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Monday, December 1, 2014

The Lyricism of the Ugly: Céline's Mort à Crédit


Page references to quotations from Death on the Installment Plan are enclosed in parentheses and refer to the Signet edition, New American Library, 1966. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes.


The twentieth century was the great age of irony. One of the period’s masterworks, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Mort à Crédit (expertly translated by Ralph Manheim [1] with the title Death on the Installment Plan) seems built largely of inversions and conundrums. For the author, the ugly is beautiful. According to Céline, “That's what Death on the Installment Plan is, symbolically, the reward of life being death. Seeing as . . . it's not the good Lord who rules, it's the devil. Man. Nature's disgusting, just look at it, bird life, animal life.” [2] The book resembles comedy in its depiction of everyman’s worst sins and faults and failings and in its emphasis on the physical with particular focus on shit and vomit, yet the tone is anything but light. It seems an autobiography, yet the book's protagonist is far more filthy and incompetent than the author, his relationships with family and others far more dysfunctional. We tend to call pictures of the seamy side “realistic,” yet the book is highly fanciful and full of hallucinations, delusions, and visions. The author’s celebrated ellipses, which one might expect to slow the narrative to a contemplative pace, instead accelerate it in a relentless onslaught on the reader's sensibilities. Much of the book’s early notoriety arose from its apparent perverse reveling in the nastiness of people and in their surroundings.

Contradictions extend into the political realm. Céline was a committed fascist and a vicious anti-Semite, whose opinions, far from private, were published in inflammatory pamphlets before and during the Nazi occupation [3] yet my popular Signet edition from 1966 features blurbs from both Trotsky and Gide (a Communist at the time of the book’s publication). The author (like Heidegger) saw no contradiction in consistently maintaining Jewish friends and lovers while calling for the ruination of “international Jewry” and later drew the admiration of Allen Ginsberg [4] and Philip Roth who called him, pointedly, “a great liberator.” It helps little that even the Nazis were uncomfortable with Celine as an ally. [5] While he consistently portrays the common people as vicious and ignorant, he spent his medical career treating them in what amounted to charity clinics. He had an abiding sympathy for the poor and an anarchist’s distaste for bosses, police, and other authorities. He ridicules father Auguste in the novel for his paranoia in which Jews and Freemasons are responsible for his family’s suffering, yet he practiced precisely the same sort of ignorant scapegoating himself.

In his narratives people act as though blind, doing their blundering best to pursue self-interest but helplessly in thrall to exploiters, who, though more comfortable, are no less benighted. His everyman is subject to an inexorable torrent of experience which will never slow sufficiently for one to gain a firm footing and which threatens at any moment to overflow in a riot of chaos. The tone is clear from the outset. The book begins as bleakly as anything in Beckett : “Here we are, alone again. It’s all so slow, so heavy, so sad . . .I’ll be old soon. Then at last it will be over.” (15) But this emptiness soon turns into a plenitude that boils over out of control. Before long he is having sex with Mireille in the Bois de Boulogne (39) and all hell breaks loose as countless spectators gather, requiring twenty-five thousand police to clear the area in a fully Rabelaisian scene. This hallucination is rationalized as a fever, but similar eruptions recur again and again. When the family attempts to have a nice vacation in England, the project collapses in disaster on the passage over with everyone is slipping and sliding in each other’s vomit (124-5) in what seems more a diabolical rite of passage than a catharsis. Angry crowds descend more than once on des Pereires’ Genitron offices just as multitudes of vermin erupt from his sorry attempt at a scientific potato garden.

Céline’s political derangement had in common with Pound’s a revulsion with modernity, including that cash nexus that forms the basis for human relationships under modern capitalism. In his Paris Review interview he says “I really saw the world was ruled by the Golden Calf, by Mammon!” Ferdinand’s parents cannot adapt to a changing world. In his mother’s shop she sells lace of an outmoded style. In an attempt to keep up with contemporary fashion, she buys boleros, only to see them fall out of favor. Des Pereires is an inventor of the old school, an individual fiddling about in his workshop, clinging to his lighter-than-air balloon, a universal genius able only to devise one hare-brained scheme after another in the manner of Bouvard and Pécuchet.

The hopeless despair of Céline’s world is only heightened and rendered poignant by occasional strange unearthly rays of light. Gazing at the nightlights of Paris from des Pereires’ suburban home, it seems a great appetitive beast, “an enormous animal, sprawled across the horizon . . . they eat . . . every day . . .yes, indeed, they eat . . . It makes a sad sound, a soft rumbling.” (468) Fellowship appears briefly and obliquely, but only to lament the inability of holding on to time, of stopping the rush of reality if only momentarily: “He was bound to be someplace, chasing after his pittance . . .and his fun.” “Ah, it’s an awful thing . . .and being young doesn’t help any . . .while you notice for the first time . . .the way you lose people as you go along . . . buddies you’ll never see again . . . never again . . . when you notice that they have disappeared like dreams . . .that it’s all over . . . finished . . . that you too will get lost someday . . . a long way off but inevitably . . . in the awful torrent of things and people . . . of the days and shapes . . . that pass . . . that never stop.” “They’re in a dream with the others.” (392)

The tenderness of that unpreventable loss reminds the reader of Villon. [6] Several relatives also seem almost redemptive in their kindness. The narrator’s mother Clémence strives with unfailing will-power but diminishing strength to sustain her family and mollify her husband. “She did all she could to keep me alive. I just shouldn’t have been born.” This model of dogged maternal love is never modified by set-backs, fatigue, or mixed motives. ( 55) During Ferdinand’s teen-age years his Uncle Édouard repeatedly rescues him, offering him a refuge and resources in spite of the boy’s repeated failures.

Perhaps most suggestive of the book’s acts of love, each more precious for its rarity, is Ferdinand’s grandmother Caroline’s gift to the child of a copy of lllustrated Adventure Stories in which he reads tales of King Krogold that inspire him to invent his own fairy stories as an alternative to an unacceptable reality. The painting done by the narrator’s father is a similar haven, as, one suspects, Céline’s tumultuous and fevered prose is as well, as Greek tragedy had been for an earlier age, a way to keep living even after realizing with Camus, that that task alone is Sisyphean.

Earlier writers had so whitewashed the grim and nasty human situation that Céline thought it took a new language to reveal it. His claim that “I've slipped the spoken word into print” contains both a bit of a boast and a measure of truth. He influenced Henry Miller, the Beats, hard-boiled fiction, Genet, Queneau, Robbe-Grillet, and Bukowski who called him “the greatest writer of 2,000 years.” [7] “For me,” Céline says, “you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on.” The reader can have no doubt that his story is sufficiently good to warrant a pass into Elysium, a sort of immortality.


1. John H. P. Marks had done a version in 1938. Manheim (whose translation was published in 1966) had begun his career with an edition of Mein Kampf preserving even awkwardness and solecisms in Hitler’s prose. He later did important translations of Brecht, Günter Grass, Martin Heidegger, Hermann Hesse, Novalis, and others as well as transcripts of Eichmann’s trial, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” which was illustrated by Maurice Sendak and Henry Corbin's work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi.

2. Paris Review,” The Art of Fiction #33,” winter spring 1964 issue, no. 31. Subsequent quotations from Céline not identified by page reference in the novel are from the same interview.

3. Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre) (1937), L'École des cadavres (The School of Corpses) (1938) and Les Beaux draps (The Fine Mess) (1941).

4. According to Ginsberg Voyage a la bout de la nuit was “the first genius international beat twentieth-century picaresque novel written in modern classical personal comedy prose."

5. While WWII was still in progress, he came to believe that both Adolf Hitler and Pope Pius XII must both be Jewish imposters since they were failing to defend the white race with sufficient energy.

6. I think of the “Ballade Des Dames Du Temps Jadis,” “Les Regrets De La Belle Heaulmière,” the Testaments, and many other pieces. Villon also resembles Céline in his literary use of slang and underworld argot.

7. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man.

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