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In Search of Céline

1,704 words

Claude Sarraute: “And what, in your opinion, is the tragic element of our epoch?”

Céline: “Stalingrad. There’s the catharsis for you. The fall of Stalingrad was the end of Europe. There’s a cataclysm. The epicenter was Stalingrad. After that you can say white civilization was finished, really washed up.”

— Interview in The Paris Review, June 1, 1960

I first became aware of Louis-Ferdinand Céline when an artistic student friend scratched his portrait in charcoal on the cubicle door of the communal toilets in our halls of residence. Céline’s bird-like visage with glistening anthracite eyes stared intensely — almost accusingly — at me while I was urinating for the remainder of the year. Céline has a cynical face, underscored with a sword-swirling signature, that has intrigued me ever since I first beheld it. I first bought and avidly devoured a hardback edition of D’un Chateau L’Autre, or Castle to Castle (1957) in Quinto’s secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This was shortly before I was seconded by my first employers to Paris upon graduation.

There, while contemplating the career of the Vichy-supporting writer who witnessed the dying days of the Reich from the vantage point of the picture-postcard castle of Sigmaringen, I was lucky enough to live on an expense account in a rented studio apartment in the 5th Arrondissement close to the Pantheon where Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola are all buried. I would venture out in the early evenings after work under the famous edifice’s imposing neoclassical dome in search of Paris Noir. A line from Journey to the End of the Night (1932) often stuck in my mind:

An unfamiliar city is a fine thing. That’s the time and place when you can suppose that all the people you meet are nice. It’s dream time.

I was fascinated by the names of streets, metro stations, squares, and monuments. The Gare Saint-Lazare, Reaumur-Sebastopol, and the Rue du Chat Qui Peche sounded so much more romantic and mysterious than Trafalgar Square, St John’s Wood, or Southgate. I quickly found myself obsessed with the rich tapestry of memories that wrapped themselves like warm moleskin capes around Notre-Dame, Boulevard Saint-Michel, and the Dome des Invalides. Images of Villon, Rimbaud, the Commune, and the riots of 1968 filled my every waking moment.

Occasionally I would sit at a café table to partake in a handcrafted coffee and a crepe, forever listening, at least it seemed at the time, to endless renditions of Jacques Dutronc’s “Il est cinq heures Paris S’eveille” on RTL2. This ritual was made complete by watching perfectly-coiffed French hipsters flirt with girls in turtleneck sweaters sporting ponytails over tarte Tatin.

Something very deep inside me felt it was fate that had brought me to this point. A need to search for something within myself had taken the spectral form of a much-maligned collaborationist writer of whom the British critic, William Empson, had said “was a man ripe for fascism.” I was searching for Céline, who had only narrowly escaped the firing squads of the post-war epuration despite his works being lauded in publications like Action FrancaiseJe suis partout, and Révolution Nationale.

This scribbler was denounced as a national disgrace in absentia in 1950 for expressing support for Jacques Doriot’s Legion of French Volunteers (LVF) and for stating that “we do not think enough about the protection of the white Aryan race. Now is the time to act, because tomorrow will be too late.” In 1951, Céline returned unrepentant from exile in Denmark after enduring a year’s imprisonment and a torturous trial to the city whose poor pre-war suburbs he once described as a continuum of “long, oozing house fronts” filled with “rickety dribbling children with nosefuls of fingers.”

I would spend hours aimlessly walking the streets of the ever-vibrant Montmartre, where Céline had practiced medicine as an obstetrician, watching out for the descendants of characters like his alter-ego Bardamu from Journey in the ristorante Coquelicot and practicing my schoolboy French while sipping Ricard 51 at zinc bars with hospitable locals.

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Overhearing chatter in the colloquial lingua franca, I could easily imagine those same vocal expressions echoing along the cobbled streets under the misty gauze of flickering gaslight in my ever-so-revered author’s own time:

When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard-put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. The corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth which screws itself up to a whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth — how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of fetid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment. . . Feces, on the other hand, makes no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state — that’s the unconscionable torture.

This still resonates with me many years later.

During my time in Paris, I had just worked my way through Céline’s other epic Mort a Credit or Death on the Installment Plan (1936), a sort of rhythmic rendering of Céline’s anti-heroic vision of everyday human suffering in the style of common street slang. I felt even more enamored by his sheer stylistic exuberance:

For me, you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on. That’s what “Death on the Installment Plan” is, symbolically, the reward of life being death.

Credit so seduced me that I finally embarked upon reading the highly controversial Trifles For A Massacre (1937), a crumpled copy of which I kept under my pillow. Céline filled Massacre with references to “scientifico-Judeolatrous Dreyfusianism,” the “ass-reamings of Poo-Proust” and the “empty hype of the Jewish critics.” One particular paragraph captured my attention:

Sterile, conceited, destructive, swinish, and monstrously megalomaniacal, the Jews are currently accomplishing, to full capacity, and under the same standard as their conquest of the world, the degradation, the monstrous crushing, and the systematic and total annihilation of our most natural emotions as conveyed in all our essential, instinctive arts, in music, painting, poetry, theater. . . replacing Aryan emotion with the Nigger’s tom-tom.

Céline’s subsequent remarks about “the standard-bearers of high culture” foreshadowed the philosophy of Yockey as put forward in his monumental work Imperium (1948). Yockey’s analysis of the techniques used by the “culture-distorters” mirrored Céline’s own view that there was a deliberate strategy to “Freudianize” society.

These opinions are still used to besmirch his character and defame his art. All hell broke loose back in 2011, when the French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterand, attempted to include Céline alongside Blaise Cendrars, Theophile Gautier, Franz Lizst, and Georges Pompidou in the 10,000 printed copies of the Recueil des Celebrations nationals. Immediate condemnation came from Serge Klarsfeld, celebrated Parisian Nazi-hunter and Holocaust memorialist, as well as the Association of Sons and Daughters of the Jews Deported from France. Klarsfeld insisted the Republic should not celebrate “the most anti-Semitic Frenchman of his day.”

This outrage was only partially countered by literary heavyweights who came to Céline’s defense. Men like Phillipe Sollers accused the Culture Ministry of “censorship”; Frederic Vitoux, a member of the prestigious Academie Francaise, compared the controversy to Stalinist “airbrushing” of history, and even the fanatically Zionist faux-intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy argued that commemorating Céline’s death would provide an opportunity to understand how a “truly great author” could be such an “absolute bastard.”

The whole affair made me think of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley — all of whom, at some point or other, shared similar (but probably less vitriolic) viewpoints with Céline.

These thoughts walked beside me like a silent omnipresent companion as I wandered up to the Saint Etienne du Mont, the shrine of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, with its fine blend of Renaissance and Gothic architecture, and sat in its silent cool interior with my eyes fixed on the vast baroque pulpit. That day, it seemed Céline’s ghost encouraged me to scribble down the first draft of my debut novel The Partisan.

We should be ever-conscious that the same people Céline claimed governed the world “by the Golden Calf, by Mammon,” were the kith and kin of those who had celebrated the betrayal of Camus’s Algerie Francaise, provided the spokespeople for the “soixante-huitards” like Gerard Guegan, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Alain Geismar, sponsored the mass importation of Senegalese, Ghanaians, and others into migrant enclaves like Goutte D’Or in the 18th Arrondissement, and of course, welcomed the building of the Grande Mosque, projecting like some kind of flesh-eating ghoul over the lush grass lawns of the Botanical Gardens, the ominous shadow of its minaret and the call of the muezzin ringing out, not only across the City of Light, but over the red tile rooftops of provincial towns far and wide, proffering a frightening vision of France’s future.

Céline, the French James Joyce, would have none of it. His monumental novels were so filled with invective that they fizzled like the OAS plastiquage packages that were being detonated all over Paris in the early 1960s. The echo of the patriots’ explosives probably sounded like heavenly music to Céline’s sensitively-attuned ears during his final years in Meudon, a department of Hauts-de-Seine in the southwestern suburb of Paris with a substantial pied-noir population, and, ironically, the former political stronghold of one Nicolas Sarkozy.

Coincidentally, in May 1968, at the height of the Leftist mob’s rampage through Paris, the house of the intensely anti-Semitic writer of “filthy slang” and “brutal obscenities” was burned down and his remaining papers and manuscripts incinerated.

Now there’s a mystery if there ever was one.

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  1. Dandelion
    Posted May 27, 2020 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Hmm, it would be interesting to read what was in those burned papers! I wonder, what would be the best place to start with Celine, for the non French speaker?

    Was Celine one of those people whom the Js were personally persecuting, similar to pound and Fischer? Some of the subtext in bagatelles suggests this to me. They all follow that same pattern of seeming normalcy, even excellence, and then breakdown into unhinged anti Semitism later in life, running all over the globe and what not. You wouldn’t think they could pull this off in Nazi occupied France, crushed by persecution as they were, but they seem to have been after another chess master, alekhine in that period. Cf. Chess story by Stefan zweig.

    • Posted May 27, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, rather like Pound, he got singled out during the postwar era.

      Other than that, Journey to the End of the Night is a pretty good place to start.

      • Dandelion
        Posted May 27, 2020 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        What I mean is a bit different. These people are singled out for persecution in early youth, and their subsequent behavior is a reaction to this, after long years of progressive torment. In other words they would not have become radicalized but for the particular situation they were in. It’s hard to explain without sounding crazy or paranoiac. In pounds case his sympathy with Nazi germany is understandable in that fascist hegemony would have afforded him a chance at a normal life.

        The caveat I suppose is that we shouldn’t listen to their ranting because they have a bone to pick.

        Actually, I already have Journey, so that’s a good rec for me!

        • Fenek Solere
          Posted May 27, 2020 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

          Dear Dandelion,
          “Journey” is indeed a good starting point but “Trifles” and “Castle to Castle” is the destination…Enjoy!

  2. Richard Edmonds
    Posted May 28, 2020 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you for reminding us that after the war Céline was brave enough to spell out the truth: The defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad 1943 was the end of Europe and the White man.

    Are you aware that the late great Professor Robert Faurisson ’s tribute to Céline, Ecrits Céliniens, has just been published by Akribeia, with address: Akribeia, 45/3 route de Vourles, F-69230 Saint-Genis-Laval, France; e-mail: [email protected]

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      Dear Richard,
      No I was not aware but I am extremely grateful to you for pointing it out. I shall be on to it immediately. Faurisson was of course a very worthy man. Thanks again Richard for all you do!

    • Adrian
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      “The defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad 1943 was the end of Europe and the White man.”

      If this proposition is accepted in its own terms, the logical conclusion is surely to kill oneself , either at once, if of the Stoic school of thought, or, if you prefer the Epicurean school, to do so more slowly but no less surely by drowning out the horror of the thought in drink, drugs, debauchery etc.

      It certainly is not to dedicate one’s life to fighting a battle that on Celine’s own hypothesis was lost in 1943.

      Show me the flaw in my reasoning!

      • Richard Edmonds
        Posted May 29, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        “The defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad 1943 was the end of Europe and the White man.”

        Yes, this was the view of the fine, brave Frenchman, Louis-Ferdinand Céline witness to the madness, horror and waste of the two world wars, that the defeat of Germany was the end of Europe and of all hope.

        But it is not my view, otherwise I would not have spent the last forty years of my life campaigning for Race and Nation, and for Truth in History.

        However the monstrous wickedness of the British Establishment in launching the two world wars should never be forgotten and never be forgiven .

        • Adrian
          Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          It’s nearer fifty than forty, alas, Richard, but I see that you don’t accept Celine’s despairing view that Stalingrad was the end (though Stalingrad should certainly be seen as a terrible catastrophe for Europe and a victory for a grim Communist dictator, albeit one who was not wholly enamoured of the special people himself).

          I also agree that the war party in England in August 1914 and September 1939 has much blood on its hands, and deserves the harshest condemnation.

          I would not however agree that war guilt was all on one side, either in August 1914 or in September 1939. To say so would be to perceive history simplistically as a photographic negative of the establishment view, seeing black where they see white and vice versa.

          In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was, I grant you, caught in the toils of geopolitical reality which meant that he could not allow the dissolution of his ramshackle Austro-Hungarian ally that had itself been provoked beyond endurance by the Serbs. The Central Powers were, it seems to me, much more sinned against than sinning.

          On the other hand, Hitler’s repudiation of the Munich accords, the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia and then the invasion of Poland were the proximate causes of the Second World War, for which the German leadership was primarily responsible, however gratified Churchill and his cronies were to see the blood flowing again. I suspect that you will not accept this view (even though Hermann Goering, who thought the decision to invade Poland was wrong in every way, would have done!), so we shall have to agree to differ.

        • gkruz
          Posted May 29, 2020 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

          Celine can be forgiven his despair and cynicism considering what he saw and experienced. We have had it soft in comparison. I hope he was wrong about Stalingrad but he may have been correct and just miscalculated the time it would take for the final death throe. After all, we aren’t out of this hell yet. Watching what has been going on in Minneapolis and elsewhere these last few days, I am not optimistic.

      • Fenek Solere
        Posted May 29, 2020 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        Dear Adrian,
        Celine was idiosyncratic to say the least and his glass was certainly ‘half-empty’ rather than ‘half-full’ as the saying goes. But like Richard intimates he NEVER apologized for his political views or recanted despite suffering the ramifications for not doing so. He only narrowly escaped the firing squad of the Epuration (cleansing) in post-war France and kept writing right up to the end. Respect!

  3. Adrian
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    That’s a fine piece of writing, Fenrek, which takes my back to my own time in Paris in the 1980s, Celine was fortunate to survive 1945. He probably would not have done, if he had not been in Denmark, rather than France. His literary style, was, well, special, so much so that Walther Abetz, the German ambassador to occupied France, wished to have Celine’s works banned as pornographic, and for inciting mob violence against the usual suspects. You couldn’t make it up!

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Dear Adrian,
      Thank you I appreciate your compliment. And yes, like you, I loved my time in Paris and the whole submersion into the Gallic way of life. I was well read in Camus, Gide, Zola, Cocteau and the like, which I think added that extra frisson you need when you are sitting at a cafe table smoking a Gitane and weighing up your chances with a coquettish brunette. Which turned out pretty well for me at the time because the girl in question was called Sabine and if you’ve ever read my novel The Partisan, it all took off from there!

      • Adrian
        Posted May 29, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        Oh, Sabine is drawn from life then? Lucky you!

        • Fenek Solere
          Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

          Dear Adrian,
          ‘Real life’ – is stretching it – there was a particular female that inspired her!

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