Kurt Vonnegut on Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Louis-Ferdinand Cé, Meudon, 1959




He was in the worst possible taste, by which I mean that he had many educational advantages, becoming a physician, and he was widely traveled in Europe and Africa and North America – and yet he wrote not a single phrase that hinted to similarly advantaged persons that he was something of a gentleman.

He did not seem to understand that aristocratic restraints and sensibilities, whether inherited or learned, accounted for much of the splendor of literature. In my opinion, he discovered a higher and more awful order of literary truth by ignoring the crippled vocabularies of ladies and gentlemen and by using, instead, the more comprehensive language of shrewd and tormented guttersnipes.

Every writer is in his debt, and so is anyone else interested in discussing lives in their entirety. By being so impolite, he demonstrated that perhaps half of all experience, the animal half, had been concealed by good manners. No honest writer or speaker will ever want to be polite again.

*  *  *  *  *

Céline has been praised as a stylist. He himself mocked the endlessly repeated typographical trick that made every page he wrote easily recognizable as being his: “Me and my three dots…my supposedly original style!…all the real writers will tell you what to think of it!…”

The only writers who admire that style enough to imitate it, as far as I know, are gossip columnists. They like its looks. They like the sense of urgency it imparts, willy-nilly, to any piece of information at all.

*  *  *  *  *

With no especial help from his eccentric typography, in my opinion, Céline gave us in his novels the finest history we have of the total collapse of Western civilization in two world wars, as witnessed by hideously vulnerable common women and men. That history should be read in the order in which it was written, for each volume speaks knowingly to the ones that came before it.

And the resonating chamber for this intricate system of echoes through time is Céline’s first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932, when the author was thirty-eight. It is important that a reader of any Céline book know in his heart what Céline knew so well, that his writing career began with a thundering masterpiece.

*  *  *  *  *

Readers may find their experience softened and deepened, too, if they reflect that the author was a physician who chose to serve patients who were mainly poor. It was common for him not to be paid at all. His real name, by the way, was Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches.

His sympathy may not have lain with the poor and powerless, but he surely gave them the bulk of his time and astonishment. And he did not insult them with the idea that death was somehow ennobling to anybody – or killing, either.

He and Ernest Hemingway died on the same day, incidentally, on July 1, 1961. Both were heroes from World War I. Both deserved Nobel Prizes – Céline for his first book alone. Céline didn’t get one, and Hemingway did. Hemingway killed himself, and Céline died of natural causes.

All that remains is their books.

And Céline’s slowly fading infamy.

*  *  *  *  *

After years of unselfish and often brilliant service to mankind in literature and medicine, he revealed himself as a fierce anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer. This was in the late 1930s. I have heard no explanation for this, other than that he was partly insane. He never claimed to have been insane, and no physician ever declared him so.

He was sane enough, at any rate, to virtually exclude his racism and cracked politics from his novels. The anti-Semitism appears only flickeringly here and there, and usually in a context of his being absolutely ga-ga about all the varieties of treacherous and foolish human beings.

For what it may be worth, he wrote these words only a few days before he died: “I say that Israel is a real fatherland that welcomes its children home and my country is a shithouse…”

*  *  *  *  *

His words are contemptible to anyone who has suffered from anti-Semitism. And so, surely, were the amnesty and exoneration he received from the French government in 1951. He was punished with heavy fines and imprisonment and exile before that.

As for the words I quoted: They don’t, after all, imply an apology or a wish to be forgiven. They are envious, and little more.

Since he is punished and dead, and since the Nazi nightmare is so long ago now, it may be possible to perceive a twisted sort of honor in his declining to speak of remorse or to offer excuses of any kind. Other collaborators with the Nazis, of whom there were tens of thousands in France and millions in all of Europe, had stories to tell of how they were forced to behave as badly as they did, and of daring acts of resistance and sabotage they committed, at the risk of their lives.

Céline found that sort of lying ludicrous in a very ugly way.

*  *  *  *  *

I get a splitting headache every time I try to write about Céline. I have one now. I never have headaches at any other time.

*  *  *  *  *

As the war was ending, he headed for the center of the holocaust – Berlin.

*  *  *  *  *

I know when he began to influence me. I was well into my forties before I read him. A friend was startled that I didn’t know anything about Céline, and he initiated me with Journey to the End of the Night, which flabbergasted me. I assigned it for a course in the novel which I was giving at the University of Iowa. When it was time for me to lecture for two hours about it, I found I had nothing to say.

The book penetrated my bones, anyway, if not my mind. And I only now understand what I took from Céline and put into the novel I was writing at the time, which was called Slaughterhouse-5. In that book, I felt the need to say this every time a character died: “So it goes.” This exasperated many critics, and it seemed fancy and tiresome to me, too. But it somehow had to be said.

It was a clumsy way of saying what Céline managed to imply so much more naturally in everything he wrote, in effect: “Death and suffering can’t matter nearly as much as I think they do. Since they are so common, my taking them so seriously must mean that I am insane. I must try to be saner.”

*  *  *  *  *

Which has brought us back to our old friend insanity again. Céline claimed from time to time to have been trepanned in the First World War, as the result of a head wound. Actually, according to his fascinating biographer Erika Ostrovsky (Voyeur Voyant, Random House, 1971), he was wounded in his right shoulder. And, in his final novel, Rigadoon, he tells of being hit in the head by a brick during an air raid in Hanover. So it might be said that he found it necessary sometimes to explain a head that so many people found unusual.

He himself must have become thoroughly sick of his head occasionally, and I will guess as to its chief defect. I think it lacked the damping apparatus which most of us have, which keeps us from being swamped by the unbelievabilty of life as it really is.

So perhaps Céline’s style isn’t as arbitrary as I’ve thought it was. It may have been inevitable, if his mind was so undefended. There may have been nothing for him to do, as though he were caught in an artillery barrage, but to exclaim and exclaim and exclaim.

*  *  *  *  *

And his works cannot be called a triumph of the human imagination. Almost everything he exclaimed about was really going on.

*  *  *  *  *

He was wonderful about inventors and machines.

*  *  *  *  *

The inscription on his tombstone is the one with which I began this essay. Erika Ostrovsky calls it a “terse summary of a double life.”

Good for her.

He expected his writings to live on and on. He described himself when he was about to die like this: “…by your leave, a writer, a terrific stylist, the living proof: they put me in the ‘Pleiade’ with La Fontaine, Clement Marot, du Bellay…not to mention Rabelais! and Roussard!…just to show you that I’m not worried…in two or three centuries I’ll be helping the kids through high school…”

*  *  *  *  *

At the time I write, which is the autumn of 1974, it has become apparent even to ordinary people, with their mental dampers operating perfectly, that life is in fact as dangerous and unforgiving and irrational as Céline said it was. There is some question as to whether we have two or three centuries remaining to us in which to prepare civilization for the teaching of Celine in high school.

Until that day, if it comes, I suspect that fellow writers will keep his reputation alive. We are especially shocked and enlightened by what he says. We are filled with a giddy sort of gratitude.

*  *  *  *  *

I have heard it suggested that Céline may live on far longer in English than In French – for technical rather than political reasons. The argument goes that Céline’s gutter French was so specialized as to time and place that gobs of it are incomprehensible to Frenchmen.

Those who have translated it into English, however, have used more durable crudities, which will be clear enough still in, God willing, one hundred years.

As I say, this is not my idea. I heard it somewhere. I pass it on. If it turns out to be true, it seems that simple literary justice would eventually require that his translators be acknowledged as coauthors of Céline. Translation is that important.

*  *  *  *  *

There is at least one significant document by Céline that is out of print in English. And it would be more punctilious of me to say that it was written not by Céline but by Dr. Destouches. It is the doctoral thesis of Destouches, “The Life and Work of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis,” for which he received a bronze medal in 1924. It was written at a time when theses in medicine could still be beautifully literary, since ignorance about diseases and the human body still required that medicine be an art.

And young Destouches, in a spirit of hero-worship, told of the futile and scientifically sound battle fought by an Hungarian physician named Semmelweis (1818-1865) to prevent the spread of childbed fever in Viennese hospital maternity wards. The victims were poor people, since persons with decent sorts of dwellings much preferred to give birth at home.

The mortality rate in some wards was sensational – 25 percent or more. Semmelweis reasoned that the mothers were being killed by medical students, who often came into the wards immediately after having dissected corpses riddled with the disease. He was able to prove this by having the students wash their hands in soap and water before touching a woman in labor. The mortality rate dropped.

The jealousy and ignorance of Semmelweis’s colleagues, however, caused him to be fired, and the mortality rate went up again.

*  *  *  *  *

The lesson Destouches learned from this true story, in my opinion, if he hadn’t already learned it from an impoverished childhood and a stretch in the army, is that vanity rather than wisdom determines how the world is run.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Introduction to Penguin paperback editions of Céline’s novels Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon
Reprinted in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage

More by Céline

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.