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Book Review September 18, 2003
 
A Bad Man Speaking Well
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

"'Bad men have no songs.' --Then why do the Russians have songs?"

-- Nietzsche

"Fable for Another Time" - by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, translated by Mary Hudson.<br> University of Nebraska Press, 2003

"Fable for Another Time" - by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, translated by Mary Hudson.<br> University of Nebraska Press, 2003

Most people know one thing about Celine: "Wasn't he a Nazi?" This cultivated ignorance holds even among people who are paid to know better; the first time I mentioned Celine at the New Zealand university where I taught, our department's leading lady pronounced solemnly, "A very bad man." (Incidentally, she was a big fan of Kipling, who was apparently not a bad man at all.)

Even when people have read some Celine, it's almost always his first and stiffest book, Journey to the End of Night, they know. When it came out in 1932, Journey.... looked to eager Leftist critics like the anti-war, anti-capitalist allegory they'd been praying for, with the doomed hero Bardamu fleeing the carnage of the Western Front to a necrophiliac military hospital, then a savage African trading post and a machine-ruled America, only to return to France and find the same petty, grasping stupidity there. It was fast, slangy and funny -- traits not often found in Progressive French literature of the Depression. And it helped that Celine, real name Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, turned out to be an authentic war hero, decorated for bravery in 1914 and invalided out of the army due to wounds. A smart, mean, funny anti-capitalist novel by a Vet? It was the Left's dream-book. Even Trotsky, a fairly smart fella, praised the novel, saying that with this book, "Celine walked into great literature as a man walks into his front room."

But Celine was never a Leftist. He was happy to be adored by the Communists, who controlled many prestigious French presses; but in taking him for one of their own, they had made an interesting misreading which goes to the weakest point in Marxist belief. Celine was absolutely sincere when he denounced the Great War, American industry, the romance of the Tropics (cf Nizan's Aden, Arabie), and smug post-war France.

The Marxists' error was in supposing that Celine spat on all these idols in order to raise another one: the Workers' Paradise in whose name the old idols were to be destroyed. From this distance, it's hard not to see Celine's position as the more sensible, consistent one. If one sees a world of horrors, without love or trust, eternally revealing new ways to die or be exploited...then surely one should expect more of the same. And that was Celine's simple, lifelong view: the world is a nightmare run by a few cannibals at the expense of vast herds of two-legged sheep.

The Marxist view starts with the same picture of the world so far, and then takes that fatal and puerile leap of faith: "And because history is endless strata of blood and treachery, a workers' paradise will break out any day now!" Celine was simply not stupid enough to believe that. He took the extant world as a valid sample of the world: therefore, only the bad parts were true.

It was his second book, Death on the Installment Plan, that led a few of the less fatuous Leftists to suspect the truth. Death.... describes Celine's childhood in a shopkeeping family imprisoned in an airless Paris passage waiting for customers. Papa is a hysterical failure, Mama a limping, groaning martyr, and little Louis a sucker who takes a lot more than 400 blows in about that many pages. Death.... worried Progressive critics; where was the promise of Revolution? Celine wasn't interested in that. He was learning to play the beautiful, heavy, fearlessly repeated chords, the bassline of his later music. Without it, Celine might have been no more than a Beckett: rigorous, formidable, and a real pain in the ass.

"Cannon Fodder" - by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, translated by B. De Koninck and B. Childish <br> Hangman Books, 1988

"Cannon Fodder" - by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, translated by B. De Koninck and B. Childish <br> Hangman Books, 1988


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