the céline effect: “céline is a great liberator; I feel called by his voice”—philip roth

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s influence on North American writers makes for a fascinating case study in literary influence. Is Céline a "strong poet" whose anxiety of influence has been felt on this side of the Atlantic for several generations? Have many of our best writers been "misprisioned" by the sinister Frenchman via the Freudian dynamics of Harold Bloom’s theory of literary progeniture? Do Céline’s populist sympathies for the poor and the sick and the outcast account for at least part of his attraction?    

Or does his searing contempt for that Dostoevskyean antheap, modern society (a contempt that many mistake for fascism), make him the exemplar of the truly authentic artist, the one who stands apart from the rest—and therefore markes him as a writer of highest possible integrity?

I think the real attraction of Céline is his frenetic style of wised-up street talk and caustic social observation. It’s a style that seems to survive in part the harrows of translation.

To be more precise: Céline’s voice, ably rendered by Ralph Manheim for the benefit of non-Francophones, plus the circumstances of his life, as captured and refined in his fiction, exerts such a seductive, siren-like lure for the safe and well-fed North American writer.

It is ironic Céline that remains so alluring for the North American writer, for that writer, no matter what degree of aliention he or she may feel, has never known the horrors and hardships of Vichy—occupation, resistance, treason—or had to endure the fugitive status of being allied with the wrong side, the losing side, indeed, quite clearly the criminal side in a global conflict, and, further, of being personally selected by the highest-ranking officals of your country as a most-wanted criminal, worthy of the death penalty, and even further again of being on the run in the Europe of 1945, with the continent itself now being rebooted by the victorious Allies to start again at Year Zero, with the determination to remove all vestiges of the Nazis and their accomodators very much on the agenda … to find one’s self alone, hunted and destitute, your country and continent in ruins…

Céline’s circumstances for a major portion of his writing life make Charles Bukowski’s call to "run with the hunted" seem like an invitation to a Japanese tea ceremony… everything Céline did seems marked with the stamp of the true isolate, and I often hear somewhere in my mind D.H. Lawrence’s dictum that "the essential Ameriucan character is cold, hard, stoic, isolate—and a killer." And Céline was at least the first four of those things when he had to be, and he may indeed have been a killer, too, what with his political pamphlets and his countrymen’s propinquity for betraying even to certain death the stigmatized and isolated among them, something that within a decade of his noxious political writings Céline came to know all too well.

Now here’s one academic’s take on the matter of Céline’s influence on North American writers (Alice Kaplan is the author of a fascinating study of an anti-Semitic writer in Vichy France, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach):   


Alice Kaplan, "The Céline Effect: A 1992 Survey of Contemporary American Writers."
From Modernism/modernity. Volume 3, Number 1, January 1996, pp. 117-136. 

Louis-Ferdinand Céline confounds the paradigm for fascist writers. A doctor for the poor with clear populist tendencies who emerged on the literary scene from out of nowhere, he produced a runaway best-seller, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) (1932), then a misunderstood bildungsroman, Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan) (1936), that revolutionized the look of written French and exploded narrative convention. In the late 1930s he published two anti-Semitic pamphlets (Bagatelles pour un massacre [Trifles for a massacre] and L’École des cadavres [School for corpses]), both wildly successful, that pushed back the envelope of acceptable hate speech. In occupied France, he wrote letters to the editors of collaborationist newspapers and was identified with the racial policies of Vichy, but he was inconsistent and fairly useless as a polemicist for the "new order," since his spleen turned against Vichy as well its enemies. Nonetheless his camp was chosen: he was the writer who had passionately demanded the extermination of the Jews. At the end of the war he fled, following the Vichy government to the castle town of Sigmaringen, then to Denmark, where he was imprisoned by the Danes and released into exile. He was not extradited back to France during the early days of the purge, when collaborators such as Robert Brasillach were being condemned to death. By the time Céline stood trial, in absentia, the fury days of the purge had ended. Amnestied in 1951 as a veteran of World War I, he returned to a semireclusive life in the Paris suburb of Meudon, where he penned a trilogy of novels about the immediate postwar moment, featuring a shattered Europe and a paranoid, misunderstood, and wildly comic narrator. His novels (but obviously not his complete works) have been edited in the prestigious "Pléiade Collection"; his work appears on the French state agrégation examination, which certifies teachers of literature at the highest level. He is generally acknowledged, along with Marcel Proust (perhaps as an anti-Proust, in terms of class and syntax), as the great literary innovator of the century. Céline’s pamphlets, according to the wishes of his widow, have not been reedited since the war; pirate versions have been seized by his estate. There is currently a debate in France about whether or not his pamphlets should be reedited; whether, on the one hand, there is enough "Céline" in them to make them valuable as literary objects, or, on the other hand, whether it isn’t dangerous, in a current French climate of escalating racism and electoral successes by Le Pen’s Front National, to make this writer’s hate speech available to a public who reads him as great literature.

Céline has figured in the American literary context at least since the early 1930s; the story of his American reception runs along not quite parallel tracks to the French story, with some fascinating differences. This essay concentrates on one part of the American picture: Céline’s reception among writers.

The Miller Paradigm

Georges Brassaï, in a memoir entitled Henry Miller: grandeur nature (Henry Miller: lifesize), tells the following, now famous story: Henry Miller was living in Paris in 1932 and struggling with the manuscript of Tropic of Cancer, which had already been rejected by publishers. 1 An agent connected with the French publishing firm of Denoël and Steele gave Miller galley proofs of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit. This was Frank Dobo, also of the Winkler International Literary Agency, the agent who would help sell and promote the English version of Céline’s first novel with Little, Brown and Company, and who was soon after to become deeply involved in Miller’s literary career. According to Brassaï, reading Céline so affected Miller that he rewrote Tropic of Cancer. 2 Miller told Brassaï that "no writer had ever given him such a shock"; Brassaï went so far as to claim that Miller moved to the working-class suburb of Clichy to be near Céline—a strange claim, since Céline never lived in Clichy, although he consulted at the medical clinic there.

It is no coincidence that Brassaï, who with novelist Pierre MacOrlan was identified with 1930s Montmartre-Montparnasse bohemianism, and who prowled Paris by night with Henry Miller as he prepared his famous photo essay Paris by Night, should be fascinated by Miller’s attraction to the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. Whether or not the story, as Brassaï told it, is literally true, we know that Miller sent Tropic to Céline, that he championed Céline throughout his career, calling him his "brother" and a "great man," and that he signed an American petition in his defense when Céline was threatened with extradition on charges of collaboration.3 The "shock" that Miller is said to have felt upon reading Céline had a positive and long-lasting effect. Samuel Putnam, a translator of Rabelais who was also closely linked to Miller through their shared Paris expatriate scene (Putnam would employ Miller at his literary magazine, The New Review ) used the word "shock" in a different register in his 1934 review of the American edition of the English translation of Journey to the End of the Night: "It is safe to wager that nine out of ten non-French French teachers in America would be unable to make head or tail out of the original, while the French-born ones would be terribly shocked, linguistically as well as morally."4 The difference between the academic and the artistic response is clearly marked here: Henry Miller’s discovery of Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, as related by Georges Brassaï, establishes a distinct relationship to Céline on the part of American authors, showing Céline en route to becoming a writer for writers.

The fact that Miller first read Céline in the original French is not to be overestimated in accounting for the impact Céline had on him. Many critics, including Putnam, acknowledged in the 1930s that John Marks’s translations of Céline were inferior to the original in tone, in addition to being expurgated. At Little, Brown, the telegram that editor Herbert Jenkins sent to the Boston branch, listing the phrases that Marks had cut, was hung on the wall as a reminder of the scandal that Journey constituted for the American reading public in 1934.5 It is astonishing that we had to wait until 1983for Ralph Manheim’s translation of Journey. By then, Céline’s American reputation had waned considerably.

American Moments

Under the impetus of the New Directions 1947 reprint of Death on the Installment Plan, Journey to the End of the Night in 1949, and the 1954 publication of Guignol’s Band in English, the circle of American-based writers interested in Céline expanded. For understanding the constellation of references and positions that accompanied the American taste for Céline during the 1950s, there is no more representative figure than Kenneth Rexroth, the New Directions author and critic who, in a series of articles on poetry, the Beat Generation, and literary rebellion, consistently used Céline as a counterpoint to the "polite" American writers, critics, and poets he dubbed the "Reactionary Generation." The paradox is that a writer like Céline, in the American context, shows up as an aesthetic alternative to writers who, like him, in the European context are situated on the reactionary Right. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound represented for the anarchist Rexroth the very essence of orthodoxy, crowned by a New Critical formalism for which he reserved his wittiest contempt: "there was growing up in Vanderbilt University, one of the few institutions of learning in the American South, a little coterie of political reactionaries, under the leadership of their English professor, John Crowe Ransom. . . . Their idol was T. S. Eliot, Classicist, Anglo-Catholic, Royalist. . . . They approved of Ezra Pound but wished he paid more attention to the rules of verse."6 At the other end of Rexroth’s spectrum was Allen Ginsberg, with his "denunciatory" jeremiad Howl, representing "an almost perfect fulfillment of the long, [Walt] Whitman, Populist, social revolutionary tradition in American poetry."7

Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs set out to visit Céline in Meudon in 1958. (It is generally thought that Burroughs learned of Céline through Miller as early as 1944 and transmitted his knowledge to the younger Beats, Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.) In the volume of poems that Ginsberg began writing in Paris that same year—entitled Kaddish, after the Jewish mourner’s prayer—Céline appears with a host of other writers—Whitman, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Charles Dickens, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Rimbaud (Céline and Rimbaud are the only French writers mentioned)—in a poem called "Ignu." He is portrayed in his decrepit Meudon persona, administering morphine:

Céline himself an old ignu over prose
I saw him in Paris dirty old gentleman of ratty talk
with longhaired cough three wormy sweaters round his neck
brown mould under historic fingernails
pure genius his giving morphine all night to 1400 passengers on a sinking ship
"because they were all getting emotional"8

The physical description corresponds to the person Ginsberg and Burroughs must have seen at Meudon—decrepit, ill, covered in sweaters in an unheated house. The elements of Céline’s first two novels are suggested as well: the gathering of crowds, the ship, Céline’s medical practice. The gift of morphine in "Ignu" is much closer to a Burroughs fantasy (Burroughs had published Junkie in 1953, and he presented a copy of the book to Céline) than to any dominant aspect of Céline’s prose, and shows how Céline’s aura could be appropriated. In the mid-1960s, Ginsberg would acknowledge the influence of Céline on his poetry in technical, rather than thematic, terms: "the rapidity of transitions and shiftings made possible by the 3-dot syntax . . . that’s what impresses us in US who are interested in the use of aural speech patterns transferred to written language."9

That the Céline celebrated by the Beats was a sentence-level writer was no doubt part of the decision made by New Directions to underwrite a new translation of one of the French writer’s previously translated novels during the 1960s. In 1966, they published Ralph Manheim’s translation of Mort à crédit, Death on the Installment Plan, which rendered Céline in a style that was more syntactically interesting, and more American in terms of vocabulary than the earlier, British-idiom translations by John Marks. Manheim’s work is more attuned to the qualities that Ginsberg valued in Céline’s writing: the odd speech patterns and the three dots, which were often ignored or "corrected" in Marks’s translations. This was the first of the decade’s several major publishing events in the American career of Céline: in 1968, Manheim’s translation of D’un chateau l’autre, Castle to Castle, won a National Book Award for translation, boosting the visibility and prestige of Céline’s post-World War II historical fiction.

In 1965, Céline made a significant appearance in Bruce Jay Friedman’s anthology of short stories, Black Humor. Céline is represented in the volume by the Admiral Bragueton episode from Journey to the End of the Night. He is the only French writer, appearing alongside Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Terry Southern, and J. P. Donleavy. The essay in which Friedman introduces the black humor genre is political and aesthetic in focus; black humor, Friedman argues, is the only possible literary response to the mad reality of the Vietnam war, and Céline was the precursor of this angry, hallucinatory genre: "There is Thomas Pynchon appearing out of nowhere with a vision so contemporary it makes your nose bleed and there is Céline who reminds you that he thought all your thoughts, worked the same beat, was dumbfounded as many times a day as you are, long before you were born."10

It was in the 1960s that Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five; John Clellon Holmes, the chronicler of the Beat Generation who became a teacher of fiction writing; and Philip Roth, the young Jewish author of the infamous Portnoy’s Complaint, all taught Céline in fiction courses at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.11 The appearance of Céline as an antiwar writer in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the dominant theme of which is a critique of the bombing of Dresden and whose success was overdetermined by protests against the American bombings of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, presented the French writer to a mass of American readers as an antiwar figure at a time when opposition to the Vietnam War was becoming a mass movement. If the 1950s was the decade when Céline’s reputation was expanding among writers and critics connected to the Beat Generation, the 1960s—with Céline’s canonization as a black humorist, the impact of the new Manheim translations, and the interest in his work shown by such mainstream novelists as Vonnegut and Roth—was the decade when Céline came closest to reaching a mass American audience—when Céline was reinvented as an antiwar novelist.

The Survey

In 1991, I undertook a survey of contemporary American writers. It was an attempt to document an afterlife for Céline—a life after the oppositional cultural movements of the 1960s, after the waning of avant-garde writing. The angry young men have been replaced as the most celebrated figures on the literary scene by women and minorities, and first-person narrative has attained a decidedly more confessional, less hallucinatory quality than it had thirty years ago. I wanted to know: Is Céline remembered? Is he still a writer’s writer? Who is reading him today?

The idea of asking a group of contemporary writers about a literary figure is an almost shockingly simple approach to questions of intertextuality and influence that have received sophisticated theoretical treatment. A survey cannot capture effects that are unconscious, repressed, or even indirect, but it can provide writers with a chance to give testimony—to create a text of their own. It is this "text"—the collective written responses to my questions on Céline—that I analyzed for patterns, repetitions, and surprises.

The empiricism of a survey was bound to antagonize a group of people who define themselves by their creativity. Asking writers to respond to yes-or-no questions is a bit like asking artists to complete a paint-by-numbers landscape. As I compiled the list of writers and later grappled with their answers, more often than not the survey came to seem rather like one of the experiments carried out by French writers of the twentieth-century OuLiPo school, which wants to formulate elaborate rules and mathematical structures as the bases for literary creation. My survey was a constraint, a mold, an opening into literary history that the writers could follow, resist, or ignore, as they pleased.

Among the thousands of writers producing in the United States today, I chose to survey novelists, poets, and translators. I included editors who have shaped some of the most interesting writing of the past twenty years and essayists who, in my opinion, have left the scholarly domain to reach an audience outside the university through large-circulation literary magazines such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. I chose individual writers for a variety of reasons: some had written or had spoken about Céline in interviews; others wrote in a genre or style favored by Céline; some writers were surveyed simplybecause I thought they would respond vehemently. At the same time, I aimed for a representative sample from various schools and tendencies in American writing: New Directions writers, Language poets, mainstream Knopf and Random House writers, writers born after 1950, and writers closely identified by their race, ethnicity, or sexual politics. The oldest writer to whom I sent the survey was born in 1897; the youngest, in 1964. The majority of writers who responded were born between 1927 and 1951, although there was a cluster of responses from writers born between 1909 and 1917, who came of age during the 1930s, when Céline’s American star first rose (fig. 1). My basic source for writers’ addresses was The Writers Directory, 1990-1992, although finding the right address was still not easy, and ten surveys never reached their destination.12

What do I mean by "writer"? The distinctions between writers and critics, between producers and analysts of literature, are not always clear, especially today when for economic and institutional reasons American writers often make a living by teaching criticism and creative writing in university English departments and in writing programs. This is a characteristic of American writers today that distinguishes them both from Céline, who always defined himself against literary and academic communities, and from contemporary French writers who are not institutionally linked to the French university system. Even Ginsberg, who was indicted on obscenity charges in 1957 for Howl, today teaches writing at Brooklyn College; Maxine Hong Kingston, the best-known Asian-American novelist in the United States, is a distinguished professor at Berkeley; and John Barth, known for his metafiction, holds an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins. Very few of the writers surveyed are [fig. 1] completely independent of the academic world: either they teach, write criticism for academic journals, or depend on income from speaking engagements at universities.

I sent the survey to 163 writers.13 I received 65 responses, including completed surveys, letters, and one postcard, which constituted a response rate of 40 percent—unusually high for this kind of survey (10 percent is considered a very good response rate to any kind of direct mailing). I was struck by the generosity of the respondents, both in answering my questions and in suggesting more complex ones than I had asked.

Of the 65 respondents, 55 had heard of Céline, of whom 43 had read him; 12 people who hadn’t read Céline took the trouble to return the survey. Fourteen respondents asked to be quoted anonymously.

What Texts Have You Read?

I asked writers to check off the works by Céline they had read; these included the French editions of his novels and anti-Semitic/political pamphlets, and the English translations of his novels by John Marks and by Ralph Manheim.

An equal number of writers (17) had read Death on the Installment Plan in the Marks and Manheim translations. The figures, however, tilted toward Marks for Journey (34 people had read his translation, while 13 had read Manheim’s). More writers, that is, had read Journey before 1983, when the Manheim translation was first published.

The Céline work most frequently read by the American writers surveyed was Marks’s translation of Voyage au bout de la nuit, the only translation available from 1934 to 1983. The same number of people who had read the Manheim translation (13) read Voyage in the original French. The fact that Manheim’s translation appeared so long after the publication of Voyage is an important factor here. The ages of the Voyage readers ranged from 52 to 81, indicating that an older generation of American writers was more likely to have read novels in French than those born after 1945. One surprising result was that 9 of the 13 readers who read Voyage in French also read it in English as Journey: either they read the book twice, once in French and once in English, or they used one of the English translations as a guide in reading the French—an indication not only of their dedication as readers, but also of the specific appeal, and difficulty, of Céline’s French.

Discovering Céline

Céline is an antiacademic figure who nonetheless requires an educated taste. His work is transmitted in this country mainly through schools. Eleven writers had read Céline for the first time in college, either in a course or because friends had recommended his work. Five respondents precociously read him in high school or as teenagers, 1 in a graduate seminar, and 1 in a writer’s workshop—only 2 of the writers surveyed had first encountered him as book reviewers.

There were a number of writers who reported reading Céline as their first intense brush with literature (the experience that readers often recall with respect to J. D. Salinger or Rimbaud). The poet and translator Richard Howard, who has read a great deal of Céline, discovered him in high school—in Cleveland, where "a sort of diabolic aureole surrounded this antisemitic figure." 14 Novelist Jim Harrison also first read Céline "in high school, a rural agricultural school where my teacher subscribed to the Nation and Saturday Review so I found out early about Céline." Gary Indiana "first read Céline precociously, at age 13 or 14, because his books were available in paperback at the local news store: I liked the titles." If we date these high-school encounters to 1945, 1953, and 1963 respectively, we have evidence of a Céline influence on young people extending over three decades, from the period of his greatest infamy—the immediate aftermath of the war—to the decade of his most obvious influence, yet before the appearance of the first Manheim translation in 1966.

In addition to these high-school readers, the following writers (fig. 2) reported specific years for their first "awareness" of Céline (they are listed by order of birth year). Norman O. Brown (b. 1913) wrote a particularly interesting response to this question in a letter describing two different discoveries of Céline, fifty years apart.His initial encounter occurred

in my first Marxist incarnation in the late 1930s . . . as a "muck-raker," with ambiguous proletarian affinities. [Then] in the past year [1990] I discovered as more relevant to my post-Marxist tendencies Kristeva’s Pouvoirs de l’horreur [Powers of horror]. . . . the material was so fascinating I went to the French edition and read it bilingually, paying special attention to the quotations from Céline. Thus through Kristeva in bilingual translation I got some access to Céline in the original.

Only 2 writers (not counting Brown) mention French sources—either personal or literary—for their first encounter with Céline: overwhelmingly, then, his reputation seems to have depended on word of mouth within an American network.

Placing Céline

I asked, "Where do you place Céline (list other comparable authors, give a value judgment or a description): (a) in terms of French Literature; (b) in terms of American literature; (c) along with other translated European authors?" The results were eclectic; some writers placed Céline among the timeless classics, others with nineteenth-century novelists, with his contemporaries in the 1930s, or with writers working today. There was no discernible pattern of generational affinity in these comparisons: Jay McInerney (b. 1955), sees Céline as someone who "made the Beat Movement possible," while Ted Morgan (b. 1932), compares him to Eric Bogosian, the 1990s performance artist. Céline is poet Philip Levine’s "favorite French writer of this century," whom he prefers to André Gide, Proust, and André Malraux. Richard Howard calls Céline one of the "three greatest prose writers of the Second World War period," along with André Breton and Maurice Blanchot.

In terms of American placement, Henry Miller was the most frequently cited in comparison with Céline (6 times); Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and the Beats were each cited 3 times, while John Hawkes, Ray Federman, Vonnegut, Pound, Harold Brodkey, and John Dos Passos were each mentioned twice. Clark Blaise defined Céline as a "proletarian lyric writer," along with Henry Roth, Edward Dahlberg, early James Farrell, Dos Passos, and William Saroyan (Nathaniel West was also mentioned). A number of writers chose to respond to this question in the "not as good as" mode—that is, evaluatively. According to Ron Sukenick, "Céline doesn’t rank with Faulkner or Melville but beats the Hemingway-Fitzgerald bunch by a longshot."

It was surprising that Norman Mailer responded to the survey by specifying that only one of his responses could be quoted—the response to this comparative question. He claimed that Céline is "significantly less valuable than Henry Miller." The remark is consistent with Mailer’s having championed Henry Miller in The Prisoner of Sex, after Miller had been famously attacked by feminist essayist Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics. Céline is an occasion for Mailer to continue championing Miller15

Titles

Céline’s English-language titles attracted attention. Gary Indiana, as noted above, saw Céline’s paperbacks at the newsstand when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, and "liked the titles." Tom Wolfe thinks that Death on the Installment Plan is the "greatest book title ever devised—better in English than it is in French."16 Greil Marcus, music critic and historian of punk rock, confessed to never having read Céline—"I haven’t gotten around to it (also haven’t read Woolf, Forster, etc); afraid I might like it too much (not kidding)"—yet he responded to several of the questions on the basis of his received ideas about Céline. Marcus has clearly absorbed Céline, in English, at the level of the titles: in Dead Elvis, published the year of the survey, he entitled a chapter "Ten Years After: Death on the Installment Plan."17 There is already a strong trickle-down effect of Céliniana in the culture, available to a knowledgeable critic like Marcus. Céline’s English titles are recyclable as slogans; the writer himself is known, even by someone who hasn’t read him, as forbidden and dangerous.

Voice and Freedom

Céline’s effect on a writer’s own practice was often connected by the respondents to the category of voice, although what "voice" means varied widely:18 Jay McInerny, for example, spoke of "a freeing up of the inner voice, a license to say whatever you feel," while for Andrei Codrescu, Céline’s writing is characterized by "the closeness of the speaking mouth: you can taste the spittle." Clark Blaise in a follow-up interview referred to Céline as promoting a "singularity of voice": "voice" in this case is akin to originality, or "signature," and for Blaise this is the key element in Céline. Like Samuel Beckett, Blaise contends, Céline is "entirely a ‘voice writer.’"19

Several writers acknowledged the effect of Céline as one of "freedom." Again, what liberation meant varied. For the Rumanian-born Codrescu, Céline represented a freedom from institutions: "He has given me license to practice medicine regardless of what authorities are watching." For Maxine Hong Kingston, he endorsed a freer speech, an end to secrets: "Perhaps I am assured by Céline that it’s all right to say anything I want." In Jim Harrison’s response, this freedom is physical and spiritual, linked to speed and range, power and godliness: "a strong early influence along with Faulkner etc., in terms of digression, freedom, how to accelerate fiction as if you were a god." Even 2 of the anonymous respondents, who were otherwise hostile to Céline, used the word "freedom," though grudgingly: "he freed [my writing] up—slightly"; "perhaps a certain freedom." In a 1984 interview in the Quinzaine Littéraire, Philip Roth combined these notions of voice and freedom in a provocative tribute to Céline, calling him "my Proust": "Céline," Roth concluded, "is a great liberator; I feel called by his voice."20 It is difficult to tell from his phrasing, translated here from the French, to what purpose Roth feels called. Céline’s "call," I suspect, is nothing other than the call to read Céline and to write.

The Pamphlets

Céline’s political affinities, his targets, and the passionate debates over what purpose his hate language served in its original context wither, or are suspended by many passionate American readers, in the interests of his writerly, emancipating effects. This may be both because he is not an American writer—and is therefore exempt from more local political passions—and because the full-blown expression of his racism takes place only in the pamphlets, which (with the exception of Mea Culpa [1936], an anticommunist polemic) are not available in English translation and so tend not to cloud his American reception.

Nevertheless, many more people (13, the number of Voyage readers) claim to have read one or more of the pamphlets (Mea Culpa, Bagatelles pour un massacre [1937], L’École des cadavres [1938], and Les Beaux Draps [1941]) than have read the playful postwar send-up of the world of journalists and editors, Entretiens avec le Professeur Y (1955), which was translated and published as Conversations with Professor Y in the United States in a 1986 bilingual edition.21 Saul Bellow read Les Beaux Draps in Paris in 1948, and responded to the survey with the following pun: "I still remember the hackles those fine sheets raised" ("fine sheets" being the transposition of the reference to bedsheets in "beaux draps," by which Céline is referring to the "fine fix" that the French have gotten themselves into during the Occupation).22

Overwhelmingly, the pamphlet readers have closer connections to France and to the French language than do the writers who have read only the novels. Saul Bellow was born in Montreal and has lived in France. Clark Blaise is of Quebecois origins. Raymond Federman, an American writer born in France in 1928, was the only survey respondent to have read every Céline text, French and English. Richard Howard is the foremost American translator of French literature. The writer and former journalist Sanche de Gramont came to the United States from France as an adult and changed his name to Ted Morgan. The poets Michael Palmer and Keith Waldrop also translate from the French and have close intellectual ties to France. Gary Indiana read the pamphlets while living in France.

Age is significant: of the 13pamphlet readers, 9 were born between 1911 and 1932, and only 3 were born after 1940—the youngest, Gary Indiana, in 1950. While he was living in France in 1980, Indiana read copies of Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres, and Les Beaux Draps borrowed from Jean-Jacques Schuhl, an experimental French novelist with an affinity for the Beats. No respondent under forty-two years of age had read the pamphlets. This is a provocative result, for it implies that the memory of Céline’s anti-Semitic writing is fading among his readers today. One might argue about whether that is good or bad, from both an ethical and an aesthetic point of view.

The responses I want to juxtapose with the surprising number of readers of the pamphlets—20 percent of those who responded to the survey—are to the question "Are you aware of the controversy over Céline’s political views?" and to the follow-up question "What effect has that awareness had on your appreciation of his work?" Forty-two writers responded that they were aware of the controversy, while only 1 writer wasn’t. What interests me here is the way American writers deal with a figure who is morally compromised, how they factor politics and formal considerations in reading Céline.

Politics versus Form

Thirteen people said that Céline’s political views had no effect on their reading; they answered with such startling one-liners as "none," "little or none," "little," "almost none," "not much," and "absolutely no effect." Of these 13 readers, 1 had read all four pamphlets, while another had read only Bagatelles pour un massacre. The "none at all" group included Adrian Piper, a professor of philosophy and performance artist who has taken strong political positions against American racism in her own art, most recently in an installation on the Rodney King incident.

At the other end of the spectrum were the people who refused to read Céline. For example, Paul Bowles declared, "I have avoided him for 5 decades," while Richard Selzer said, "I prefer not to read bigots and fascists. Life is too short. Art is too long." The anonymous respondents had harsher things to say, for example, "don’t you dare associate me with Céline." Or, in response to the question "Are you aware of the controversy over Céline’s political views?" one respondent asked in turn if the evil of Nazism could be construed as controversial, i.e., debatable. Jim Harrison offered up his own split between politics and aesthetics in the form of self-criticism: "Writers tend to be politically naive, self included. Have to stick to the work itself."

Another group of respondents considered politics and form as inseparable issues (this is one of the few groupings where none of the respondents asked for anonymity). Charles Bernstein described the effects of Céline’s politics as "part of the complexity of his work," whereas for Clark Blaise, "it provokes a sharper scrutiny of the good work and helps explain the bad." With regard to the effect of his awareness of the Céline controversy, Michael Palmer commented that "an awareness comes through the work, not apart from it." For Gary Indiana, "Céline’s vision is so deranging and raucous that his political views—which are impossible to take seriously—become a source of humor." Andrei Codrescu expressed it more figuratively: "the writing is generative: the views are to the writing what shit is to flowers, unfortunately." Céline, for Bob Perelman, is "an intensely interesting problem." Maxine Hong Kingston, however, reported a negative effect. She "liked the energy, the language . . . the idea that one must do anything—including go to jail—rather than join the army"; she saw Céline as a "wild hare, like Ezra Pound in American literature" but stopped reading Céline after hearing about his "weird views." Lydia Davis responded to this question with questions of her own:

To raise the very difficult question of morality and literature—i.e., how immoral can a piece of writing be and still be given highest honors and esteem—more broadly, how much, if anything, can or should be sacrificed for the sake of a piece of art. It forces me to judge author as man separately from work as work, despise a moral failing while admiring a consummate work of art.

Again, in the 1984 Quinzaine Littéraire interview, Philip Roth, perhaps the best-known American Jewish writer in France, gives this dichotomy between ideology and literature a poetic form, describing an art that transcends his own subject position. "To read him," Roth says about Céline, "I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism is not at the heart of his books, even D’un chateau l’autre. "23

Historically Céline has always been positioned differently in the United States than in France. Thus Roth’s bracketing of Céline’s anti-Semitism can be understood as part of an American tradition and as the long-range consequence of an editorial decision made by an American publisher during the 1930s. In 1938, the year Bagatelles was selling briskly in France, Céline proposed the anti-Semitic pamphlet to Little, Brown. His American editor, Herbert Jenkins, rejected it definitively:

As you indicated in your letter, this is a four-hundred page attack on the Jews written with your usual vigor and violence. It does not appear to contain any narrative or personal experiences except in the last forty pages. We feel that you have made statements which are unsupported by evidence and that its publication here will seriously damage your reputation as an outstanding author.24

It was a rejection that would have long-term consequences for Céline’s American reputation. It looks, in retrospect, as if the rejection of Bagatelles in 1938—and the fact that all of the anti-Semitic material of the 1930s and 1940s would remain untranslated and therefore unavailable to American readers—helped create a situation in which Céline could maintain his identity for American readers of the late 1940s and beyond solely as the author of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. When Kenneth Rexroth, in a 1959 essay, "forgives" Céline on the very point that he can’t forgive Eliot and Pound, he does so by purposefully limiting the Céline corpus to the novels: "We can, if we confine ourselves to the two great novels, forgive Céline for being an anti-Semite, but when, as the Communists used to say, ‘Art is a weapon,’ then we cannot forgive. We cannot forgive the direct, depraved political tendentiousness of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or [Eugène] Guillevic."25 Whether or not, in their French context, the pamphlets functioned as "weapons" is not an issue Rexroth explores.

Conclusion: The Céline Effect

The most important finding to emerge from the survey is that while Céline’s novels may sell under 5,000 copies a year in the United States, he apparently endures as a writer for writers in a specific tradition: Céline as anarchist, liberator, anti-James/anti-Eliot figure in twentieth-century American letters, pitted against a whole tradition of polite, subtle psychological fiction and poetry. This dominant Céline effect was what I wished to explore.

Peter Glassgold, who succeeded James Laughlin as editor-in-chief of New Directions, wrote in response to the survey that Céline "had an interesting impact in the ’60s, helping to dynamite the Jamesian dominance of what a real novel ought to be. But I’m afraid this has degenerated and been watered down by creative writing programs." I asked Clark Blaise to tell me, therefore, as an educator of writers at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and director of its International Writing Program, what he thought "being a Jamesian" meant.

Rigorous attention to unity of point of view, tone, elevation of psychological realism, stifling expression; everything disguised—out of that comes Eliot, the aged eagle spreading his wings at age twenty. In the U. S., the clichés of writing are "politics are ruinous for good writing/dreams and allegories are cheap devices; write what you know; show, don’t tell." Céline, who breaks all the rules, "expands the perimeter of the permissible." The New Yorker, with its tailored tone, would detest Céline. . . . I learned through Céline that an unevenness of tone is not a flaw; spleen can be bracing.26  

Blaise uses Céline in the classroom to dismantle received ideas about American writing. He is highly critical of the idea that you must write from your own experience; he thinks it culturally impoverishes young American writers, making them anti-intellectual. It is paradoxical to use Céline against the write-what-you-know rule, given that Céline himself was an autobiographical writer, but for American students both the experiences described by Céline and his mode of description are radically unfamiliar.Céline’s work provides alternative forms and demonstrates that a writer can rave and lose control, to "tell" as well as to "show."

The Céline effect is also marked for Blaise by a class difference. As a writer of the lower crust, again the opposite of James and Eliot, Céline is an emblematic figure for writers of French-Canadian descent (including Blaise and Kerouac before him), whose French identity is tied to the marginalized working classes rather than a more aristocratic sense of literariness connoted by "Frenchness" in the United States. Paradoxically, the French writer gives Americans license to reject the worship of Europe that is part of our cultural baggage: "I’m not a francophile in terms of French," Blaise explained. "Céline tells you that the French are a low, vermin-encrusted culture; highfalutin phrases come down to shit." According to Blaise, Céline’s portraits of the disenfranchised have situated his writing in a register that is subliterary, "stinking of the world and of everything impolite, authentic, and dangerous"—what Blaise referred to as an "aim of artlessness" in Célinian poetics.27

The picture that finally emerges of the American Céline—in terms of published, acknowledged influences (as opposed to my survey)—is West Coast, not East Coast; Beat and City Lights, not The New Yorker; New Directions, not New Critical. New Directions is certainly an East Coast institution, so the East/West American split is not literally true. But it is evocative: Céline as westerner—roving, the bad boy. He is a scandalous figure who can be celebrated by people who hate the system.28

Bob Perelman, a Language poet who spent many years in the San Francisco area, acknowledges the flavor of this American Céline when he says, as noted above, that he did not come to Céline through the usual "leftist-nihilist-anarchist enthusiasm." That this enthusiasm should be occasioned by a foreign writer whose deeply felt ideas are unacceptable in this culture is perhaps no accident, and it remains a subject for further analysis. How would American writers describe the effect of Pound’s or Eliot’s anti-Semitism on the appreciation of these poets? How would French writers come to terms with Céline’s ideology in response to a similar survey?

There is something specific in our culture that gives American writers the freedom to love Céline, or—to put it another way—that might account for the fact that the United States was the only country where writers organized a petition in favor of Céline in 1946, when he was threatened with extradition from Denmark to France.29 Certainly the American First Amendment tradition is consistent with a libertarian defense of Céline, regardless of his views. The First Amendment is tacitly present in several of the responses to the question about the effect Céline’s politics on an appreciation of his writing ("none at all," "absolutely none"). 

Along with our First Amendment culture, there is a specific New Critical tradition of close reading, which separates politics from aesthetic appreciation. The Beats were not New Critics—anything but—yet the impulse toward art that aims to be formally transcendent, canonical because disinterested, runs deep. James Laughlin explained this position in his introduction to the 1946 New Directions annual. Although he is defending Paul Eluard and Pound, his explanation could just as easily apply to his defense of Céline, that same year, when he signed the petition in his favor:

I have been severely criticized for publishing Eluard because he is said to be a Stalinist. He is a killer, they tell me; he killed Germans with his poems. Very well: I have two answers to that. Much as I am opposed to the whole business of war and legal killing I would probably have done, or tried to do, exactly what Eluard did under similar circumstances. And secondly, I don’t care whether he is a Stalinist or what he is; the man can write. He is a poet and no mistake. That’s enough for me. I am one who still thinks Ezra Pound’s poetry is good—very good—not withstanding his political folly. These people who changed their minds about the merits of Pound’s poetry the day he was indicted for treason make me sick and angry. A poem is a thing in itself. You judge it by itself, for itself and of itself—not by the politics of the man who wrote it.30 The gist of this defense is pacifist and libertarian, but appeals most of all to the integrity of the art object and the talent of the artist: "the man can write." In 1942, Henry Miller articulated the same position, in his case specifically in reference to Céline: "I don’t care whether he is a Fascist or a Democrat or a shit-house cleaner. He can write. "31 This can-do/separatist defense of the politically compromised writer informs the 1946 petition and remains a familiar stance in all subsequent American discussions of Céline.

The other side of the coin is the refusal to read Céline. This rejectionist position is the same one often taken with respect to Martin Heidegger or Paul de Man. Political flaws or ideologically unacceptable positions in the text or in the author’s life become a kind of obscenity, and the work is censured. This, too, is distinctly American.

A third position that comes out of the survey is an integrationist one. This position would read Céline in many layers, many contexts, and recontextualizations, measuring the energy of the work in its passage through time and space. Often the most nuanced and conflicted positions boil down to this attempt to make the work make sense on both an ideological and poetic level, without reducing it to either one. Michael Palmer, who objected to the either/or quality of my questions about Céline’s politics versus his writing, explained in a follow-up postcard: "It really comes down to the reasons, at a fairly early stage, for my ‘refusal’ of the work. Certainly the fascism, but something else as well, perhaps a reductive bitterness which permeated it and (for me) ‘automatized’ the process of composition."32 For poet Charles Bernstein, who, unlike Palmer, is "very excited by the style, the urgency, the ‘. . .’ as poetic fragmentation, stream of tirade," Céline’s politics "deepens an appreciation of the dystopian and repulsive character of this work."

As a counter to the well-made novel or poem, as a figure of resistance and liberation from literary authority as historically constituted by the New Criticism, even as the occasion for moral conflict, Céline still signifies a vital critical function within the American institutions of literature.

[Please see post immediately below for text of footnotes.]

Alice Kaplan is Professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University. Her previous work on Céline includes Sources et citations dans "Bagatelles pour un massacre" (1987) and a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, coedited with Philippe Roussin, "Céline, USA" (1994).

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