How sad finally to come to the end of a wonderful book. Just finished Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1936 novel, Death On The Instalment plan. It is, in fact, beyond wonderful: it is one of the greatest novels of the last century. It is unlike anything written before or since, it sits gloriously alone in its very own category, unmatchable, unmistakeable, impossible to copy, just as impossible not to be influenced by. Without Céline, where would the Beats have started? Or Scottish fantasists like Alasdair Gray? Or even a whole host of American noir writers?
Céline always considered himself above all to be a stylist, an obsessively dedicated surgeon of language. This novel, famous at the time for many things, was known for its liberal and unusual use of the ellipsis: … He used these, 10 or 15 per long paragraph, to introduce both a note of urgency and speed to the text and also to imprint upon it the idea of feeling, of the words themselves endeavouring to become alive. Other mechanisms are used alongside, such as the machine-gun repetitions, the coming at the subject again and again in different ways, the expletives and colloquialisms which burst out of the characters, all of whom exist at the very edge of normality, at the limits of their endurance.
He paints unforgettable characters. The maddened rages of the narrator’s father are equalled by the lunatic furies of the wife of inventor Courtial des Perieres. Nobody lives an ordinary day, even an ordinary hour; everybody in the novel is fantastic. Céline is the master of hyperbole, the hyperbole of disgust: the narrator, an amoral young man with no ties binding him to his civilisation’s ways, himself becomes regularly enraged by the hypocrisies and miseries of the life which surrounds him. At several points, either due to illness or simply the appalling realisation of the true, disgusting reality of life as it appears to him, he spirals up into pages of the most extraordinary feverish fantasy. At one point, the lad is shipped to England to try and drum some decorum into him, and the night of his arrival, aided by some unfamiliar British beer, becomes an astonishing bacchanal which, at its heart, betrays Céline’s acute powers of observation.
Many readers over the decades could not forgive the essential stance of Death On The Instalment Plan: the narrator’s utter disgust with human life. Many other readers were never able to forgive the author’s appalling anti-Semitism, which reached such heights during the German occupation of France that even some of his Nazi minders told him to tone it down. Famously, the Jewish Allan Ginsberg overcame his own disgust for Céline’s anti-Semitism in order to spend time at the writer’s feet in France towards the end of his life, such was the power of his art. Céline is perhaps the clearest possible case for the separation of the artist from his art, the necessity of accepting the evil in the man to recognise the genius in the work.
There are few truly significant novelists, few that we genuinely cannot do without. Céline is up there with them.
The edition I read, by the way, was the 1938 first UK edition, printed by the Somerset printer Butler & Tanner, which sadly went bust a few years ago. Butler & Tanner printed the first Penguin books, then went on to become the UK’s finest colour art printer. When I was a publisher, we printed Bill Drummond’s 17 at Butler & Tanner. It’s such a shame that the decades of dedication, skill and craftsmanship came to an end. There’s a nice piece about them by The Gentle Author here: https://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/05/14/so-long-butler-tanner/