‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerI hadn’t read anything by Jean Rhys before reading this book, not even her most famous work Wide Sargasso Sea, so it may seem strange starting with this one; but I like short stories and it can sometimes be interesting taking a different route through an author’s work than others. So, Sleep It Off Lady is a collection of short stories, published in 1976, and I believe was Rhys’s last work to be published in her lifetime…but please correct me if I’m wrong about this. Months before her death she had started on her autobiography, Smile Please, which I assume was her project following this collection of stories and is one which would seem very natural as this collection of stories almost reads like a collection of autobiographical stories presented chronologically from her childhood in Dominica, her move to London and Paris, attempts at making a living as an actress and on to her life as an ageing outsider in the provinces. My knowledge of Rhys’s life consists mainly of the Wikipedia entry and whatever I’ve gleaned from other posts I’ve read in the Rhys Reading Week but I think it’s justifiable to say that the stories in this collection, although fictional, draw heavily upon her own life. Marina @ findingtimetowrite has also mentioned the similarities of subject and style with the two books.

rhys-sleep-it-off-lady_fcx-700pxThe first few stories are set in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. The first story, Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers, was a good one to start the collection; it begins with two young girls discussing the other inhabitants of the town and the narrative soon turns to the ‘nasty beastly horrible Ramage’, a handsome man, who had appeared a few years before and got married to a coloured girl, who couldn’t even be described as a ‘nice coloured girl’. Rumours about the goings-on at the Ramages’ house attracts the locals’ interest and ends rather badly. This story prepares us for the others in the collection as they concentrate on the outsider status of individuals in society, whether it’s Ramage in this story or the other Rhys-like characters in England.

The last of the ‘Caribbean stories’ is Fishy Waters, which begins as an epistolary story which introduces the case of Jimmy Longa, another outsider, who was on trial for trying to saw a young girl in half. Longa had claimed that it was just a drunken joke but the girl had been traumatised by the event. The story also concentrates on how these events affect Matthew Penrice, who discovered Longa in the act and who had to give evidence at court. In the end it’s not Longa’s story, the little girl’s story or Penrice’s story that claims centre-ground, instead it’s the whole society and the sense of alienation that they all feel.

But the alienation really kicks in with the subsequent stories as we encounter young girls at school and at work in England, recently arrived from the Caribbean. Not only do they have to encounter the cold weather but also a strange and bewildering social etiquette. Although Rhys’s style is quite sparse, she occasionally treats us to some great descriptive prose; here we have a description of a maid at a school from the story, Overtures and Beginners Please:

The maid came in to light up and soon it would be time to go upstairs and change for dinner. I thought this woman one of the most fascinating I had ever seen. She had a long thin face, dead white, or powdered dead white. Her hair was black and lively under her cap, her eyes so small that the first time I saw her I thought she was blind. But wide open, they were the most astonishing blue, cornflower blue, no, more like sparks of blue fire. Then she would drop her eyelids and her face would go dead and lifeless again. I never tired of watching this transformation.

And here is an excellent quote from one of the shorter stories that I feel sums up the feeling of most of the characters in these stories:

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had a few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Some of the othere stories are set in France, such as The Chevalier of the Place Blanche where the Chevalier is in need of money to pay off a debt but when he is offered the money from a young girl on the condition that he accompanies her to Madrid he cannot accept. Neither he nor the girl are particularly surprised and each goes their separate way.

Particlar favourites of mine are in the last third of the collection, such as Rapunzel, Rapunzel and the title story. Rapunzel, Rapunzel is a story about a stay in hospital followed by a period at a convalescent home. The narrator has to endure boredom, other patients and melancholy but another patient’s encounter with a visiting barber is possibly even worse.

Sleep It Off Lady begins with the elderly Miss Verney talking about death, which has been on her mind recently. She has a mission to get rid of a shed on her property, only it’s difficult to get anyone interested in the project.

Left alone, Miss Verney felt so old, lonely and helpless that she began to cry. No builder would tackle that shed, not for any price she could afford. But crying relieved her and she soon felt quite cheerful again. It was ridiculous to brood, she told herself.

Being elderly and living alone is problematic as there are rats on her property, though no-one believes her, and there is always the problem of putting the rubbish out. This is a rather sombre tale but it’s probably my favourite in the collection and is a fitting conclusion to those that preceeded it as it’s about ageing, loneliness, alienation, helplessness and decay…with a bit of indifference thrown in for good measure.

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Bits and Pieces from July & August

Apart from the Clochemerle book & TV Series I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been reading, believe me. I had a couple of weeks off from work and decided to read the Pushkin Press Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. I’d been meaning to read some stories by Zweig for ages, Zweig-Collected-Storieshaving only previously read A Chess Story and his book on Casanova, and I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was surprised with the range of the story settings as I was expecting them to be mostly set in contemporary Austria; instead a couple are set during the Middle Ages, one is in suburban England, others in South America etc. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I was well aware that Zweig had travelled around the world, especially when he fled Nazi Germany. After reading each story I had intended to post a review but instead I felt compelled to read the next story until I’d finished and I realised that I hadn’t posted on any, and now as time slips away it’s increasingly unlikely I will; although I may have a re-read of one or two stories.

At times Zweig was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, Amok for example, started well but by the end of it I was a little bored; it felt too forced and a bit like a 1940s B-movie script. Did He Do It? was a bit too much like a whodunnit for me, but it was perfectly readable; the others were great. Some, like Mendel the Bibliophile were basically just character studies and others, such as In the Snow and Incident on Lake Geneva are short, compelling, tales of extreme incidents. Although the stories span four decades and the subject matter varies widely, Zweig’s style remained consistent across the stories; it’s clean, modern, no-nonsense and Zweig wastes no time before getting on with telling the story. There are so many brilliant stories in this collection that I shall now look forward to reading the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig and others.

I have continued my reading of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; I have just finished the eighth volume, The Soldier’s Art which is the second volume set during WWII. It’s difficult to blog on this series as the books follow the same set of main characters as we progress through the Powell_Dance-03twentieth century. Any comments on the characters would potentially spoil the book for anyone intending to read it and would require a lot of background explanation to comprehend. Apart from a slight dip here and there, I have found Powell’s stories of the characters compelling. There’s very little plot, as such, instead we get a lot of dinner parties, chats in the street or work, where we find out more about the characters. We discover the events in the characters’ lives as they are revealed to Nick Jenkins and as such we only get to find out bits and pieces of what’s happened since we last met them. I can’t wait for the next volume, The Military Philosophers.

One of my intentions this year was to read more non-fiction and with summer upon us I decided to read another book on the Black Death, called The Great Mortality by John Kelly—why should summer reading be light? Last year I read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and wondered whether this book would add much to my knowledge of this event. Kelly took a Kelly Great Mortalitymore European-wide view than Ziegler, who concentrated mostly on Britain, and Kelly went into more detail at the beginning on the ways that the plague bacillus, Y. pestis, is spread and the differences between bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic plague. What seems apparent from reading these books is that it is still unknown why the Black Death of the 1340s was as virulent as it was and how it spread so quickly. Mortality rates during the Black Death were between 30 and 60 per cent, whereas during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s there was only a mortality rate of 3 per cent. Some researchers believe that the Black Death was not due to Y.pestis but a different disease; Kelly tries to refute that claim in the last chapter.

The Russian Revolution is another topic I have been meaning to read up on for quite a while, having read nothing on the topic since my schooldays. I was looking for something a bit substantial, but readable, and came across Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. It’s a huge book and as the title suggests Figes goesFiges A People's Tragedy back to 1891 to begin the story. I am only part way through the second part (of four) so far but I’m finding it a fascinating read. Tsarist Russia was an astonishingly brutal place for the vast majority of the population. The peasants were at times brutalised by the gentry as well as by each other and other times their lives were romanticised by city dwellers. As Nicholas II’s reign progressed an increasing number of people moved to the cities as rural life became more unbearable; but there was still this sense of ‘Two Russias’ as explained by Figes:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

I’m currently reading about the period following the 1905 revolution and we really get the feeling that positions are hardening on both sides and that another revolution is inevitable. It does make one wonder how different the world may have been if Nicholas had made sensible reforms at the beginning of his reign. I’ll read on…

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‘Clochemerle’ (BBC, 1972)

DVD (2013) of BBC adaption (1972) of 'Clochemerle'

DVD (2013) of BBC adaption (1972) of ‘Clochemerle’

Having recently read and enjoyed Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle I was eager to watch the DVD of the 1972 BBC series of the book, especially as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson, most famous (in the UK) for writing Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, two of my favourite comedies. The BBC series of Clochemerle was originally screened in 1972 and consisted of nine half-hour episodes each narrated by Peter Ustinov. The casting was excellent and Galton & Simpson did a brilliant job of adapting Clochemerle as they remained incredibly faithful to the original. Of course they had to prune some parts and try to summarise others but they refrained from inventing too much themselves and settled with re-arranging the original material to fit it into a nine-part series.

I was impressed, for example, with how they arranged the opening episode; in the book Chevallier had the mayor Piéchut and the schoolteacher Tafardel discussing the proposed urinal in the first chapter and then the next two chapters are spent introducing some of the other characters; whereas Galton and Simpson introduce all the characters while Piéchut and Tafardel are walking round the village. Although Chevallier’s writing was excellent and very amusing the structure of it was a bit clunky, especially the beginning and ending of the novel. Galton and Simpson smoothed out some of the longueurs and made it a more homogeneous work. I was also pleased that they managed to avoid turning it into a Carry On film, which is what, I fear, a lot of writers would have done at the time. I was also glad that they didn’t adapt it as a musical which, according to some notes on the DVD, was their initial plan—they may have been joking though, I’m not too sure.

Even though I had only recently read the book, I wasn’t always too sure whether a certain part was in the book or whether Galton and Simpson had created it. There was one scene that I liked in the series where the file on Clochemerle was passed down the ranks from first minister to second minister to chief clerk to secretary and so on until it finally arrives in the Dickensian office of two lugubrious employees who make any awkward decision by throwing darts at a dartboard—nearest the bull wins. Now, I couldn’t remember this in the book, but sure enough it’s there, they play cards to decide, not darts, but it’s there. They’re more comical in the series, appearing more like the Muppet Show’s Waldorf & Statler and more like Dostoyevskian characters in the book, but I loved Galton & Simpson’s interpretation. In the book the two characters are called Petitbidois and Couzinet and the description of Petitbidois is so good I can’t resist including it here:

He was regarded merely as an eccentric employee of indifferent merit, and his post of deputy chief clerk was the highest he would ever reach. Well aware of this, he made it a rule never to show any zeal, except in special circumstances. It is true that in these cases his zeal was clothed with a spirit of vengeance directed against the whole human race—this being his second favourite occupation. Petitbidois would have liked to hold the reins of power. This being beyond his sphere, he utilized the small driblets of authority which came his way for the purpose of casting ridicule upon established law and order, by making it act as a sort of unintelligent and, if possible, malicious Providence. ‘The world is an idiot place anyway,’ he would say, ‘so why worry? Life is just a lottery. Let us leave the decision to chance.’

Anyway, read the book or watch the DVD, or maybe do both. If you’re still interested here’s a slideshow to whet your appetite.

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Starring: Peter Ustinov (narrator), Cyril Cusack (Mayor Piéchut), Roy Dotrice (Curé Ponosse), Wendy Hiller (Justine Putet), Kenneth Griffith (Tafardel), Catherine Rouvel (Judith Toumignon), Cyd Hayman (Adèle Torbayon), Micheline Presle (Baronesse Courtebiche), James Wardroper (Claudius Brodequin), Bernard Bresslaw (Nicholas), Nigel Green (Captain Tardinaux), Dennis Price (Alexis Luvelat).

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‘Clochemerle’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Chevalier_Clochemerle-fcXC-700pxClochemerle was originally published in France in 1934 and translated into English by Jocelyn Godefroi. The story takes place in the 1920s in the sleepy Beaujolais town and begins with two inhabitants of the town, the mayor Barthélemy Piéchut and the schoolmaster Ernest Tafardel, trying to decide upon something that will show the world just how progressive a town Clochemerle is. Every town has a war memorial, a public library will be of no interest to the locals, but Piéchut thinks he knows what the town needs—a public urinal. And where will it be situated? Well, the position of the urinal is what drives much of the novel, as Piéchut intends the urinal to be placed close to the church. The church is ‘wedged in between two blind alleys’ and it was at the opening of one of these alleys that Piéchut proposed the urinal should be placed. Looking out on the urinal will be the Curé Ponosse from his classroom and Justine Putet, the most devout inhabitant of the town. Piéchut’s intention is to irritate the church and to ‘be seen’ to irritate the church as he had recently been criticised as being under the control of the church and nobility.

Chevallier populates the town with a whole load of brilliant characters and spends two chapters just introducing us to some of them. We meet the Curé Ponosse who first came to Clochemerle thirty years earlier and we learn how he acquired a taste for the local wine and of his arrangements with his housekeeper, Honorine, to satisfy any other urges—in fact, it is Honorine who suggests it to him.

    ‘Poor young man,’ she said, ‘you must find it very hard at your age, always being alone. It’s not human, that sort of thing…After all, you are a man!’
    ‘Oh dear, oh dear, Honorine!’ the Curé Ponosse answered with a sigh, turning crimson, and suddenly attacked by guilty inclinations.
    ‘It’ll end by driving you silly, you may depend on it! There have been people who’ve gone off their heads from that.’
    ‘In my profession, one must mortify oneself, Honorine!’ the unhappy man replied feebly.
    But the faithful servant treated him like an unruly child: ‘You’re not going to ruin your health, are you? And what will it be to God if you get a bad illness?’

When Ponosse discovers that Honorine had a similar ‘arrangement’ with the previous Curé, he relents and makes confessional arrangements with the Curé in a nearby village who has similar arrangements with his housekeeper. At the time of the novel Ponosse is more interested in the local wine and his pipe, much to the annoyance of Honorine.

Other characters include the Baroness Courtebiche, a rather imperious noble woman; Judith Toumignon, the beautiful wife of François, owner of the Beaujolais Stores. All the women of Clochemerle were envious of Judith and all the men desired her; Hippolyte Foncimage, Judith’s elegant lover; Dr Mouraille, the incredibly brutal and insensitive doctor; the notary Girodot, his wife and his nineteen year-old daughter, Hortense—described as ‘a strange family’ who seemed to like money above everything else. Chevallier delights in giving us the details of all these characters; and with the description of Justine Putet, Chevallier really excels himself:

Enter Justine Putet, of whom it is now time to speak. Imagine a swarthy-looking, ill-tempered person, dried-up and of viperish disposition, with a bad complexion, an evil expression, a cruel tongue, defective internal economy, and (over all this) a layer of aggressive piety and loathsome suavity of speech. A paragon of virtue of a kind that filled you with dismay, for virtue in such a guise as this is detestable to behold, and in this instance it seemed to be inspired by a spirit of hatred and vengeance rather than by ordinary feelings of kindness. An energetic user of rosaries, a fervent petitioner at her prayers, but also an unbridled sower of calumny and clandestine panic. In a word, she was the scorpion of Clochemerle, but a scorpion disguised as a woman of genuine piety.

And so, it is on a glorious April day, ‘as though the world had had a fresh coat of paint’, that the urinal is ‘opened’ to the public. The inauguration is part of a fête and there are many guests and many speeches, and although the Baroness declines the offer to attend she sends her son-in-law in her place. This snub by the Baroness is just further proof to Piéchut that he has succeeded in his political manouevrings.

And so, what could possibly go wrong? Well, the urinal becomes a sort of hang-out for the local teenagers who start to lark about and there is a steady stream of visitors. As Justine Putet’s house overlooks the urinal she watches what is going on and is furious with the depravity of her fellow citizens, especially with the larking about of the boys. She tries to get others to support her opposition to the urinal but it’s a slow business as most people aren’t as bothered as she is. But she persists and whenever something bad happens she’s the first to blame the corrupting influence of the urinal; such as when a girl gets pregnant. Slowly support grows and the battle ensues between the Urinophobes and the Urinophiles.

I won’t reveal much more of the plot but it’s all rather funny and farcical. The characters are all expertly described and then let loose to cause chaos. Tensions between the inhabitants of the town escalate culminating in a fight in the church between Judith Tourmigan’s husband, François, and Nicholas, the beadle. Up to this point Chevallier has expertly ramped up the tensions between the characters but I feel he loses control of the story a bit from hereon, especially when he switches the focus of the story to Paris as the scandals start to get the attention of the Parisian politicians. In the end the army get involved but I feel it would have worked better if he’d kept the focus entirely on Clochemerle, which would have made it feel more claustrophobic. The ‘interludes’ in Paris just seem unnecessary.

A BBC series was made of Clochemerle in 1972 and it was released on DVD in 2013—I have a copy and shall be watching this soon; as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson I’m hoping it will be entertaining. There were also two sequels to Clochemerle; Clochemerle Babylon (1951) and Clochemerle-les-Bains (1963) which I aim to read soon.

There is nothing in human affairs that is a true subject for ridicule. Beneath comedy lies the ferment of tragedy; the farcical is but a cloak for coming catastrophe.

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An Update of Sorts

Well, the weekend is usually the only time that I get to post any reviews—but another one has passed where I’ve been unable to post anything. What with work commitments, the European Championships and the EU Referendum (and its aftermath) it’s been nigh impossible to find the time. But, I have been reading, and reading some good books as well. I’ve currently started Volume 7 of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, The Valley of Bones, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. This series of twelve novels has really impressed me and made me wonder how it was that I hadn’t even heard of it until relatively recently. It was only when I was reading Proust that I first became aware of this novel.

I had initially hoped that 2016 was going to be a year in which I read a lot of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages; one such book is Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle which I have read recently; I don’t know where I first heard of it but I just loved the sound of it—a political feud in a French village over the installation of a public urinal. I still hope to post on it soon but as time passes the likelihood of this diminishes. It wasn’t quite as good as I though it would be but it was still an enjoyable read. A T.V. series was produced in the 1970s which was scripted by Galton & Simpson; I now have a copy on DVD and can’t wait to watch it. There were also another couple of Clochemerle sequels that I plan to read soon.

I had intended to post a review of the Penguin collection of two of Thomas Ligotti’s short story collections, which combined Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I read this as part of a GoodReads group for Gothic Literature, but very few people were interested enough to read along, which was a shame because the stories were generally good. Ligotti’s style was influenced by Lovecraft and Poe but he introduced his own take on these themes of cosmic horror. Some of them were just damn weird. Take, for instance, the story called The Glamour, a Lynchian story, where the narrator describes his nighttime wanderings where he ends up in a seedy, derelict movie theatre where everything seems to be covered in a net of writhing hair.

I continued to stare at the empty seat because my sensation of a vibrant presence there was unrelieved. And in my staring I perceived that the fabric of the seat, the inner webbing of swirling fibers, had composed a pattern in the image of a face—an old woman’s face with an expression of avid malignance—floating amidst wild shocks of twisting hair.

And the film they show at this cinema is some weird abstract impressionist film vaguely resembling a microscopic close-up of some fleshy substance—the film guides the viewer ‘through a catacomb of putrid chambers and cloisters’. All the while hairs from the chairs are seething and tugging at the narrator. Some of the stories are stranger still. The quality varies but Ligotti is worth checking out.

I finished Tomás González’s In the Beginning Was the Sea last week, and although I enjoyed the book, I doubt I’ll end up posting a review. It’s worth checking out Guy’s review, which is where I first heard of the book. Basically, set in Columbia, a couple decide to leave the city and live in the country but neither are particularly suitable people for such a challenge.

I’ve tried reading more of Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre but it’s too depressing a read, so I may have to abandon it. I have read about 40% of the book which is probably enough.

I had made some half-arsed plans to read a whole load of social history books on Great Britain. I had hoped to concentrate on late 18th Century and post WWII but my interest in this project hit the buffers when I started to read Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars 1793-1815, a book that had greatly appealed to me, but which actually just bored me stiff. I had hoped to understand what Britons thought of events that were going on in France, and Europe, but it was just a dull collection of articles on aspects of life in Britain with each chapter concentrating in detail on a particular subject with no real attempt at synthesis. There was so much emphasis on first-hand records that it just seemed like a collection of quotes and descriptions of a random collection of people’s lives. Other reviewers on GoodReads seem to love it but I just found it incredibly dull. Oh well. I now have little interest to read more, despite having many books earmarked for future reads.

As mentioned earlier, I’m still hoping to concentrate more on books that have been on my TBR for a while and to read more non-fiction, especially on topics that I’ve been meaning to read about for ages; I feel that I have been too easily distracted in the past and hope to change that in the future, but before that there’s another Euro match to watch….more distractions…

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‘Trifles for a Massacre’ (Bagatelles pour un massacre) by L.F. Céline

Having read most of Céline’s major works, some minor works and a biography or two I am well aware of the reputation that he has acquired as an anti-Semitic writer. But you would not realise this if you had only read his first novels, Journey to the End of the Night(1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) or if you had read his post-war books; in these all you would encounter is Céline bitching about being victimised and barely escaping being killed at the end of the Second World War. However, when we read the notes and biographies on Céline we discover that he wrote some anti-Semitic ‘pamphlets’ prior to the war and held views sympathetic to the Nazis; whether he was a collaborator is debatable but his views and actions during this period are highly dubious. I had often wondered what he actually wrote in these pamphlets, having only come across a few quotations from these books, and so after finding a translation of the first pamphlet on the internet I decided to find out for myself.

First some background: After publishing his first two novels Céline visited the Soviet Union, apparently a lot of left-wing authors did the same in this period, and on his return he published Mea Culpa (1936) which was an attack on the Soviet Union. Although he wasn’t really a left-wing author his first novels were applauded by the left, who saw him as ‘one of them’. But Céline was disgusted with what he saw on his trip to Russia and he felt he had to let people know about the shortcomings of the Soviet Union. A little later, in 1937, he feverishly wrote Bagatelles pour un massacre over a few months and it was published in December of that year—this was the first of his anti-Semitic pamphlets. Céline would write two more anti-Semitic pamphlets, L’École des cadavres (School for Corpses) (1938) and Les Beaux Draps (A Nice Mess) (1941) (n.b. although they’re called pamphlets, with the exception of Mea Culpa, they’re book length publications). With the Allied troops approaching Paris, Céline feared for his life and fled with Nazi collaborators across Europe to Denmark where he was imprisoned. He finally returned to France in 1951 where he continued to publish books such as Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon.

'Bagatelles pour un Massacre' by Céline Image source: GoodReads

‘Bagatelles pour un Massacre’ by Céline
Image source: GoodReads

Céline’s wife has forbidden the republication of the anti-Semitic pamphlets in France and they have never been officially translated into English. However an English translation of Bagatelles was made available in 2006 over the internet; this was translated anonymously and published by AAARGH. Given the nature of the work it is a good idea to know something about the publishers; from Wikipedia I found that AAARGH stands for Association des Anciens Amateurs de Récits de Guerres et d’Holocaustes or in English Association of Former Fans of War and Holocaust Stories, i.e. they publish works by Holocaust deniers and their website has been shutdown by the French authorities. So, although we have to be wary of the motives of those publishing this work, if we wish to read any of it in English then it is all we have. The translation is, as far as I can tell, very well done and the author of an article for the New York Review of Books describes it as an ‘anonymous but largely accurate translation’. Now, I can understand Céline’s wife not wanting these to be reprinted so not to add to current-day anti-Semitism and also to try to protect her husband’s legacy but for anyone that has read any of Céline’s work it can be confusing knowing that he has this reputation but not actually being able to read, ‘first-hand’, any of these books and it is natural that we should wish to read, at least part of these, so we may judge them for ourselves. Well, that was how I felt before embarking on this book.

Given that in 1937 Céline had published two well-received novels, the question arises as to why he felt the need to publish such books. There was no obvious anti-Semitism or racism in these early novels and he seemed to be destined for great things. For me, the trip to Russia seems to be pivotal, but even this is strange because he wasn’t really a ‘party-man’ or a Communist before he took the trip so it wasn’t as if his faith in Communism was shattered by the experience. And why suddenly turn on the Jewish people? It seems that, for some reason, with Communism no longer a viable option he turned to the opposite ideology, fascism, which had a convenient scapegoat for France’s problems as well as Céline’s personal problems—the Jews. In Bagatelles anyone that Céline disapproves of, dislikes, or hates is called a Jew and is therefore part of the problem. But where did this anti-Semitism come from and why did it burst forth from Céline at this particular moment? In Bagatelles Ferdinand (Céline’s fictional alter ego) visits his friend and exults ‘…I had become an anti-Semite, and not just a little bit just for levity, but ferociously unto my very kidneys!’. It seems to come from nowhere.

In his biography of Céline, Frédéric Vitoux tries to answer the question of why, and how, Céline became anti-Semitic and comes up with six possible reasons. Some are rather tenuous so I shall mention only some; he grew up in an anti-Semitic France, he was born whilst the Dreyfus case was at its height and was undoubtedly comfortable with the views of anti-Semites; he could blame Jews for his own personal failures such as his ex-wife running off with a Jewish (as Céline believed him to be) man, his antagonisms with Vitoux_Celine-bio-fc-mag-X-700pxthe Jewish (as Céline believed them to be) left, rejections of work being attributed to Jews etc.; he was a pacifist, and having been injured in WWI he wanted to avoid another war at all costs—he saw Jews, not Hitler, as the warmongers; he was disgusted by the decadence of the French people, whom he saw as little better than alcoholics and sexual perverts and so he identified with Hitler’s concepts of the pure Aryan race. I would add that it’s obvious in Céline’s works that he is naturally paranoid and delusional and that the idea of a Jewish conspiracy directed against himself and the French people must have been overwhelming. Céline loved to rant and this gave him a perfect target. He was also unable to understand the effects that his writing would have on people; Vitoux states:

He was barely aware of the effects of his writing. Why was Ludwig Rajchman upset by L’Église? Why were the Jews after him when the war ended? He seemed astonished because he really was astonished.

Bagatelles is a delirious, vile, mess of a book, in which Céline endlessly attacks Jews and accuses them of every crime under the sun. I shall include some quotations from the book to give a flavour of its contents. You may not feel like reading all of them but the first quotation probably sums up the author’s view that everything is controlled by Jews:

The world is a Corporation, a Trust in which the Jews own all of the shares. The Trust has subsidiaries: “Communism”…”Monarchism”…”Democracy” and maybe even “Fascism”.

On the Wikipedia page on Céline it is claimed that he stated, in 1944, that he believed that Hitler had been replaced by a Jewish double. It’s sometimes difficult to know when to take Céline seriously and when he’s been absurd just for the hell of it. Contemporary reviewers had the same problem with this book, André Gide seemed to think it was all a big joke, but others weren’t so sure. So, as far as Céline believes, the Jews control everything, not just in France but in the Soviet Union as well:

The Bolshevik Revolution is another story! Infinitely complex! Everything existing as structures within structures, and behind the scenes. And in that backstage are the Jews in command, the absolute masters. Stalin is only a front-man, like Lebrun, like Roosevelt, like Clemenceau. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution can be understood, in its long run, only as having been of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews…

So, for Céline, all communists are Jews or controlled by Jews. So what about democracies?

The Jew is a dictator at heart, twenty-five times worse than Mussolini. Democracy is always and above all nothing but the veil of the Jewish Dictatorship.

He criticises the Jewish people of claiming to be victims, martyrs:

The great martyrdom of the Jewish race is a phenomenal fake…which works on the Christians, forever gullible, bird-brained and enthusiastic cuckolds…two million martyrs in France alone,…

But Céline constantly portrays the French Aryans as victims or martyrs with the Jews as oppressors.

Ever since the Dreyfus Affair the cause has been buried, and France belongs to the Jews, to the globalistic Jews, body, heart and soul. They dominate completely—France is a colony of the international Jewish power, and any grass-roots rebellion is doomed in advance to ignominious failure…

And it goes on, there’s worse, much worse, Céline calls for pogroms in France and for ways of identifying Jews through a registration system where all Jews are given numbers instead of names, and so on and so on. So, I’m a third of the way through this book and I’m not sure whether to continue reading; this book has had a numbing effect on me similar to my reading of de Sade—both Céline and de Sade bludgeon the reader with their obsessions.

But reading Bagatelles has been informative in that it has helped me understand why he was so reviled after the war by many people though I don’t think it will affect my appreciation of his other works as I already knew prior to reading them of his reputation. If anyone still wants to read Bagatelles then it is available on the Internet Archive website. There is also a blog site with a translation of School for Corpses. In writing this post I came across an interesting review from the New York Review of Books site, which was mentioned above, and I also found out that there has been a recent film about Céline that focuses on when he was in exile and corresponded with a Jewish writer called Milton Hindus; the film is called Louis-Ferdinand Céline : Deux Clowns Pour Une Catastrophe.

Céline never apologised for writing his pamphlets and he never tried to retract what he’d written in them. I haven’t seen any comment by him on the Holocaust in any of his post-war books and he remained silent on the subject of the Jewish people, leading us to believe that his views on this subject remained unchanged. In his post-war books he doesn’t mention Jews but he does lash out at people like Sartre who were heavily critical of him and his views. But it is worth considering whether anything can be said in Céline’s defence, so here are a few thoughts; Céline was a pacifist and in writing the pamphlets he had wanted to prevent another world war, however misguided his approach was; He attacked Jews in an abstract sense, the word ‘Jew’ for Céline in these works became a euphemism for everything that was bad in the world so at times it is unclear whether he’s raging against Jews or the world in general—he was an anti-Semite but was that because he was an extreme misanthrope?; he wasn’t a member of the Nazi party or other right-wing parties and it is debatable to what degree he collaborated with the Nazis, if at all; although Céline wrote the pamphlets and must take the responsibility for them, those close to him didn’t try to stop him, his publisher published the work without quibbling and the public bought it—Bagatelles sold out quickly and by the end of the war had sold 75,000 copies—it was very popular and Céline, unfortunately, wasn’t the only one who held these views.

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‘Conversations with Professor Y’ by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline_Conversations-with-Prof-Y_fcConversations with Professor Y was originally published in 1955 as Entretiens avec le Professeur Y. It is a minor work by the author and in this bi-lingual edition only amounts to about 70 pages of English text. Unfortunately, with Céline, it is always necessary to give a bit of background biographical information to help put the book in context. The introduction by the translator, Stanford Luce, is excellent and concise and is recommended reading before reading the full text.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born in Paris in 1894, he served in the army in the First World War having joined the army in 1912. He was wounded early in the war and after he’d recovered he had jobs in London and Africa. After the war he trained as a doctor of medicine. His first novel, Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit), was published in 1932; this novel was a fictionalised account of his life from when he joined the army to his start as a doctor. His second novel, Death on the Installment Plan (Mort à crédit) was published in 1936 and covered his childhood. Both of these books were applauded by critics in France, especially those on the left. However, in 1936, after a visit to Soviet Russia he wrote Mea Culpa which was highly critical of the Soviet Union and then over the next few years he published three anti-Semitic pamphlets which further distanced him from the left. Before Paris was liberated by the Allies Céline joined the collaborators in their flight from the Allies’ approach; this formed the subject of the excellent series of novels Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon published between 1957 and 1969. Céline was imprisoned in Denmark and was not allowed to return to France until 1951, whereupon he started to publish new works. He had published Fable for Another Time (Féerie pour une autre fois) and Normance since his return but these had largely been ignored. Conversations with Professor Y was initially published in parts in Nouvelle Revue Française and its intention was to make the public aware of Céline’s work.

Conversations with Professor Y is a fictionalised interview between Céline and the Professor Y but, as always with Céline, things don’t quite run smoothly. The book starts with Céline lamenting the state of contemporary France where nobody reads as they’re all to busy watching T.V. and guzzling wine. Here’s the opening lines:

Here’s the truth, simply stated…bookstores are suffering from a serious crisis of falling sales. Don’t believe a single zero of all those editions claimed to be 100,000! 40,000!…even 400 copies! just for the suckers! Alack!…Alas!…only love and romance…and even then!…manage to keep selling…and a few murder mysteries…Movies, TV, appliances, mopeds, big cars, little cars, middle-sized cars really hurt book sales…credit merchandise! imagine! and weekends!…and those good old two! three month! vacations…and posh cruises…

Although Céline can’t help moaning all the time he does it in such an entertaining way that it’s difficult not to read on. Céline mentions that his publisher, Gaston Gallimard, had suggested to him to do an interview as a means to ‘break out of the silence’; Céline felt at this time that he was being ignored by the reading public. The interview with Professor Y then takes place in a public park where, amusingly, Céline has to goad the taciturn professor into asking him questions. The interview allows Céline to explain his style of writing; he explains that he’s an ‘inventor of a little gimmick’.

   “You’ve invented something!…what is it?”
   He asks.
   “Emotion through written language!…written language had run dry in France, I’m the one who primed emotion back into it!…as I say!…it’s not just some cheap trick, believe me!…the gimmick, the magic that any asshole can use in order to move you ‘in writing!’…rediscovering the emotion of the spoken word through the written word! it’s not nothing!…it is miniscule, but it is something!…

The interview then allows Céline to attack other writers; those that are popular, political writers, academic writers etc. The reading public are worse: ‘They’re all drugged on radio, those clients! saturated with radio!…dazed as well as defective!…’. Céline compares his writing to what the Impressionists were trying to do in the 19th century; faced with new technology (photography for the Impressionsits, cinema for Céline) they had to find a ‘new gimmick’ so that they weren’t in direct competition with the technology. For Céline:

Emotion is only found, and at that with great difficulty, in the spoken word…emotion can be tapped only in the spoken language…and reproduced through the written form only by hard labor, endless patience such as an asshole of your sort could not even suspect!…

And Céline is off again…with his three dots!…swearing and fulminating against everything and everyone; it’s entertaining stuff. All the while he keeps asking the Professor how many lines he’s got written down and whenever he realises there’s nowhere near enough he’s off again. The Professor doesn’t contribute much to the interview and it turns out that he’s really a colonel, not a professor, though this doesn’t stop Céline from mouthing off. As the interview progresses the colonel gets increasingly paranoid about people listening to their conversation and starts to criticise Céline more, he has to keep running to the toilet and the interview becomes increasingly farcical as Céline is explaining his style to the colonel.

   “Okay!…my three dots! have people ever reproached me for them! they’ve slobbered on about my three dots!…’Ah! his three dots!…Ah, his three dots!…He can’t finish his sentences!’ Every stupidity in the book! every one, Colonel!”
   “So?”
   “Go!pss!pss!…piss off, Colonel! and what’s your opinion, Colonel?”
   Instead of those three dots, you might just as well put in a few words, that’s what I feel!”

It turns out that the colonel has a manuscript with Gallimard that he’s hoping will be published. The colonel becomes increasingly delirious and the interview end with Céline leading him from the park to see Gallimard. Céline ends by writing up the interview himself.

This was a re-read for me as I first read it when this edition came out in 2006. I don’t remember it being this funny though; I really enjoyed reading this book this time, which just shows that we have to be in the right mood even to read our favourite authors. I wouldn’t suggest reading this as an introduction to Céline’s work but for anybody who has read one or two of his books it should be an interesting and fun read.

I’m not sure yet but this may be the beginning of a bit of a Céline-reading-period. I’ve just started the first of his anti-Semitic pamphlets, Trifles for a Massacre and his second anti-Semitic pamphlet, School for Corpses, is available online as well. I know these works will be unsavoury reads but I have wanted to read them for myself for years to see what he actually wrote that caused so much trouble. I have read quotations from these works so I think I’m prepared for it. If I can find them, I have some more minor works of his to read/re-read and I have also been thinking of re-reading the trilogy of novels Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon…but we shall see.

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