Tag Archives: French Literature

‘Pierre and Jean’ by Guy de Maupassant

Pierre and Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel and was originally published in 1888. It’s a short novel, running to only about 130 pages in my edition, but Maupassant, well used to short-stories, doesn’t hang about and gets the story moving from page 1.

It begins on a boat; Gérôme Roland is fishing and he is accompanied by his wife, Louise, their two sons, Pierre and Jean, and the young attractive widow Mme Rosémilly. M. Roland is a retired jeweller from Paris who decided to move to Le Havre once he had made enough money. Pierre the older son had tried various professions but has recently qualified as a doctor, while the younger son, Jean, who is more diligent has recently passed his diploma in law. Both brothers are looking to set themselves up in business in Le Havre. There is an element of competition between the brothers and both have an eye for Mme Rosémilly.

When they return from their boating expedition the servant informs M. Roland that his lawyer, M. Lecanu, wishes to speak to him urgently. It turns out that an old friend of the family from their Parisian days, M. Maréchal, has recently died and left his inheritance to Jean, whom he thinks is worthy of this legacy. Everyone is shocked but overjoyed, and of course a little sad of the death of their friend whom they had nearly forgotten about. But why does he only leave the money to Jean, and not also Pierre? M. Roland argues that it was because Maréchal was present at the birth of Roland’s second son.

Both Jean and Pierre are a little dazed by the events and both go out separately for a walk. Pierre is out of sorts and wonders if he is jealous of Jean. He admits he is a little jealous but won’t let that stop loving his brother. When Pierre goes to visit a friend of his and recounts the day’s news the friend says, without elaborating further, “That won’t look good”, but Pierre has no idea why he says that. Later, when talking to a barmaid about the inheritance she innocently mentions that it’s no wonder that Jean looks nothing like Pierre. It’s a little later that he realises what these comments mean; that Maréchal must have left the money to Jean because Jean was Maréchal’s son, which also means that Pierre’s beloved mother must have had an affair behind his father’s back. Now the seed has been sown in Pierre’s mind he keeps thinking and thinking, digging deeper and deeper. He tries to remember Maréchal from his youth and remembers a photograph of him that used to be in the house. Pierre wonders what he should do, after all at this stage they are only suspicions, but even if they were untrue it could easily lead to gossip and be a threat to his mother’s honour. But Pierre is unable to tell Jean his suspicions as the others are all celebrating their good fortune. Instead, Pierre tries to find out more about Maréchal from his parents.

    He kept on saying to himself: ‘Why has this Maréchal left all his money to Jean?’
     It was no longer jealousy that made him seek an answer, not the rather unworthy but natural envy he knew was hidden inside him and that he had been fighting against for three days, but terror of an appalling thing, terror of believing that his brother Jean was the son of this man!

But poor Pierre doesn’t know what to think; if it’s true then it means that his beloved mother had an affair. But he soon admits that it could be true.

    Certainly she might have loved just like any other woman. For why should she be different from any other even though she was his mother?

So, I wondered at this stage of the novel how a typical nineteenth century writer may have ended it: the mother may die of guilt and shame; the brothers may have fought over Pierre’s suspicions with one or the other dying or living their life in poverty; Pierre may have convinced Jean to give up the inheritance to protect their mother’s reputation, etc. etc. None of these are correct. I shall reveal the ending in what follows so you may wish to stop reading at this point if you don’t want to know the ending. Instead, after seeing the picture of Maréchal, Pierre is convinced that Jean is Maréchal’s son and finally confronts Jean with this information. Pierre has become increasingly irritable over the last few weeks and by now Pierre suspects that his mother knows of his suspicions. Jean thinks Pierre is just jealous of him, especially as he’s just announced his marriage to Mme Rosémilly. But Pierre unburdens himself and when he’s finished he leaves. The story up to now has been from Pierre’s viewpoint but it now cleverly switches to Jean’s viewpoint. Jean quietly tries to process the information and then goes to his mother, who was in the next room when Pierre blurted everything out, and asks her if were true. When she acknowledges that it is true she is prepared to depart from his life forever, however, Jean is having none of it and offers her love and protection.

Alone, Jean thinks about the events of the night and what needs to be done:

If he had learned the secret of his birth in any other way he would certainly have been outraged and felt a deep resentment, but after his quarrel with his brother, after this violent and brutal accusation which had shaken his nerves, the heartbreaking emotion of his mother’s confession took away all his energy to revolt. The shock to his feelings had been violent enough to sweep away all the prejudices and pious susceptibilties of natural morality on an irresistible wave of emotion.

He contemplates giving up the inheritance but reasons that he can no longer claim any inheritance from M. Roland as that is Pierre’s by right so then the inheritance from Maréchal is then his by right. The next day Jean arranges, with Pierre’s acceptance, to organise a doctor’s position on a cruise ship for Pierre. Pierre is quite happy to go as he’s now guilty about blurting out his suspicions to Jean and it will give him an income for a while as well as some time to think. M. Roland meanwhile is totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him.

Pierre is not sure what his mother told Jean but seems happy enough to allow everything to carry on as normal. It’s funny how Maupassant subverts the nineteenth century novel with Pierre, the legitimate son, having to make way for Jean, the illegitimate son and it’s odd how no-one in the novel thought that splitting the inheritance between Pierre and Jean was a viable solution.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

The fictional Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 but was first conceived by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1924 when she was only twenty-one years old. In the years inbetween Yourcenar must have done an incredible amount of research in order to write a book which is so convincing at times that I had to remind myself that this is a fictional account. The memoirs are in the form of a very long letter to the young Marcus Aurelius, who has been chosen by Hadrian to succeed to the throne after Antoninus Pius; Antoninus has been chosen to succeed to the throne after Hadrian. In this way Hadrian is attempting to steer the Roman Empire through the rough period ahead with Emperors that he can trust and whom he believes will do a good job. He sees Antoninus Pius as someone who will continue Hadrian’s reforms and Marcus Aurelius as the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-king.

After a slight preamable Yourcenar describes Hadrian’s early adult life in the army and then the senate. For instance, he recalls being the one to first inform Trajan that he had succeeded Nerva. It is under Trajan’s rule that Hadrian realises that the Roman Empire is over-extending itself. When he becomes Emperor he puts a halt to most expansionist policies with one result being the wall across Britannia that is now known under his name. Hadrian hadn’t been named as successor to Trajan although he was probably the most obvious choice. This made his path to power a little tricky and Yourcenar has Hadrian being a bit equivocal over the details on this matter. Four conspirators from the Senate are killed by his servant Attianus. Hadrian claims to have written to him to ‘act quickly’ but then seems to be shocked that they were all assassinated. Although with most of the memoirs we get to see how reasonable and intelligent he is (after all wouldn’t we all portray ourselves that way?) this episode shows us that he is capable of being just as ruthless as any other would-be Emperor. He also claims that he ‘deserved to wield power’ and that the ends justifies the means.

Hadrian played by his own rules and was prepared to shake things up. He refused honorific titles, he disliked the brutality of the Games but endured them to keep up appearances, he travelled throughout the whole Empire, he relinquished undefendable territories that were won by Trajan and passed many legal reforms. Hadrian, although married, also had a passionate relationship with the young boy Antinous and the pages following his death at twenty demonstrate how much he cared for the boy; his grief over his death is real and lasting.

Hadrian is one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, these were ‘benevolent dictators’ who stood out in contrast to the other tyrannical Emperors. With the memoirs we get a sense of Hadrian’s idealism; he is in awe of the Greeks and feels that the Romans compare unfavourably with them but his idealism does not blind him to the practical measures that are required to run an Empire. Below is a brilliant, albeit long, quote from the book showing his idealism.

My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century.

With the planned succession of his power passing to Antoninus Pius and then to Marcus Aurelius Hadrian hopes to secure the dominance of Rome’s power but he is not always so optimistic as is shown with this quote where he envisages the downfall of Rome:

But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Although I’m glad to have read this book and I’m impressed with what Yourcenar has achieved I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I thought I would. I have read other fictional accounts, such as Graves’s Count Belisarius or Gore Vidal’s Julian, that were more enjoyable to read. Yourcenar has gone for authenticity rather than readability which isn’t a bad thing but it did make it a bit tedious at times. I’m sure that anyone who knows a lot more than me about the Roman world will get a lot more from it, but still, I’m glad that I read it.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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‘Femme Fatale’ (La Femme de Paul) by Guy de Maupassant

Femme Fatale (a.k.a. ‘Paul’s Mistress’) was first published in 1881 as La Femme de Paul. This story is one of my favourite of Maupassant’s stories; it includes many of his favourite motifs, i.e. boats and the water, cruelty, sexuality. The story takes place mostly on and around La Grenouillère (‘the frog pond’), a popular bathing spot on the Seine near Chatou, which may be familiar to us via the paintings by Renoir and Monet.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

The story opens with some brilliantly descriptive writing; ‘strapping great fellows’ and ‘women in light spring frocks’ are getting into their skiffs making for La Grenouillère, watched, enviously perhaps, by a crowd of suburbanites, boatmen and working men. The only ones left behind are Paul and Madeleine, a young couple apparently very much in love. They are on their way to La Grenouillère as well but they’re not in so much of a rush as they have only eyes for each other.

Paul and Madeleine finally make it to La Grenouillère; it’s three p.m., and it’s crowded.

On the land adjoining La Grenouillère strollers were sauntering under the gigantic trees which help to make this part of the island one of the most delightful parks imaginable. Busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes. Tightly laced into their garish dresses they trailed in all their vulgar glory over the fresh green grass. They were accompanied by men whose fashion-plate accessories, light gloves, patent-leather boots, canes as slender as threads and absurd monocles made them look like complete idiots.

The crowd arrive at the floating restaurant, they’re noisy, singing away and occasionally brawling, most are drunk and there’s someone banging away at the piano with his feet as well as his hands.

The place reeked of vice and corruption and the dregs of Parisian society in all its rottenness gathered there: cheats, conmen and cheap hacks rubbed shoulders with under-age dandies, old roués and rogues, sleazy underworld types once notorious for things best forgotten mingled with other small-time crooks and speculators, dabblers in dubious ventures, frauds, pimps, and racketeers. Cheap sex, both male and female, was on offer in this tawdry meat-market of a place where petty rivalries were exploited, and quarrels picked over nothing in an atmosphere of fake gallantry where swords or pistols at dawn settled matters of highly questionable honour in the first place.

The weather is hot and many are bathing in the waters. Everyone is looking out to see who the next arrivals are. When a boat containing four women approaches, two in men’s clothing and smoking cigarettes, a shout rises up ‘Aye-aye! Lesbos!’ and they’re cheered as they come onto the island. The narrative now returns to Paul and Madeleine, and just as Paul is declaring his disapproval of the women and their lifestyle Madeleine recognises them and leaves him to join their party. It becomes apparent that Paul is besotted with Madeleine but Madeleine, it would seem, is just after a good time and enjoys Paul’s attention and money when there is nothing better to do.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Paul goes off on his own and mopes about a bit but eventually they reconcile and go off for a walk in the country where they can be alone. But Madeleine has arranged to meet the Lesbos crowd later in the evening, much to Paul’s disgust, and she’s not going to let Paul stop her from having some fun. Paul realises that Madeleine is shallow but that doesn’t stop him from loving her. Madeleine doesn’t understand his intensity of feeling and feels suffocated by it. They both attend the evening’s revelries.

People were dancing. Couples faced each other and capered about madly, kicking their legs as high as their partners’ noses. The women, who appeared to have double-jointed legs and hips, leapt about in a frou-frou of lifted skirts, flashing their knickers and kicking their legs up over their heads with amazing agility. They wriggled their bellies and shook their bosoms, spreading about them the powerful smell of female flesh in sweat. The males squatted like toads in front of them making faces and obscene gestures.

Paul, the Romantic, appears to be out of place in this riotous palace of pleasure whereas Madeleine is quite at home here. I won’t reveal how the story ends but Maupassant rarely fails in giving us a satisfying ending to a story. But, as with many of his stories, it’s not just about the ending, the descriptive elements of the story are beautiful and Maupassant sketches out characters with only a few words; he chooses a few elements of their character to show us and it’s enough for us to feel that we know them.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Although I’ve been reading the collection 88 More Stories (1950), in which this story appears as Paul’s Mistress, the quotes above are from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004) which was translated by Siân Miles. Although there is nothing wrong with the older translation I think that Miles’s more modern style suits this story.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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Extraordinary Excerpts: ‘A Family’

I have started reading the second volume of Maupassant’s stories that I bought over a year ago, titled 88 More Stories, which was published by Cassell & Co. Ltd in 1950 with translations by Ernest Boyd and Storm Jameson. One story contained in this volume, called A Family, 88-Stories02-X-700pxis a short piece where the narrator visits a friend he hasn’t seen since the friend married, fifteen years before. He barely recognises the friend, who is now quite fat, and the description of the friend’s wife is brilliantly dismissive and also a bit nasty; I won’t include it here but she is called, amongst other things, ‘a procreating machine made of flesh’, due no doubt to her five children. The husband is also dismissed in a similar fashion as ‘a reproductive animal who spent his nights generating children between a sleep and a sleep, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a hutch.’

After being introduced to all the children the narrator is also introduced to the wife’s eighty-seven year old grandfather who is hard of hearing. The narrator is told that the old man keeps the children amused especially at meal times as he is very greedy. And so, that leads me to this excerpt:

    Dinner was begun.
    “Look,” murmured Simon. Grandpapa did not like the soup, and refused to eat it. He was forced to do so, for the sake of his health; the servant forcibly thrust a spoonful into his mouth, while he blew violently to keep from swallowing the broth; it spurted out like a fountain, all over the table and over those sitting nearest him.
    The children shrieked with laughter, while their father, highly pleased, repeated: “Funny old man, isn’t he?”
    Throughout the meal he monopolised the attention of the whole family. His eyes devoured the dishes on the table, and his frantically trembling hands tried to snatch them and pull them to him. Sometimes they were placed almost in his reach, so that the company might see his desperate efforts, his palsied clutches, the heart-broken appeal manifested in his whole body, his eyes, his mouth, his nose, which sniffed them. His mouth watered so that he dribbled all over his napkin, uttering inarticulate whines. And the entire family was de­lighted by this odious and grotesque torture.
    Then a very small piece would be put on his plate, and he would eat it with feverish voracity, so that he might have some­thing else the sooner.
    When the sweet rice came, he almost had a fit. He moaned with longing.
    “You have eaten too much; you shan’t have any,” shouted Gontran, and they made as though he were not to be given any.
    Then he began to cry. And as he wept he trembled still more violently, while all the children roared with laughter.
    At last his portion, a very small one, was given him; and, as he ate the first mouthful of the sweet, he made a comically gluttonous noise in his throat, and a movement of the neck like that of a duck swallowing too large a morsel of food.
    When he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.
    Seized with pity at the heart-rending spectacle of the tortures inflicted on this ridiculous Tantalus, I implored my friend on his behalf:
    “Do give him a little more rice.”
    “Oh! no, my dear chap,” replied Simon; “if he ate too much at his age, it might be bad for him.”
    I was silent, musing on this speech. O Morality, O Logic, O Wisdom! At his age! So, they deprived him of the only pleasure he could still enjoy, out of care for his health! His health! What was that inert and palsied wreck to do with his health if he had it? Were they husbanding his days? His days? How many: ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? And why? For his own sake? Or was it in order to preserve to the family the spectacle of his impotent greed?
    He had nothing to do in this life, nothing. Only one desire, one pleasure, remained to him; why not give him full measure of that last pleasure, give it him until he died of it?
    At last, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to bed; I was sad, very, very sad.

I think the narrator’s thoughts on the family’s cruel treatment of the old man reflects our own feelings on the subject but the family seem oblivious of their cruelty. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a similar situation, maybe not so extreme, where we witness something like this but are unsure whether to intervene? This is a brilliant story by Maupassant; one of his stories that is just a short episode, a snapshot of contemporary life that he did so well.

This post is cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ by Patrick Modiano

modiano-isbn9780857054951So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is my first experience of Modiano; it was originally published in 2014 as Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier. It is Modiano’s most recent book so it may not be the best place to begin with an author’s work but there was something about the beginning of the book that appealed to me; it begins with an ageing author, Jean Daragane, receiving a phonecall from a stranger who claims to have found Daragane’s address book. Straight away this reminds me of the first story in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, called City of Glass, a favourite story of mine by a favourite author. Both stories are quite similar at first but Modiano has a different approach than Auster and a different type of story unfolds.

The phonecall is from Gilles Ottolini, who claims to work at an advertising agency. He not only wants to return the address book but he wants to meet Daragane and quiz him about one of the names in the book, Guy Torstel. Daragane, who is a bit of a recluse, is apprehensive from the start; his first impression of Ottolini is that he has ‘a dreary and threatening voice’ and ‘the tone of a blackmailer’. When he meets Ottolini, and his girlfriend Chantal Grippay, nothing dispels this feeling that he is going to be blackmailed. Gilles has a ‘dossier’ on Jean that he claims to have obtained from the police. He also claims to be writing a piece on the murder of Colette Laurent in 1952 and believes that information about Torstel may help with his enquiries. At this point the story starts to change into a different story than was originally intimated. Gilles no longer appears directly in the story as Jean is now approached by Chantal, who photocopies Gilles’s dossier and warns Jean that she is scared of Gilles and that Jean should be scared too. The noirish aspect now dissolves away partly as the story concentrates on Jean trying to remember Guy Torstel and other events from his past. The novel now flips between three time periods: a period when Jean was about seven years old, a period when Jean had published his first novel, Le Noir de l’été, and the present-day (2012).

n.b. although there isn’t much of a plot to give away, if you’re planning on reading this then you may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and rejoin with last paragraph.

Both Gilles and Chantal appear as stereotypical low-level hoodlums out on the hustle. We can’t really believe what they tell Jean and neither does Jean, but he doesn’t know quite what they’re after other than information about a person he can’t remember. But the novel now concentrates on Jean’s attempts to remember events from his past. He now remembers meeting Guy Torstel and he eventually recognises a passport photograph of a seven year-old boy in the ‘dossier’ as himself which sparks more memories of when the photograph was taken and how he included this rather insignificant event into his first novel. Slowly he pieces bits of his past together and he remembers living with a woman, Annie Astrand, when he was seven and that the passport photographs were needed as they were going to go to Rome. He had included a section in his novel about this in order to reach out to Annie whom he had lost contact with.

He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.

Annie did get in touch but, in keeping with the rest of the novel, only little bits of information are revealed. We discover that Annie was friends with Colette and that Annie spent time in prison but this is all vague information dredged up from unreliable memories and uncooperative people.

This was an interesting read although it was also quite frustrating at times. I don’t mind the fact that it begins as a bit of a noir detective novel and changes tack halfway through; in fact I quite liked this aspect of the novella where we think it’s going to be about Gilles’s and Chantals’s blackmailing of Jean, or worse. There were a few coincidences, such as Gilles living in the same building as Jean had and possibly even in the same room; there were identity issues, such as Jean not recognising photographs of himself, Chantal and Annie both changed their names—these are topics that are common in Auster’s novels and I find that they can be annoying if overdone but can be intriguing as they add an eerie quality to the text. But it was the vagueness of Jean’s memory that was a little annoying, I mean, it’s understandable that we forget things but when he won’t even look in his own novel to verify what he wrote or look into a suitcase that contains personal documents or ask people direct questions then I begin to find the character quite frustrating and the author is being obstinately obfuscating. The end of the novel cuts off sharply with very little resolved and will be a source of frustration for a lot of readers but as long as you’re not expecting everything to be wrapped up neatly at the end then you may be able to cope with it. So I do feel that Modiano was just a little too vague about details; he slowly drips little bits of information and clues, as Jean rediscovers them, but in the end just too much is left hanging, too much is left ambiguous. Surely Jean would know and be able to share a few details which would help us such as why he was with Annie rather than his parents, where he lived afterwards, when his parents died etc.

My initial reading of this novella was quite fractured as I read it over a couple of days commuting to and from work. I skimmed through the whole book before writing this post which I found useful as I started to see more in it than I did in my first read, unfortunately these were more questions than answers, but it made me appreciate it more. I would suggest that it is best read in one or two sittings. I’m looking forward to reading some more by Modiano though I’m not sure which one will be my next read.

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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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