Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quand Céline, peu avant sa mort, se confiait à un journaliste américain

Tout récemment, dans un message adressé à un correspondant français, j’ai été amené à écrire:

Pour moi, « la trilogie allemande » (D’un château l’autre / Nord / Rigodon) constitue une épopée de l’Allemagne. C’est, je le redis, un cavalier français qui l’a écrite, un cavalier qui, en 1914, pied à terre, a été si grièvement blessé par une balle allemande que, jusqu’à la fin de son existence, il en a souffert.

Il y a évidemment là [de la part du cavalier Destouches] une attitude quasi incompréhensible pour des générations de néo-Français, soûlés au gaz d’Auschwitz et auxquels, dès l’école, on apprend à aller cracher sur les tombes du vaincu.

J’ajoutais qu’en 1960 Céline avait fait à Robert Stromberg, journaliste (juif ?) d’une revue littéraire américaine, la déclaration suivante à propos de Nord :

Ça parle de la manière dont les Allemands ont souffert pendant la guerre. Personne n’a écrit sur ce sujet… Non ! Non ! Vous êtes supposé ne pas mentionner ça, la manière dont ils ont souffert… Restez tranquille… Chut ! (Il met le doigt sur les lèvres). Ce n’est pas bien de parler de ça… Pas un mot… Non ! Seul l’autre côté a souffert ! Chut !

C’est en relisant l’un des Cahiers Céline que j’ai redécouvert cette interview et, en particulier, ce dernier passage (Cahiers Céline 2, NRF / Gallimard, 1976, p. 172-177 ; p. 174). La traduction en était signée d’Henri Godard qui écrivait : « Cette interview, parue en anglais pendant l’été de 1961, semble dater de l’été précédent. Stromberg, précisant dans le texte d’introduction que Céline s’adresse à sa femme en français, donne à penser que dans l’interview elle-même [Céline] s’exprimait directement en anglais. » Pour ma part, je me demande si l’interview ne daterait pas plutôt du début de l’année 1961 puisque, aussi bien, on y lit : « J’ai presque 67 ans – en mai j’aurai 67 ans ». Né le 27 mai 1894 (« je suis né en mai, c’est moi le printemps »), Céline est mort le 1er juillet 1961.

La traduction française comportant des coupures, qui sont d’ailleurs signalées au lecteur, j’ai pensé qu’il serait intéressant de retrouver dans son intégralité l’article de Stromberg (« A Talk with L.-F. Céline », Evergreen Review [New York], vol. V, n° 19, juillet-août 1961, p. 102-107). J’en ai reçu le texte grâce à l’obligeance de correspondants étrangers, dont l’un est le révisionniste américain Michael Hoffman, un fervent célinien. Les portions qui ont été traduites en français par H. Godard sont ici reproduites en gras.

Evergreen Review 19, 1961 ROBERT STROMBERG


It is a very strange feeling, to be seeing Celine. Celine the terrible! Celine the outraged! Celine the put upon! Celine the Fou!

Celine lives in Meudon, on the fringe of Paris. He lives in a three-story nineteenth-century wood and mortar house with his wife Lucette Almanzor and about half-a-dozen dogs, as near as I could count. His wife, he says, is the owner of the house.

"I thought you were coming tomorrow… I wasn't expecting you… I haven't prepared… I thought tomorrow… come in, come in."

Those were his first words. He addressed his wife in French, telling her to take my coat, to get me a chair. He is a large man – but he is bent. He moved slowly, a shuffle – as if he were too weak to do anything else – to the other side of a large room that seemed to be a combination kitchen, dining area and writing room. He sat down at a large round table, pushing to one corner, and some of it to the floor, piles of books, papers and magazines and made room for us to talk.

"What is it you want? Who is this for? I don't want scandal! I've had enough."

When I satisfied him finally, he settled more comfortably in his seat.

"There is a good deal of interest in you in America," I began.

He dismissed this with a blow of air and a wave of his hand. "What interest? Who is interested? People are interested in Marlene Dietrich and insurance-that's all!"

"How have you been feeling, are you still practicing medicine?"

"No, no more, I gave it up six months ago, I'm not well enough."

"Do the people here know you as Celine?" (Celine's real name is Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, M.D. [Docteur])

"They know me well enough to be unpleasant about it."

He gave no further explanation.

"What do you do with most of your time?"

"I'm around the house always… the dogs… I have things to do… I keep busy… I don't see anyone, I don't go out… I'm busy."

"Are you writing?"

"Yes, yes, I'm writing… I have to stay alive, so I write… No! I hate it. I have always hated it… it is the most terrible thing for me to do… I never liked it, but I'm good at it… it does not interest me in the least, the things I write – but I have to do it. It is torture, it is the hardest job in the world."

His face is bony, gaunt, and it is gray; and his eyes are terrible things to look into; he was angry at the thought of still having to work.

"I am almost 67 – in May I shall be 67… to do this torture, the hardest job in the world…"

Gallimard, his publisher, recently brought out his latest book, North. "It is about how the Germans suffered during the war," Celine said. "No one has written about that… no! no! you're not supposed to mention that, how they suffered… keep quiet… shhh!" He put his finger to his lips for quiet. "It isn't nice to talk about that… be still… NO! only the other side suffered… shh!"

Among Celine's books translated into English are Death on the Installment Plan [Mort à crédit, 1936], Journey to the End of the Night [Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932] and Guignol's Band. Celine had been accused by many responsible people of having written inflammatory and anti-Semitic articles and pamphlets during the German occupation of France. They appeared in a number of French newspapers and were reportedly reprinted by the Germans for consumption in Germany. His books, however, were banned in Nazi Germany. As a result of these accusations he was forced to leave the country. He went to Denmark where he lived for six years, but spent two of those years in a Danish jail.

"Why did you go to Denmark?"

"I had money there. I had nothing here."

"Were you forced to leave France… did the government tell you to leave… did you leave of your own account?"

"They tore up my apartment in Montparnasse… [Montmartre]"


"Madmen, that's who… they tore everything I owned, everything I had… I was out at the time, with my wife, when we came back the apartment was destroyed… ruined… everything murdered… I went to Denmark."

A few days following my talk with Celine I met a former member of the French resistance movement who happened to have been in on the raiding party Celine had spoken of. I was assured by this man that if CeIine had been home when the raiders struck, he almost certainly would have been murdered.

"Why were you in jail in Denmark?"

"I was a criminal of war."

"Were you accused of collaboration?"

"I said criminal of war! Don't you understand! Criminal of war! I was not accused of collaboration… I was a criminal of war! Is that clear!"

"You were supposed to have written things against the Jews."

"I wrote nothing against the Jews… all I said was that 'the Jews are pushing us into war,' that's all. They had a fight with Hitler and it was none of our business, we shouldn't have mixed into it. The Jews have had a war of lamentation for two thousand years and now Hitler has given them more lamentations. I have nothing against the Jews… it is not logical to say anything good or bad about five million people."

That was the end of the discussion on this subject. Celine came back to France in 1950, after the six unhappy years in Denmark.

Even when he came back a great cry was heard from many quarters of the French press and from many government officials who demanded that he be further punished. Nothing was done officially, however, but from Celine's own inferences, his neighbors made it quite plain what they thought of him.

I had the feeling, sitting in Celine's kitchen, watching and listening to him, that in spite of all he said, in spite of all his natural crankiness and apparent loathing of personal contacts, he was pleased to have someone come to him, someone listen to him and to ask questions of him; to recall the past, to show that he was not forgotten – people were still reading Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night.

He was being discussed in spite of all the difficulties and the hatreds and foul taste he left with many. If there is any kind of spirit left in him at all, and it seems doubtful, it is a spirit which says "I know what's the proper music… I know the right tune… they hear nothing…"

"You once said that you couldn't read modern books, that they were 'stillborn, unfinished, not written…' Do you read anything now?"

"I read the Encyclopedia and Punch, that's all. Punch is not funny, they try to be funny but they are not."

"Is there anyone whom you consider to be a worthwhile writer today?" Before I could suggest anyone he snapped, "Who, Hemingway? He is a faker, an amateur… the French realists of the 19th century are a hundred times better." And he quickly rattled off a number of French writers, so quick that I did not get them.

"Dos Passos had a good style, that's all."

"How about Camus?" I asked innocently.

"Camus!" I thought he would throw the vase at me.

"Camus!" he repeated, astonished.

"He is nothing… a moralist… always telling people what is right and what is wrong – what they should do and what they should not do… get married, don't get married… that is for the church to do… he is nothing!"

Then Celine volunteered the English novelist Lawrence Durrell.

"A whole book about how a girl kisses, the different ways she can kiss and what this means… is that writing? That is not writing, it is nothing, a waste. I never had that in my books, my books are style, nothing else, just style. That is the only thing to write for.

"Who knows how many have tried to copy my style… but they can't. They can't keep it up for four hundred pages, just try it, they can't do it… that's all I have, just style, nothing else. There are no messages in my books, that is for the church!"

He blew the air and waved his hand, dismissing it all.

"No, my books will soon be forgotten, they mean nothing, books don't change anything, it means nothing… I have been everything, a cowboy in America, a bootlegger in London, a shark, everything in fact. I have worked since I was eleven. I know what it's all about… I know the French language. I can write, that's all.

"Listen to the conversation in the street… it has nothing to do with books… it is always 'Then I said to him… and he said to me and then I said' – actors, that's all. Everybody wants applause… the bishop says 'yesterday I spoke before two thousand people, tomorrow I will speak before three thousand'. That's religion! Look at the Pope – when people see the Pope they want to eat him! He is so fat – he eats too much, he drinks too much… actors, that's all they are! People are interested in insurance and good times – that's all.

Sex! That's [what] all the fight is about… everybody wants to eat everybody else. That is why they are afraid of the Blacks. He is strong! Full of strength! He will take over. That is why they are afraid of him… it is his time now, there are too many of them, he is showing his muscle… the white man is afraid… he is soft. He has been too long on top… the smell stinks to the roof, and the Black, he feels it, he smells it, and he is waiting for the take-over… it won't be long now.

"It is time for the yellow color… the black and the white will mix and the yellow will dominate, that's all. It is a biological fact, when black and white mix the yellow comes out strongest, that is the only thing… in two hundred years someone will look at a statue of a white man and ask if such a strange thing ever existed… someone will answer, 'No, it must have been painted on.'

"That is the answer! The white man is a thing of the past… he is already finished, extinct! It is time for something new. They all talk here, but they know nothing… let them go over there and then talk, it is another song there, I was in Africa, I know what it is, it's very strong, they know where they are going… the white man buried his head too long in the womb… he let the church corrupt him, everybody was taken in… you're not allowed to say anything like that… the Pope is watching, be careful… say nothing! heaven forbid… NO! It is a sin… you'll be crucified… keep it still… be quiet… be a nice dog… don't bark… don't bite… here is your pap… shut up!

"There is nothing inside them… they are like bulls, wave something to distract them; tits, patriotism, the church, anything in fact, and they will jump. It doesn't take much, it is very easy… they want always to be distracted… nothing matters… life is very easy."

For what seemed a long time, Celine said nothing. Finally, I said that I had never met a woman who was not sickened by his books, they can never finish them.

"Of course, of course, what did you expect… my books are not for women… they have their own tricks… bed… money… their own little games… my books are not their tricks… they know how to go about it…

"No, I don't see anyone anymore… yes, my daughter is living, she lives in Paris, I never see her. She has five children. I have never seen them." A long silence again. And then "… There is no doubt – I am a persecuted man… I am a leper." Silence. "You open the door and an enemy enters…" Silence. "I have to quit you now… I have to write." He walked me to the door.

4 novembre 2009