Fanatic of Disaster

Fanatic of Disaster by Melvin Maddocks 102

Deprived of Liberty by C. Michael Curtis 104

The Pushkin Boom by Clarence Brown 107

The Peripatetic Reviewer by Edward Weeks 108

The Ghost of Brecht by J. P. O’Donnell 110

Miss Verrett Joins the Ball Game

by Herbert Kupferberg 113

Cartoon Empires by Dan Wakefield 115

Short Reviews: Records by Herbert Kupferberg 117 Short Reviews: Books by Phoebe Adams 118

by Melvin Maddocks

There is a biblical scene by Hieronymus Bosch known simply as Flood. Bosch chose to paint the moment of triumph: Noah’s ark safe on the mountaintop, encircled by a swooping halo of birds. The animals are disembarking two by two. The verdict is in: life will go on; and Bosch has done strict duty to a noble legend of resurrection, of rebirth.

But all this is in the upper third of the painting — remote, slightly unreal, like a pretty myth superimposed on actuality. One’s eye is drawn obsessively to the lower reaches of Ararat. Here on bleak, unvegetated slopes lie the victims of the flood — the rotting bodies of men and animals indiscriminately heaped together, transfixed in death agony. It is toward these corpses — toward this destiny—that Noah’s bland-eyed, unsuspecting animals are filing.

Bosch’s magnificently perverse view of death in life — or rather, of death as the supreme truth of life — may bring one as close as one can conic to the desperate end-game theme of Castle to Castle, published in France in 1957. For this is the next to last novel of a flailing man — Celine died in 1961 — whose sputter-and-choke prose (“me and my three dots”) seems peculiarly appropriate to his revulsion not only from the particular world he lived in but from the very processes of life itself.

Céline is Bosch minus the hope of heaven, or even the dread of hell — a furious skeptic backed up against an utterly meaningless apocalypse. Slaughterhouse, sewer, cancer ward — no metaphor can overstate the outrage and contempt he feels for the terms of existence.

Castle to Castle by Louis-Ferdinand Céline translated by Ralph Manheim (Delacorte, $6.95; a Seymour Lawrence book)

He is what the Rumanian philosopher F. M. Cioran calls a “fanatic of disaster” with a “dream of excelling, if only in chaos.” How he hates what Dostoevsky’s monologist in Notes From the Underground hated before him: “the good and the beautiful.” He can barely tolerate even as mirage that upper third of Bosch’s painting. But he finally manages to allow for it in Castle to Castle, though strictly in the Celine manner: impassioned sarcasm.

Céline’s ark, so to speak, his delusive refuge from the flood, is the Hohenzollern castle of Siegmaringen in the Black Forest. For Céline, its romantic facade (“What a picturesque spot! . . . you’d think you were at an operetta”) is as ghastly a decoy as the rainbow over Ararat was for Bosch. The castle itsell looks like a wedding cake (“Take a bite . . . stucco, bric-a-brac, gingerbread in every style . . . unbelievable . . . super-Hollywood ... all phony”). Like Bosch, Céline points relentlessly downward: “The real thing was underneath ... in the muck, in the sand, in the rock . . . fourteen centuries of dungeons . . . the slain, hanged, strangled, and mummified . . . the skeletons.”

As if to keep Gothic horror in the present tense, Céline brings onto his mock Graustarkian stage a fresh cast of victims. It is near the end of World War II in Europe, the autumn of 1944. To Siegmaringen — Disneyland as a museum of horrors — comes Céline himself, joining in exile over 1100 other collaborators, including Retain and Laval, most of whom fled France after the collapse of Vichy. The deposed, the bombed-out, the mad, the hungry, the diseased — the frantic losers — gather here to wait out defeat in a Wagnerian setting. To these “derelicts of Europe” Celine directs himself in his lifelong dual role as healing physician and excoriating satirist.

As usual, he has no real plot. He arranges his book as a series of tableaus. The paranoiacs rave and posture at the top. The merely feebleminded and scrofulous huddle on putrid staircases below. Céline really goes to work on the crowd scenes. Toilets overflow, joyless orgies are conducted — the canvas is crammed with the brutalized, the degraded, and the obscene. One waits for God’s hand to strike. But, of course, for the mercies of destruction — the neat, on-the-button thunderbolt from heaven — the modern novelist is forced to substitute the sloppy anticlimaxes, the slow bore of self-destruction.

If painstakingly detailed, slowmotion decay were all there was to Castle to Castle, one would have to read it as a document of malediction, rewarding chiefly to the specialist and the psychopath. Wincing through a Céline novel can seem, at times, like lip-reading every last word of the graffiti in a very large men’s room. Can any form of logorrhea be harder to endure than Céline’s monologues at their most pathological? How they do crank on — his whines about his neglect as a writer (“I’ve got fifty Nobel prizes coming to me”); his repeated recitations of his 75 percent disability for wounds in World War I, chanted by rote like a beggar with a tin cup; his unconvincing martyr mumblings about being unfairly persecuted for anti-Semitism and proNazism — usually followed in unfortunate juxtaposition by his endless, ritualistic cursings of those he hates: publishers, the “jackal press,” Paris motorists, Mauriac, Picasso, Malraux, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Archbishop of Paris.

Yet Céline is worth reading. He is worth reading precisely because he is wrong about life and about himself: neither is as bad as he makes out, and some part of Céline — deeper than the pretty Disney castle, but deeper than the muck beneath it too—implicitly acknowledges this. There is an almost involuntary gusto to Céline: it is against his principles to laugh, but he can’t help himself. His two masterpieces, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, have an energy, an irrepressibility, that denies in the act his official fatalism. As a functioning artist, he is a backslider who cannot live down to his pessimistic creed.

Castle to Castle does not compare with the best of Céline. On too many pages, the enfant terrible has become a dyspeptic old man, gumming insults and scratching compulsively at his scabs. Yet even in this late, fatigued work there are marvelous set pieces, still full of the Céline flair. The ancient Princess Hermelie of Hohenzollern and her lady-inwaiting suddenly emerge from the catacombs beneath the castle, two blinking witches with pink parasols — a spellbinder of a scene. A funeral party travels to Berlin in the dead of winter in old Kaiser Wilhelm’s luxurious but unheated train. To keep from freezing, the mourners pull down the brocaded drapes and tear up the Oriental rugs, wrapping themselves in the priceless rags like Indians after a wagon raid. What one would give to see the movie!

For doomsday victims, how selfcontradicting — how alive — Céline characters seem. What characters in life-affirming novels breathe half as vigorously, for instance, as Aisha von Raumnitz? Lebanese wife of the commissioner of the Castle Guard, Aisha stalks the corridors in red boots, two giant mastiffs at her heels, yellow whip at the ready. She is, of course, merely a Céline eccentric as opposed to a bona fide Céline madman. But even his madmen have an exuberance to their obsessions, like the French collaborator who talks of inventing a “stupendous moral bomb ... a bomb of concentration ! of faith,” and the German official who listens to him, not so much because he wants to win the war but because he dreams of at least getting back to Paris to erect a giant bronze statue of Charlemagne on the Place de la Défense.

What one worries about is that Céline will be — damning word! — “revived”; that he will be honored — what a fate! — for being the father of black humor. He really ought not to be praised for the reasons for which he monotonously praised himself. Rather too glibly he prattled the credo that only in his sickness does man become interesting — that the artist is, in fact, our acutely ill and therefore accurate spokesman, telling the rest of us the awful truth. “I need the fever to boil me up,” he writes in Castle to Castle. “Over 102° you see everything.” War and illness, he argued earlier, produce the only “true insights.” One suffers “the greatest pain possible” in order “to become oneself.” And so on. Céline, it is to be feared, was rather self-consciously a Nietzsche man.

The nihilist — particularly the audience-baiter, the insult-comedian, the provocateur — has become a popular literary fashion. For the moment, the public has accepted Céline’s naïve equation: The more horror you can see, the more honest you are being. Worse, as Lionel Trilling has indicated, readers are now “entertained by moral horror stories,” resulting in what he calls “the legitimization of the subversive.” He writes of his students, assigned Kafka, Joyce, Mann, possibly even Céline: “I asked them to look into the Abyss, and both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss” middleclass dilettantes of brinkmanship, hooked on moral vertigo.

One owes more respect to Céline than he showed to himself. Especially toward the end, he cheapened his genuine vision of horror into a professional rant. It is up to the reader to be more scrupulous with his responses — to refuse as audience to play horror for kicks or for conspicuous display of sophistication. Horror deserves, at the least, a little awe. Whatever else it is, horror should not be chic.

The Céline reader has the further obligation of reading Céline more accurately than he read himself. Henry James claimed that, just by the virtue of existing, art represents an impulse toward health. The accusation — it practically becomes that in Céline’s case — is convincing. Nor is that gusto of his — a natural preference for the vivid, an inclination to laugh when hurt the only evidence. Underground beneath the underground, there is a repressed, stunted tenderness to Céline — the dirty little secret of the antiromantic. It is always there for animals, sometimes for old people, occasionally for women.

Rather revealingly, Céline is fascinated by dance: he compares both life and novel writing to it. Dance metaphors thread through his books, and Castle to Castle — a danse macabre most of the way — ends with a pirouette by one of Céline’s most charming bit players, who has it in her favor that she is old as well as a woman. Madame Armandine is

a little nervous ... in fact she’s definitely cracked . . . but she’s got a kind of youthful vigor for seventytwo! . . . and even a certain coquetry . . . that plaid skirt, for instance . . . pleated! and the blue on her eyebrows and eyelashes! . . . and her raincoat, more blue! . . . and the color of her eyes . . . chinablue . . . and makeup on her cheeks . . . pastel pink! . . . you’ve got the picture? . . . and smiling like a doll . . . pert and comely . . . she only stops smiling long enough for her little spells of hee-hee! . . . sadness isn’t in her line!

Madame Armandine has just had an operation for breast cancer — the doctors wanted to cut both breasts — but she is one of life’s winners, and she knows it:

“ They couldn’t get over it in Versailles the way I mended! quicker than the young chickens! only a week! in one week, I was all healed up! they couldn’t get over it! hee! hee! look, you can see for yourself! . . . and Madame can look too! your wife! . . . they say she’s a dancer! look!”

She gets up off the bench, she goes out into the middle of the lawn . . . she lifts up her skirts . . . hoopla! . . . and her petticoats! . . . and she bends back! she does a complete backbend! as supple as can be! . . . and up goes one leg, straight as a die ! . . . like the Eiffel Tower! . . .

At that moment, she has made it, no matter what happens afterward. And so the novel — one of the blackest-of-the-black Céline wrote — ends with a small legend of rebirth for that upper third of the picture.

If one concludes by emphasizing the rose rather than the noir in Céline, it is not only because, as inverted Pollyannas, we usually play it safe by looking at life through blackcolored glasses; it is also because we tend to forget that art, including Céline’s, depends for its very life upon the tension between the two never quite being resolved.