2 SEPTEMBER 1972, Page 15

Slum kid into sewer-rat

Nicholas Richardson

North Louis-Ferdinand Celine (The Bodley Head £3) Any consideration of Celine's novels raises the age-old question: just how far can an author's work be dissociated from his personality and beliefs? It raises it in its most acute form, because Celine's politics were frankly detestable, his racism too strong not only for the Paris press of the Occupation years but for its Nazi mentors. Fascist properly speaking Celine was not, being no more at home with the fascist literary establishment to whom he finally gravitated than with the left, Trotsky included, who had so enthusiastically greeted his first novels.

He was a slum kid, the product of the Passage de Beresinas and that "road beyond Orly" where he reckoned the Belle Epoque had died. His anti-Semitism was the visceral anti-Semitism of the Paris Poor, extrapolated to paranoia, a personal demonology so obsessive and indiscriminate that he could apply the term Jew to the whole, hardly inconsiderable, legion of his enemies. But Celine was a loner, an anarchist devoured by a vision of destruction. He welcomed the Fascists in the thirties, for the same reason (and with the same schadenfreude) that he greeted the prospect of a Chinese-dominated world twenty years later. Like the Fascists — except that they had failed him — the Chinese were to be the horsemen of the Apocalypse, the barbarians who would destroy the whole anthill of conventional civilisation.

Other writers, a Dostoievsky or a Yeats, have held unfashionable, even aberrant, Political views, but these seem to have been somehow incidental to their work. Celine's case was different. He saw the nightmare he had so gleefully predicted Come true; he played a — minor — part in events: and he made them the subjectmatter of his later novels. All Celine's novels seem a kind of fantasised autobiography, describing some part of his own surrealistic odyssey. North, the last to be published in his lifetime, is no exCeption. The year is 1944, Celine, his wife, cat and their friend the movie-actor Le Vigan, leave a Paris too hot to hold them and set off on a nightmare trek across the wasteland of the Third Reich, from a hotel in Baden-Baden to a bunker in Berlin, before ending up (provisionally) in the remote outback of Pomerania. Modern wars, Celine wrote, are less wars than folk-wanderings: he had now become part of the flotsam such migrations throw up, the living and ironical embodiment of his friend Le Vigan's most famous role, the ' man from nowhere' in Quai des Brumes. Like its predecessor and pendant, Castle to Castle, North is a worm's-eye-view of the Gotterdammerung, a twilight of the hominids. Years before the war Celine admitted that what he really enjoyed was "the grotesque on the borders of death." In the early novels he had found this in the slums of industrial cities or the ports of Africa. Now he found it magnified on a Continental scale in the chaos of a defeated Reich. Singmaringen in Castle to Castle and the various equally baroque staging-points in North gave him an hallucinatory landscape so perfectly adapted to his temperament and talents that he seems almost to have invented it for his own delectation.

For all this, North is a disappointing novel. At his best Celine had a blend of anger, spite and gallows humour that had real force. There are still flashes of this in North; the scene in which Celine and his party, taken for parachutists, are nearly lynched by a group of Hitler Youth in the Berlin underground (to be saved by a Frenchman whose appallingly appropriate alias is Picpus); or the moment when the old and kinky Rittmeister of the Pomeranian village rides off like some Teutonic Quixote to stop the Russians singlehanded, only to be found later half beaten to death by a mob of refugee prostitutes on the run; or even the random appearances of Wine's mysterious and epicene patron, Dr Harras. But they are drowned in a narrative that reads like one long drawn out scream of pain and persecution-mania. A monument to Merde, the blurb-writer calls the book: perhaps, but /a merde sur une base de soi-meme. Celine had been born with one skin too few, and spent his life scratc'hing his sores and exposing the nerve-ends. The war-time Odyssey, the subsequent imprisonment and penury in Denmark, the return to Paris followed by nearly twenty years of poverty and ostracism, drove him to paranoia. He seemed unable to believe — but then so was Maurras, so was Brassillach right up to the moment they took him out of Fresnes and shot him — that his repeated calls for murder and genocide could have had any relation to the murders and genocide his Nazi patrons and their French proteges committed. Indeed, when Sartre attacked Celine as the archetype of the anti-semite in an article late in 1945, the best Celine could do, he of all men, was to complain that Sartre was kicking him when he was down.

The neurotic insistence that Celine and Celine alone was always right, his un lovely mixture of a chagrin that he had backed the wrong side and a pitie purely for himself, do not make North agreeable reading. But then Celine, typically, claimed that he should be judged not on his ideas but on his style. Exclamatory, energetic, self-indulgent and constantly shifting in mood, 'laced with argot, this had been innovatory and remains perhaps influential. It also makes Celine a very difficult author to translate. Argot, in particular, is a living language that has no real equivalent in English slang, which tends to be evanescent, camp or both. The translator of North has eliminated this problem by the simple expedient of creating an Americanised idiom which lurches uneasily from the contemporary to the stagey, studded bizarrely with sub-Runyon words like gat, heather, rod or Bozo.

As a novel, then, North has few merits, but as a highly tendentious and off-beat picture of the underside of the New Order as it crumbled it 'has a real interest. Celine was the below-stairs chronicler of his time: he had the malice, the sharpness of eye, the necessary pettiness. A Saint-Simon of the sewers.

Nicholas Richardson is an unemployed savant and litterateur.