Tag Archives: Louis-Ferdinand 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.


Filed under Céline, Louis-Ferdinand

‘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!”
   “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.


Filed under Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, Fiction