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Book Review September 18, 2003
 
A Bad Man Speaking Well
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 4
 
"A prescription? a kiss? a small favor?

"There's something feline, fierce, prickly about friends' wives. You haven't seen anything until you've refused your friend's wife a little favor. Because then, you'd be better off with a reputation of four and twenty Blue-Beards. a crook without a car! a defeated field marshal! your feet stink, your fangs, your breath! I'm telling you!

"Ah, refuse a friend's wife a little favor? the famous little favor!...tell me about it! Orestes, the Furies, a joke in comparison! A woman "three months gone," now that's something to reckon with! ...you haven't known the Antique until you've been looked over, peered at, disgusting yellow-bellied less-than-dog!"

Celine's Dangerfield shuffle, just getting into gear in this passage, settles into a blissful glide that makes other Modernist voices seem as stiff and dull as a country schoolmaster's interview answers. He's enjoying himself; he could go on and on; and he will! The tune goes and comes back, Celine tinkles the ivories. There's so much repetition you realize how much you miss it. .

And as he messes around with the keyboard, he mumbles and mugs, half laughter half snore. It's so comfortable. You read the late Celine in a nice secondhand cordouroy recliner. It spoils you forever for Joyce's ergo-balloon ("It's good for you!") or Beckett's rack ("It's SUPPOSED to hurt!")

Not that Celine is against a little hurting. After all, he's a doctor! And a comic; the two great pain professions. Like all the great comics, Celine always has time for a little torment along the way. Chewing over the possibility that Clemence's teenage son is working up the courage to kill him, Celine offers some unsolicited medical advice to the lad:

"....Clemence and her son. The kid, he wouldn't dare whack it to me right there, off his own bat, just like that and wham! A little pistol, maybe?

"He's fiddling around in his pocket. Don't think so...He looks sneaky, but not crazy. You gotta be crazy to kill a man to his face, point blank. Requires a certain madness...He's not mad, I'd see it. If there were three or four of them they'd be mad. All alone he's just a jerk, that's all, a jerk.

" -- Acne, young man?

"I go to his chin with my finger, I touch it...He's full of acne.

" -- You scratch yourself?

" -- Huh, wha?

" -- He's trembling. All clammed up, over nothing."

Celine's fascist adventures had provided him with one of the most reliable sources of new memoir material: a prison sentence. After steeping you in the mysterious visit of Clemence and son in 1944, Celine breaks in, hammishly, on his more writerly passages to complain in the querulous present tense, at great, at wonderful length, about his misery in a cell in Copenhagen after the war. His pellagra! His enemas! The guards!

The melodies go wandering off, almost too far...and then the bassline returns. Celine teases you about his own shepherding; as each digression spins almost out of control, he says "I don't want to lose you." As if he could.

This translation, by Mary Hudson, seems like a good one, because most of the time you forget you're reading a translation. Even Hudson's showier passages seem like honorable attempts to catch the Master's "little music," as here:

"But about this bullying by bogey-men, this cry-for-the-kill from will-o-the-wisps, this moonstruck butchery, I should give a fuck?" I'm not sure that's good, but I'm inclined to believe it's Celine's, good or not.

Better still, Hudson's introductory essay is intelligent and honest, a pleasant surprise when most prefatory writing in Celine translations consists of more or less dishonest attempts to prove he was actually a good person.

Which brings us to the other translation. You want dishonest? You want stupid? Then here, in its entirety, is the Foreword of Cannon Fodder:

"Lots of words have been bandied around about Celine, most are hearsay and based on ignorance.

"Celine was firstly a doctor, intelligent enough to be appalled at man's crumminess towards man, and secondly a writer. A fascist? I don't think so... Unimpressed? Yes!...


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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