The last of Céline’s novels to be translated into English, this account of an air attack on Paris during World War II shows a hallucinatory, altered space in which human aggressions, appetites, and suspicion come boiling to the surface in preposterous dimensions. A frantic narrator, in search of complicity, relates the story of an apocalyptic ballet that leaves reason and order in shreds, as bombing turns Montmartre into an underworld teeming with dirty deeds, while our guide resists the inhumanity with animal desperation and robust hilarity. Céline animates the events with the exuberance and speed of his narrative style, fully developed and uninhibited, and fully his own.
“By 1943, Céline’s only
was that the war had not been
Andrew Hussey, “Death Sentences”
In the early hours of 21 April 1944, the combined might of the British and US air forces launched a series of raids on the northern edges of Paris. It was the first time the city had been bombed since the First World War. The assault went on for two days and the results were horrifying — a convent destroyed, entire apartment blocks wrecked, more than 600 people killed, and the quarter of Montmartre drenched in sewage and blood. From the Allied point of view the raid was high-risk and possibly counterproductive: the Normandy landings were only months away and the bombing might have made an already volatile population even more pro-German. In fact, the raids infuriated ordinary Parisians, and gave Marshal Pétain reason to rail against the brutality of the Allied forces.
It is those deadly nights that are the background for Normance, here published in English for the first time and not really a novel, but rather a highly poeticised account of life at street level under the onslaught. There is no real story as such, but rather a nightmarish description of a group of neighbours in Paris — loosely based on Céline and his entourage — who find themselves bombed out on to the streets of the city and into a mini-apocalypse. They drink, argue, search for a lost cat, and look for shelter in the Métro and the local bar. The prevailing tone of delirium and ever-present danger makes this no easy read: Céline’s prose is elliptical and staccato, driven by the nerve-shredding tension of surviving a city under siege. Most crucially, the text is written with all the demonic and feverish logic of a hallucination. The effect is mesmerising; in a translation that is fluid, elegant and faithful to the original in both tone and meaning, Céline more than justifies his reputation as one of the best writers of French prose of the 2oth century, on a par with Proust and Camus.
This book is also both compelling and disturbing because it was written by and from the point of view of a virulently pro-Nazi anti-Semite. Céline became famous in the 1930s as the author of the bestselling Journey to the End of the Night, an account of Parisian lowlife that was praised by Gide, Trotsky and Orwell. By the end of the decade, Céline was notorious as the author of a series of “pamphlets” that called for the extinction of the Jewish race and argued for Hitler as the saviour of Europe. He welcomed the arrival of the German forces as “a necessary tonic”, writing: “If you really want to get rid of Jews then you need racism: and it must be total and inexorable. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”
By 1943, Céline’s only disappointment was that the war had not been destructive enough. Unsurprisingly, by the time he came to write Normance, he was one of the chief targets of the Resistance, which posted small black coffins to warn him that he was under sentence of death. When the war was over, Céline barely escaped a firing squad, retreating to his lair just outside Paris after a spell in prison, snarling and unrepentant, muttering still about Jewish conspiracies and the end of the world, his hatred clearly more pathological than political.
But this is precisely why it is essential to read hiswork. Normance uncovers the real emotional climate of Paris during the Occupation in all its ambiguous, terrible complexity. This is shocking only because the English-speaking countries have never taken seriously the deep reservoirs of poison that ate away at French political life in the 1930s. But the signs had already been there in the art of the period — in a generation that hated the French Republican tradition enough to betray it. By this logic, Céline is not only a great writer, but a prophet, one of the truest and most authentic literary voices of the French 20th century.
—from New Statesman, June 4, 2009
the opening of Céline’s Normance:
Telling it all after the fact . . . easier said than done! . . . much easier! . . . After all, you can still hear the echo . . . baboom! your head’s spinning . . . even seven years later . . . your mug . . . time’s nothing, memory’s what matters . . . that and all the world’s infernos . . . all the people we’ve lost . . . the sorrows . . . your pals scattered . . .the nice ones . . . the not-so-nice ones . . . the forgetful ones . . . the blades of the windmill . . . and the echo that’s still beating you down . . . it’ll still be there when they dump me in my grave! . . . Talk about a wind! . . . I’ve had it up to here! . . . the old belly, too! . . . kaboom! . . . I feel it . . . it sinks in . . . my bones quivering, right there in my bed . . . I won’t lose you, though! . . . I’ll catch up with you somewhere or other, down the line . . . that’s all you need! character! . . . rags in the wind! . . . that’s for sure . . . baboom! . . . I’m telling you, they brought me back up! . . . I was telling you they carried me back like Marlborough . . . you know? when they put him in the ground? . . . me, I was in the air . . . with four . . . five knights and ladies-in-waiting . . . Lili told me . . . all seven flights! . . . I’d fallen down the elevator shaft, ’cause the door was open . . . no! . . . further than that . . . I fell even further! . . . into the cellar! . . . Baroom! . . . calling out for Lili! . . . calling out for Bébert . . . calling out for everyone! . . . they’d gathered me up outside . . . the four knights and ladies, to take me back up to my place . . . it’s nothing new, all this baroom, baroom stuff! . . . been going on since ’14, to tell the truth . . . November ’14 . . . baroom! . . . I was thrown into the air by a shell, thrown! . . . lifted right up! . . . I mean a big one! a “107”! . . . on my mare, “Demolition”! in the rear-guard! . . . Saber shining! . . . talk about a wind! I was flying away! . . . just get a load of him! . . . it’s the memories that really unnerve me! . . . you’ll see . . . I’ll gather them all up! . . . I’ll fly away! . . . I won’t keep anything from you! . . . tattered rags of ’14 . . . of ’18 . . . ’35 . . . ’44 . . . I count . . . I recount! . . . I recapture it all! . . . like on the day when we used to count the linens to make sure nothing had gone missing! . . . like the notes on Jules’s bugle! . . . off you go! . . . tatters blowing this way! . . . tatters blowing that way! . . . underpants! . . . C sharp! . . . handkerchiefs! . . . I’ll unjumble it all for you! . . . you won’t believe my quick little hands . . . such deftness! . . . I’ll put it all back! . . . in perfect shape! . . . you’ll be delighted! . . . I’ll really do it right! . . . a piece here . . . a piece there! . . . Baroom! . . . a huge quake rocks the whole Goutte d’Or area! . . . Grandes-Carrières too! What am I saying? Out to Dufayel! . . . and even farther! higher up! my head’s spinning! Oh, and Sacré-Cœur! La Savoyarde, the great bell, the space gong! . . . you heard of it? the Butte
— No fractures, darling? anything fractured?
I’m a doctor, right? I am, yes! I couldn’t even open my eyes! . . . I’d fallen right on my eyebrows! . . . split the sockets right open! nothing else broken, though! No, just bleeding all over my face . . . especially at the temples . . . I was dripping everywhere . . . real beat up, you might say! . . . a little lower and I could’ve killed myself . . . say the car was on the first floor? . . . I’m telling you! . . . my luck! . . . but I’d had a hell of a blow to the head! . . . dizziness! pulsating! . . . I was throwing up because of it, in my bed! . . . fucking everything up! and I knew it! . . . too bad! courage first! . . . I sneak a peak out of one eye, I have a look around . . . the dresser’s not against the wall anymore . . . the little fucker’s waltzed off! . . . right out the door . . . gone dancing out onto the landing! . . . the building shaking like crazy! what an uproar! all the landings rattling!
— So, Lili? Lili? what happened? the dresser took off?
They’re all answering me at once . . . I can’t understand a thing . . . I’m still buzzing too much . . . there I am, flat on my bed . . . It’s not just the dresser . . . there’s other furniture doing a polka to the door . . . bumping into each other and stomping on each other’s feet! . . . it’s the bombing . . . she’s a frisky little one, our dresser! . . . here she is, coming back towards us down the hallway! . . .
So I was telling you, Ottavio, Charmoise, and Mr. & Mrs. Gendron carried me back to my bed…They found me on the sewer grate in front of Jules’s place . . . Arlette is making me some chamomile tea . . . Arlette, that’s Lili . . . she’s the most loving of loving souls, really! Arlette Lili . . . she has to try and keep her balance with that cup full of tea! . . . the hallway’s rolling . . . surging . . . from one end to the other . . . She better keep away from the dresser . . . but look, Lili’s agility incarnate!
— Some chamomile, Ferdinand? Some chamomile?
They all insist I drink something hot . . .
— What, Ferdinand? What?
I can’t tell if it’s the shock or what, but everybody seems even more stupefied than I am, all my pallbearer friends . . . all they can say is, What, Ferdinand? . . . what? . . . what? . . . I can hardly hear them . . . what? . . . what? what? And I’ve got some of my own noises to worry about . . . I already told you . . . like the bombs! boy, are they coming down! cluster after cluster! And then there’s not just that dresser shimmying in the hallway, there’s the rumble of the cannons and Lili with her cup . . . ping! ping! . . . it’s all settled, it’s over, no more alarms . . . but Jesus! the bombs! . . . they’ve got timers, a delay on them, apparently . . . Baboom! it’s really something! . . .
I call her.
— To hell with your cup!
I don’t want her to leave me! . . . I don’t want her to go back down to Jules’s place! We have enough water, we have enough milk! If not, we can do without it!
My eyes are gummed up, lined with blood, swollen shut . . . she kisses me, she kisses everything! blood, eyebrows, my split brow . . . my temples . . . she licks me oh so gently, that’s adoration for you . . . she really loves me . . .
You often get adoration like that when your life is slipping away . . .
I must have been unconscious for at least forty-five minutesin front of his place . . . You can bet he didn’t come out to help me! . . . I see it’s nearly nighttime . . . I see the gardens through the window . . . the sun is fading . . . you can just make out Sacré-Cœur . . . that’s the view from my bed . . . I’m a mess . . . I don’t say anything, stretched out there, but it hurts . . . I must have fallen head first . . .
He’s at Plum’s, he’s doing fine!
News flash from below, from the concierge’s . . . I wasn’t too worried . . . but all his clients are pretty pissed off! baring their fangs! . . . and fuming about I don’t even remember what! . . . the clay? . . . watercolors? . . . peep-shows? ‘cause they hadn’t seen enough ass? . . . mostly that! . . . not enough ass on view, that’s the problem! . . .
— Anyway, tell me, you modeled for him?
— Yes, Louis! . . . Yes, Louis! . . . you’re wearing yourself out!
She always says that I’m wearing myself out.
— Where were you two?
— At Plum’s!
Plum’s is where Rue Hortense continues . . . that’s where all the artists go to shoot their mouths off, spew out their nonsense, talk until they’re hoarse!
— So, was Jules running me down, insulting me?
— Pretty much . . .
She never lies to me.
— What’d he say?
— Oh, you know . . .
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