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BOOK REVIEW

'Normance' by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

The last of the author's novels to be translated into English, the book looks at what it was like when Paris was being attacked by the Allies.

July 12, 2009|Thomas McGonigle | McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

"I'm a dirty pornographer . . . a letch besides being the most despicable traitor of the century! . . . I'd make a urinal blush! . . . what we need is to cleanse France and the French language of this smut-writing, demoralizing, grammaclast who's sullying our sacred homeland and its literary heritage! . . . France won't be any more if we don't slit this swine's throat!"

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who writes this near the end of the novel "Normance," had a pretty good idea of what many thought about his work and what might happen to him if he stayed in France at the end of World War II.

The last of Celine's novels to be translated into English, "Normance" is now available in a vibrant version that captures the shattering reality of what it was like to live in Paris during bombings by Allied airplanes in 1944. Celine's "Journey to the End of the Night" was read and reread by Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth, giving them the needed permission to find their distinct ways into the world. "Journey" is a fierce, uncompromising depiction of much of Celine's experience of being wounded while serving on the front lines during World War I, his postwar life in Africa and then in the hell of late-1920s industrial America. Hailed upon publication by the whole of the Left (Trotsky included), "Journey" led to Celine's becoming the darling of radicals and even the more orthodox communists in Moscow. Lured to Hollywood for a short time with an option for "Journey," Celine also visited the Soviet Union and, when he returned, wrote about the squalor of life there.

Though the Nazis had reservations about Celine's work, he proved useful to them, by his very presence, during the occupation of France: He published three notoriously anti-Semitic and anti-Communist book-length pamphlets that were invitations to commit murder and were written with the savage intensity of Swift at his most violent in "A Modest Proposal." Celine, though he denounced no one to the Nazis, became a marked man because of these pamphlets and fled first to Germany and then to Denmark. He assumed he might be tried and executed after the war ended.

While in Denmark, Celine was imprisoned for two years and was tried in absentia in 1950 for treason: In 1951, however, he was pardoned and returned to live in the distant Parisian suburb of Meudon. He immediately began to write about his experiences at the end of the war -- the flight to Denmark and his imprisonment -- in "Fable for Another Time." It can be seen as an unexpected foreword to "Normance."

"Normance" opens by plunging us immediately into the experience of being bombed by the Allies while living in Montmartre:

"Telling it all after the fact . . . easier said than done! . . . much easier! . . . After all, you can still hear the echo . . . baboom! . . . your head's spinning . . . even seven years later . . . your neck . . . time's nothing, memory's what matters . . . that and watching the world burn . . . all the people you've lost . . . your pals scattered . . . the nice ones . . . the not-so-nice ones . . . the forgetful ones . . . the blades of the windmill . . . and the echo that's still beating you down . . . it'll still be there when they dump me in my grave! . . . Talk about a wind! . . . I've had it up to here! . . . the old belly, too! . . . kaboom! . . . I feel it . . . it sinks in . . . my bones quivering, right there in my bed . . . I won't lose you, though!"

The reader of "Normance" is constantly kept off center (though always riveted) by the fate of the colliding population huddled along with the narrator, his wife and their cat. The narrator hallucinates the church of Sacre Coeur being turned upside down while the windmill atop of the Moulin Rouge whips up a wind as the crowd fights, squabbles, schemes and begs to be kept alive.

The novel's title refers to a morbidly obese neighbor who stays asleep throughout the entire bombardment only to awake when it is over. When he does, he immediately attacks the narrator, whom he suspects of molesting his wife.

Throughout the novel, Celine includes constant snatches of song and even describes two neighbors, dressed in costumes, who arrive from a performance of "La Boheme" (the production's director is a legless dwarf whom the narrator believes has seduced and molested his own wife). Does all of this suggest the strange, theatrical nature of the bombing as described in this novel?

Fittingly, Celine dedicated "Normance" to Pliny the Elder, the Roman writer who died because of curiosity (Pliny observed an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius but was too close). Thus the book draws an arc back to this ancient world as Celine captures the disorientation of past catastrophes as well as to the future: He seems presciently in tune with the present moment in our own country, writing:

"The baker, the gas-meter reader, and the grocer are all you can count on! That's how I see it! They're the steadfast, serious ones! and I respect them a lot! . . . your bill . . . paid in full . . . no problem! no dinero? . . . drop dead! . . . that's the real, serious heart of the matter! . . . and hey, rich people are serious too! . . . their dough's all they understand, but watch how much trouble they go through in order to avoid talking about it! they'll try to throw you off, talk about this and that . . . sentiments, hierarchies, morality, conscience . . . but never their . . . bankrolls! . . . how they embezzle it and tuck it away . . . oh, they're cunning, all right! They're like one enormous, single being! united by their cash!"

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