BOOKS / Classic Thoughts: Breaking into tragedy: Will Self on the raw insights of Celine's novel Death on the Instalment Plan

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The Independent Culture
CELINE'S great work comes with some powerful disincentives for the reader: it is French, it is difficult to read, it is long and the author was (with some justification) accused of anti-Semitism.

Celine's first novel Journey to the End of the Night was a critical and popular success when it was published in 1931, but he himself felt his prose style had reached its apogee with this second novel. Apart from short descriptive passages in which orthodox punctuation is employed, the book is written in single clauses interspersed with three dots. Critics took this device to be evidence of chronic legerdemain, but really the three dots are crucial to Celine's aim of breaking down the moribund formality of written French.

The action of the story forms a prequel to the better known Journey, and isn't so much a roman fleuve as a roman torrent. Celine triumphantly fulfils his objective which is not to describe reality but, as Andre Gide observed, the hallucinations provoked by reality.

Once the reader has absorbed the unusual style, she is carried away into a world of visceral description, fantastical riffs and raw emotion. The sense of incompleteness and the sudden changes in direction mirror more exactly the nature of both speech and thought, than the experiments of better known modernists. There are many passages which for sheer verve and attack are unsurpassed, but particularly strong is Celine's evocation of anger.

He elevates the police's commonest call-out, the 'domestic', to its true tragic status: 'I come part of the way down to look . . . He's dragging her along the banister. She hangs on. She clutches his neck . . . She bounces down the stairs . . . I can hear the dull thuds. She struggles to her feet . . . She goes back up to the kitchen. She has blood in her hair. She washes at the sink. She's sobbing . . . She gags . . . She sweeps up the breakage . . . He comes home very late on these occasions . . . Everything is very quiet again.'

At a more philosophical level Celine deals with the whole impact of technological progress on the modern psyches especially, in this novel, in the extended interlude of the narrator's apprenticeship to Courtial, the universalist inventor.

Until 1989 when John Calder published a hardback edition of this book, the only English-language edition in print came from an American house, New Directions. Both editions use the Ralph Manheim translation, which, while admirable for its fidelity to Celine's love of Parisian argot, now suffers from the transposition of that idiolect into anachronistic figures of speech. To say that the time is ripe for a new English translation of this great novel is a gross understatement.