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!…
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.