Archive for the 'louis-ferdinand celine' Category

Tardi is Really, Really, Really, Really Rad

The title pretty much says it all, but I’m still going to wax eloquent about Jacques Tardi for a while, since brevity fits me about as well as jeans with a 32″ waist (eg: LOL I’m fat).  As I’ve written elsewhere, although I’m totally obsessed with comics now, they haven’t been a lifelong obsession (with the exception of Tintin).  However, Tardi has been a part of my bookshelf for a long time, in the form of his incredible “collaborations” with Louis Ferdinand Celine.  To recap – Gallimard (major French publisher – think Penguin or Random House) has a comics imprint named Futuropolis, and in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Gallimard pulled classic texts from its canon and put out Gallimard/Futuropolis combo editions pairing the text up with extensive internal illustrations by well-known cartoonists.  They’re really unparalleled, essential editions for any comics fan, because the books are collaborations in the literal sense of the word, even though many of the original authors were dead at time the books were released.  Forget the traditional idea of an illustrated book (page after page of text, with an occasional full page plate, and some 1/4 page spot drawings sprinkled throughout).  Although the words in these editions are typeset rather than hand lettered (so no speech balloons), the text is fit around the illustrations – and not the other way around –  in a way that enables the illustrations to push the text in directions the original books never anticipated.  This isn’t “the classics – illustrated,” because the entire text is present, and the illustrations challenge and engage the text, instead of merely showing what happens on each page.  I can’t think of anything similar in American publishing (maybe it’s out there and some well-read comics enthusiast would like to suggest it in the comments?)… here we think it’s a great step forward when Penguin solicits covers for classic books from well-known cartoonists.  And hey, those books are cool, but they don’t offer anything for the comics fan beyond the cover.  By contrast, the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions are designed to look like Gallimard’s classic NRF series, with their cream-colored covers and red/black lettering, instead of a typical European comics album.  In other words, cartooning is folded into Gallimard’s literary canon instead of simply being window dressing for canonical texts.

Right, and so Tardi did three of these babies – all books by Celine.  When I discovered them for the first time, I didn’t know who Tardi was, but I was obsessed with Journey to the End of the Night, and the Tardi-illustrated version was a great way for me to read portions of the French text without getting too lost, thanks to the illustrations situating me along the way.  Of course, as I’ve written about earlier, it only took me flipping through the book a few times to realize Tardi’s masterful skill, and as I’ve become more familiar with his work over the years, it has become more and more clear that Tardi-Celine was a pairing that was too perfect to not happen.  I can’t think of another creator with the ability to capture the grotesque and gritty aspect of Celine’s writing in a way that also plays off of how Celine – with his pacing and rhythm, his slang, and his theatricality – creates a cartoon of the modern society he detests.  A strictly realist style wouldn’t fit Celine at all, but no one balances “cartoony”  imagery with an earth-shattering realism like Tardi.   (Sorry I don’t have a better word than “cartoony;” this is why I write my own blog and not for Comics Comics.)

So I came back from France in 2001 with the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Credit, and over time, they became two of my favorite books in my collection.  What never occurred to me, however, was that Tardi might have another body of work – you know, normal comics – that I should seek out.  And so I dove into the rabbit hole of graduate school and critical theory and all that, and then I dropped out and never felt like reading again, and then I started reading for fun, and then I discovered alternative comics, and since then I’ve been receiving a way more fun education that shows no sign of ending any time soon.  Cue Fantagraphics announcing last year that they were going to start releasing classic Tardi works in English in handsome hardcover editions.  I read the first two they released and saw the genius I saw in the Celine books in full bloom, with 100% of the page at its disposal.  (I should note that much of Tardi’s best work involves collaborations with other authors, although these are rendered as true comics, with the text as part of each panel, rather than typeset separately.)  While waiting for the third Fantagraphics release, it occurred to me that I could dig deeper into Tardi’s back-catalogue without the wait if I tried to read some of the books in French – even Le der des ders, a title whose translation completely escapes me (Google Translation helpfully provides “The Der of Ders”).

I went to my favorite site to buy French books – – and spent some extra disposable income on 5 Tardi books, including Casse-Pipe, the much less common Gallimard/Futuropolis edition of Celine’s unfinished World War I novel.  Now, this was a find for me, since I’ve been looking for it for years… it’s available on used book sites, but usually costs in the $100 range, and the condition is often suspect.  But, and this is why I love, it just happened to be available from a particular seller for 12 euros, even though the original edition has been out of print for years and is never found for so cheap (this isn’t uncommon with Chapitre – see my last post about the mysterious French website selling the Codex Seraphinianus for around $140).  One delayed FedEx shipment later, my Tardi collection has grown exponentially.   Now, I just need Fantagraphics to get him to appear at Comic-con so I can get these things signed, and I’ll be good to go.

So, like I said 950 words ago, the title says it all.  But in case you needed a little extra convincing, there’s the rest too.

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?

Books I’ll never own: Volume 1

Today, I got an amazing copy of Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the end of the Night) delivered from France after what seemed like forever. This particular edition is part of French publishing giant Gallimard’s “Futuropolis” collection- a series of twenty or so great novels illustrated by a prominent graphic novelist. The text is unbroken, but there is at least one illustration per page, and often times more than that (as well as some beautiful full-page plates). Futuropolis went defunct in the late 90’s and has been resurrected, but the quality of the books isn’t as good as it was previously. They’re hardcovers now, compared to the “hard softcover” in-between binding of the originals, and the designs are updated and look pretty cool, but I prefer the look of the old ones, which look unmistakably like French books (plain beige with red and black type- you know the drill). I had owned a later printing of this book before, but it wasn’t looking so good, so I ponied up and picked up a first edition that’s in great shape. It’s in better condition than all of the ones currently on Abebooks that cost more (I know, because I’ve asked all the sellers to send me pictures, and apparently “bon etat” means about as much as “very good” does in English). A good antidote to yesterday, this one was actually in better condition than I had anticipated. I sold my copy to Moe’s books in Berkeley… I could write a separate blog about selling books to Moe’s. It’s entirely dependent on the mood of one of the two buyers. The day I sold my Celine to them, I had some other books he wanted more, and so he gave it a cursory search on Abebooks, found a copy for $100 and offered me $50 for mine. (He overpaid me… I always search books on Abebooks before I take them to Moe’s just so I know what to expect, and the copy he searched up was a first edition… I guess that year in France is finally paying off financially. Only $27,950 more to go…) I think he thought he was lowballing me, which made it even better.Lovers!

Anyway, back to the story of this book. Journey to the end of the Night is my favorite book, hands down. There’s so much in it beyond just the misanthropic worldview that people get hung up on- it’s a great study of all the good and bad in human nature, and while it tends to wallow in the bad, I think there’s plenty that’s uplifting; you just have to dig for it. I’ve always had an affinity for illustrated books, and the illustrator here, Jacques Tardi, is legendary. The synergy between Celine’s text and his drawings take the book to a new level. He’s basically credited as a co-author on the book’s cover, which is certainly deserving, given the amount of effort it must have taken to produce such a monumental amount of original illustrations. All in all, this book (especially now with this beautiful first-edition) is easily in my top 5 favorites in my collection.

But, there’s always more… obviously, there’s always more. In this case, the “more” takes the form of the first limited edition… limited to 120 copies in a clamshell box with an original, signed drawing by Tardi. <Swoon!> Most of the books in the “books I’ll never have” category are there because of money (first edition of the Codex Seraphinianus, Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated/signed by Henri Matisse, a Bukowski first edition of Ham on Rye with an original painting tipped in)… and I may one day have them if I end up being really rich or win the lottery or something. But this edition of Journey is in another category… it’s in the “I can’t even find the damn thing” realm. That means no copies on Abebooks or anywhere else on the net. It means no copies unearthed in a year of living in Paris and searching around at all the chi-chi bookstores there (and in the not so chi-chi ones as well). I have seen it before… It’s beautiful. The clamshell box is black cloth with the type stamped in red, and with the cover illustration pasted down (ask me how I feel about pastedowns on cloth covers… I like them, okay?).

I saw it at an exhibition for a graphic designer that I went to with my friend one rainy Sunday in Paris. I didn’t expect to find it there; my friend was a design student and had read about the exhibition in the little weekly events magazine, I went with him because I had nothing better to do. Turns out the guy we went to see is a famous font designer, and he designed the font for the Futuropolis logo (the original sketches of it were pretty cool). I asked the museum curator how much that book goes for on the street, and he chuckled. Total French behavior- the answer may have been $200, and because he thought I didn’t look the part of a serious collector, he didn’t want to be bothered telling me. Anyway, it’s assuredly more than that (original Tardi drawings ain’t cheap to begin with), and that’s if I ever see it again. It is still the #1 book-I’d-kill-to-have, but I don’t foresee that happening.

January 2022