Céline's Ultimate Focalization
The Two Faces of Paranoia in Féerie pour une autre fois

David Hayman


Even without consulting the biographies and letters, we find in Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novels enough evidence of a persistent persecution complex together with conspiracy theories reenforced by the use of paranoia as a topic to make the fantasies of his first-person protagonists seem relatively mild while dramatizing his own need to purge himself of personal demons. Biographies of the writer reenforce this aspect of his character by disclosing how he coped in real life. The question remains, however, how was this self-acknowledged disposition voiced in the fiction and why is that voicing so momentous?1

Without promising a complete response, I would suggest that perhaps some light may be shed by the least-read of Céline's novels as they relate to the virtually unread pamphlets. These texts do, after all, reveal the writer's practice at the peak and the nadir of his public life, moments of perceived strength and weakness for anyone so afflicted. I should add that Féerie pour une autre fois is the most advanced formally of all the books. Coming as they did in the wake of his first successes and his unmasking as a public person, the anti-Communist and anti-Semitic pamphlets of the mid-30s constituted in their way a major stylistic and perhaps a therapeutic breakthrough for the writer, all of whose work was in an important sense motivated by his absolute need to exorcise whatever terrors obsessed him. It is in these non-anti-meta-literary performances that he discovered a cathartic voice so profoundly satisfying that it seems ultimately to have frightened even him. It was a voice that certainly put him at risk after the war and contributed to the accusations of treason that sent him to prison in Denmark.

Of the four pamphlets published in the wake of Mort à crédit, in 1936, 1937, 1938, 1941, the most devastating and interesting is surely Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937) in which Céline established his polemic/propagandistic manner.2 Thanks to the work of Milton Hindus, Bettina Knapp, and above all François Gibault, we have a fair understanding of the context of Bagatelles and the pathology of its writer. We can speak of the disposition inherited from his father, the petit bourgeois mentality, the political climate of the 30s, the reenforcement provided by friends, pressures felt at his workplace, and an apparently genuine fear of war. In Bagatelles, the Jew provided what a successful paranoia generally demands: a conveniently limited but vulnerable, socially convenient and seemingly inexhaustible enemy. Our concern, however, will be with the rhetorical quality, the narrative substance, and the formal strategies devised to reshape the pamphlet form, that characteristically paranoid convention, into a balm capable of stilling his unassuageable and previously unfocused angst.

I would suggest that Bagatelles, in conjunction with the Féerie sequence, constitutes a watershed between the more popular and accessible early and late manners.3 Together, they mark a radical a shift in emphasis, a reification and redefinition of Céline's themes and tactics. Nowhere else do we see such a mini-maximalizing of Célinean devices: the radical paratactics, the diatribe, the clown act, paranoia as a presence and a trope, and the rhetorical catastrophe. Of course these are all tactics used elsewhere. In Voyage, he developed Robinson as Ferdinand's paranoid alter-ego. Just about every page of Mort à crédit employs some sort of rhetorical discontinuity, achieving its coherence against the grain of its transitionless, unhierarchical rhetorical procedures. The hysterical sequences vomiting catastrophe across several pages of highly-charged affective prose are only the most disturbingly delightful instances of its farcical overkill. The same may be said for the wartime Guignol novels and even the fragmentary and posthumously published Cassepipe.

Still, it is in the Bagatelles that Céline's hyper-paratactic style seems closest to beingan integral mimesis of an unnamable outrage and despair, a mimesis and perhaps momentarily a cure. How else can we explain not only the embarrassment of anti-Semitic ideologues of the time but even the actual discursive paratactics of the pamphlet, its small arms chatter of sardonic tautologies. So powerful is the delineation of the anti-Semitic obsession that, when reading Bagatelles, one is reminded of Bruegel's splendidly macabre Triumph of Death in the Prado. There we see animated skeletons in every conceivable position and action, even in the act of disguising themselves behind a mask of life. Like Bruegel's proliferating metaphor, Céline's associatively-generated anti-Semitic assertions explode into discrete units of meaning, all pointing up the same message: the omnipresent and universal Jewish conspiracy. Consistently and with great rhetorical energy they anatomize their topic before adding up to themselves.

In this volume4 he contributes new ingredients to a great tradition of pamphleteering. (A tradition mastered in the nineteenth century by one of his models, Jules Vallès, who was, of all things, a left-wing pamphleteer turned novelist.) Céline gives his rhetoric a characteristic argotic twist, peppering the reader/victim/colleague with violent variations on a starkly limited theme, listing attributes, stereotypical cliches, elaborating profanities salted with harsh irony and spleen, gingery with false sympathy, mass-cultural catalogues that glow with rage and exuberance. To achieve the impact, if not the precise grammar of disruption, he breaks his sentences often separated by his three dots and punctuated with exclamation points. There is no gainsaying the capacity of the words (even in my literal translation) to anger and amuse:

You hype a Joseph Stalin like you do a Joan Crawford, same process, same gall, same con-job, same outrageous Jews pulling the strings. Between Hollywood, Paris, New-York [sic] and Moscow nothing but a perpetual funny-fact factory. Even Charley Chaplin gives his all, splendidly, to the cause, a great pioneer of Jewish imperialism. He's the big secret. Here's to good Jewish whining! Here's to the lament that works! Here's to immense lamentation! It softens all the good hearts, it topples with gold-power all walls. It makes all the goyish suckers even more weak-kneed, soppy, anti- prejudiced, "humanitarian," that says it all, inter national ... but I'm onto them! so they get propositioned! Jewish style! set up like bowling pins! In the sentimental muck the Jew cuts, slices, nibbles, crumbles, poisons, prospers. The miseries of the exploited poor, the counter- jumpers at Bader's, the galley slave at Citroën, he should care, Chaplin, he should give a shit, with his millions ... Here's to the great jeremiad! Here's to modern times! Here's to the good Soviets, real yids! There's no fighting propaganda, you just have to spend enough gold ... and the Jews own all the gold in the world ... from the Urals to Alaska!5

With few verifiable facts, rational arguments, and no logical discourse, this text makes its points by multiplying myths, generating not-quite synonyms, inventing side issues, settling scores. (Strange that Chaplin to whom Céline's farce owes so much should be a target. But then The Great Dictator had only recently been released and Céline must have felt betrayed.) The obvious effect is to immobilize the argument, turning a development into a landscape or, at the very least, an important heap. Bagatelles is an infinitely varied tantrum, a release of tension, a display of wild gestures implicating the reader in language as action. Céline's "facts" are used to stun the adversary, but the attack on the reader through affective language is more immediate. Redundancy works for him precisely because he has "a way with words." He also has a way of seeming to uphold the "right," the moral. It will come as no surprise that Ezra Pound, who played some of the same tunes in his wartime broadcasts, loved Céline in his attack mode, singling him out for praise as a fellow truth-sayer. Two other premonitory aspects of Bagatelles need emphasis. The first is its vestigial plotline. Céline, the master story-teller, motivates his harangue by pretending to hold a dialogue with a Jewish friend. The second is the anomalous inclusion of the curious "ballets," scenarios dedicated to an ephemeral and faeric fancy that seems to extend (and soften) the spirit of Bardamu's romance of le roi Krogold in Mort à crédit. A final noteworthy detail: It is in the pamphlets that the writer first abandons his fictional protagonist, Ferdinand Bardamu, speaking directly as Dr. Destouches.6

Céline's behavior after Bagatelles and during the war suggests that, for a time, he believed in the efficacy of the pamphlets, their capacity to destroy, if not the Jews, at least his demons. If so, he was doubly, perhaps even triply disappointed: first by the negative response of the Nazis; then by the post-war accusations of collaboration and prosecution; finally, by the fact that such outpourings of bile did not calm the inner turmoil that elicited them. After the war he found himself in jail as much because of the pamphlets as because of his wartime associations with the Germans and Vichy. During his Danish exile, at a time when his future was still uncertain, his publisher (Gallimard) pushed him to return to his fiction. By that time his anxieties had fulfilled themselves. Something significant had to occur in Céline's fiction, it had to turn almost completely in on itself. The result was a novel sequence in which the need for seIf-exculpation is translated into an elaborate attack/defense, a novel in which the dominant discursive procedure is a parataxis that denied hierarchies, a narrative whose plot is once again vestigial, a context for theatricality and verbal spectacle.

In the first volume of Féerie,7 we find Céline/Destouches shadowboxing with a hoard of absent antagonists, embodiments of a France out after his hide. For the first time in his fiction, he uses his real name and recites something approximating biographical truth, a fact that underscores the curious inverse equivalence of pamphlet and novel and prefigures the "chronicles" to come.

Féerie is a paired sequence dealing with the Destouches' precarious situation in Montmartre in the days immediately preceding their flight through Germany toward Denmark.

Unlike the hyper-active earlier and later fictions, it is a curiously static narrative. Most of the action is unleashed by the rhetoric. Indeed, two-thirds of the first volume is given over to the incarcerated Doctor's attempt to win reader sympathy without losing self-respect or moderating his vituperative tone. Though the death row prisoner's associative discourse is hardly dull, its narrative is no more than a pretext: the visit to the Destouches' apartment by Clemence Arlon, the wife of an estranged friend. (We may note that this tactic owes something to the tar shorter preludes of the earlier books and that it was recycled for the lengthy overture to D'un chateau I'autre.) Like Bagatelles, but with something resembling novelistic decorum, Féerie is characterized by a flood of images and allegations that anesthetizes the intellect, contributing to the text's power to badger us.

If we are initially amused by the speaker's inventiveness, by the seemingly boundless mass of details and metaphors, we may soon experience a mild anxiety, a dizziness, and even a need to conciliate, to mollify his speaking text. (As it is in Bagatelles, the novel's rhetoric is relentlessly oral and present.)

Céline has managed in Féerie's diatribe/soliloquy to reverse the tactics of his pamphlets, retaining the basic meta-narrative procedure and expanding the paratactic rhetoric, while refocussing his rage and casting himself in the triple role of malefactor/victim/assailant, a role that combines that of the Jew with his attacker in Bagatelles. After the war, the holocaust had the effect of turning Céline himself into a static embodiment of the Wandering Jew. All things considered, the narrative strategy is brilliant since itenables the writer to indite the French for hypocrisy while revealing the scabs on his own body and soul and revelling in an orgy of rhetorical effects.8

Like the pamphlet, the novel is by turns slyly ironic, bombastic, hyperbolic, cruelly comic, and openly farcical, and at times perversely tender. Unlike it, and like the earlier fictions, it is also theatrical, hallucinatory, and explosive. Those of us who read on may be held not so much by a promise of plot as by rhythmic echo, attitudinal variety and the rhetoric, which, for all its excesses is frequently as tensely muted and hysterically controlled as is this snippet from the opening pages:

Creatures act in the same way at the same time ... the same ticks ... Like the little ducks around their mother in the parc Daumesnil, in the Bois de Boulogne, all together, head right! ... head left! whether they be ten! ...twelve! ... fifteen!...same thing! all heads right! synchronized! Clemence Arlon sideeyes me ... its the epoch ... Had she ten ... twelve ... fifteen sons ... they'd sideeye in the same way!

In this exceptionally mild passage the motif of threat is developed in terms of duck-like and therefore deceptively innocent, antagonism. The situation is fundamentally farcical: the poor clown is put upon by a mass of inoffensive normal citizens, the shepherd is mowed down by a herd of sheep. The rhetoric is mildly paratactic, the attitude an unstable blend of bemused humor and stoic paranoia. Parataxis, humor and paranoia in varying degrees are the staples here and in the similarly plotless pamphlets. The difference is of course in the targets and the particular development of Céline's rhetorical attack and the perceived nature of the attacker.

The violent pamphleteer has become the victim of an excoriated French hypocrisy, one whose merits are, at first, hard to discern, Though his rhetorical resources are astonishing, the portrait he paints is of an unrepentant, hostile, querulous, decrepid, self-pitying paranoid, a poisonous presence who blames others for all his misfortunes. He is deliberately placing himself in the position he earlier reserved for the Jews, a tactic that pays off later when Dr. Destouches is made out to be a truer supporter of French values than either of his opposite-equivalents: Jules, the amputee or Normance, the dead Halles porter.

Two-thirds of the way through the first volume, the scene changes abruptly when Destouches' mind leaps from the cell back to a Paris of pantomime and ballet, a universe peopled by clowns and dancers in which the inoffensive doctor plays a passive voyeur, a Pierrot offended by a malevolent Harlequin/Punch. It, as I believe, Féerie can be read as an allegory of occupied and liberated France, the shift from claustrophobic cell-cave to sunlit Paris graphically illustrates its central destabilizing strategy. We are suddenly treated to a portrait of a reprobate, a legless, lecherous, vile-tempered, irrepressibly foul-mouthed clown, the sculptor Jules.

Though seemingly a narrative, this passage is little more than an extended profile, an extension of the prisoner's meditation. Jules is a monster etched in harsh prose against a background of beautiful dancing legs. He appears literally out of the hallucinated context from which Destouches emerges onto the streets of Paris as if returning physically to the fin de guerre. This "clown en caisse" holds the center of the stage for the rest of the book. His gross, anti-social comic act provides more than a lift for the reader's flagging spirits, however. Jules functions as the anti-Destouches, a vicious, vengeful and hyperactive plastic artist vs a suffering and vituperative collabo novelist. Art is at this center of this allegory in which writing cedes center stage to sculpture, dance and ultimately spectacle.

Here we find a last echo of the pamphlet mode with its broad and crude categories. We may read Destouches' wife Lili as an embodiment of the cleansing spirit disclosed by the scenarios of Bagatelles. Indeed, this is the role she shares with the Destouches' much-travelled cat in the post-War trilogy: D'un chateau I'autre, Nord and Rigodon.

Of course, paranoia is not subject of easy cures. Even paliation has its costs. Céline had to write in part because he needed money. He may even have gotten some profound pleasure from self-expression, but I suggest that ultimately, he had no choice but to write; for nothing he had written could assuage present torment and he was, even in his most catastrophically comic.


1. Very early on, he feared the consequences of the attacks he made on French society in Voyage au bout de la nuit, as witness his use of a pseudonym and the preface he added to the post-war edition.

2. Bagatelles pour un massacre, Paris: Denoël, Paris, 1937 )NOTE: TO BE INSERTED WHEN I RETURN TO MADISON)

3. In the second draft of Féerie pour une autre fois (See Maudits soupirs pour une autre fois: Une version primitive de Féerie pour une autre fois, ed. Henri Godard, Paris: Gallimard, 1985) the anguish and violence, the verbal rhythms, the Paris setting, and the major actors have been mobilized, but the focus is radically different. Before he finished revising, Céline reversed his procedures, altering in the process the structure, tone and hence the impact while deleting a huge amount of background material including the details of the Paris setting. His most brilliant and telling decision was to turn a rational narrative development on its head, filling fully two thirds of the first volume with the hectic monologue of Destouches as the underground man is hounded on one side by the visit of it predatory friend and on the other by the semi-allegorical antics of an unconscionable clown.

4. ibid.

5. To appreciate tile revolutionary nature of this procedure, one has only to compare the Féerie monologue with the next necessary step: the voice of Samuel Beckett's unnameable in another great breakthrough novel in the Sebastian mode.

6. Note the care Céline takes with timing, gesture (both physical and verbal), and punctuation. It is typical also that this comic but ominous passage should be followed by an equally comic description of Clemence's son.

7. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Féerie pour une autre fois, Paris: Gallimard, 1952, pp. 11-12.

8. On this topic see Philippe Alméras's fine biographical study which cuts through much of the confusion left created by Céline"s fabri-fictions. (Céline: entre haines et passions, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994, p. 42.