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The novel in France remains a scene of much critical activity. Older novelists like Céline and Camus are attracting renewed critical interest, the nouveau roman is still alive and well in the work of Claude Simon, and a more recent arrival, Michel Tournier, is rising steadily in the critics' esteem.
Céline, born Louis-Ferdinand-Auguste Destouches in 1894, has without question been die most controversial of the four, an "emmerdeur" (a term applied to Etiemble in a recent television interview with Bernard Pivot). The publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit in 1932 provoked a storm of controversy because of its crudeness, its sense of despair, and its apparent denial of the validity of all accepted social values, provoking, as Wayne Burns points out, a host of extra-literary reactions. He feels that almost all critics have done Céline a gross injustice and proposes a defense of Céline, a defense that in fact becomes an encomium (Céline is in his opinion the greatest novelist of the twentieth century). He calls his book a "reading" because it has no scholarly pretensions and does not concern itself with the biographical and critical details found in a normal introduction to an author's works.
The format is plot summary, with long quotations taken from English translations of the novels (it is unclear whether Burns has read the French version of Céline's work). Burns contends that his reading is valid because his point of view closely parallels Celine's own, taking the narrator's statements pretty much at face value, while seeing no problem with point of view, in contrast to those critics who sense in these two novels a complex structure of irony. By relying on translations, [End Page 833] Burns cannot adequately address the question of irony, nor can he communicate to the reader anything of the pleasure afforded by Celine's language, an extremely rich oral and emotive language.
Although it is true that much of the reaction to Celine's writing, especially before and just after World War Two, has a moralistic tone, (Wayne Booth is Burns's principal target here, unfairly attacked, in my opinion), Céline has hardly lacked defenders, nor is he without precedent. His antibourgeois, even his anarchist views were certainly not new at the time (in this respect, the title, already used by Marc Hanrez; in 1966 and a paraphrase of a famous line from Boileau, is misleading); as antecedents one can mention Flaubert and Baudelaire, and Mort à crédit is strongly reminiscent of Jules Vallès's L'Enfant. From the linguistic point of view, one could cite as antecedent Zola's attribution of popular speech to his narrator in L'Assommoir. Céline's language, while still somewhat shocking to some people, is little different from what is heard on French television every evening.
In fine, it is difficult to determine the audience for which this book is intended. The reader looking for a general introduction to Céline would do well to look elsewhere. In Burns's own words: "It is next to impossible, in a reading such as this, to do anything like justice to the overall effect of Céline's narrative."
Céline's works provide a stark portrayal of the absurdity of human existence but furnish no promise of overcoming it. Camus's message seems to be that human self-respect and sense of community will provide the energy to transcend the absurd. David Sprintzen studies this message in some of the fictional works, such as L'Étranger and La Chute but especially in the...