5 JULY 1975, Page 14

Douglas Johnson on a writer among the shadows

It is a pity that discussion about the novels and pamphlets written by the writer who called himself Celine should so frequently be dominated by the question of his behaviour during the war. The large number of books about him which now exist in France is part of the renewed interest in Vichy and the German occupation, and probably reflect the fairly recent realisation that the Gaullist vision of a decent, honourable France existing only in London and in the resistance movements is inadequate as well as inaccurate. It is also time that anyone who was so violent in his hatreds as Celine, and who when referring to one of the particular objects of his detestation, the murdered Popular Front minister Jean Zay, would indulge in the childish game of writing "Je vous zay" rather than "Je vous hais," is unlikely to avoid continued controversy.

But the real interest of Celine does not lie in the catastophe of 1940 or in the bitter divisions which followed. Celine is a supremely modern writer. To read his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1933, or to read one of his last, Castle to Castle, published in 1957, is to plunge not only into the contemporary world of violence, destruction, disbelief and extinction; it is also to see the problems of artistic creation, with the narrator trying to reconcile the perspective which enters naturally into the process of writing with the meaninglessness and void which are the essence of these books.

Celine was a natural. He has often been called a café-philosopher and in many ways he was that and only that. It so happened that he greatly enjoyed sitting in cafes and, whilst hardly touching wine or alcohol, talking incessantly. It so happened too that he was a doctor, and this gave him both an insight into the human condition and the certainty of having an eager audience, since the French like nothing so much as a doctor who is prepared to gossip. C Mine would talk violently and contemptuously. He sensed disaster everywhere; he saw unhappiness, disease and death; he denounced conspiracy, wickedness and hypocrisy. He had a gift for telling stories and a weakness for telling those which were impossible, as when he claimed to have known a man who was on a diet of Roquefort cheese and whose skin turned yellow with blue spots. He was also kindly and attentive, with a steady determination to help his friends. Thus it was that having kept his audience entranced, amazed and shocked by his conversation, if life went on as usual once he had left the cafe, many of those present would not easily forget him. And his writing is like that. He has probably made few converts. Those authors who claim to have been influenced by him show surprisingly few signs of that influence. Few men will have become more corrupt or more depraved as a result of reading him. But he remains a unique and unforgettable writer.

Patrick McCarthy has written a sensible and informative book*. It is not unduly ambitious and since it avoids quotations in French and probably hopes that its readers are not limited to those who know the language, it avoids dealing with some of the :nore interesting aspects of Celine, his language and imagery for example. Occasionally, Mr McCarthy seems to shy away from his subject, and when he refers to Celine's "complicated sexual needs" he hardly explains what these were, apart from some oblique references to "voyeurism" and a quotation from Celine's Breton friend, Mahy, about a Chinese girl who was a virgin, but that did not matter, since "the back is as good as the front." Mr McCarthy is not the first to shrink from the immensity of Celine's daring, something which went much further than obscenity. Where he is most unconvincing is in the comparison between de Gaulle and Celine, even down to comparing the former's simple army overcoats to the latter's shabby dressing-gowns.

We are given many clues to Celine, perhaps too many. He is shown to us as a man who was for ever changing masks, someone who is busily and constantly enjoyed in concealing his own identity, burying himself deeper and deeper out of sight, using each mask as a means of coping with the nightmare which is existence. As a man he could be the old soldier (who was wounded and decorated in the first world war), he could be the bohemian who simply walked out of his prosperous first marriage and his bourgeois father-in-law from Rennes, he could be the doctor and medical researcher who was fascinated by disease, the compulsive talker whose many accounts of his own life are so contradictory that they have probably completely concealed the truth. As a writer he was able to put on more masks, when he created characters and situations, structures of sound and movement, visions and nightmares. Sometimes this is simple enough, as when the wounded soldier shows what one must do in order to win sympathy. It is not enough to say that one is in pain: you must shout patriotic slogans in the midst of your groans, "don't . worry sister, we'll win through in the end," and the nurses would weep as they clustered round.

Sometimes it is more complicated, as in Castle to Castle where those who have collaborated with the Germans explain what they have done and the narrator mocks them; since everyone is playing a game and since the destruction of Vichy France and of Germany has reduced life to a half-life, no one can be sure where reality exists, or if there is any reality.

Celine was pre-occupied with death and he recommended the cemetery as the only place which counted. It was enough not to see a beautiful woman for two years, then you were made aware of the fact that she was ageing. He saw the value of madness. Only the mad in their hallucinations could see what was really happening. He was aware of evil existing as a living, vital force, and it is this awareness which retains its impact, as probably more of his readers will today recognise and believe in the power of evil than they would have been prepared to do in the 'thirties.

It is clear that Celine cannot be dismissed simply as a Fascist. He was totally unlike Drieu la Rochelle describing the formative influence of his youth moving from Nietzsche, Kipling, d'Annunzio, to Claudel and Rimbaud who inspired him with violence. Celine revolted against all influences and against all aspirations. It is futile to say that his writing is entirely destructive. That is its point. Only the one thing remained, and that was Celine himself, arguing, exploding, discovering new enemies and inventing new myths. As Mr McCarthy admits, in some ways Celine had said all he had to say in his first novel. In some of his last writings he takes a long time to describe how Europe is going under. The maniacal laughter of the demon king as he sees the world destroyed can become tedious. The language bedomes considerably dis-jointed, and when we are faced simply with "Vroum! vroum! Vloaf, Vloaf," then we are back with the café-entertainer, his grimaces, shoulder-shrugging, muttering and gesticulating. But in all this there is life, even if it is delirium, there is the lyricism of the cities and streets, even if it is destructive and sordid. Behind the denunciation are the glimpses of kindness (the woman who spends her life sewing on buttons tells her husband that now he can afford to buy his newspaper every day, if he wishes).

Behind the ugliness is the beauty of movement, and the fact that there are some places in a city which are so hideous that a man can always be alone in them. Celine quoted Claude Lorrain, who said that the foreground in a picture is always ineffective and that the interest must be placed in the far distance, where falsehoods can take refuge.

Patrick McCarthy has dealt with his formidable subject in a cool, orderly way. He does not make extravagant claims about Celine's genius, although in some sections, when he is writing about Guignol's Band for example, he is convincingly enthusiastic. • Doubtless he will not satisfy everyone in his treatment of Celine's anti-semitism, and it is certainly strange that someone who was so inclined to disbelief should have been so credulous about the activities of Jews and Communists. One wonders whether, just as he rejected the orderliness of Marxism ("history threugh the ass-hole") so he imagined and rejected the supposedly close-knit Jewish community, another Passage ChOiseul from which one had to escape. But Mr McCarthy has been well advised to devote his scholarship to Celine and to rescue him from the unfair blame and praise, from which he has suffered. When Gide visited the Cubist exhibition he wondered how long it would be before a writer could do anything so daring. Perhaps it was Celine who stepped in and did it.