr Jones suggests you start with Conversations with Professor Y. I would start with Journey to the End of Night and then Death on the Installment Plan. At a time when Heidegger is being championed by a new generation of writers and thinkers – Tom McCarthy, Simon Critchley, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Maxi Kim, and Lee Rourke, why not attempt what Paul Celan may have been trying in “Todtnauberg” and not reproach Céline for his political actions but begin a rapprochement on the basis of his compulsive compassion and the quality of his extraordinary novels?
Postscript: This is what we are battling against. Two articles on The Guardian Books’ webpages. The usually laudable writers’ organization PEN has denounced a Slovak literary magazine for publishing the poems of former Bosnian leader Radovan Karadzic. Why? If Karadzic is guilty of crimes against humanity, his poems – unless they are Betjeman-esque – are not guilty, and should not be held to political account. Secondly, the American Library Association has published its list of the ten most challenged books (that’s not as in literarily-challenged or PC for piss-poor) that the “public” would like to see banned from library shelves – now, that’s Fascism with a capital F.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Steve Finbow‘s novel Balzac of the Badlands will be published by Future Fiction London in October 2009. At some point in 2010, his critical biography of Sergeant Bertrand will also be coming to bookshops near you.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 17th, 2009.