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Arts and Letters

Emotional Subway

Guerre, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gallimard, pp. 192, 19.00 €

Londres, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gallimard, pp. 576, 24.00 €

La Volonté du Roi Krogold, suivi de La Légende du Roi René, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gallimard, pp. 320, 22.00 €


Louis-Ferdinand Céline is one of the most gifted writers of the twentieth century. Three of his novels, Journey to the End of the Night, Death on the Installment Plan, and Castle to Castle, are undeniably masterpieces—rich, original, blackly funny, and unlike anything else in modern literature. This seems like an exaggeration to anyone reading these books in English, because certain aspects of Céline’s French simply cannot be rendered into other languages. In translation his novels often look like lightly fictionalized memoirs, distinguished mainly by their vividness, pessimism, and bad manners, as well as their manic energy (unlike most apparent nihilists, Céline rarely seems depressive or apathetic). It would take a translator of unusual virtuosity to bring across the sheer singularity of Céline’s exuberantly colloquial, informal, determinedly anti-classical prose.

Many readers who are delighted by Journey to the End of the Night make the mistake of reading Death on the Installment Plan immediately afterwards, thinking it to be a mere follow-up or sequel, if not a rehash of autobiographical material that was left over from the first novel. Those who proceed in this manner rarely end up finishing Death on the Installment Plan with any enthusiasm (or at all). But if you read these two books the other way around, then you can see how stylistically innovative the second one is, even if you don’t struggle through it in French. It’s a freestanding work of art: to many Céline enthusiasts it is in fact superior to Journey to the End of the Night. Certainly its effects are harder to imitate. And yet for all Céline’s very real genius, he never quite seems to have come anywhere close to making full use of his artistic abilities. In this respect he is not unlike Ezra Pound. In fact, he’s like Pound in other, more uncomfortable ways—particularly where his political views are concerned.

Céline’s first major champion in American universities was Milton Hindus, whose memoir of 1950 The Crippled Giant: A Literary Relationship with Louis-Ferdinand Céline remains the most revealing English-language account of Céline’s personality. This is largely by accident. The memoir recounts Hindus’s encounter in 1948 with Céline, who was then in exile in Denmark. The visit did not go well. Hindus was almost comically earnest, not to mention self-absorbed, gullible, and a little slow on the uptake; this is part of why The Crippled Giant remains so absorbing to read, despite all its weaknesses as a work of straightforward reporting. Scholars in particular find it immensely frustrating: Hindus was too awed and cowed by his subject to be much of an interviewer. He treated his visit as a sort of pilgrimage, and faithfully recorded each thought he entertained, and every awkward moment that he inadvertently triggered, throughout the entire week and a half or so of his ill-fated trip.

Hindus openly admits that he did not really understand Céline; while he idolized the writer, and understood just how talented the man was, he simply could not come to terms with Céline’s unhinged rants against Jews. This is not to say that Hindus lacked insight into his subject: he was surely correct when he claimed: “Céline was never a Nazi himself, but he is representative of the mentality that produced Nazism and sustained it for so long. He speaks with the authority of a world that has been physically smashed and intellectually read out of existence but still refuses to pass away.”

Hindus was from a Jewish family, and naturally felt distressed by Céline’s embrace of anti-Semitic views, which were expounded, not just privately, but in some of Céline’s major literary works of the late 1930s. Yet Hindus never stopped asserting that Céline was one of the essential writers of the twentieth century. Even so, he never quite found a means of reconciling this conclusion with the fact of Céline’s astonishing intellectual irresponsibility. Few connoisseurs of literature ever do, unless they choose to downplay or even ignore the less palatable elements of Céline’s oeuvre, including not only the polemics that Céline published between 1937 and 1941 but also the letters that he sent to Collaborationist newspapers throughout the Second World War. Thirty were published; the rest were deemed too violent in their language for public consumption.

In correspondence as well as published work, Céline openly professed himself to be enthusiastically pro-Hitler, pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish, and self-evidently comfortable with the idea of ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, and pogroms. After the war he was somewhat embarrassed by all of this, but he never really backtracked on any of it. Instead he shrugged his shoulders and allowed his remaining champions to claim that at least some of this was comic exaggeration. Most experts today are not convinced these statements should be written off as mere jokes or provocations. On the other hand, it does remain difficult to tell just how far these reflect authentic beliefs.

During the war, Céline took delight in baiting and alienating the Nazis who were occupying Paris; French Collaborationists also found him offensive and embarrassing. He loved taking things too far. Sometimes he treated language as a mere plaything, without a clear relationship to external realities; this attitude could lead him into shocking verbal cruelty. Yet it was not necessarily malicious: it was more like the ignorant, thoughtless cruelty of a child. He was irresponsible with words in part because he scarcely understood his own strength. When you read Céline, you always ask: how far is he simply trying to get a rise out of me?

Céline’s gleefully manic rages and protracted episodes of literary delirium were at the heart of his creative process. They are the result of an authentically Romantic sensibility, albeit one that has turned sour, bitter, and rotten. Unlike the Romanticism of Baudelaire, or of the Décadent writers of the later nineteenth century, Céline’s Romanticism has no Catholic superstructure or foundation. There is nothing to control his wildness or ferocity, beyond a vague sense of decorum and morality that was based on medical ethics, and the distinctly “post-Christian” mores of the lower-middle-class milieu in which he always felt most comfortable.

The best introduction to Céline’s work is his magnificently funny short book Conversations with Professor Y, which was first published in autumn 1955. There is a first-rate bilingual edition of this text, with commentary and translation by Stanford Luce; the paperback version, from the Dalkey Archive Press, is currently out of print, but easy enough to find. An enterprising publisher might find a way to publish this alongside The Crippled Giant, since it seems to have been inspired by Céline’s encounter with Milton Hindus, albeit dimly: Céline has refracted and distorted his memories, and presented them in a version not unlike a dream—the sort of dream that makes you wake up laughing in bewilderment.

Conversations with Professor Y is Céline’s fullest attempt to explain his art. He was never particularly articulate as an essayist; his intellectual medium was narrative, whether in the form of tall tales, anecdotes from his own experience, or detailed vignettes inspired by his observations. In Conversations, Céline tries to show the reader how his creative process functions, and how he manages to transform his observations of reality into a vision that is at once wholly preposterous and unsettlingly convincing. A lesser writer undertaking such an exercise might have simply presented the reader with a thinly dramatized dialogue between the author himself and an intellectual opponent; Céline, by contrast, wants to add conflict, tension, and layers of complication that undercut and undermine any attempts at straightforward exposition of ideas. You are left, as always, with the question of how close Céline’s prose is to reality, and how much of what he described has been invented, or shaped into a work of art.

The story begins innocently enough: Céline opens with a closely observed, seemingly true-to-life story of how he met an academic in the Square des Arts-et-Métiers for an interview. Céline was at a low ebb in the 1950s, professionally and personally, after seven years of exile and disgrace; his publishers were trying to set him up for a comeback. But he was increasingly feeble, and presented himself in public as a shabby, disheveled old man with a weak voice and shuffling gait. Yet in Conversations with Professor Y he seems to have lost none of his verve. Indeed, he seems to alarm and even terrify his interlocutor, “Professor Y,” with his exasperated insistence on the fundamentally lyric nature of his gift, and his loneliness as a literary innovator.

Céline struggles to convince “Professor Y” that his art is, at heart, a reaction against radio and cinema, and Americanized popular culture: he compares himself to the Impressionist painters and Vincent van Gogh, who were forced to develop new ways of representing reality because the invention of photography threatened to make their entire art obsolete. Céline’s enemy is not so much technology itself as the sinister homogenization of mass culture, and the falseness that it reproduces everywhere.

He is particularly hostile to something he refers to as “chromo,” short for “chromolithograph.” Céline uses this word as a shorthand for a kind of slick, manipulative, mass-produced, automatic thoughtlessness of form, style, and content that has come to dominate high as well as low art. “Chromo” art and literature are sinister because they are inherently dishonest and dehumanizing. Céline rants at great length to “Professor Y” because he cannot quite articulate his disgust, and is not sure whether his interviewer gets the point of what he is trying to say.

Céline has badly misread “Professor Y,” whose real name turns out to be Colonel Réseda. Réseda does not seem to be listening to Céline, not because he is skeptical about these ideas, but because he cannot concentrate on anything other than his need to urinate. Céline’s increasing verbal incontinence begins to compete with Réseda’s “prostate difficulties”; and there is something else that Réseda can no longer hold in: he too is a writer, and he badly wants Céline to put in a good word with his publisher. From this revelation onwards, the farcical elements begin to intensify, just as Céline accelerates towards his own climax, and the insight that led him to create art.

Céline’s metaphor for his approach to writing is the métro émotif—the “emotional subway.” On a routine trip to use the Parisian subway, he had a revelation about the nature and purpose of the literature he wanted to create. His description of his vision is difficult to interpret with any precision because Céline deliberately blurs the line between symbol, metaphor, significant detail, and elaboration for its own sake. Or perhaps not, because Céline seems to be hostile to mere decorative elaboration. On the other hand, his attempts to describe what he means by métro émotif are constantly interrupted by Réseda and his prostate.

Céline manages to make clear that his ultimate goal is “to pin down emotion on the printed page,” even if he can never bring himself to explain that process in greater detail. It seems to be a mystery to him. He believes in the vital force of oral language and seeks to capture and harness its power. In his eyes, the formalization of language, as in the French classical tradition, is not merely a means of organizing and disciplining communication; it alters the very substance of what is communicated, and robs it of spontaneity and authentic feeling. There are too many things that “classical restraint” simply cannot express.

Céline believed that the only way to survive in this meaningless world is to become intoxicated. The “lobotomized” masses preferred cheap wine, movies, and self-abuse to escape from reality; Céline himself favoured music, ballet, sexual activity, and hysterical laughter (unusually for a French writer of his generation, he didn’t drink or smoke). The laughter can come close to a scream, or yell: Céline’s humor is often aggressive, if not out-and-out antagonistic. André Gide, in a famous review of Céline’s most notorious single book, Bagatelles pour un massacre, understood that Céline’s work describes not reality but the hallucinations that are provoked by reality. Alas, despite the shrewdness of this insight, he may have fatally misread the work itself.

Bagatelles pour un massacre is usually translated as “Trifles for a Massacre,” but the meaning is perhaps closer to something like “Prelude to Mass Slaughter.” This one hundred thirteen thousand–word volume was published in 1937, and will probably never be translated into English: too much of the content would fall foul of hate-crime legislation in multiple jurisdictions. Bagatelles seems to have originated with a trio of ballet scenarios that Céline wrote and could not get produced. Like many satirists, Céline was more comfortable attacking and criticizing the world and developing his notions of ugliness and corruption than he was in presenting any positive vision of beauty or goodness. There is something strangely cloying, or even faintly childish, about his ballet scenarios: Céline seems to have written parts of them whilst choking back a sob. Admittedly they are often compelling, but where is the grandeur? At best they are merely pretty, in a somewhat vulgar, “chromo” way.

The first scenario, “The Birth of a Fairy,” is an eighteenth century–style fantasy featuring a Poet and his sweetheart, Evelyne, who are cursed by a witch; then the Poet falls in love with a dancer from the Royal Ballet, and there is a predictable (if surprisingly poignant) allegory about love, and the inevitably tragic destinies of those who are fated to become poets. The second ballet is a sort of revisionist sequel to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s famous romance of 1788, Paul et Virginie, and begins from the premise that the two lovers did not in fact die in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The story seems to be an anti-American allegory; most of it takes place in Le Havre in 1830. The third scenario, “Van Bagaden,” comes at the very end of Bagatelles. It takes place in Antwerp in 1830, and seems especially difficult to interpret unless you describe it in full, and try to distinguish it from the other two scenarios. In truth, they all blur together somewhat, rather like the half-remembered dreams of a long night. It’s difficult to separate the artful, self-conscious patterns and formal explorations of themes and narrative archetypes from the merely personal preoccupations that have not consciously been inserted.

These scenarios remain relatively neglected by students of Céline because they must be encountered within the frame of one of the most violently anti-Semitic pieces of writing in modern French literature. Even those who are skeptical about the concept of “hate literature” will struggle to find another means of describing Bagatelles. The book begins more or less innocently with a discussion between the author and his friend Dr. Gutman, a “society doctor” who regards Céline’s obsession with ballet and dancers as mere voyeurism. Even so, he agrees to take Céline’s scenario for “The Birth of a Fairy” to a friend at the Paris Opéra. After twelve days, the friend tells Gutman that his company can’t do anything with a ballet scenario that is accompanied by no music. The composers approached by Céline all turn him down as a potential collaborator.

Gutman meets him again in a café and mentions that there will be ballets at the upcoming Paris Exposition. He mocks Céline’s bitterness at having his scenario repeatedly rejected, and pokes fun at his paranoid suspicions about why he was turned down, by assuring him sardonically that the Paris Expo will amount to a demonstration of Jewish genius. Gutman has hitherto put up good-naturedly with Céline’s repeated gibes against Jewish critics, composers, and cultural figures, which go on for quite a few pages, but by degrees his patience for this sort of ribbing wears almost as thin as the reader’s. Céline decides to write his second scenario right there at the café table in front of Gutman. Four days later, Gutman professes his shame and rage that the Paris Expo’s administrators are racist against Frenchmen and will have nothing to do with Céline. Céline blames Gutman, then declares that he will avenge himself on the Jews for this; and most of the rest of the book is a rambling, repetitive, fiercely angry exercise in over-the-top anti-Semitism.

Some readers might try to paint Bagatelles as a convincing depiction of a nervous, sensitive man’s descent into paranoia and conspiracy theories. The reason Céline is so convincing is that this isn’t a parody: it’s the real thing. For all the wildness, jokiness, and unstable tone, there is a hard core of earnest, obsessive hatred that makes much of Bagatelles exhausting and depressing to read. Not even Céline’s impressive linguistic virtuosity can hold the reader’s attention throughout this tirade. Readers who are masochistic enough to persist through the rest of Bagatelles without skipping pages will be rewarded by a few extended passages of exceptional writing, as when Céline temporary relaxes his mania to launch into an account of his visit to the Soviet Union. There are also shrewd insights here and there into French society, bourgeois culture, the decline of literary and intellectual life, and the decadence that is accelerated by drunkenness and mass media. But Céline is in the grip of a far more intoxicating addiction: the nihilism that fuels his rage.

Throughout Bagatelles, Céline’s occasional interlocutors question his sanity. Towards the end, his cousin Gustin professes shock that Céline has essentially become genocidal. The term did not exist in 1937, but it seems an appropriate description. A little later, his friend Gutman (who is, amazingly, still a friend at this point), wonders whether he is drunk, and tries to warn him of the dangers of his uncontrolled flights of speculation. But he cannot seem to stop himself.

When she read the first draft of Bagatelles, Céline’s wife warned him that it would be suicidal to publish this manuscript; yet he seems to have actively courted the disaster. Bagatelles sold seventy-five thousand copies before the publisher withdrew it from sale, alongside its less successful sequel School for Corpses, out of fear that these texts violated legislation against racial and religious hatred. Céline ended up writing in 1941 another dreary polemic of this sort, Les beaux draps (usually translated as “A Fine Mess”, but perhaps more accurately rendered into English as “Scarlet-Lettered”).

Céline must have felt deep down that he did not really deserve literary success: unconsciously, yet deliberately, he set out to sabotage himself, through writing books that even pro-Nazi intellectuals regarded as unnecessarily violent in tone. The plan worked: these three polemics essentially ruined his life after the Second World War, and continue to mar his reputation. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, Céline was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and in 1950 he was put on trial in absentia (he remained in exile until an amnesty in 1951); Bagatelles, School for Corpses, and Les Beaux Draps provided prosecutors with their best evidence for treason.

In 2012, a publishing house in Québec brought out a critical edition of Céline’s Écrits polémiques. But in France these works have never been legally reprinted. After World War II, Céline declined to allow their republication: they had caused him enough trouble already. His widow, Lucette Destouches, honored his wishes. Then, towards the very end of her long life (she died in 2019, aged one hundred seven), she changed her mind, and consented to a reprinting. Céline’s longtime publisher, Gallimard, announced that it would soon bring out the Écrits polémiques in the prestigious Collection Blanche series. Gallimard should not have been surprised when French Jews were shocked and outraged by their decision; there was a predictable P.R. disaster. In January 2018, Gallimard announced that they had suspended republication of these works indefinitely.

These polemics are not difficult to find in libraries; indeed the Québécois edition enjoys a surprisingly wide circulation. The controversy centers around whether the Écrits polémiques deserve to be dignified by joining the Collection Blanche. Certainly they have an historical importance; they are also unavoidable for anyone seriously studying Céline’s art; but their interest for general readers is, at best, debatable. All these polemics contain glimpses of the writer at his exhilarating best, but are dominated by the man at his worst, snarling and baying at the moon like a frightened dog.

The ranting itself is not a problem, of course; only its content. Céline is at his best when he seems to be shouting himself hoarse; his finest prose has the effect of an aria, if you can imagine an aria made up largely of swear words, sung by a man who never learned how to sing, in danger of losing his voice. There is a real music to his style. Sometimes it seems as though the style and the persona are the only things holding Céline together: he has a distinctive attitude, personality, and approach; intellectually he’s all over the place.

Unlike other major French writers, Céline was never concerned about maintaining a consistent, or even a coherent, philosophical point of view. The sheer animalistic force of emotion is one of the great attractions of his writing. On the other hand, Céline’s reckless neglect of ideas ultimately limits the scope of his work. He trusted his emotions too much, and they sometimes misled him. Some of the shrewdest early criticism of Céline’s early writings came from communist thinkers. There is a very interesting review of Journey to the End of the Night by Leon Trotsky; “Novelist and Politician” was first printed in the October 1935 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Trotsky famously announced: “Louis-Ferdinand Céline walked into great literature as other men walk into their own homes.” It seemed obvious to Trotsky that Céline had a lot in common with Marxists generally; but he seemed too pessimistic to believe in revolution.

The closing of this review was prophetic in its way: “Céline will not write a second book with such an aversion for the lie and such a disbelief in the truth. The dissonance must resolve itself. Either the artist will make his peace with the darkness or he will perceive the dawn.” Maxim Gorky, in his assessment of the same novel, warned his fellow communists: “Céline is indifferent to all crime, and since he has found no way of committing himself to the proletariat or understanding their revolt, he is ripe for Fascism.”

Céline remained apolitical until 1936; then he published Mea culpa, a short pamphlet dismissing communism that he wrote in the wake of a depressing trip to the Soviet Union. He wasn’t disillusioned, but only because he had never believed in socialist revolution in the first place. Many intellectuals presumed he was on the left because he attacked the bourgeoisie, made fun of the clergy, found American capitalism bewildering, and seemed committed to a wholly materialist, atheistic vision of the universe. But these were merely received opinion in the world in which Céline was brought up. They weren’t the result of any systematic thinking. And Céline’s commitment to materialism was surprisingly weak. He had no obvious religious faith, and rejected the Christian vision of God, but he declined to call himself an atheist, preferring to think of himself as a “mystic,” perhaps because he had no taste for metaphysical speculation and wasn’t interested in trying to reconcile his ideas with his experience of the world. Even his nihilism was somewhat feeble.

For all Céline’s low opinion of humanity, and his provocative rejections of patriotic and Catholic notions of virtue, he did notice a few redeeming human qualities that helped make life at least temporarily bearable. But he had no real intellectual equipment for understanding kindness, selflessness, or nobility of character: in his work he always seems completely floored by simple goodness, which always seems to shock him, and shatter his view of the world—temporarily, until he decides to proceed forward as though nothing had happened.

Céline trained as a doctor, and was comfortable discussing venereal disease, alcoholism, and various sordid, petty vices. He was confronted with them every day. Yet he didn’t have a sophisticated framework for dealing with death. He didn’t deny it, but he repeatedly flinches from the subject, most famously in Journey to the End of the Night, in which the narrator is completely floored by the death of Bébert, the young nephew of one of his neighbors who dies of typhoid whilst under his care. Other deaths are treated in a cool, casual, matter-of-fact manner; death is also a subject for comedy, as in the case of an old woman who stubbornly refuses to die; Bébert, by contrast, is one of the few characters for whom the solitary, alienated main character feels real affection. After learning of the boy’s death, the narrator aimlessly wanders the streets, buys a cheap volume of Michel de Montaigne, and randomly reads a page where Montaigne consoles his wife on the death of one of their children by drawing her attention to a letter that Plutarch wrote to his wife in a similar situation. Obviously it does nothing for the narrator. He quickly resumes wandering.

Céline is a perceptive observer. He can conjure a convincing illusion of reality as few other writers can do, and his métro émotif is an unparalleled vehicle for capturing and delivering certain kinds of emotion. Yet he has no idea of what to do with it. The need to express certain kinds of emotion is, in its way, as much of a literary straitjacket as the repressive formal restraints of French classicism. Céline’s approach not only limits his style but also cuts him off from a wide range of themes, tones, subjects, and entire areas of human experience. He often ends up seeming shackled to his own life.

This isn’t to say that Céline is a straightforwardly autobiographical writer in any way. Some readers are dismayed to learn that he radically distorted countless details of his life, and had the bad manners to make up entire scenes, characters, and situations in his fiction (for example, getting sold into slavery by a priest and then arriving in America as a rower on a galley—you shouldn’t need a scholarly biography to tell you that such a thing didn’t really happen). But he needed to relive former emotions, or else his creative process simply couldn’t begin. This is perhaps why Céline seems less wise than other writers of his stature: he can’t bring himself to learn from his experience when he simply wants to ride his métro émotif.

Céline’s ballet scenarios in Bagatelles pour un massacre seem to come out of nowhere until you realize how deeply they are rooted in his childhood experience of literature and theater and thus in the deepest aspects of his private mythology. You can glimpse something of the atmosphere of French children’s culture of the era from the films of the cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, who was a magician before he decided to make movies. Céline had particularly fond memories of an illustrated children’s weekly called Les Belles Images, which fueled his imagination with colorful myths, legends, and fairy tales full of witchcraft and chivalry. He never quite outgrew these stories.

In Death on the Installment Plan, the narrator is obsessed with an escapist novel that he has been writing as a means of distracting himself from his current life. He suspects his secretary and her niece of having stolen the manuscript. When he recovers a few pages under the niece’s bed, he is badly let down: he was under the impression that he had written a potential classic. He still feels the need to read it aloud to others. His cousin repeatedly falls asleep when he reads him passages in a café. Even the niece is made to endure some of King Krogold’s Will.

The reader is allowed some glimpses of King Krogold’s Will, which is a pseudo-medieval fantasy that in some ways seems to reflect themes of death, vengeance, and betrayal that are present in the more autobiographical-looking sections of the novel. But it doesn’t really reflect the rest of the narrative. You could be forgiven for thinking this is another instance of Céline’s blackly farcical sense of humor: King Krogold’s Will seems ridiculous. Céline, you think, must have been sending up his narrator by making him the author of such a laughable manuscript. Then you discover that Céline was deadly serious about this fantasy and thought it was the work for which he ought to be remembered.

In 1933, after the success of Journey to the End of the Night, Céline submitted a first version of King Krogold’s Will to his publisher, who was not expecting a Middle Ages fantasy featuring lords, castles, knightly tournaments, and an enchanted forest. It didn’t seem sufficiently grown up to appeal to literary Paris, and the prose was anyway far beneath Céline’s usual standard, so the manuscript was turned down. Céline included sections of it in Death on the Installment Plan, and always intended to inflict the full story on the public. He was convinced it would become a bestseller. Alas, he never seems to have finished the narrative.

King Krogold’s story still preoccupied Céline in June 1944, when Allied forces landed in France. He and his wife fled their flat in Paris to avoid reprisals: although Céline never officially collaborated with the Nazis, most people thought he had. During his seven-year absence from French soil, his home was ransacked, and many of his private papers were taken. Céline was bitter about losing them, but most were never really lost. They were taken away by a member of the Resistance, and kept in storage until after Céline’s wife died.

In 2022 Gallimard finally published one of these long-lost manuscripts: Guerre (“War”) is less a complete novel than a series of sketches, some brilliantly written, revisiting Céline’s memories of the First World War. The second of these, Londres (“London,” released in October 2022) is an amazingly evocative (and rambling) sequel to Guerre. It takes place in London, where Céline lived for a year or so between 1915 and 1916. Again, the story seems like thinly veiled memoir, but the story and characters are largely invented. The third and most important of these new releases is La Volonté du Roi Krogold, suivi de La Légende du Roi René (“King Krogold’s Will, followed by the Legend of King René”).

None of these works is quite finished. Guerre boasts impressive battle scenes that are even finer than the descriptions of warfare in Journey to the End of the Night (which is saying something). The protagonist is injured in a frightening explosion; the subsequent scenes of delirium, unconsciousness, and long convalescence in hospital are as vivid and convincing as they are coarse. Some readers have objected to Guerre’s graphic violence, as well as the lewdness of the hospital scenes, but much of this is illusory: Céline has the gift of suggesting these things without ever needing to show very much. If only the manuscript had gone through a second draft.

Céline wrote Guerre in such an inspired fury that he neglected to look back at earlier pages and see that some characters changed names in the middle of the narrative. Evidently he wasn’t thinking too hard at this stage about coherence, or being understood by his readers: when the wounded protagonist (one hesitates to call any of Céline’s narrators a “hero”) is hallucinating while being taken to hospital, he sees King Krogold’s castle, the city of Christiania, and various characters from this legend that so far existed only in Céline’s imagination. Later, in the infirmary, he has further visions of the legend.

This private fantasy about King Krogold was evidently important to Céline. He repeats it again in Londres, when the narrator spins tales about King Krogold to entertain the three daughters of his friend Dr. Yugenbitz. Another character recounts further episodes from King Krogold’s story to entertain the girls during a Zeppelin raid. The legend even breaks into the main narrative at one point, when the narrator is recounting the tale to some friends at the country house of an English ex-soldier. King Krogold and another character materialize like ghosts. This supernatural intrusion is unlike anything else in Céline, and sits oddly in an otherwise startlingly realistic depiction of riffraff, lowlife, and the seedier aspects of wartime London.

In 2023 the surviving texts of the legend were finally made available to the public, in an edition scrupulously edited by Véronique Chovin. This isn’t a disappointment so much as a total mystery: how could Céline, the most pitiless misanthrope of twentieth-century literature, have been so devoted to a story like this? How could he have thought that anybody over the age of eleven would find this sort of thing compelling? This is such a serious lapse in taste that you wonder how sound Céline’s artistic judgement was.

Céline does not even seem very confident in his vision for once. The faux-medieval atmosphere of the King Krogold stories is hesitantly sketched in. Céline had no systematic knowledge of the Middle Ages, but he was passionately devoted to the work of François Rabelais, the central figure in his “counter-canon” of anti-classical French writers. A medievalist might protest that Rabelais was a man of the Renaissance rather than the so-called Dark Ages; to Céline, such a distinction was mere hairsplitting. Besides, he was an artist, not a scholar: he cared about capturing the medieval spirit, and was content to leave historical accuracy to the pedants. The problem is, he missed the spirit as well as the basic facts.

Céline’s total failure to invent or construct an attractive, absorbing fantasy demonstrates the narrowness of his range. These manuscripts radically alter our understanding of Céline’s imagination and creativity. We are also faced with the question: what was fundamentally wrong with the most prodigiously gifted novelist of his generation?

Céline was a master at simulating the movements of the soul: you feel as though you are watching his sensory perceptions being processed in real time and transformed into language. He captures an illusion of reality that convinces you because you can’t discern the technique, or the artful, effortful manipulations that enable him to make you see the truth as he saw it. Yet his grasp on reality was defective. He could show you what it looked like to him; he couldn’t show or tell you what it actually was, as greater writers do. The cloying “chromo” sentimentality of the ballet scenarios and the various versions of the King Krogold fantasy are the creations of a man who shrank from death, and retreated into childhood regression, just as the pro-Nazi polemics amount to a protracted impotent scream into the blackness that he otherwise couldn’t bring himself to confront. Unlike, say, Stendhal, Flaubert, or Proust, Céline lacks a sense of dignity even in his most impressive novels. He badly needed a coherent view of the world that was grounded in absolute truth. But there’s no real wisdom in him; only the intoxications of sensuality, hysteria, and uncontrolled emotion.

Céline was an important writer; his finest work gives you the thrill that you get from authentically great art. But was he really great? He doesn’t lead you towards the light; instead he yells at you to join him as he howls incredulously into the darkness of a never-ending night, and refuses to pay attention to anyone who tries to point out that there is, in fact, something else out there, and that he’d only begin to notice it if he could stop screaming for a little while, and listen.