céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 


. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 


Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 


—just then—




—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 


—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”



Cover Image


Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…


— Hey, gutless!

I shout at him.

— Shit!

He answers.

That’s a personal insult!… I’m filled with rage! my blood’s up!

— I’m gonna get him!

I warn Lili.

— You’re gong to get him? you’re going to pick a fight?

My mind’s made up!

I surprise her.

— You? You?

— No ‘you? you? about it!’ Yes, me, I’m going! Once and for all!

Just then, Barrroom!… straight ahead! an explosion! right there below… I was going to give him a piece of my mind… it takes my breath away!… I have to grab onto the balcony… I was giving out!… I was going to faint!… absolutely!… oh, but I didn’t want Lili to cross over!… to go get set ablaze for that dirty pig!… ah, so he’s dying for a drink? he’s blistering! his gullet all ablister?

— Thirsty, is he?

What nerve!

Of course he was thirsty, the hoodlum! And she’s still trying to defend him!

— Jump off, pisspot! artiste!

I get my breath back…

— Pimp! coward!

I can be rude! and through one hell of a tornado!…

He’s sucking his thumb, like a bottle!… he wants to toast!… he shows us!

— You see, he’s thirsty!

— I’m thirsty, too, missie! there’s still nothing to drink!…

She couldn’t care less that I’m thirsty!

— Jules! Jules!

She’s calling him…

Wretches!… baboomm! blam! it doesn’t let up!… the building starts leaning again!… one of the shutters rips out of the wall!… not just the floor! the walls! the ceiling! everything’s warping!… Jules isn’t the only one sailing!… let him be thirsty… as if we’re not!

— You don’t want to die, pig?

I yell to him.

He doesn’t want to die at all! he’s swirling in his crate…

Thirsty!… sucking his thumb!

He’s in the same blistering wind as we are! and we have no more to drink than he does!

— Jump, dirty groper! Hey, chicken!…

He’s chicken, that’s his problem! chicken! he had more swagger at home, in his den!… they gave him a sweet nest up there!… no more gaslight for him! he’s in the oven! his mug bright red!… let him sail from one end to the other!… looking for a cool spot! he’s got it good there on his little deck!… ten square feet all to himself! but Christ, what he can see from there! all of Paris is incandescent! all of Paris is an sea of flames! he’s got some skyline!

It wasn’t beer he was guzzling, it was gusts of torrid wind!

— I’m going over there!

— No! You’re not going!

We’re arguing.

— The flames can roast his mug, his lungs, his spleen, you’re not going! and so much the better!

Now, I’m really pissed off, seriously! all the jibes come back to me, the terrible affronts I’d endured from this hunchback! that fucking stump of a crook up there, goddamn stump of a traitor with his airplanes! it’s all his fault! cataclysms and God’s thunder! it doesn’t matter a bit to Lili!… it’s Jules, he’s thirsty, so she feels bad!… worries about Jules!… can you imagine?… anything for Jules! Jeez, the windmill reels under a West wind… a tornado from around Levallois that makes the whole upper section bend, dip… you’d think it’s going to tip over, the windmill! that the deck all the way at the top is skimming the ground, and Jules with it!… without letting go! and gets a grip again! prodigious! that’s him all right!… and he’s the cause of it all!… yes! him! the windmill straightens up again… it’s hard to believe but true… Jules is back to his gestures!… he’s playing the orchestra conductor! he’s directing with his cane… a gust… brkooom!… there!… then another one!… he gathers a whole cluster of airplanes… a whole cyclone!… from out past Passy! I’d say at least fifty airplanes! they fly in, rumbling, screeching, furious…

— Swindler, pervert! killer!

He deserves it all! he’s playing more than he’s responsible! no! he’s in on the scheme! the whole convulsion of the elements! the fury from beyond the sky! now he’s trying to play us the violin! begging us for a drink! Chump! I tell him! that’s why he’s in the gondola! to unleash the elements! spinning! balancing! ah, parched old Jules!

— Arlette!…

He’s calling her…

She’s not going!

— Lili! tweet! tweet!

See, that’s how he calls to her!

‘What a total outrage,’ you’re probably thinking! absolutely! I agree completely! there’s the truth! I told you: I won’t make up anything… supernatural events are beyond you, it’s that simple! some unscrupulous chroniclers may minimize, explain, and trivialize the facts! your humble servant, never! all reverence for splendor!… I see Jules start scooting around again… at the same time as he’s addressing the clouds! with gestures! with orchestra! I’m telling you… with two canes, now!… directing… would Lili have to cross the flames to bring him a drink?… what to drink? he should just drink fire! it’s pouring from the sky! at that moment a huge airplane wing comes up over Caulaincourt valley… right away the beams dart after it… in pursuit… ten, twenty searchlights!… and a volley of machine guns!… Brrrz! Brrrz!… like a carnival in the sky! cymbals!… like a carnival, only upside-down!… upside-down and higher than the Eiffel Tower!… look, the plane!… one of its wings smashes, at the end!… it’s banking, falling… he’s not going any further!… drops back into Caulaincourt valley!… what a rumbling and barking from the valley! at least two anti-aircraft batteries… Whoof! Whoof!… I’m counting the explosions… it’s extraordinary, all the payloads and cannon fire! from such short range, too, without it all going up in smoke! I mean the windmill and us… it’s spilling down over the fog, giant veils of smoke, clusters of phosphorous torches, and you’re wondering if it’s really real… illusion or not? a real spree of magnesium, bombs, picrates and rockets to make it brighter than day! they can annihilate us, no problem!

Thirst or no thirst, I’m watching up there! he’s thumbing his nose at me, for Christ’s sake! Bozo-in-a-box! thumbing his nose! see what catastrophes do! shameless scumbag! not an atom of remorse! thumbing his nose! see? typical! and still conducting the orchestra! this time it’s flagrant! he’s directing it! even a hundred years from now, he’d come trying to tell me: it wasn’t me! — Excuse me! I’d tell him: it was your fault! all your fault the gasworks exploded! I saw you at work in your gondola! you were directing it all!

They can hold trials all day! me, I won’t get confused about the culprits! They wear special lenses to minimize the circumstances! don’t want to see the big picture! scared, that’s all! they’re scared! me, I’m watching Jules, I’m telling you everything as it happens… He’s leaning with the whole windmill… the deck! his crate! and he doesn’t tip off!… he’ll never fall!… if that’s not magical… enchantment… is there something keeping him up in the sky?… catching him at the edge of the platform?… some kind of magnet in there! there’s gotta be a magnet! baboom! there are plenty of bombs, too!

[pp 25ff]

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