Tag Archives: Céline

‘Guignol’s Band’ by Céline (1944 Club)

Readers, friends, less than friends, enemies, Critics! Here I am at it again with Book I of Guignol! Don’t judge me too soon! Wait awhile for what’s to follow! Book II! Book III! it all clears up! develops, straightens out! As is, 3/4 of it’s missing! Is that a way to do things? It had to be printed fast because with things as they are you don’t know who’s living or dead!

So begins Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s third ‘proper’ novel, published in 1943 if you believe the blurb on the back of the book, but according to Frédéric Vitoux (Céline: A Biography, 1992) (and Wikipedia) was actually published in March 1944. Guignol’s Band is vintage Céline, but it’s fair to say that he’s a problematic writer. I don’t want to go in to too much detail but a few facts about the writer should be known before proceeding. First of all he wrote two ground-breaking works before the Second World War, Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) in 1932 and Death on the Installment Plan or Death on Credit (Mort à crédit) in 1936. Following a visit to the Soviet Union he published a pamphlet in 1936, Mea Culpa, attacking communism. Over the next few years he published three more book-length pamphlets that were extremely anti-Semitic — see here for my review of one of them. Although he wasn’t one for joining groups or parties his anti-Semitism and anti-communism meant that he collaborated, to some extent, with the Nazi occupiers. He was at least seen by others as a collaborator and so only months after the publication of Guignol’s Band and with the advancement of the Allied powers, fearing for his life, he tried to escape to Denmark with his wife Lucette and their cat Bébert; this period is covered in the trilogy Castle to Castle, North and Rigodoon. He made it to Denmark, was tried in France, in absentia, of collaboration and was allowed to return in 1951. He died in 1961.

As the first sentences quoted above indicate Guignol’s Band is only the first part of a longer work; the sequel, London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II, was published posthumously in 1964. As with most of his later works Céline takes a while to get going; the book begins with a preface, some disjointed scenes (some brilliant, some not so good) and then slowly some form of narrative develops. Céline developed his own idiosyncratic style, with the three dots and loads of exclamation marks, that annoys some readers but pleases others. I’m, of course, one of the latter and feel his style is perfect for what he’s trying to achieve; Céline excels in character studies as well as chaotic and hallucinatory scenes told in an impressionistic style. It’s sometimes exhausting reading Céline as the staccato narrative pulls us along at a breakneck speed—but we get the sense that we’re going nowhere and really just circling around. Céline amusingly pokes fun at his own style now and then:

I’m doddering around like an old bumblebee, I’m all tangled up in the air, Ah sees it, I ain’t tellin’ things in the right order, what about it! You’ll excuse me somewhat, kidding about my memories, digressing from rhyme to reason, jabbering away about my friends instead of showing you around!…Let’s go! and let’s keep going!…Let me show you around nicely…straying neither right nor left!…

My aged copy of Guignol’s Band which I bought new in the early ’90s. It looks so old but I love it.

Guignol’s Band takes place in London during the First World War where it centres on the London underworld, populated by many shady characters such as pimps, prostitutes, drug-dealers, dodgy cops, charlatans, deserters etc. We are introduced to Cascade, a pimp who is, rather reluctantly, taking on the girls of other pimps who are going to war. Ferdinand, the protagonist of the novel and Céline’s alter-ego, turns up to stay with Cascade. It’s revealed later in the novel that Cascade Farcy is an uncle of Raoul, someone with whom Ferdinand had made friends whilst convalescing from their war injuries; they had intended to visit London together but Raoul was court-martialled and executed for his self-inflicted wounds. Cascade, however, urged Ferdinand to come anyway.

Ferdinand encounters many strange characters and gets tugged along by events—he’s rarely the instigator of any action, he mostly just reacts to the actions of others. There are some amusingly scurrilous episodes such as a fight between two of Cascade’s prostitutes resulting in one of them, Joconde, being stabbed in the buttocks by the other one, Angèle. They then have to get Joconde to a hospital without drawing any attention to themselves. Luckily Cascade knows a doctor, Clodovitz, who will help them out without asking questions. Later on in the novel there is another brilliant fight scene between two other characters, Claben, a pawnbroker, and Borokrom, a piano player. As with the fight between Joconde and Angèle it’s too long to quote in full but here’s a quote from the beginning of the squabble. Claben, the old guy, and Borokrom are in a room above the ground floor shop.

   “You’re already drunk, Borokrom!” the old guy answers…”You’ve been drinking like a hole!”
They’re at one another now…
“Like a hole?”…Ah! that’s the limit!…”Tell me, what kind of hole? What kind of hole? Ass-hole, is that it?”
It’s too outrageous!…Boro gets up! He wants to hear that to his face…what the old guy’s insinuating! he’s going downstairs…shit! He stumbles…he staggers…He gets to the stairs…His shirt hanging out like a smock, his belly sagging…He’s reeling again…Boom!…he tumbles, upsets…rolls down…crashes into the shop…A mess…Right into the whole works…Right into the crockery…The pyramid of fruit dishes…plates! Thunder!…A cataract!…The old boy’s choking with fury…The client in front of the counter yelps…she’s bleating with horror…She wants to run away…she can’t!…Everything falls all over her!…The old guy tries to help her, to pull her out! he yanks at her, by the shoes…he takes a firm stand…ho! hip! hup!…the whole works tumbles down again!…

The fight only ends with the arrival of Claben’s maid, Delphine, who prevents Borokrom from bashing his brains out. Borokrom retreats to the room upstairs and plays ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’ upon request from Claben, who is addicted to music. If this all sounds chaotic and confusing then you will need to prepare yourself for another episode later on, another bust-up, after Delphine comes home with some ‘strange’ cigarettes. It is even more bizarre and results in the death of one of the characters. Ferdinand escapes but is framed by the others for the murder. He evades the police and encounters an even odder character, called Sosthène, a charlatan; he’s French but when Ferdinand first encounters him he is dressed as a Chinaman; one of his job descriptions on his business card is Explorer of Occult Hearths. Still, he is ready to employ Ferdinand who is just thankful to be off the streets.

The book ends in medias res but it continues with the second volume, London Bridge (Le Pont de Londres) which was published in 1964 but not translated into English until 1995. I had read Guignol’s Band at least twice before but still enjoyed it as much this time around. I have only read London Bridge once so I am considering reading this again soon. It’s about twice as long as Part I and continues Ferdinand’s adventures through the dirty streets of war-time London.

This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s The 1944 Club.

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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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