This most dangerous of writers

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

Does Louis-Ferdinand Celine still have to be introduced?

Does one have to be reminded of his “Journey to the End of Night,” which, from its publication in 1932, has continued to be discovered by countless readers around the world as an absolutely necessary book, a book that once read never loses its hold on the reader’s imagination?

“Journey to the End of Night” has been praised by many -- Leon Trotsky, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller and more -- but it is still a book that is discovered, one by one, by readers as if they’ve found it all by themselves.

In France, when one looks at literature in the 20th century, there are two great mountains: Celine and Proust. You scale both at your own risk. While some are drawn to Proust, others seek Celine because of the haunting voice in “Fable for Another Time” that declares, “If there is no laughter inside you there’s nothing.” In life, it continues, “You’ll cry out when you give birth! Even louder when you croak! And you’ll still never measure up.”


Celine is a complicated case. When a person seeks out his grave in the cemetery at Meudon, just outside Paris, there are no helpful signs, no tourist promotions because there is no way to make safe this most dangerous of writers. Celine made a passionate mistake -- in Maurice Blanchot’s precise formulation -- by publishing, in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, three book-length antiwar pamphlets: “Bagatelles pour un Massacre” (“Trifles for the Massacre”), “Les Beaux Draps” (“A Nice Mess”) and “L’Ecole des Cadavres” (“School of Corpses”). They display the power and genius of his gift for language but also are given over to the delusion of anti-Semitism. These books are not allowed to be published in France, as they are thought to be incitements to hate -- but today, at a moment when one can freely read the Marquis de Sade’s celebrations of the sexual torture and murder of children, one wonders when we will be free to read in English Celine’s “Bagatelles pour un Massacre,” which has all of the awful, inconvenient force of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”

Suspected of being a collaborator with the Nazi occupation, Celine well knew he was a marked man and so fled with his wife and cat to Germany in 1944 and then on to Denmark, where, after the war, he ended up in prison, writing what turned into “Fable for Another Time.” Published in two volumes in 1952, it marked his inconvenient reentry into French public life and was quietly ignored because Celine was and is a constant reminder of the very messy reality of the occupation and war.

“Fable for Another Time” begins with Celine as narrator, receiving visitors just before his flight from Paris. He knows they are sizing up what they can steal after he leaves, and then the reader is in prison with him, in Denmark, as he is reflecting upon what happened in Paris and on the reality of prison life. This first book is a sort of preface for the next, which will elaborate on the bombing of Paris that Celine witnessed from his flat in Montmartre.

One can describe page by page the contents of Celine’s book, but that misses the distinctive, breathless voice of the prose, the sense of every word containing all that has come before; to that end Celine used the ellipsis, his “famous three dots,” as he referred to them. It seems highly technical, though the actual reading is startlingly easy once you get the hang of it, as in this prison reflection in “Fable”:


“Let’s get serious here, let’s tell it like it is, twenty months in a cell, thirty months, thirty years, what’s it to you? ... You’re outside! ... it’s the elixir of the gods, being outside! ... They all have a very high opinion of themselves outside! No point talking to any ‘outside-the-wallers.’ They all have a little amulet inside that tells them that they’ll never fall! ... Go ahead, get drunk on it! Prayers and all! May Lourdes endure! ... It’s the stars that are holding up the sky, without them it would fall down ... you’d need nails everywhere! Catch a hold of yourself! The little Theresa of Lisieux is still churning out the miracles! ... And Beelzebub at the other end! Undaunted, the pair of them! As long as everything polkas along! Double game! Me, I don’t have your ambitions, I’d be happy just to see a bit more clearly, be a little less dizzy ... or even a bit less pellagra ... doesn’t look like much, pellagra.”

And though the political thrusts, the literary asides and the paranoid imaginings -- that his wife is being seduced by a legless artist -- are great fun (and much else is wonderfully explained in Hudson’s introduction and notes), it is the sheer human content, the consolation of not being alone at the extreme, that bring at least this reader back again and again to Celine:

“You’re in the grip of some nasty disease ... cancer let’s say ... don’t go making out you’re surprised! ... you’ve been haunted by the idea for a good while now? ... No ifs, ands, or buts! I know what you’re like! The one and only exercise that makes any sense when that certain uncertain moment comes is the on-your-knees! The super-bend into an O! Into a Z! The entire torso arched over, like a bridge, at the hips! Your head between your legs, snooping around under your testicles ... so the entire body forms a J! a Y! your nose busy being squashed between your buttocks! ... Come on! ... double four times over ... six ... seven times over ... breathe it in ... more!”

Dedicated to “animals, for the sick, for prisoners,” “Fable” is Celine’s rasping tortured cry, faithful to the moment he is describing 50 years ago and yet presciently capturing the foreboding contained in the headlines of today’s newspaper. The awfulness, his work says to us, never goes away.