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Book Review September 18, 2003
 
A Bad Man Speaking Well
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 4
 

Celine had the right punk instinct: he knew the other Modernists were doomed by pedantry. They, mostly provincials, couldn't stop showing off their expensive education; Celine, who had actually had a far finer Parisian education, shredded his diplomas and became a comic. And a fascist. Not exactly a Nazi; the Nazis were cockeyed optimists as far as he was concerned. Celine's fascism was the older, gloomier French sort, convinced that "white people are only makeup base," fated to be painted over by stronger tints, and that Aryans were born dupes, losers, two-legged livestock for their virtually superhuman Jewish masters. It was these masters who wanted another war, and Celine spent his celebrity screeching against it - and the Jews - until he found himself, after Stalingrad, the man France loved to hate and was looking forward to hanging from the nearest good lamppost.

It was an expensive way to buy a second life as comic memoirist, but it worked. After all, Celine's century was in love with badness. Saint Genet was only a thief and a homosexual, badnesses not just forgiveable but endearing; Sartre literally couldn't get himself arrested; Celine was a fascist. That's bad.

You have to wonder if he set it up -- the whole continent flattened so he could get another few books in which to try out the new music he'd developed. At any rate, he was openly grateful to the war in his second-incarnation books, saying that "a writer's only got a few books in him" and his second career came straight out of Stalingrad.

Fable for Another Time, now translated into English for the first time, is the first book of Celine II, and it begins at the crucial moment when Celine realizes he'll have to flee Paris or be lynched. The opening scene sets up the second and greater voice: funny, hamming it up, self-pitying in a good-natured clownish manner that slips now and then into real hysteria; and above all, colloquial, repetitious and above all without a trace of the pedantry that mars almost every one of Celine's contemporaries. Celine had learned to write like he talked, a feat so simple it's almost impossible. From the first word, you're there with him:

"So here's Clemence Arlon. We're the same age, or thereabouts. This is one strange visit! Right now...no, it's not strange...She came in spite of the air raids, the metros not running, the streets barricaded...."

An eXile tribute

Dead from Scratch for Johnny Cash

A Union rain hosed you clear
of the grave at Chickamaugua,
gave you the treatment:
deer hooves pre-cleated
your cheeks, Grant's caissons
broke your jaw just right.
Then the bones stood up, roughly
as old as sandstone, roughly
a billion years younger
than Bob Hope: you never
played Nam, talked golf,
or shook a White House hand.
Which is weird, since
country's an anagram
for cannon fodder, but
those sucker steel chords
never sucked you in, you being
dead from scratch, fresh up
out of a long think on it
in the dark and bloody ground.
Yet the suckers loved you
too, and to give you your due
the way I want to means nodding
with them, the coolsters,
cult buffs, camp vipers.
Which is fair enough,
because funeral black
isn't supposed to fit.
Except on you, in black
before its fad, well dead
ahead of your time:
yield and justification
of ten million dull drunks,
smacked shrews,
dull sermons. And
you were on the Union side.

Clemence and her silent, loutish son sit there in Celine's apartment for almost half the book without saying a word, while Celine mumbles to himself and the reader trying to guess what nasty ulterior motive has brought them. Do they want his furniture? Celine fans will remember that precious furniture, which the author never shuts up about, not for three long books. And believe me, you only wish he'd go on about it even longer. As Mark E. Smith says, "We dig repetition," and Celine's repetitions make a bassline as good as John Cale's. Or is she after an abortion from Celine, aka Dr Destouches? Celine chews over that one in his finest mature style, slowly building to a comic climax:


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