by Gary Michael
[NOTE: What follows is preliminary to any responsible, fully engaged reading of Céline’s novel, North. What follows is a textual pawing-of-the-ground, an extended gesture towards the book, a gesture alternately cocky and despairing. A readerly toe in the water. A clearing of the throat. In fact, in what follows, I don’t proceed much beyond Céline’s never-ending hailstorm of elliptical dots. A lot of the piece is in fact about his dots. This, then, is to be looked upon mere prolegomena to my eventually undertaking of a more substantial reading of North.]
There are cultural artefacts that come inescapably to mind to any north-questing imagination.
The most imminent and august of these is probably Glenn Gould’s 3-part “contrapuntal radio documentaries”, The Solitude Trilogy (the best-known of which is “The Idea of North” from 1967). Other well-snowshoe’d North-facing cultural objects and ideas and phenomena take their place on the list: the “Mystic North” of nationalist landscape painting, the nightly optical apocalypse of the Northern Lights, Dr. Frankenstein’s maniacal, relentless pursuit of his monster, the two of them bounding over the Arctic ice fields in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
There are of course lots of the north-yearning poems (all that stuff by Robert Service, for example, and Philip Larkin’s The North Ship, 1945, and Al Purdy’s The Caribou Horses, 1965), and north-bearing novels (too many to list), and tons of northbound films (Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), even Road to Utopia (1946) with Bing, Bob, and Dorothy Lamour. There is Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). And the Henry Hathaway-John Wayne-directed North to Alaska (1960). And Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove(1964).
Rather than assaying any of these, however, I decided instead, perhaps a bit perversely, that my Northern Excursion would confront the flash-frozen, torch-lit prose of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. I would anneal myself in the blistering hurl of his late novel, North (1960), written shortly before his death in 1961.
After a turbulent, harrowing, upsetting and worrisomely funny read, some years ago, through the 1932 Journey to the End of the Night (no ellispses! What a comparatively easy journey it was!) and the 1936 Death on the Instalment Plan (which sounds so much more contemporary if called Death on Credit), reading North after all that time just seemed, at first, like a little more—a Céline addenda. North is like something you’d write when you’d been writing a certain way all your life and now you wanted to continue writing and this was the only route open to you, the only sound still available to you.
North is the second novel of a late Céline trilogy (Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon), chronicling the author’s frenetic flight across Nazi Germany, inexorably and maybe perversely making for Berlin during the last gotterdammerung days of World War II. All three books are about the same subject, the fall of German-dominated Europe, and all three see this fall chiefly in terms of what is happening, moment by breathless, volcanic moment to Céline, his wife Lili, and their cat.
North, like everything Céline wrote, is built on the linguistic equivalent to black ice. You can slip on a slide of Céline’s ellipticizing dots and break your neck. It’s hard to get your bearings, and with every couple of seconds of reading you can turn your ankle on those elliptical dots and fall into a Célinean abyss—one of those breathless silences he sets up between phrases that, in his hecticity, are just barely tethered one to the other. You can drop between those dots (spongy, rubbery dots, optical “floaters”) and plummet down into darkness—a demonic prosody-wrought version of Alice’s drifting down the rabbit hole.
To stay on Céline’s prose surface, you have to cling firmly (albeit briefly) to the phrases he shoves at you—regardless of how rough and unpalatable they may first appear. Let go, even once, and you’re jostled to death with those infinitely telegraphic dots, swarmed by them…a plague of dots…a dust-storm of punctuation. Célinean buckshot. It’d be death by Céline’s up-against-the-wall, firing-squad prose, where you get peppered with bullet-dots.
Dots (ellipses) are small but mighty. You can skim forward with them or they can drive you crazy—like a leaking faucet at night. Dot…dot…dot…dot…dot….
And they’re pushy. Here’s what L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, Lyn Hejinian says about dots in her 2003 book The Fatalist—and it must be borne in mind that she’s commenting only on benign, well-behaved dots as they appear every once in a while in whatever we write (they turn up like traffic lights at intersections). Hejinian’s “abrupt” dots are not Céline’s runaway dots:
The dot arrives abruptly. Between words
there are swimmers swimming in a dashing sea—(the sort
of thing that adolescents achieve). And yet things must
begin / at some point so why not by some chance with
a dot? / This one includes a shell-studded opalescent
kitchenette / but is otherwise generic. How much better
is the dot in Paul Klee’s notebooks! His dot has no
Neither do Céline’s dots (ellipses) have “terminus.” No terminus. You can never pull the emergency cord and stop the train.
“…Stalingrads!…tumbrils full of lopped-off heads!
Heroes with their cocks in their mouths…you come home
with your wheelbarrow full of eyes, like the Romans…no
more little gilt-rimmed programs!…the real stuff, blood
and entrails…no more of your rigged brawls…no! The
Circus will put the theatres out of business…the forgotten
fashion will come back…all the rage!…three hundred
years before Jesus! “at last! at last! What a novel that
will be! I’ll start right in…”
[The edition of North I’m using, by the way, is from the Dalkey Archive Press, 2000, and is translated by Ralph Manheim.]
In a Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview (No. 33) with Céline, conducted by Jacques Darribehaude and Jean Geunot in 1964, the interviewers ask him about what constituted for him the tragic locus of his times. “It’s Stalingrad,” Céline tells them. He then continues:
“How’s that for catharsis! The fall of Stalingrad is the finish of Europe. There was a cataclysm. The core of it all was Stalingrad. There you can say it was finished and well finished, the white civilization. So all that, it made some noise, some boiling, the guns, the waterfalls. I was in it…I profited off it. I used this stuff. I sell it. Evidently I’ve been mixed up in situations—the Jewish situation—which were none of my business, I had no business being there. Even so I described them…after my fashion…”
After his fashion, yes. A fashion that has enraged so many of Céline’s readers and critics and commentators then and since—and with good reason. Any discussion of Céline’s virulent anti-semitism, however, is a great deal more complex than one might initially imagine. Such a discussion has no place here.
What I will do, however, is to alert the reader to an excellent book, in which a few less condemnatory ideas about Céline are offered and explored by the unfailingly brilliant George Grant: The book is George Grant and the Subversions of Modernism, edited by Arthur Davis and published in 1996 by the University of Toronto Press. The book contains two remarkably helpful essays: Grant’s own essay, “Why Read Céline?” and Gerald Owen’s gormlessly titled but useful piece, “Why Did George Grant Love Céline?”
“Wheelbarrow full of eyes.” Almost every phrase, attached to the one before it and the one after it (like the boxcars of a freight train) attains an autonomy of belief. You’re just grappling with this astonishing wheelbarrow image (are the eyes still wet now, like the cockles and winkles from a seafood store, or have they dried like glass alleys?) when you have to adjust yourself to “the Romans” that come hurtling at you after the comma. Romans with wheelbarrows full of eyes? You have 1/100th of a second to rush through your Roman history—but of course there’s no time for that, so you let Céline have his Romans and his hydra-eyed wheelbarrow—you give it to him—and go rushing on, accepting the fact that you’re in some alternate realm made of language (and dots) where history is bunk and speed precludes fact-checking! Words are bricks (brickbats!) in Céline’s wall, and the ellipsis dots are the quicklime-mortar.
They are also the electronic whirring of his own internal moviola and its editing machine. It wasn’t until I read Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City(New York, Holt, 1997), that I realized I had neglected to see the calculus of dots in Céline’s narrative as convincingly filmic. Christopher points out that in Journey to the End of the Night, in an early chapter describing the streets of New York, Céline gratefully, desperately discovers the one urban outlet he can find as a haven from “this monotonous surfeit of streets, bricks, and endless windows, and business and more business, this chancre of promiscuous and pestilential advertising…A mass of grimy and senseless lies….” And that is the movie theatre. As he writes in the same chapter of JEN, “I clung to the movies…with a fervour born of despair” (Christopher, p. 42). Dots like the sprocket holes in film stock.
The Paris Review interviewers want to talk to Céline about the dots. They refer to them as the core of his “style.” Your style, they remind him, “shook a lot of habits.”
Céline replies: “They call that inventing. Take the impressionists. They took their painting one fine day and went to paint outside. They saw how you really lunch on the grass. The musicians worked at it too. From Bach to Debussy there’s a big difference. They’ve caused some revolutions. They’ve stirred the colours, the sounds. For me it’s words, the positions of words. Where French literature’s concerned, there I’m going to be the wise man, make no mistake. We’re pupils of the religions—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish…Well, the Christian religions. Those who directed French education down through the centuries were the Jesuits. They taught us how to make sentences translated from the Latin, well balanced, with a verb, a subject, a complement, a rhythm. In short—here a speech, there a preach, everywhere a sermon! They say of an author, “He knits a nice sentence!” Me, I say, “It’s unreadable.” They say, “What magnificent theatrical language!” I look, I listen. It’s flat, it’s nothing, it’s nil. Me, I’ve slipped the spoken word into print. In one sole shot.”
I skim along on the ball-bearing dots; Céline’s prose is a big, rushing, rudderless driftwork. In regard to this headlong “style,” the Paris Review interviewers ask him “That’s what you call your ‘little music,’ isn’t it?” Céline responds this way:
“I call it “little music” because I’m modest, but it’s a very hard transformation to achieve. It’s work. It doesn’t seem like anything the way it is, but it’s quality. To do a novel like one of mine you have to write eighty thousand pages in order to get eight hundred. Some people say when talking about me, “There’s natural eloquence … He writes like he talks … Those are everyday words … They’re practically identical … You recognize them.” Well, there, that’s “transformation.” That’s just not the word you’re expecting, not the situation you’re expecting. A word used like that becomes at the same time more intimate and more exact than what you usually find there. You make up your style. It helps to get out what you want to show of yourself.”
The Interviewers ask him: “What are you trying to show?” Céline replies:
“Emotion. Savy, the biologist, said something appropriate: In the beginning there was emotion, and the verb wasn’t there at all. When you tickle an amoeba she withdraws, she has emotion, she doesn’t speak but she does have emotion. A baby cries, a horse gallops. Only us, they’ve given us the verb. That gives you the politician, the writer, the prophet. The verb’s horrible. You can’t smell it. But to get to the point where you can translate this emotion, that’s a difficulty no one imagines … It’s ugly … It’s superhuman … It’s a trick that’ll kill a guy.”
“There’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do / And everything I’ve got belongs to you”
(lyric by Lorenz Hart from the Rodgers and Hart musical, By Jupiter, 1942).
The Paris Review asks Céline about his mother and whether she read his books. He tells them “She thought it [his writing] was dangerous and nasty and it caused trouble. She saw it was going to end very badly. She had a prudent nature.”
“You call yourself a chronicler?”
“Without a qualm?…”
“Don’t exasperate me!”
(North, p. 4)
A CHANCE TO TELEPHONE THE GODS:
Céline to The Paris Review: “So what can I say to you? I don’t know how to please your readers. Those’re people with whom you’ve got to be gentle … You can’t beat them up. They like us to amuse them without abusing them. Good … Let’s talk. An author doesn’t have so many books in him. Journey to the End of the Night, Death on the Instalment Plan—that should’ve been enough … I got into it out of curiosity. Curiosity, that’s expensive. I’ve become a tragical chronicler. Most authors are looking for tragedy without finding it. They remember personal little stories which aren’t tragedy. You’ll say: The Greeks. The tragic Greeks had the impression of speaking with the gods … Well, sure … Christ, it’s not everyday you have a chance to telephone the gods.”
I go back to the novel. “…on every floor, assassins dressed like waiters carrying compote with maraschino” (p. 5)…” “fanged smiles” (p. 5)…” “refinements of cock play and fork play” (p. 8)…” “voices like velvet guillotines” (p. 10)…” “And I bring you back to Baden-Baden … disorder, the bric-a-brac of ideas!” (p. 11)…” “the promenade of Europe’s creamiest cream” (p. 13)…” It’s all ecriture and it makes you write.
I can’t go on, I’ll go on. I’ll go on, I can’t go on.
(To steal from Beckett doesn’t seem like much of a crime at this point.)
Here is one last sound of Céline’s shredded voice:
“You’ve got to talk about the job [i.e. writing]. That’s all that counts. And furthermore, with lots of discretion. It’s talked about with much too much publicity. We’re just publicity objects. It’s repulsive. Time will come for everybody to take a cure of modesty. In literature as well as in everything else. We’re infected by publicity. It’s really ignoble. There’s nothing to do but a job and shut up. That’s all. The public looks at it, doesn’t look at it, reads it, or doesn’t read it, and that’s its business. The author only has to disappear ….”
For example by dying:
“First you’ve got to die and when you’re dead, afterwards they classify. First thing you’ve got to be is dead.”
Gary Michael Dault is a writer, painter and art critic. He is the author of a number of books about the visual arts as well as numerous gallery and museum catalogues. He has written frequently for Canadian Art and Border Crossings, and, for over a decade, contributed a weekend visual arts review column (“Gallery-Going”) to The Globe & Mail.