Authors: Louis-Ferdinand Celine
CASTLE TO CASTLE
Louis-Ferdinand Destouches was born in Courbevoie, France, in 1894. He studied medicine after serving in World War I, during which he had suffered severe head injuries. His thesis on the nineteenth-century immunologist Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was accepted at Rennes, and in 1928 he began general practice. In 1932, under the name Céline, he published
Journey to the End of the Night
—a summa of alienation and despair and a turning point in world literature because of its barbaric language, torrential imagery, and unrestrained bitterness. His second novel,
Death on the Installment Plan
(1936), was hardly less pessimistic. Before and during World War II, Céline supported certain Nazi ideas, and as the war ended, he fled to Germany and ultimately to Denmark—an experience recreated in
Castle to Castle
, all published by Penguin Books. He, who had said, "The truth of this world is death," died near Paris in 1961, dishonored yet recognized as one of the century's major writers.
Ralph Manheim is distinguished for his translations of Céline, Günter Grass, and Hermann Hesse. Mr. Manheim won the National Book Award in 1970 for this translation of
Castle to Castle
Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth,
Penguin Books, 625 Madison Avenue,
New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 41 Steelcase Road West,
Markham, Ontario, Canada
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,
Auckland 10, New Zealand
Originally published in French under the title
D'un Chateau l'Autre by Editions Callimard 1957
English translation first published in the
United States of America by Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence 1968
Published in Penguin Books 1976
Copyright © Editions Gallimard, 1957
Copyright © Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1968
Introduction copyright © Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1975
All rights reserved
ISBN 0 14 00.434 V 1
Printed in the United States of America by
Offset Paperback Mfrs., Inc., Dallas, Pennsylvania
Set in Caledonia and Caslon
The interview with Louis-Ferdinand Céline is reprinted from Writers at
Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series. Copyright ©
The Paris Review, Inc., 1967. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of
The Viking Press, Inc.
Except in the United States of America,
this book is sold subject to the condition
that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise,
be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated
without the publisher's prior consent in any form of
binding or cover other than that in which it is
published and without a similar condition
including this condition being imposed
on the subsequent purchaser
Céline: What can I say? What would appeal to your readers? I don't know. They're the kind of people you've got to be nice to, we can't hit them over the head. You've got to amuse them without offending them. Never mind . . . I'll talk. A writer hasn't got so many books in him.
Journey to the End of the Night
Death on the Installment Plan
would have been plenty if my disaster hadn't hit me . . . that gave me new subject matter. Curiosity got me into it. Curiosity can be costly. I've become a chronicler, a tragic chronicler. Most writers look for tragedy but don't find it. They remember little private incidents that aren't tragedy. The Greeks, you'll say. The Greek tragic poets were under the impression that they communed with the gods . . . so you see . . . hell, it's not every day that you get a chance to ring up the gods.
Interviewee: And what in your opinion is the tragic element of our epoch?
Céline: Stalingrad. There's catharsis for you. The fall of Stalingrad was the end of Europe. There's been a cataclysm. Its epicenter was Stalingrad. After that you can say that white civilization was finished, really washed up. Well, a cataclysm makes a lot of noise: bubblings, rockets, cataracts. I was in the middle of it . . . I got something out of it. I made use of that material, I sell it. Sure, I got mixed up in doings—stuff connected with the Jews—that were none of my business. I told the story though . . . in my manner.
Interviewer: A manner that created a scandal when Journey came out. Your style shook up a good many conventions.
Céline: It's known as invention. Take the impressionists.
They took their paintings out into the daylight, they painted out of doors; they saw people really eating lunch on the grass. The musicians worked in the same direction. It's a long way from Bach to Debussy. They revolutionized sounds and colors. My line is words, the position of words. I'm going to give you a little lecture on French Literature—don't get sore. The religions brought us up, the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish . . . well, let's say the Christian religions. For centuries French education was directed by Jesuits. They taught us to make sentences translated from the Latin, well balanced, with a subject, a verb, an object and a certain rhythm. In short, a mess of sermons. People say of an author: "He forges a fine sentence." I say: "It's unreadable." They say: "What splendid dramatic language!" I look, I listen: it's flat, it's no good, it's nonexistent. What I've done is to put the spoken language into writing. Just like that.
Interviewer: That's what you call your Title music," isn't it?
Céline: I call it 'Title music" because I'm modest, but it's a very difficult transposition, it's hard work. It looks like nothing at all but it takes know-how. To turn out a novel like mine you've got to write eighty thousand pages by hand and boil it down to eight hundred. Speaking of me, people say: "That's natural eloquence. He writes the way he talks . . . everyday words . . . almost in the right order . . . you recognize them." Only, you see, everything is "transposed." You don't get the word you were expecting or the situation you were expecting. It's transposed into the realm of reverie, between true and not-true. A word used in that way becomes at once more intimate and more precise than the same word as it is ordinarily used. A writer makes himself a style. He's got to. The trade is simple, it can be learned. A skillful worker has no use for ready-made tools. The same goes for style. All it's good for is to bring out of you what you want to show.
Interviewer: What do you wish to show?
Céline: Emotion. Savy, the biologist, said something very apt: In the beginning was emotion, not in the beginning was the Word. When you tickle an amoeba, it retracts, it has emotion; it doesn't speak but it has emotion. A baby cries, a horse gallops; one has to learn how to talk, the other how to trot. But to us and us alone the Word has been given. The result is the politician, the writer, the prophet. The Word is monstrous, it stinks. But translating that emotion is inconceivably difficult . . . it's horrible . . . superhuman . . . it can kill a man.
Interviewer: But you've always felt the need to write.
Céline: Nothing you do is free. You've got to pay. A story you make up is worthless. Only a story you pay for is any good. Once it's paid for you've got the right to transpose it. Otherwise it's bad. . . . That's what they all do . . . I mean, the guys that have everything: the Nobel prize, the Academy, the press, the gold medal for charlatanism. If I had money, I'd let them stew in their own juice. I can't listen to the radio any more . . . every week they discover a "genius," every two weeks a Balzac, every morning a George Sand. I haven't got time to keep up with them, because I work. I've got a contract, I've got to meet it. Only this is my sixty-sixth birthday and I'm 75 percent disabled. At my age most men have retired. I owe six million to Gallimard . . . So you see I have to go on . . . I already have another novel in the works: more of the same [Nord, sequel to Castle to Castle], One thing leads to another and you can't stop. I know something about novels. They were still being made in my day. Novels are something like lace . . . lace is an art, too, an art that went out with the convents. The novel can't compete with cars, the movies, television, and liquor. A guy who's had a good feed and tanked up on good wine gives his old lady a kiss after supper and his day is over. Finished.
[Interview later in 1960. Jean Guenot and Jacques Darribehaude.]
Interviewer: Do you recall a literary shock or enthusiasm that left its mark on you?
Céline: Oh no. Certainly not. I started out in medicine, medicine was what I wanted and definitely not literature, hell no. Sure, some writers struck me as talented . . . I saw talent
in . . . always the same names: Paul Morand . . . Ramuz . . . Barbusse . . . those fellows were made for it.
Interviewer: When you were a child, did you think of becoming a writer?
Céline: Never. No, no, no. I had an enormous admiration for doctors. Medicine really fascinated me. It thrilled me.
Interviewer: What did a doctor mean to you as a child?
Céline: A man who came to the Passage Choiseul to see my sick mother or my father . . . To me he was a miracle man who cured people, who did amazing things with a body that was out of order. I thought it was marvelous. He seemed so wise and learned. That's what I thought, absolutely, a magician.
Interviewer: And what does a doctor mean to you today?
Céline: Bah! Nowadays the social setup is so rough on him, everybody competing with him, he's lost his prestige. He lost his prestige when he stopped . . . once he started dressing like a garage mechanic, he began, little by little, to give the impression of a mechanic. He has nothing much to say any more, the housewife has the Larousse Medical and even diseases have lost their prestige, there aren't so many of them left . . . Think it over . . . no more syphilis, no more clap, no more typhoid . . . antibiotics have taken half the tragedy out of medicine. No more plague, no more cholera . . .
Interviewer: What about nervous and mental diseases? Aren't they rather on the increase?
Céline: But in that line we can't do a thing. Some cases of madness are fatal, but not many. But Paris is full of smalltime lunatics. Some people have an individual tendency to look for excitement, but with all the pairs of buttocks you see around town, it's naturally going to inflame the sex urge . . . think of the school children . . . it'll make them all whacky . . .
Interviewer: When you were working at Ford's were you under the impression that the mode of life imposed on the workers made for mental disorders?
Céline: Not at all. No. There was a head physician at Fords, my boss. Here's what he used to say: "I'm told chimpanzees can pick cotton. I'd be glad to see a few of them working on the machines here, it would be much better." Mental cases are better workers, they're much more attached to the factory than normal people, the normal ones are always walking out, the mental cases stick to the job. But today the human problem isn't medicine. Most of a doctor's patients are women. Women are always worried; they have every known weakness. A woman's got to . . . well, she wants to stay young . . . she's got her menopause, her periods . . . the whole gynecological shooting match . . . it's very delicate and makes her a martyr. Oh yes, she's a martyr but she goes on living, she bleeds, she doesn't bleed, she goes to see a doctor, she has an operation or she doesn't . . . another operation . . . in between she has a baby, she loses her shape, and that's bad . . . she wants to stay young, to keep her figure . . . she doesn't feel like working and actually she can't . . . no muscle . . . it's an enormous problem . . . that's been too much neglected . . . it supports the beauty parlors, the quacks . . . and the druggists. But it presents no medical interest whatsoever; a woman falling apart is simply a fading rose, you can't call her a medical problem, or an agricultural problem either for that matter . . . When you see a rose fading in the garden, you resign yourself. There'll be another . . . but a woman . . . she doesn't want to die . . . that's the rough part of it. I'm well acquainted with the problem because I've spent my life with dancers . . . women aren't favored when it comes to muscles, we are . . . we're more muscular than women . . .a woman has to take care of herself, she doesn't like to. Okay, there's your medical routine, it gives a doctor his living . . . But when it comes to real sickness, you don't see much of it, the young students today don't see the diseases I saw as a child. They don't even see corpses any more.
Interviewer: Your work as a physician brought you certain revelations and experiences that you put into your books.
Céline: Oh yes. I spent thirty-five years at it; after all, that means something . . . I covered ground as a young man . . . I climbed a lot of stairs in those days, I saw a lot of people . . . yes, plenty of people . . . but it did me a lot of good, in every way . . . oh yes . . . in many ways . . . yes, it did me a lot of good. But I didn't write medical novels because they're another abominable bore . . . take Soubiran.
Interviewer: Your medical ambitions came to you very early and yet you started out in life very differently.
Céline: Oh yes. And how! They wanted to make a buyer out of me! A salesman in a department store! . . . We were poor, my parents didn't have the wherewithal . . . I started in poverty and, well, that's how I'm ending . . .
Interviewer: Tell me something about the small shopkeeper's life around 1900.
Céline: Horrible . . . horrible . . . I mean that we had hardly anything to eat, and we had to keep up appearances. For instance, in the Passage Choiseul, we always had two showcases, but only one of them was lit up because there was nothing in the other. And he had to scrub the Passage before going to work . . . my father, I mean . . . anyway, life was no picnic . . . My mother had earrings. We took them to the pawnshop at the end of every month to pay the gas bill. Don't ask. It was terrible.
Interviewer: Did you live in the Passage Choiseul a long time?
Céline: I'll say. Eighteen years . . . Until I volunteered . . . A life of poverty . . . worse than poverty, because when you're just poor you can let yourself go, get drunk, he in the gutter. This was the kind of poverty that keeps up a front, dignified poverty, and that's awful. For instance . . . all my life I've eaten noodles. Noodles, because you see, my mother used to mend old lace. And one thing that everybody knows about old lace is that odors stick to it forever. And the customers, well, you can't bring your customers smelly lace. So what didn't make any odors? Noodles. I ate whole washtubs full of noodles, my mother made them by the washtubful . . . I ate boiled noodles, oh yes, oh yes, my whole childhood, noodles and bread soup. Those things were odorless. As you know, the kitchen in the Passage Choiseul was on the second floor, it was as big as a clothes cupboard; well you went up by a winding staircase, see, like this, and somebody had to keep going up to see if it was cooking if it was boiling or not boiling, well, it was hopeless, my mother was crippled, one of her legs didn't work, and she had to climb those winding stairs twenty-five times a day . . . Life was impossible . . . My father was a clerk. He came home at five . . . Then we had to deliver the merchandise. Oh no, it was misery. Dignified misery.