The Unnameable

Celine by Patrick McCarthy Viking Press, $10.00, 352pp.

DURING THE LAST twenty years, at least, literary critics have approached the legacy of Louis-Ferdinand Celine with trepidation, if they have deigned to remember his contribution to French literature at all. He was an unsavory fellow: perceived as a political turncoat; ungrateful towards his staunchest friends; a convicted Nazi collaborator. In an epigraph to his pamphlet called Mea Culpa, Celine taunted, "There are still a few hatreds that I lack. I am sure that they exist." Hatred is a distasteful and difficult subject.

Celine composed Mea Culpa after touring Russia in 1936. The tract castigates the government that had invited him; it is a frenzied denunciation of the Soviet system's accomplishments, goals and aspirations. He appends a peculiarly personal tag to an ostensibly social message, but then, Celine typically let instinct hold sway over his world-view. He scorned dispassionate philosophy. Instinct tends to be an irrational, solipsistic faculty, and Celine's surrender to it poisoned his literary reputation.

The writer's anti-communist rhetoric was motivated less by reason than by sheer emotion and petty frustration. Mea Culpa, for example, was partly a virulent response to the rejection of Celine's script for a ballet by the Marinski Theater in Leningrad, although his failure as a choreographer and scenarist never enters into the pamphlet. A similar flopped attempt at film writing in Hollywood set his anti-semitism ludicrously into gear: "The Hollywood Jews ... know what a pretty girl is. Ah Goldwyn Mayer! I would have given ten years of my life to sit for one moment in their armchairs. All those goddesses at my mercy." The underlying equations here aren't hard to discern: Hollywood is sex and money, and sex and money are possessed by Jews who exclude Aryans.

IN HIS BIOGRAPHY of Celine, Patrick McCarthy, like others before him, traces the evolution of the author's racist and fascist attitudes from such relatively trivial incidents and jests to the collaborationist propaganda he spewed during World War II. But McCarthy diverges from the critical mainstream by treating the political pamphleteering as part of Celine's purely literary legacy. Typically, critics have turned to one of several options in dealing with Celine's work, ranging, from apolitical--some might say irresponsible--leniency to intransigent ideological indictment: Celine's politics have been ignored; explained away as the delirium of an unstable mind; excused because he did not support the Nazi cause by his actions and because the influence of his rhetoric is doubtful; and invoked as grounds to obliterate him from the annals of French literature.

McCarthy condemns Celine for his political pamphleteering and admires the verbal and thematic craftsmanship of the novels. Yet he refuses to separate the two genres and argues clearly and ingeniously the case for a stylistic and philosocphical continuity between them. Obviously his admiration for Celine the literary craftsman predominates and allows him to take this compromise tack. And, as he himself concedes, distance from the horrors of the '40s makes it easier to examine Celine's role in them calmly.


Celine dove into politics after years of traveling and observing the seamier side of life, which alternately fascinated, disturbed and delighted him, and from which he gleaned material for his novels. Dance and dancers represented Celine's ideal of beauty, and McCarthy notes that this was, "ironically, fostered by the popular variety shows of wartime London." But his wandering in such milieus provided him with an even broader spectrum of sordid images: a savvy pimp initiated him into Soho's brothels; he was struck by the loneliness and humiliation of urban life in New York; the inhumanity of Detroit's factories, which he saw as a model for Europe, alarmed him. These bleak experiences reinforced his conviction that the Western world was collapsing and goaded him to cast himself as a doomsayer, as "Cassandra-Celine," who in 1939 gleefully harangued his friends with prophecies of war: "Scrape out your entrails, my heroes! Come and have your breasts stuffed, my brave ones! ... All to the scrap heap, guts everywhere. The debraining is going to start."

Celine, his biographer asserts, was an inveterate pessimist who conceived of truth as "a willingness to confront the worst without flinching." Although the novelist tirelessly seeks beauty in the bodies of women and the abstract movement of dance, a vision of catastrophe always prevails. For Celine, the ultimate truth was death, and the title of his first novel aptly describes the desolate trend of his written as a whole; it is A Journey to the End of the Night.

NEITHER CELINE'S fiction, nor his political rhetoric is informed by logic. They are both swept along by passion and instinct, by a kind of blindly nihilistic faith. McCarthy suggests that his antisemitism is coupled with an affinity for the Jew and explains this ambivalence in pseudo-religious terms:

He is rival claimant for Celine's particular kind of sacredness: his sense of being a creature of the night, burdened with exceptional suffering and rewarded with mystical insight. Why does the Jew come from the depths of the ages to terrify us? It is because he is Western man's bad conscience, the victim of his brutality, the reminder of death.

Hatred, McCarthy goes on to explain, wells up out of the fear and guilt that death provokes. Along with the dancer, the graveyard is a recurrent Celinian image, while hatred is the sentiment that the writer analyses best. This penetrating analysis would not have been possible, McCarthy claims, had not Celine himself felt an overwhelming need to hate. In other words, Celine's anti-semitism amounted to a more virulent manifestation of the sensibility that even his detractors found riveting and considered essentially harmless in its purely literary form.

McCarthy devotes several pages to a demonstration that "France has always mixed politics with literature, and many great writers have been polemists (sic)," including Rabelais, Pascal and Voltaire. This stab at elevating Celine's propaganda to the level of genuinely profound thinkers in disparate eras, when the issues were different, is a bit strained. When McCarthy ranks Celine as a contributor to "a distinguished, yet troubling tradition," his discussion smacks of lame and unnecessary justification.

Overly exagerrated attempts to link Celine with more prestigious French writers are the book's principal shortcoming. McCarthy loses some of his critical flare and originality in the process. For instance, he illustrates Celine's disillusionment with sex with this lament from the protagonist of Journey: "Pleasure pretty soon becomes hard work." Then, for some reason, he seems to feel it is necessary to congratulate Celine by juxtaposing a similar Baudelairean observation: "after debauchery one always feels more alone, more abandoned." But the net effect is merely to emphasize how commonplace the idea really is.

A SUSTAINED EFFORT to associate the psychology of Celine's characters with Pascal's metaphysics gets McCarthy into worse trouble. He replaces the theatrical vocabulary which the novelist uses to describe his characters' penchant for self-delusion, their yearning for a grander reality, with the concept of divertissement. But Pascal's concept derives from metaphysical anxiety, while, by McCarthy's own admission, Celinean beings wallow in the concrete.

The introduction of this Pascalian connection raises an intriguing question--is McCarthy's inspiration traceable to an Ostrovsky connection, too? In 1971 Erika Ostrovsky published Voyeur, Voyant, a romanticized but keenly intelligent biography of Celine, cast in elegantly spacy prose. In it, she lets fall the word divertissement with McCarthy's meaning but without Pascal's support. Elsewhere she undermines Celine's pretence that he resented public interviews and solicitation of his advice by jibing, "Somehow, he protested too much." When relating how Celine insisted that he did not believe in love, the Frenchman's latest biographer sounds a rather pompous echo: "One thinks that the gentleman doth protest too much."

From the looks of her bibliography, Ostrovsky had access to reams of correspondence from Celine in private hands and conducted an exhaustive series series of interviews with family and aquaintances, while McCarthy relied solely on public sources. Given the circumstances, McCarthy must have been tempted to consult his predecessor's text. Yet she is footnoted only once in the biography, to recommend her work for a contrasting opinion. Considering the deft grasp of history displayed in Celine, you'd expect Patrick McCarthy to be a shrewder politician.