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Castle to Siegmaringen
10 May 2007 | by (CZECH REPUBLIC) – See all my reviews

"A body," Louis-Ferdinand Céline once wrote, "is always something that's true; that is why it's nearly always sad and repulsive to look at." Céline had ample opportunity to contemplate the human body in full adversity, for he was a doctor and he spent much of his adult life in a run-down Parisian suburb as one of those slum saints who cure what is curable in the poor for little or no pay. Partly as a result, he viewed the body of modern society with unparalleled revulsion and no hope. The only cure for life, he came to feel, was death.

He was a vagrant, a prisoner, a hero during the first World War and a traitor during the Second. In 1944 he was jailed for collaborating with the Nazis, and for the next few years was in exile when not in prison.

Together with Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, the book concludes a crazed autobiographical trilogy—one of the most terrible ever written. Its perverse moral passion is all the more forceful because its obscene invective, snarled out in the argot of the streets, is that of a slum Savonarola raging against men not for living wrongly but for living at all.

Whatever new and hopeful may have been born in the 20th century, it is generally agreed that much of value has died in our times too. To some, that death began with the first blow of European fratricide, struck in August 1914. For Céline, though, it was the fall of Stalingrad that marked "the end of white man's civilization." In the paroxysm of Hitler's waning power in Europe, he finally found an external circumstance to match the horror of his own inner condition. Accordingly, in bringing to life some of the ghouls that feasted on the body of an age, he shows a private dementia reflected in the splintered mirror of a schizoid society.

While Céline's earlier volumes were set against the corruption of pre-war France, Castle takes place in a special Nazi detention camp. The author's attention is focused, if flashes of sheet lightning can be said to focus, on the "Boche Baroque" fortress-prison of Siegmaringen. The time is late in the war. France has already been liberated by the Allies. At Siegmaringen, French collaborators (including Celine) are huddled together, fearful of R.A.F. bombs, of their German masters and, most of all, of one another. In this bedlam, swarming with bizarre characters, are real personages from history like Pierre Laval and Marshal Petain, as well as the Communist poet Louis Aragon and Otto Abetz, Hitlers ex-Gauleiter in Paris. "A pack of the most rapacious wolves in Europe" Céline calls them, all betrayers of someone outside, all frenetically performing a dance of hate, fear and lechery.

Céline's phantasmagoria of apology and accusation calls for surrealist stage scenery and howling symbolism. A Seine barge becomes a houseboat on the Styx with doomed souls; Charon paddles with bones. Céline submerges readers in his stream-of-consciousness style, a brutal staccato in which about five words stutter out for every three dots. It sustains the impression of uncontrollable anger and unassuageable hatred as Céline rants against every contemporary literary and political figure, against the partisans who looted his apartment in Paris, against the post-Vichy government that imprisoned him. All is'"venom. The language seems spontaneous, yet it is actually the result of the most careful artifice. Celine once said that he wrote 600,000 longhand words for every 60,000 that he permitted to appear.

Idiosyncratic as Céline's novels are, they nevertheless offer a mosaic of clinically observed poor and pitiable people. Recent French novels, on the other hand, have abjured any attempt to examine man on a Proustian or Balzac -ian scale in favor of esthetic gimcrackery, narrow psychological study and freakish private experiment. As a literary construction, Castle is equivocal—a hateful papier-mache funfair castle inhabited by real monsters.


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