"The Church: A Comedy in Five Acts"
by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
translated by Mark Spitzer & Simon Green
Green Integer Copenhagen/ Los Angeles 2003
Celine is coming closer to us now, becoming easier to read. And as he does, translations of his less appealing or more appalling works are starting to appear. I reviewed a couple of new Celine translations last year ("A Bad Man Speaking Well," eXile 174), and soon after got a copy of this translation of "the Church (l’Eglise)" from Mark Spitzer, its co-translator.
I didn’t expect much out of "The Church." I may as well admit that I can’t stand plays. They’re embarrassing to watch—all those actors acting at you, basking in attention like a friend’s brat reciting school poems. And when you try to read them, they’re just plain dull. I can’t suppress a philistine suspicion that plays are just primitive versions of movies, just as opera was just a ludicrous style of singing intended to make the vocals audible before microphones were invented.
This reactionary, lower-middle-class sensibility probably has a lot to do with my fondness for Celine—more than I’d be comfortable acknowledging, perhaps. My love for Celine started from the fact that he, alone among "great" 20th century writers, never showed off, never played the pedant or wrote to impress the annotators. So why would he betray that wonderfully philistine stance by writing a five-act play?
Celine’s venture in drama only makes sense in terms of career. Critics always forget that the author has to be, above all, a literary entrepreneur, branching out into new markets, selling himself to new audiences. And Celine, for all his whining and playing the clown, was a brilliant self-promoter. This is a man who married the med school director’s daughter to get his MD, then deserted her and their daughter when he got famous.
The play’s plot follows that of Journey to the End of Night, Celine’s 1932 hit novel, very closely. The lead character, "Doctor Bardamu," is, as his name implies, an older version of the protagonist of Journey with an MD. Like Bardamu, he visits Central Africa and New York, then ends up back in the wretched, comfortable purgatory of the Parisian suburbs. Like Journey, the play ends with a jealous woman emptying a pistol at one of the male leads.
But in the play, she misses, and nobody’s hurt. Quite a contrast to the ending of Journey, where Robinson’s girlfriend shoots him, then comes along for the ride to the hospital, during which Bardamu muses, in one of the most beautiful elegies in literature, that "it would have been easier to feel sorry for a dog than for Robinson, because at least a dog isn’t sly."
Sly? Celine invented sly. "The Church" was staged in 1933, immediately after Journey to the End of Night, which made him instantly famous. "The Church" is a commercial for Celine, a quick preview of his cheerful, slobby nihilism: Celine Lite, dumbed down and sped up for a glitzy Parisian audience.
The first two acts are what theatre critics would call "a jolly romp" through familiar Celinian landscapes: a Central-African colony and a New York theatre office. The jollity is peculiarly Celinian; in the Hellish African outpost, colonial bureaucrats cover up an epidemic and squabble over the body of a visiting doctor who’s died while they chatted, and in the New York office starlets casually screw any man or woman who might help their careers—but it’s all very lively and cheery. The New York dancing girls are particularly appealing with their amoral sentimentality. Celine, the driven literary climber, clearly had a deep sympathy for these long-legged go-getters. Their finest exemplar, Elizabeth Gaige (whose name sounds a lot like that of Elizabeth Craig, Celine’s long-legged, bisexual American girlfriend of the time) gets a wonderful speech giving the weird tone of this play—sort of Busby-Berkeley meets Schopenhauer:
Elizabeth: …Tell Flora how hard it is to succeed here. How it’s not like in Paris where every theater is its own little museum where you make a name for yourself by growing old in it. Over here, 200 high-school girls arrive every morning from the 48 states, each prettier than the ones before, and each is out to find fame and fortune in New York. They have their diplomas and their legs, I guarantee you that, but not much money, usually between ten and 200 dollars. It doesn’t take long for them to figure things out…So you do what you have to, right?
Like Celine, Bardamu likes these New York girls because they have long legs, fine muscle tone, and a very ambiguous sexuality which he finds a relief after "Latin women who like men too much." These Anglo-Saxon girls don’t like men at all; as one of them says, "I hardly ever dream, especially about men."
It all sounds very cool and ahead-of-its-time—which makes it all the more jolting to see Bardamu blurt, in his coolster chats with the showgirls, the sort of Jew-baiting rhetoric that got his creator into so much trouble later on. It comes when Bardamu is telling Flora, one of these Broadway contenders, about his disenchantment with Science:
Bardamu: …Science is about trying to understand things, and I decided that if we want to understand things so badly, it’s because we’re afraid of everything. If animals don’t try to understand, it’s because they’re not as afraid as we are. From the time we’re born to the time we die…we’re just plain terrified.
So far so good, right? It’s homilies like this one that made so many of us born cowards worship Celine as the first voice to speak up for us in the history of Great Lit. But, fellow cowards, you might want to hold off on pasting that speech up on your office door, because it continues with this:
Bardamu (continued): So that gets us thinking, makes us study Science…as they call it. The most intelligent people are the most frightened. Just look at the Jews! Intelligence isn’t noble…fear is. The beginning of genius is being scared shitless.
This is the sort of passage that makes Celine fans wince—that strange mix of envy, admiration and loathing that characterized the peculiarly defeatist strain of French anti-Semitism of the Thirties. In this passage, Celine takes for granted that Jews are the most intelligent people alive—geniuses, in fact. Bardamu’s sermon on the link between genius and cowardice becomes all the weirder when, in a later scene, Doctor Bardamu tells his Jewish boss why he took up medicine: "…it’s because I’m afraid of people."
This sort of genius/terror link is found, without the Jewish kink, all over Celine’s novels. In a brilliant moment from the early part of Journey, Bardamu the cannon-fodder conscript, realizes with horror that he is alone, the only intelligent coward in an entire continent swarming with brave, stupid lunatics. He’s like an animal gifted with superior (ie Jewish) insight, a beast bred for slaughter burdened with human intellect. And as Celine fans will know, his view of the "Aryans" is deeply contemptuous; again and again he calls them livestock, cattle, born victims.
In the third act of "the Church," Bardamu returns to his Jewish bosses (who are tagged with names like "Yudenzweck," "Mosaic" and "Moses") in the League of Nations HQ in Geneva. This section contains some of the crudest anti-Semitic rhetoric outside of Celine’s explicitly ephemeral political pamphlets like "Les Beaux Draps" and "l’Ecole des Cadavres."
But there’s also a weird pathos to some of Bardamu’s exchanges with his Zionist superiors. Yudenzweck, Bardamu’s boss, actually tries to help him by offering another expedition. When Bardamu refuses, Yudenzweck takes his farewell of Bardamu with one of the most bizarre and sentimental speeches in all Celine’s work—as far as I know, the only speech in which "love" is invoked between two adult human beings:
Yudenzweck: Yes, I understand you and I love you. (They hug.) You are somewhat divine, Bardamu. (He waves affectionately because Bardamu is leaving.) Farewell! Farewell! Bardamu!"
Of course, along with the weird interethnic bathos of this speech, Celine manages to pack some nice praise of his alter-ego, who, we learn, is "divine" even in the estimation of a sinister Jewish functionary. Once again, the bedrock underlying this play would seem to be career strategy, Celine marketing himself for five acts.
It’s hard to realize now how easily a Parisian audience of the mid-30s would have accepted the sort of Jew-baiting Celine indulged here. The real anomaly which becomes very striking after comparing The Church to Journey is not that Celine let his Jew-baiting have free rein in this play; it’s the fact that he seems to have excluded it very carefully from the novels he was writing at roughly the same time. There’s no hint of it in Journey, and even in his second (and greater) novel, Death on the Installment Plan, all the Jew-baiting speeches are placed in the mouth of the hero’s father, who’s portrayed as a bigmouthed, paranoiac, feckless imbecile.
So do we conclude, as so many of his supporters so desperately try to do, that Celine was actually a nice guy? Hardly. I suspect it’s more a matter of Celine’s perception of the very different ethnic breakdown of high-culture novel critics and the more frothy, jauntily bigoted sensibility to be courted in writing plays. Celine, I suspect, valued the approbation of 30s France’s many Jewish literary critics too much to vomit his hatred at them when they could still do his career some good. And as usual, he played his cards exactly right; no less a Jewish intellectual than Trotsky gave Journey one of the most beautiful bits of praise ever spoken: "Celine walked into great literature the way a man walks into his front room."
Celine played it all so perfectly. Even his one big mistake—betting on the wrong side in WW2—turned out to be a great career move. He admitted as much in his old age, that if he hadn’t had to flee Paris to escape being lynched as a Nazi collaborator, he’d never have gotten the material for his wonderful late trilogy describing in screechy, whiny, hilarious detail his flight across Europe during the Nazi retreat, trying to get his money out of a Copenhagen bank.
I wonder, actually, if he staged the whole war as a literary career move.