One of the things I like about literature is how it makes the world both a bigger and smaller place. By that I mean that on the one hand it gives me access to cultures, practices, and ways of life that are alien to me, but also, as I notice how much I have in common with people-in-general – their ideas, their experiences – I feel a kinship with the world-at-large, reducing it in the process, making it seem smaller. In this way I start to feel part of the human race, and that’s a big deal for me, because often I don’t feel that way outside of my reading. Death on the Installment Plan or, more accurately, Death on Credit is an example of one of those novels that shrinks the world, for, although it is set [mostly] in Paris slums, and not in northern England where I grew up, large parts of it were recognisable to me. Indeed, I see in the book a very northern English humour, specifically a working class humour; a peasant humour, if you like. One of the things that defines northern working class people is the ability not only to find the relentless misery they have been subjected to amusing, to be able to laugh at themselves and their situation, but also to take a sort of pride in it.
Yorkshire people are constantly telling each other how appalling they had it, how much worse their life and upbringing was than anyone else’s! And that is essentially what Death on Credit is, it’s a man thinking about how rotten everything was as he was growing up, and telling you about it…firing it at you point blank. More specifically, Death on Credit is a Bildungsroman, it is a description of the childhood and early adulthood of Ferdinand Bardamu in a working class area of Paris, with a brief stay in England. Ferdinand is a listless child, who finds himself slouching and tramping, face-first, into one catastrophe after another. His parents consider him to be worse than useless…a villain…a potential murderer! Yet, he’s not bad, not at heart. Far from courting trouble, or wanting to hurt or harm people, his interests appear to extend no further than watching others having sex, jacking off, and eating; he doesn’t enjoy chaos, or revel in disaster, he, in fact, tries to avoid these things. In one very funny passage Ferdinand decides to stop speaking, seeing in that one way to safeguard himself. It is the world that oppresses him, fate that kicks him in the balls.
There are near-limitless examples of these hard kicks I could pull from the text, but one of my favourites, one of the more hilarious scenes, is when Ferdinand is working for a jeweller, attempting to sell grotesque trinkets [ghouls, demons, etc] to a largely disgusted and very definitely disinterested populace. His prospects are gloomy, no one is going to buy that trash, and then: success! He gets an order for a solid gold tie-pin. The pin is made and he is so keen to protect it that he pins it to the bottom of his trouser pocket. A sale seems assured! And he would have managed it too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky woman, his boss’ wife, who seduces him in the most diabolical, stomach-churning manner, and steals the object! It is passage sums up the book: kinda vile, but heartrending; and always funny as fuck.
Some of this may sound familiar to fans of Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, and, well, it’s an understatement to say that I do not rate either of those two writers. As far as I am aware both acknowledged their debt to the Frenchman, so you might regard my love for Celine as odd, or hypocritical. Yet, you cannot blame the parents entirely for the behaviour of their offspring, otherwise we’d have had Mr and Mrs Hitler up on war-crimes charges. There are, undeniably, similarities between Celine’s work and Miller’s and Bukowski’s, but there are also important, critical differences.
With Bukowski one of the things I find so problematic is the relentless self-aggrandising, the myth-making. It’s tedious and egotistical. His stuff reads to me like listening to some dreary work-colleague, who has cornered you during your break, tell you about how mega-drunk he got once and how he told the boss to fuck off, while drunk, and how he managed to screw some ugly girl, but it didn’t matter that she was ugly because he was, well, drunk, and then expecting you to fall at his feet in appreciation of his genius. Celine isn’t like that, his characters are complete losers. They don’t swagger around like they are the dog’s knackers, they crouch, they tremble, they wince! So, yeah, the occasional line of Bukowski’s is touching, but there’s too much disagreeable padding around them. Besides, booze-lit, like boozers themselves, is possibly the most boring imaginable. As for Miller…Miller is Miller, by which I mean the absolute nadir. My main gripe with Miller is the pseudo-hippyish, earth-father tripe that rears its head every ten pages, like a dog-mangled rabbit sticking its bonce out of its burrow to sniff the putrid air. I swear, it makes me roll my eyes so fast and hard that I fear I’m going to break my neck. You want examples?
“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.”
And people like this stuff! God help you all.
So far, I have deliberately not mentioned misogyny. I find the portrayal of women in both Bukowski’s and Miller’s work lamentable, appalling. Unfortunately, there is a strain of that in Celine too, and the one or two times I found myself doubting this book was in relation to that. My response to this, this potential accusation of grand hypocrisy, is two-fold. Firstly, everything is so rotten in Celine’s world that you cannot expect the descriptions of women to glow with affection. [And yet there are occasionally positive female characters, such as the lovely Mrs Merrywin]. Secondly, Celine’s writing on the subject just never seems as vicious to me, and, besides, his work isn’t simply, or solely, sadsack realism, it’s also ranting and feverish and surreal, it’s at times deliberately grotesque, carnivalesque.
If I had to compare Celine to anyone it would be Rabelais, in both a positive and negative sense. Consider the scene on the boat, a boat being tossed about by the wind and wild sea. The passengers all become violently sea-sick, to such an extent that they are puking all over the deck, on each other, in each other’s faces and mouths! It’s an orgy of vomit! You wouldn’t get anything like that, anything that slapstick or absurd, in Bukowski or Miller, but you would in Gargantua and Pantagruel, and its successor Don Quixote [there is in fact a vomit scene in Quixote very similar to this one, where Don and Sancho throw up a magic elixir]. Regrettably, Death on Credit also may suffer in the eyes of some readers from another similarity to Rabelais, which is that it is episodic and repetitive. There’s no getting around that, Death on Credit is repetitive, because there’s only so much a poor kid can actually get up to. It wasn’t a problem for me, though, because I like Celine’s voice, and I like Ferdinand. If you buy into those things then the repetition shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Indeed, it’s almost a virtue; it works well because the gruelling, monotonous nature of working class life is one of the themes.
Yet the episodic nature of the thing, the filth, the repetition, none of that stuff seems to bother people as much as the three little dots do. Celine’s style, from Journey to the End of the Night onwards, was to pepper his text with ellipses. I read numerous interpretations of what those dots are meant to signify, what purpose they were intended to serve, and have often disagreed. I don’t see them as pauses for breath, for example. For me, they work to create, and maintain, a level of reader breathlessness, to ensure there are no pauses or stops, to ramp up the tension, to give the impression of recklessness; it’s Celine’s way of taking off the stabilisers, of messing with the brakes, so that one careens through the book at a mad pace; the kind of pace where everything becomes a blur and one has to accept that you’re out of control and should therefore suck it up, hold on tight, and just enjoy the ride before the inevitable crash.