Citizens of hell?

André Gide - The Life of Céline
March 5, 1999

Why is there an "apparent contradiction" between Louis Ferdinand Céline's being a pathfinding modernist and a foaming anti-Semite? If you are way out one way, why not in another? As Nicholas Hewitt notes, swivelled between invented poverty-stricken origins and partly accurate pretensions to aristocratic ancestry. Céline was an enormously reiterative writer. Self-alert if not self-critical, he would state: "I'll say it again for the thousandth time". Throughout this excellent, comprehensively documented critical biography, the best available in English, Hewitt contextualises his subject expertly.

When Céline blackened himself and everything, it was to belittle the latter and aggrandise the former. He was denied, or spared, the formal literary culture dispensed in lycees, and was, unusually for a French author, largely an autodidact. He has several affinities with the honorary Frenchman Samuel Beckett, who thought, at least at one moment, Céline's Journey to the End of the Night "the best novel in French or English''. The title of Céline's other major novel, Death on the Instalment Plan, could well serve as a motto for Beckett's entire output.

Céline volunteered for the French cavalry and, after active service in the Great War, was invalided out. Typically, he made a meal of this ever after. He was a hypochondriac who became a doctor, practising on and off, throughout his life. He was unlovely and more or less unlovable, except to a succession of women to whom he never felt bound. Divorced, he had a seven-year relationship with the American dancer, Elizabeth Craig. He maintained a fixation on choreographical bodies and, a mite more philosophically, on Nietzsche's "dancing God''. However misanthropic he mostly was, Céline never lost a ludic urge. He was adept at insinuating himself into influential positions, such as coordinator of social hygiene at the League of Nations. In this capacity, he won a study tour to the United States, visiting the Ford factory in Detroit with its perfected Taylorism.

The next avatar was as general practitioner in working-class Clichy. Most patients had TB, a great many VD. As Hewitt reminds us very fairmindedly, in the 1930s French social medicine was supported mainly by right-wingers. If Céline can be typified anywhere politically, it was on the anarchist right (like Swift and Flaubert before him). Neutral, at least in the sense that such writers wish a plague on every house. The French libertarian tradition, besides, had in its anti-capitalism often proved anti-Semitic.

Hewitt is informative on Céline's other Paris stamping-ground, Montmartre, whose culture was anti-avant-garde, anti-nationalistic and anti-Semitic, especially as it lost ground to Montparnasse as a magnet for artists and intellectuals. Céline's later visceral loathing of Sartre ("a parasite in his own bowels") was well prepared for.

Any reasonably unpreformed reading of Céline's Journey recognises that this first, explosive fiction combines, giddily, telling socio-economic criticism with phantasmagoric take-offs,the whole narrated in a style both dynamically demotic and prodigiously artificial. For Hewitt, as for the author, this is a ghost novel, a nightmare not to be taken prosaically. It catapulted Céline into fame.

Like Gide, Céline had ants in his pants (but also bats in his belfry), yet he could concentrate ferociously when required, as in Death on the Instalment Plan . The anachronistic petty-bourgeois parents of its protagonist are stranded by historical and economic change, especially the credit system they cannot afford or understand. Hewitt dates the onset of Céline's persecution mania to the near-universal panning of his novel. It was also the start of his hallmark, telegraphic style, or petite musique : phrases divided by three dots and frequently verbless.

Céline's visit to the USSR proved far less informative than Gide's, as if Céline had not truly seen the place; it was simply a catalyst for his by-now-entrenched anti-humanist invective. Hewitt argues that much of the impetus behind Céline's violent writing was exercices de style rather than ideology. The "massacre'' of that pamphlet would be the demolition of all things French in an imminent war masterminded by an international Jewish conspiracy.

Persuasively, Hewitt applies to this and other inflammatory texts Walter Benjamin's notion of the culte de la blague' : "An essential component in Fascist propaganda which consists of saying the unacceptable in such a way that it can be taken as a joke while still insidiously making its point''. Fascists are commonly dismissed as only unintentionally funny. Hewitt locates Céline's anti-Semitism as a compote of three phobias: for America, Britain and Soviet Russia. The most offensive aspect is Céline's adroitness at pre-thinking escape-routes from his verbal extremism: he was a hit-and-run racist.

During the occupation, when the authorities outdid the Germans in anti-Jewish measures, Céline's perennial obsession with social hygiene segued into racial cleansing, though no doubt like other collaborationists Céline's beliefs and actions were a dog's dinner. Soon after D-Day, he fled and went, tortuously, to Denmark, where he was imprisoned for a time. His always dicky sanity never fully recovered from all these experiences. In the great purge of French quislings, Céline was effectively on trial for five years, though truly damning evidence against him was scarce.

Like other critics, Hewitt pleads for an essential unity in all Céline's writings, though that was to be expected from a genuine obsessive. Céline knew his own power, his métro émotif - that breakneck, in-your-face communication with readers, hauled willy-nilly into the text. He was a bullying writer, who finally achieved semi-respectability.

As gentle as Céline was aggressive, and extremely generous with his time, money, love and loyalties, André Gide was still wished in hell by Paul Claudel. He was always a bone of contention, though of the brittle variety. The only figure that Gide ever felt homicidal towards was the killjoy, whether sexual, political, theological, or literary. I would add: maternal - but Gide confessed that he was forever confusing the wife he worshipped spiritually with his vetoing but rarely hated mother. It might seem like over-egging the pudding to devote a lengthy biography to so voluminously narcissistic an author as Gide. Determinedly anti-theoretical, obsessed Blake-like with minute particulars, Alan Sheridan stresses Gide's need for the "pendulum effect'', the invention of dualisms (two races, two provinces, two religions) where none existed in quite so polarised a way, in order to dramatise his self. It is tempting to think that Gide's main themes were not, as for one of his models, Dostoyevsky, crime and punishment, but naughtiness and spanking. That would obscure, however, the undoubted courage he displayed in his attack on colonialism, his reasoned defence in Corydon of homosexuality, and in his critique of Stalinist Russia (after previous naive adulation), well before the god failed for other fellow-travellers. After Rome, Moscow tried in vain to enlist the great escapologist.

Gide was in his fifties before he became more than a coterie phenomenon, but in the next 30 years he grew world famous. He would have been a prize catch for Catholic recruiting-sergeants such as Claudel, who used, as Gide said, "the crucifix as a truncheon''. The Vatican Cellars, Gide's bounciest fiction, was his elegant "get knotted'' rejoinder. Ecumenically, his numerous homosexual partners included both Protestants and Catholics. Ambidextrously, Gide also fathered a child "at his first and only attempt'', though in general, as Sheridan indicates, the nightmare in the heavily autobiographical Cahiers d'André Walter of the female body as a "black hole", and his long but unconsummated marriage, explain Gide's preference for (young) male bodies. In North Africa, Wilde and Douglas were the main initiators for Gide's still inchoate homosexuality, though in Sheridan's view Nietzsche was a more powerful influence on Gide's (im)morality. However, Sheridan does not mention Louis Guilloux's telling tale of the USSR trip, when the cruising Gide (more of a sloop than a cruiser, really) endangered the life of a young Russian, who was later taken off by the OGPU. Gide confessed to feeling " almost guilty''. The sexual potency, the prolific sperm-count of this aesthetic mandarin, bested that legendarily boasted of by Victor Hugo, for Gide managed repeated self-inducement after sex with a partner. He and Proust were on different wavelengths: pederasty, always tender if hounding in Gide, was invariably portrayed as grotesque by Proust. Gide notoriously skim-read a bit of Swann's Way at Gallimard before rejecting the manuscript, although he subsequently atoned by eulogising the novel.

In his long life, Gide seemed to know everyone and read everything, travel endlessly, write thousands of letters, practise the piano assiduously and, in between, write a large body of (very variable) work. Probably only Paludes, L'Immoraliste (though for Sheridan its finally bereft hero is more of a démoralisé ), The Vatican Cellars and The Counterfeiters (Gide's "masterpiss'' as Hemingway said), together with Corydon and his lengthy Journal , entitle him to lasting fame. His great sensitivity to young people's psychic wounds fed on incidents in his own often unhappy youth, such as hearing a doctor claiming to cure masturbation by an operation using Tuareg spearheads. Who can ever count how many today are convinced, like Gide, of the internecine war between hedonism and puritanism, Satan and God, attachment to terrestrial nourishment and would-be detachment from it? On one of his many trips to Italy, Gide alternated cornering usually complaisant youths with reading Paradise Lost .

Sheridan provides pertinent and incisive summaries and critiques of all Gide's significant texts. He is particularly drawn to the early Paludes - for Barthes the first modern novel - centred on that supreme culture-vulture, literary Paris, but also introducing that self-referentiality which resurfaces in most of Gide's fictions. As Sheridan astutely notes, though, the famous en abyme technique is used sparingly and parodically, for the book-within-the-book in Paludes , as later in The Counterfeiters, is treated with much mockery. Sheridan is surely right, nonetheless, to reject the later attempts by Sarraute or Sartre to convert The Counterfeiters into the godfather of the nouveau roman . It is indeed too rich, too scintillating, to be so annexed.

Wilde said sententiously to Gide after Les Nourritures Terrestres that "In art there is no first person''. Sheridan comments obviously but wisely:

"For Gide there was really no other''. Each of his egocentric/egofugal books was meant as an ironic lightness of being. Gide himself supplies the perfect image for the stop/go economy of his psyche: "I pull the reins and wield the whip at the same time''. This lifelong adolescent must have the last word: "God preserve me from the wrinkles of the mind''.

Walter Redfern is professor of French, University of Reading.

André Gide: A Life in the Present

Author - Alan Sheridan
ISBN - 0 241 129 7
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 709

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