translated by Marlon Jones
(Dalkey Archive, 2009)
It is difficult to read Céline’s NORMANCE without feeling ill-effects from its catastrophic style. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t admire the book, because I do and to a great extent; however, reading it was not always easy and I felt at certain points that I would not be able to finish it. The book is dedicated to both Gaston Gallimard – Celine’s long suffering publisher – and Pliny The Elder. It seemed a curious choice, including Pliny The Elder within the book’s dedicatory flourish, until one recalls that Pliny died near Mount Vesuvius and that he was there because he’d commanded ships to go to nearby towns to find survivors or, as another account would have it, to observe the spectacle of massive destruction the volcanic eruption wrought.
In NORMANCE, Celine describes his version of Vesuvius, of the man-made as opposed to the natural sort: namely, the bombing of Paris on the night and morning of April 21-22, 1944.
It is the saving grace of novels that a structure is erected in each case which is familiar, though not identical to what has gone before. These structures remind us that continuity in story telling is essential to the novel’s place in our imaginative landscapes. To read a book by Celine is to have all this familiar landscape razed, so that what confronts us is less the surrounding of what a novel might be but only its remnants, the parts that have been reduced to ash and skeletal debris. This is hyperbole, of course, and it is specific in that it is directed at Celine’s later works, the books he wrote after his appalling adventure writing the anti-Semitic books just prior to and during the Second World War. These books – the so-called ‘pamphlets’ -- represented Celine’s downfall into condemnation and misery. Which condemnation and misery he brought upon himself as a punishment deserved.
How does one read Celine’s later books? For they do seem unreadable at times, great vast lumbering weights that must be moved up mountains or deep down into cellars. Finding light sufficient by which to read them is always a problem. Breathing is difficult. I want to write about NORMANCE, published in 1954, a book that continues the story begun in the preceding novel FABLE FOR ANOTHER TIME (1954). (In French the two books are titled Féerie pour une autre fois I and Féerie pour une autre fois II: Normance). The two books come from the same epic cycle, as it were, though they do not need to be read in order for either to make sense to the reader, if making sense of what is read is what the reader of these books is finally after.
Celine is grotesque. His power in this novel is his inertia. The story goes nearly nowhere. Celine describes an attack on Paris, one night and into the following morning. He focuses on what he sees and hears, what happens in his immediate vicinity or the vicinity his visions travel in. We would do well to begin this discussion by wondering how he could write such a novel, a novel in which something seems to begin and then twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages, fifty pages later the same thing seems still to be on the verge of beginning. Nothing has changed, though an exhaustion has entered the reader’s mind. For his part, Celine appears inexhaustible, able to continue pounding the same stake into the same spot of ground over and over. No writer in any language has Céline’s capacity for such relentless repetition. And while Celine has this power of inertia – some would deem it no power, merely a flaw -- nevertheless something is happening, he is a chronicler like Pliny The Elder was a chronicler, and so perhaps in spite of his own furious raging, a grotesque progress is made. Glacial progress, volcanic. The surging material that is a toxicity in progress, a slow strangulation.
Satire is literature at its meanest and Celine is frequently cruel in his writing; in being cruel he nevertheless is capable of making the reluctant reader laugh. Poison given the guise of an hilarious vernacular. Or the vicious face ready to explode suddenly seen as nothing more than an oval that is brightly ridiculous. The reader laughs against all determinations not to, at least this is my experience when reading Céline. For life is nearly always absurd in a Celine novel, and death is ever present, and both life and death meet in ways that dignify no one: the great are just as prone to being humiliated by these polarities as are the poor and misbegotten. I have no idea how to convey the reason behind my laugher, because much of what one reads in a Céline novel is unreasonable. I simply assert this laughter happens and I can’t deny how his rage often leaves me feeling braced against the absurdities that seem our common lot. I’ve never survived a bombing, never walked streets strewn with dead, never stood my ground and expressed the most pernicious opinions … in my life I have been a hider, someone who flees, who fled. Perhaps that is the point at which Céline becomes familiar to me. Céline is fugitive, was a fugitive, both literally and figuratively.
We pick the story up, as Celine is picked up: “ Telling it all after the fact … easier said than done! … much easier! … After all, you can still hear the echo … baboom! … your head’s spinning … even seven years later … your neck … time’s nothing, memory’s what matters … that and watching the world burn …” . An explosion has thrown Celine down the elevator shaft of the building where he lives with his wife, Lili, and cat, Bébert whose fame is legendary in 20th century literature. They gather him up like a bag of bones. We’re off. Céline is off: “ I’m telling you, they brought me back up! … I was telling you they carried me back like Marlborough … you know? When they put him in the ground? … me, I was in the air … with four … five knights and ladies in waiting … Lili told me … all seven flights! … I’d fallen down the elevator shaft, ‘cause the door was open … no! … further than that … I fell even further …” Our narrator is ruined right from the start. His novel begins in shambles because the narrator is in shambles and it continues through the violence that war is and it seems to go on interminably as the violence continues and after the violence there is only a momentary lull. We know it is momentary, because Céline – because the genus loci’s sputtering envoy -- is nearby.