Slackjaw: Mornings With Celine

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


For a few weeks there I’d been feeling particularly grumpy, and it was starting to gnaw at me. The thing is, I was feeling grumpy for specific reasonsfor things I could point at and say, That’s why I’m feeling grim. And even if the reasons weren’t exactly useless, they were at least banal. I found that having something to point at didn’t help.

Far too often over the years, I’ve found that when I’m feeling that way, instead of combating it in some form, I’ll feed it. At home, the soundtrack will suddenly shift to Lou Reed’s Berlin album, or the Swans. The movies I pop in turn darker (that 1995 version of Notes From Underground is a doozy!), and the reading material shifts from goofy pulp novels towell, Celine. (And I mean Louis-Ferdinand, not the other one.)

Ah, Celinethere’s no better salve to feed a heart full of contempt. This time around I pulled Fable for Another Time off the shelf. I have a mountain of Celine at home, including obscurities like Cannon Fodder and his collected ballets (though my copy of Mea Culpa seems to have disappeared on me again, much to my horror)but this one I’d never read before.

Now, even if you fancy yourself a bit of a Celine aficionado, you may not have heard of it. Although originally published in 1952, it wasn’t translated and published in English until last year as part of the University of Nebraska Press’ French Modernist series. It was the last of his major novels left to be translated. And like Guignol’s Band, it’s a two-parter (I have part onepart two remains untranslated), and together they form a necessary lynchpin for the rest of his work. 

To put it in perspective, it was his fifth novel, and was written while he was serving time in a Copenhagen prison after the French courts found him guilty in abstention of treason. He’d been sentenced to death, but was released after 19 months.

If you aren’t familiar with Celine, well, then you probably haven’t read this far anyway, so I’m going to skip the bio (though if you aren’t familiar with it, you should look it upit’s really something). Suffice to say, the book was written when he was in a mood. Of course, he was always in a mood. Hell, even the disclaimer is ornery: 

The horror of reality!

All places, names, characters, situations set forth in this novel are imaginary! Absolutely imaginary! No relationship whatsoever with any reality whatsoever! It’s only a Fable, and even that that!…for another time!

It took me years of trying before I could actually read Journey to the End of the Night and understand what all the hubbub was about. It seemed like gibberish, all those broken phrases separated by ellipses and exclamation points. Trying to make sense of it was like scraping my skull against a brick wall. But then one daylord knows how or whysomething clicked, and I understood. I began thinking like he did, and so reading what was essentially an internal monologue became as simple as listening to my own thoughts. 

Funny thing is, all that struggle was to grasp a book which, in retrospect, seems fairly traditional. Going back to Journey now is kind of like going back to The Rites of Spring and wondering what the big deal was. It was only in later books that he began really pushing the style to extremes.

After that first click, I found it simple to not only read the books, but to follow the thought patterns as they jumped from past to present and from place to place without warning. 

Perhaps I should be worried about that. Anyway.

Even though I hadn’t read him in a couple years, once I opened up Fable and began scraping my way through it, I still found it fairly easy going. It was comforting, in a way. Guess it’s like riding a bikeonce you make the leap into Celine’s mind, you’re stuck.

Part of this may have to do with the efforts of translator Mary Hudson. Given that his writing sought to capture spoken street French (almost a completely different language from written French), translating Celine into English is akin to translating Shakespeare into Swahili. It’s thick with slang, odd usages and colloquial obscenities which are impossible to translate directly. Translators do what they can, but despite all the Shit! and Fuck! and He should have my boot up his ass! Celine in English always comes off a little stiff. Hudson did a fine job here, though I still found myself raising an eyebrow at the occasionally awkward bit of vitriol.

He’s trembling, all clammed up, over nothing! Goddamned clam! Shit!

It didn’t matter. Once you lock into the mindset, you pretty much get the gist of what he was after. 

That’s all it took. After just a day or two of feeding off his contempt, bile, paranoia and shrieking hatred, I found my own spirits lifting. I sat on the morning train smiling in spite of the dregs around me. Whether he was drawing something out of me, or merely confirming it, I’m not certain. Maybe it’s the fact that he wrote about the simplest things, like street directions, in the same howling tone (You could take the bus!). Whatever the case, it did the trick.

All the things which had been nagging me were still there, but for some reason they seemed much less irksome. They were useless!…Absurd!…Full of shit!…With my boot up their ass!

Funny how things work that way sometimes. 

In fact, after finishing Fable (in several months from now), I’ve decided to reread the rest of the novels again. Two, three years down the road, look outI may well be the happiest fucking asshole in the world.

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