When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.
For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.
He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Bébert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:
We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!
Amongst all the narrative shrapnel and the suffocating prose, we are forced to conjure up the horror of war, the imaginings of how destruction tastes and smells what it feels like. There is no other option and that is Céline’s redemption. Just as if you unwillingly placed in the middle of a battle zone, you beg Céline to stop, to change, to quit pounding away at the repetitive circle of the same scene we are forced as readers to walk in, hoping for any chance to escape. But he is unrepentant. He spares no acrimony for himself, his characters and especially his readers:
I’ll accept all your criticisms, your insults, but only as long as you’re not one of those book-borrowing, cadging, and then re-lending types! plague of humankind! If you got your claws on this book by the “let me just borrow it for a while and I’ll give it back” method, you can just keep quiet . . . naturally, by today’s standards, you’re quite right to do it this way! . . . you can say books should be stolen rather than bought without anyone batting an eye . . . it’s even sort of a matter of honor to never buy a book . . . not one person in twenty who’s read your work actually paid for it! pretty sad, eh? if we’re talking about ham, you think one slice can feed twenty people? or that forty asses can cram into on seat at the movies? . . . smile and say hi, poor plundered scribbler! although what’s worst of all is their utter contempt for your work after they got it for free! . . . the way they trash your writing, loathe it, use it to wipe their asses, don’t understand a fucking thing, run off to sell whatever’s left on the riverbanks . . . you’ll say, but there’s a solution! just drown all the loaners! And borrowers with them! imagine, letting the people who actually pay for my goods get screwed . . . fine! the grocer expects you to heckle him a little over the herring . . . but try to rip him off? call the police! . . . isn’t it horrible that I have to babble and clown for nothing? me, who’s paid out so much himself! . . . just the thought of being robbed makes me go pale, I start suffocating worse than I did in the ogre’s fists! . . . my blood, heart, nerves coagulate . . . worse than Delphine! . . . some guy comes up and asks, “Can I borrow that?” I lose consciousness! . . . and then this! look! this philosophy! . . . you can have it! hey there, you squandering slut of a muse, enough’s enough!
This is the type of vitriolic and sarcastic rant that abuts against another, with anger ebbing only when Céline needs to catch his breath. The immediacy of this narrative holds value for it’s literary ingenuity and witness to World War II, but it also reminds us of our own recent catastrophes in the United States, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina. Destruction is cruel and pitiless and inescapable.
But as you read the last sentence, two competing but equally powerful feelings will converge within you—relief and anger. You have survived the Céline’s literary blitz . . . and be thankful that you weren’t really there.