My favorite books, explained in a verbose manner: Volume 2

I wrote about the Futuropolis edition Celine’s Journey to the end of the Night (illustrated by Jacques Tardi) a couple posts ago in volume 1 of the promising series, “Books I’ll Never Own,” although I thought it deserved treatment in its own right as one of my favorite books (explained, of course, as you must have expected by now (and as the title obviously dictates) in a verbose manner). Below are some images of the book that show just how large a part the illustrations play in this presentation of Celine’s novel…


This is the first page, where it all started like this: Ferdinand met his pal Arthur Ganate at the Place Clichy, and he just started talking (he’d never said anything before that). Of course, when I lived in France, I made sure to meet a friend at the Place Clichy and get coffee with them. I’m lame like that.


The book is 350+ pages, so it’s tough to pick out one spread that shows just how much Tardi adds to the story (I know I’m being effusive, but this is about my “favorite” books, don’t forget). But, this page just gets me… Journey is an incredibly potent anti-war story, and Celine captures the futility, absurdity, and hypocrisy of war like few other authors I’ve ever read. The passage about the soldier vomiting over the pile of mangled, dead human meat has always stuck with me, and something about Tardi’s illustration just nails the potency of the text perfectly.


This illustration is from one of my favorite passages in the novel. Ferdinand, well on his way to the end of the night (which is a cipher for what he sees as the ultimate triumph of human misery), finds himself living in a dirty tenement with a window that opens out to a narrow courtyard that captures all the sound from all the other units in the building. He becomes transfixed listening to the violence, suffering, abuse, and misery of his neighbors. Over the course of this section of the novel, he begins to realize that he has only scratched the surface on discovering what humans are capable of … that there are layers and layers of horror in the world, and that the window next to the courtyard allows him to access them one by one, going deeper each time. Somehow, I find this passage inspiring through its grisly depiction of the world… it is so beautifully tragic (as is Ferdinand’s entire quest) that I can’t help but be emotionally moved by it, and it is the power of Celine’s art not only to disgust me, but really to affect me that I find inspiring.

Of course, Celine is not one to be lionized, at least as a person. Brief background on the guy: he was a doctor who treated mostly poor people, and he didn’t have formal training as a writer. His first “literary” piece of work was his doctoral thesis, a biography of the scientist Semmelweis, in which he took a lot of liberties in order to depict Semmelweis as a maverick genius who was persecuted by the academy of his day. He then published a play titled The Church, which (in my opinion at least) isn’t very good and introduces the anti-semitism that characterizes a lot of his writing. From the play, he went on to write Journey (retreading some of the same locales as The Church, although with none of the heavy-handed plot and unnatural dialog), which is his unquestioned masterpiece. Interestingly, although racism and anti-semitism are absent from Journey, Celine famously wrote in the preface to a later edition of the novel that everything he was ever “hunted” for is there plain-as-day in Journey. I disagree with this, although it brings up the an important question about where Journey fits in with the rest of his work. Anyway, after Journey, Celine published Death on Credit, a prequel of sort. And then shit got fucked, as they say. He stopped writing novels and instead turned his talents to his “pamphlets” (which aren’t pamphlets at all- more like 400 page books)… three of them published during the late 1930’s. They are ridiculous anti-semitic, racist diatribes that mostly recycle facts from the anti-semitic newspapers circulated around France during that time. Well, that and ballet scenarios. Not kidding: his first, Bagatelles pour un massacre, begins with a bagatellesconversation among four people, one of whom is a Jew, about how the Jews prevent real art from being shown to the people, and then, by way of example, segues into a full-fledged 25-page ballet scenario. This happens a few times in the book. The root of the anti-semitism has been apologized for (“He was just ignorant!” or “He didn’t really want the Holocaust to happen!”) My personal opinion is that a) you don’t have to love an author as a human to love books he wrote; and b) Celine was an extremely flawed human. I think his staunch opposition to war (having fought and been injured in WWI) screwed with his brain to the point that he caught wind of a sinister plot by the Jews to lead the world back to war (propagated in propagandistic “newspapers”), and he couldn’t get it out of his head… and that motivated him to publish awful things about Jews because he was… an extremely flawed human. He wasn’t a Hitler supporter (he even writes something to the effect of, “Hitler? A cunt! Another Jew!” in one of his later pamphlets). I haven’t read the whole thing (it gets fairly tedious, and it’s goddamn offensive), but what I’ve read is really interesting. Aside from the whole anti-semitic/ballet dialectic (has there ever been a more ridiculous dialectic?), there’s the issue of Celine’s stylistic development; from a poetic standpoint, this book is a masterpiece. The … ellipses that characterize his work (used to color characters’ rants in Journey) start to take center stage for the first time in Bagatelles, dominating the text and giving it a songlike rhythm that’s really mesmerizing.

I can’t believe how lucky I was to have found this book, though. It is a facsimile of the original, but that doesn’t bother me at all. You see, after the Germans fell in Europe, the Resistance raided Celine’s apartment and burned most of his work (including the last 300 pages of his novel Casse-Pipe, which is really depressing to me, although I’m not about to start criticizing the French Resistance). Around the same time, Robert Denoel, Celine’s publisher, was assassinated for working under collaborationist publishing houses during the Occupation. Celine had fled the country by this point, although he would eventually be jailed before being pardoned a few years later. When he came back to France, now around 1950, much of the Celine stigma was lifted, and Journey to the end of the Night and Death on Credit were republished. This is where his whole, “Everything you’ve ever hated about me is right here in this book” preface comes from.

Never republished, however, were his pamphlets. I understand this decision in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but now, with the perspective granted by 75 years of history, I think we’re mature enough to read this stuff. I mean, Celine is one of the most important authors of the 20th century (try finding Henry Miller, Bukowski, or half the beats with no Celine), and I think it’s a shame that such a significant portion of his body of work remains off-limits because of its subject matter. Like I said before, in the context of Celine the stylist (a stylist who has had a profound effect on literary style), these books are indispensable. Well, I spoke too soon: Bagatelles has been sanitized and published as Ballets without dancers, without music, without anything, a little book consisting of just the ballet scenarios. Because, I guess, ignorance about the context surrounding those scenarios is blissful.

Along the Seine river in Paris, booksellers set up each day and sell used books out of carts. Some sell fairly nice books, but most sell cheap paperbacks. The stock is inconsistent, as can be imagined, and so it’s like a daily rummage sale. I got sick of it after a couple months, spending a few hours every weekend picking through books I had no interest in and never finding anything. Then, one day while I was walking to school, I decided to take a detour and check out the books, and I saw this one sitting in someone’s cart wrapped in plastic. Like I said, it’s a facsimile and therefore probably worth less than $50, but this is the kind of thing that’s priceless to me, because it’s so rare. There are some copies on Abebooks for around $350, but nothing beats stumbling upon a book like this, a book that even ardent Celine scholars probably haven’t read, because it is absent from University libraries, bookstores, and pretty much everywhere. In fact, a professor of mine asked me if he could Xerox the entire book, because he had never come across a copy (and he was from France). So, deplorable as it is, I have to count it among my favorite books… which makes me a bad Jew, I’ll admit. Still, the rarest book by my favorite author has to count for something, right?


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