Conversations 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?”
“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!”
“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.