Castle To Castle Part 1

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by Louis-Ferdinand Destouches

[June 1, 1960. Claude Sarraute.]

Celine: What can I say? What would appeal to your readers? I don't know. They're the kind of people you've got to be nice to, we can't hit them over the head. You've got to amuse them without offending them. Never mind . . . I'll talk. A writer hasn't got so many books in him. Journey to the End of the Night Journey to the End of the Night and and Death on the Installment Plan Death on the Installment Plan would have been plenty if my disaster hadn't hit me . . . that gave me new subject matter. Curiosity got me into it. Curiosity can be costly. I've become a chronicler, a tragic chronicler. Most writers look for tragedy but don't find it. They remember little private incidents that aren't tragedy. The Greeks, you'll say. The Greek tragic poets were under the impression that they communed with the gods . . . so you see . . . hell, it's not every day that you get a chance to ring up the gods. would have been plenty if my disaster hadn't hit me . . . that gave me new subject matter. Curiosity got me into it. Curiosity can be costly. I've become a chronicler, a tragic chronicler. Most writers look for tragedy but don't find it. They remember little private incidents that aren't tragedy. The Greeks, you'll say. The Greek tragic poets were under the impression that they communed with the gods . . . so you see . . . hell, it's not every day that you get a chance to ring up the gods.

Interviewee: And what in your opinion is the tragic element of our epoch?

Celine: Stalingrad. There's catharsis for you. The fall of Stalingrad was the end of Europe. There's been a cataclysm. Its epicenter was Stalingrad. After that you can say that white civilization was finished, really washed up. Well, a cataclysm makes a lot of noise: bubblings, rockets, cataracts. I was in the middle of it . . . I got something out of it. I made use of that material, I sell it. Sure, I got mixed up in doings-stuff connected with the Jews-that were none of my business. I told the story though . . . in my manner.

Interviewer: A manner that created a scandal when Journey came out. Your style shook up a good many conventions.

Celine: It's known as invention. Take the impressionists.

They took their paintings out into the daylight, they painted out of doors; they saw people really eating lunch on the grass. The musicians worked in the same direction. It's a long way from Bach to Debussy. They revolutionized sounds and colors. My line is words, the position of words. I'm going to give you a little lecture on French Literature-don't get sore. The religions brought us up, the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish . . . well, let's say the Christian religions. For centuries French education was directed by Jesuits. They taught us to make sentences translated from the Latin, well balanced, with a subject, a verb, an object and a certain rhythm. In short, a mess of sermons. People say of an author: "He forges a fine sentence." I say: "It's unreadable." They say: "What splendid dramatic language!" I look, I listen: it's flat, it's no good, it's nonexistent. What I've done is to put the spoken language into writing. Just like that.

Interviewer: That's what you call your Title music," isn't it?

Celine: I call it 'Title music" because I'm modest, but it's a very difficult transposition, it's hard work. It looks like nothing at all but it takes know-how. To turn out a novel like mine you've got to write eighty thousand pages by hand and boil it down to eight hundred. Speaking of me, people say: "That's natural eloquence. He writes the way he talks . . . everyday words . . . almost in the right order . . . you recognize them." Only, you see, everything is "transposed." You don't get the word you were expecting or the situation you were expecting. It's transposed into the realm of reverie, between true and not-true. A word used in that way becomes at once more intimate and more precise than the same word as it is ordinarily used. A writer makes himself a style. He's got to. The trade is simple, it can be learned. A skillful worker has no use for ready-made tools. The same goes for style. All it's good for is to bring out of you what you want to show.

Interviewer: What do you wish to show?

Celine: Emotion. Savy, the biologist, said something very apt: In the beginning was emotion, not in the beginning was the Word. When you tickle an amoeba, it retracts, it has emotion; it doesn't speak but it has emotion. A baby cries, a horse gallops; one has to learn how to talk, the other how to trot. But to us and us alone the Word has been given. The result is the politician, the writer, the prophet. The Word is monstrous, it stinks. But translating that emotion is inconceivably difficult . . . it's horrible . . . superhuman . . . it can kill a man.

Interviewer: But you've always felt the need to write.

Celine: Nothing you do is free. You've got to pay. A story you make up is worthless. Only a story you pay for is any good. Once it's paid for you've got the right to transpose it. Otherwise it's bad. . . . That's what they all do . . . I mean, the guys that have everything: the Nobel prize, the Academy, the press, the gold medal for charlatanism. If I had money, I'd let them stew in their own juice. I can't listen to the radio any more . . . every week they discover a "genius," every two weeks a Balzac, every morning a George Sand. I haven't got time to keep up with them, because I work. I've got a contract, I've got to meet it. Only this is my sixty-sixth birthday and I'm 75 percent disabled. At my age most men have retired. I owe six million to Gallimard . . . So you see I have to go on . . . I already have another novel in the works: more of the same [Nord, sequel to Castle to Castle], One thing leads to another and you can't stop. I know something about novels. They were still being made in my day. Novels are something like lace . . . lace is an art, too, an art that went out with the convents. The novel can't compete with cars, the movies, television, and liquor. A guy who's had a good feed and tanked up on good wine gives his old lady a kiss after supper and his day is over. Finished.

[Interview later in 1960. Jean Guenot and Jacques Darribehaude.]

Interviewer: Do you recall a literary shock or enthusiasm that left its mark on you?

Celine: Oh no. Certainly not. I started out in medicine, medicine was what I wanted and definitely not literature, hell no. Sure, some writers struck me as talented . . . I saw talentin . . . always the same names: Paul Morand . . . Ramuz . . . Barbusse . . . those fellows were made for it.

Interviewer: When you were a child, did you think of becoming a writer?

Celine: Never. No, no, no. I had an enormous admiration for doctors. Medicine really fascinated me. It thrilled me.

Interviewer: What did a doctor mean to you as a child?

Celine: A man who came to the Passage Choiseul to see my sick mother or my father . . . To me he was a miracle man who cured people, who did amazing things with a body that was out of order. I thought it was marvelous. He seemed so wise and learned. That's what I thought, absolutely, a magician.

Interviewer: And what does a doctor mean to you today?

Celine: Bah! Nowadays the social setup is so rough on him, everybody competing with him, he's lost his prestige. He lost his prestige when he stopped . . . once he started dressing like a garage mechanic, he began, little by little, to give the impression of a mechanic. He has nothing much to say any more, the housewife has the Larousse Medical and even diseases have lost their prestige, there aren't so many of them left . . . Think it over . . . no more syphilis, no more clap, no more typhoid . . . antibiotics have taken half the tragedy out of medicine. No more plague, no more cholera . . .

Interviewer: What about nervous and mental diseases? Aren't they rather on the increase?

Celine: But in that line we can't do a thing. Some cases of madness are fatal, but not many. But Paris is full of smalltime lunatics. Some people have an individual tendency to look for excitement, but with all the pairs of buttocks you see around town, it's naturally going to inflame the sex urge . . . think of the school children . . . it'll make them all whacky . . .

Interviewer: When you were working at Ford's were you under the impression that the mode of life imposed on the workers made for mental disorders?

Celine: Not at all. No. There was a head physician at Fords, my boss. Here's what he used to say: "I'm told chimpanzees can pick cotton. I'd be glad to see a few of them working on the machines here, it would be much better." Mental cases are better workers, they're much more attached to the factory than normal people, the normal ones are always walking out, the mental cases stick to the job. But today the human problem isn't medicine. Most of a doctor's patients are women. Women are always worried; they have every known weakness. A woman's got to . . . well, she wants to stay young . . . she's got her menopause, her periods . . . the whole gynecological shooting match . . . it's very delicate and makes her a martyr. Oh yes, she's a martyr but she goes on living, she bleeds, she doesn't bleed, she goes to see a doctor, she has an operation or she doesn't . . . another operation . . . in between she has a baby, she loses her shape, and that's bad . . . she wants to stay young, to keep her figure . . . she doesn't feel like working and actually she can't . . . no muscle . . . it's an enormous problem . . . that's been too much neglected . . . it supports the beauty parlors, the quacks . . . and the druggists. But it presents no medical interest whatsoever; a woman falling apart is simply a fading rose, you can't call her a medical problem, or an agricultural problem either for that matter . . . When you see a rose fading in the garden, you resign yourself. There'll be another . . . but a woman . . . she doesn't want to die . . . that's the rough part of it. I'm well acquainted with the problem because I've spent my life with dancers . . . women aren't favored when it comes to muscles, we are . . . we're more muscular than women . . .a woman has to take care of herself, she doesn't like to. Okay, there's your medical routine, it gives a doctor his living . . . But when it comes to real sickness, you don't see much of it, the young students today don't see the diseases I saw as a child. They don't even see corpses any more.

Interviewer: Your work as a physician brought you certain revelations and experiences that you put into your books.

Celine: Oh yes. I spent thirty-five years at it; after all, that means something . . . I covered ground as a young man . . . I climbed a lot of stairs in those days, I saw a lot of people . . . yes, plenty of people . . . but it did me a lot of good, inevery way . . . oh yes . . . in many ways . . . yes, it did me a lot of good. But I didn't write medical novels because they're another abominable bore . . . take Soubiran.

Interviewer: Your medical ambitions came to you very early and yet you started out in life very differently.

Celine: Oh yes. And how! They wanted to make a buyer out of me! A salesman in a department store! . . . We were poor, my parents didn't have the wherewithal . . . I started in poverty and, well, that's how I'm ending . . .

Interviewer: Tell me something about the small shopkeeper's life around 1900.

Celine: Horrible . . . horrible . . . I mean that we had hardly anything to eat, and we had to keep up appearances. For instance, in the Passage Choiseul, we always had two showcases, but only one of them was lit up because there was nothing in the other. And he had to scrub the Passage before going to work . . . my father, I mean . . . anyway, life was no picnic . . . My mother had earrings. We took them to the pawnshop at the end of every month to pay the gas bill. Don't ask. It was terrible.

Interviewer: Did you live in the Passage Choiseul a long time?

Celine: I'll say. Eighteen years . . . Until I volunteered . . . A life of poverty . . . worse than poverty, because when you're just poor you can let yourself go, get drunk, he in the gutter. This was the kind of poverty that keeps up a front, dignified poverty, and that's awful. For instance . . . all my life I've eaten noodles. Noodles, because you see, my mother used to mend old lace. And one thing that everybody knows about old lace is that odors stick to it forever. And the customers, well, you can't bring your customers smelly lace. So what didn't make any odors? Noodles. I ate whole washtubs full of noodles, my mother made them by the washtubful . . . I ate boiled noodles, oh yes, oh yes, my whole childhood, noodles and bread soup. Those things were odorless. As you know, the kitchen in the Passage Choiseul was on the second floor, it was as big as a clothes cupboard; well you went up by a winding staircase, see, like this, and somebody had to keepgoing up to see if it was cooking if it was boiling or not boiling, well, it was hopeless, my mother was crippled, one of her legs didn't work, and she had to climb those winding stairs twenty-five times a day . . . Life was impossible . . . My father was a clerk. He came home at five . . . Then we had to deliver the merchandise. Oh no, it was misery. Dignified misery.

Interviewer: Was your poverty a source of suffering when you went to school?

Celine: It was public school . . . We weren't rich. So I didn't have much of an inferiority complex . . . they were all like me, all poor kids . . . Oh no, there were no rich people in that neighborhood . . . But we knew some rich people, there were two or three of them . . . We revered them! My parents told me those people were wealthy . . . the neighborhood drapers . . . They'd moved there by mistake but we knew them and revered them. In those days a rich man was revered. For his wealth! And at first we thought he was intelligent, too.

Interviewer: When and how did you become aware of the injustice of such things?

Celine: Late, I've got to admit, after the war. When I saw the war profiteers. The slackers who made money while other people were dying in the trenches. That was my first clear sign, something I could see with my own eyes. Later, I was with the League of Nations and that wised me up once and for all, I saw that the world was governed by the Golden Calf, by Mammon! Not a doubt! Implacably. Anyway, my social consciousness came late. I didn't have it . . . I was resigned . . .

Interviewer: Would you say that your parents' attitude was one of acceptance?

Celine: Frantic acceptance! My mother used to say: "You little wretch, if there weren't any rich people (because somehow I already had my little ideas), if there weren't any rich people, we wouldn't get anything to eat. Rich people have a sense of responsibility . . ." You see, my mother revered the rich. So hell . . . I took a leaf out of her book. I wasn't exactly convinced. No. But I didn't dare to have an opinion, oh no . . . My mother who was up to her neck in lace would never haveworn any, it was for the customers. Never. It wouldn't do. Even the jeweler didn't wear jewelry and neither did his wife . . . I was a jeweler's errand boy, I worked for a lot of jewelers, Robert on the rue Royale, Lacloche on the rue de la Paix . . .

Interviewer: What about Gorloge? And the Gorloge family?

Celine: Oh yes! That's Wagner on the rue Vieille du Temple! Yes, that's him. I worked for him all right . . . My job was toting the sample cases and going . . . you know those big leather cases they carry the models in . . . the models were made of lead, so you can imagine . . . we toted the cases from house to house, and I covered, we covered, the territory from the rue du Temple to the Opera. We did every jewelry store on the boulevard, and then we got together, all the errand boys got together on the steps of the Ambigu, you know, those steps that go down. So we got together and we all had sore feet because our shoes . . . I always had sore feet. Because I didn't get a new pair of shoes very often, so my nails were crooked, hell, they're still crooked. We did the best we could, our shoes were too small, kids grow. My, oh my! . . . I was very active in those days, I did everything so fast that I beat the Metro . . . I ran all my errands on foot . . . Oh yes, social consciousness . . . When I was in the cavalry, I was present at the hunting parties given by Prince Orloff and the Duchess d'Uzes . . . We held the officers' horses. I remember the Duchess d'Uzes well, on horseback, the old bag, and Prince Orloff who hobnobbed with all the officers in my regiment, and my job was holding the horses . . . That's as far as it went. We were treated just like cattle. It was taken for granted, nobody expected any different.

Interviewer: And anti-Semitism was drafted onto this social consciousness of yours?

Celine: Yes, I caught on to another exploiter. At the League of Nations I saw where the big deals were being made. And later, in Clichy, in politics, I saw . . . yes, I remember, there was this little louse . . . I saw all I needed to see . . . The answer is yes . . .

Interviewer: Did your mother have much influence on you?

Celine: I have her character. More than anything else. Shewas a hard woman, she was impossible . . . I can't deny it, her temperament was something special . . . she just didn't enjoy life. Not in the least. Always worried and always throwing a fit. She worked up to the last minute of her life.

Interviewer: What did she call you? Ferdinand?

Celine: No, Louis. She wanted to see me holding down a job in a department store, the Hotel de ville, or the Louvre. As a buyer. That was her ideal. My father felt the same way. Because he hadn't got anywhere with his degree in literature! . . . Or my grandfather with his doctorate! . . . They'd made out so badly they thought maybe I'd make a go of it in business.

Interviewer: Wouldn't your father have been better off in the school system?

Celine: Of course he would have, poor man, but here's what happened. He'd have needed a teaching degree, and he only had a general degree, and he couldn't take it because he had no money. His father had died, leaving a wife and five children.

Interviewer: Did your father die late in life?

Celine: He died when Journey Journey appeared in 1931. appeared in 1931.

Interviewer: Before the book came out?

Celine: Yes, just before. He wouldn't have liked it . . . Besides, he was jealous . . . He couldn't see me as a writer, neither could I for that matter. On that point at least we agreed . . .

Interviewer: And what was your mother's reaction to your books?

Celine: She thought they were dangerous and nasty and would make trouble . . . She expected things to end very badly. She was a very cautious type.

Interviewer: Did she read your books?

Celine: No, she couldn't, they were over her head. She'd have thought them very vulgar. Anyway she didn't read books, she wasn't a woman to read books. No, she had no vanity. She worked till the day she died. I was in prison. I heard about her death . . . No, I'd just got to Copenhagen when I heard about it . . . An abominable trip, stinking . . . yes, the timing was perfect . . . Abominable . . . But don't forget things are onlyabominable from one angle . . . Well, you know . . . experience is a muffled lantern that throws light only on the bearer . . . it's incommunicable . . . better keep these things to myself . . .

The way I felt about it, a man was entitled to die, to go in, when he had a good story to tell. You told your story and you passed on. Symbolically speaking, that's what Death on the Installment Plan Death on the Installment Plan is. The reward for life being death . . . seeing that it's not God who governs but the Devil . . . Man . . . or nature stinks, just look at the lives of the birds or the animals. is. The reward for life being death . . . seeing that it's not God who governs but the Devil . . . Man . . . or nature stinks, just look at the lives of the birds or the animals.

Interviewer: When have you been happy in your life?

Celine: Damn well never, I think, because getting old, I'd need . . . I think if somebody gave me a lot of dough so's I wouldn't have to worry-I'd like that-it would give me a chance to go away somewhere and not do a damn thing and watch other people . . . Being all by myself on the seashore with no one to bother me-that would be happiness. And to eat very little . . . that's right . . . next to nothing . . . I'd want a candle. I wouldn't live with electricity and gadgets . . . A candle! Give me a candle and I'd read the paper . . . Other people, the way I see them, are all steamed up, most of all they're prodded by ambition. The life of the rich is a circus, they invite each other back and forth to keep each other's spirits up . . . I've seen it, I've lived with society people . . . Ah, Gontran, he actually said that to you? . . . Ah, Gaston, you were really brilliant yesterday! The way you put him in his place! Yes, really! He mentioned it again only yesterday. His wife said: Oh, Gaston was amazing!-It's a circus. That's how they spend their time. They chase each other around, they meet at the same golf clubs, the same restaurants . . .

Interviewer: If you could start all over again, would you seek your pleasures outside of literature?

Celine: I certainly would! I don't ask for pleasure, I don't feel any . . . the enjoyment of life is a matter of temperament, of diet. You've got to eat well and drink well, then the days pass quickly. If you eat well and drink well, take an automobile ride and read a few newspapers, your day will soon be over . . . You read your paper, you have a few people in, you drink your morning coffee, you take a little stroll, hell, it's time forlunch . . . . In the afternoon you drop in on a few friends . . . the day passes. At night, bed as usual, you fall asleep. And there you are. Especially as you grow older . . . because then the time passes faster. When you're young, a day is interminable, but as you grow older . . . it doesn't take long. When you're an old man living on your pension, a day's a flash; when you're a kid it passes very slowly.

Interviewer: How would you choose to occupy your time if you were retired on an income?

Celine: I'd read the paper. I'd go for a little stroll some place where nobody'd see me.

Interviewer: Can you take walks here?

Celine: No, never. Better not Interviewer: Why?

Celine: First because I'd be noticed. I don't like that I don't want to be seen. In a seaport you can disappear . . . In Le Havre . . . I don't think a man would be noticed on the docks in Le Havre. They don't see a thing. A retired naval man, an old fool . . .

Interviewer: You like boats, don't you?

Celine: Oh yes! Yes! I like to watch them. To see them coming in and out. Sure, give me a jetty and I'm happy . . . They leave a trail of foam, they go away, they come back, and they've got nothing to do with you, see? Nobody asks you anything. Sure, and you read Le Petit Havrais Le Petit Havrais, and . . . and that's all . . . that's all there is to it . . . Yes, if I had my life to live over, I'd do it entirely differently.

Interviewer: Can you think of any individuals whom you look up to as examples? Men you would have liked to imitate?

Celine: No. Because people like that are grandiose, and I have no desire to be grandiose, none at all. All I want is to be an old man nobody pays attention to . . . not . . . people like that have their names in the dictionary, I don't go for that . . .

Interviewer: I was thinking of people you might have met in everyday life . . .

Celine: Oh no. No. They're always putting on an act other people give me a pain. No. I've inherited a kind of modesty from my mother, a total insignificance, and I mean total. What interests me is to be completely ignored. I have a propensity. . . an animal propensity, for crawling away . . . Yes, Boulogne would suit me all right, Boulogne-sur-Mer. Place where nobody ever goes. I've spent a lot of time in Saint-Malo, but it's not possible any more . . . I'm kind of known there . . . I went to medical school in Rennes . . .

[Celine's last interview, June 1, 1961. Andre Pardnaud.]

Interviewer: Does love occupy an important place in your novels?

Celine: No place at all. It shouldn't. A novelist should have a sense of shame.

Interviewer: And friendship?

Celine: Let's skip it.

Interviewer: Then you prefer to talk of the less important feelings?

Celine: Let's talk about work, the job of writing. It's the only thing that counts. And even that calls for a good deal of discretion. Too much publicity in the way people talk about these things. We're objects of publicity. It's revolting. It's high time people took a cure of modesty. In literature as in everything else we're befouled by publicity. It's disgraceful. I say: do your job and shut up, that's the only way. People will read it or they won't read it, that's their business. The only thing for the author to do is to make himself scarce.

Interviewer: Do you write for the pleasure of writing?

Celine: No. Certainly not. If I had money, I wouldn't write a word. That's my first principle.

Interviewer: You don't write out of love or hatred?

Celine: Of course not! It's my business if I experience those sentiments, it doesn't concern the public.

Interviewer: But you take an interest in your contemporaries?

Celine: Oh no, none whatsoever. I took an interest in them once, I tried to prevent them from making war. As it happened, they didn't make war, but they came back laden with glory. And then they threw me into the clink. I should have concentrated on myself.

Interviewer: still, certain feelings come through in your most recent novels?

Celine: A writer can make anything come through. There's nothing to it.

Interviewer: Are you trying to persuade us that your latest books reveal nothing of your inner life?

Celine: Inner life? No, absolutely nothing. Maybe one thing, and only one, the fact that I don't know how to enjoy life. I don't live. I don't exist. That gives me a certain superiority over other people who stink, you can't deny it, because they're' always enjoying life. To enjoy life is to eat, drink, belch, fuck, all those things that make hash out of a man or a woman. I don't go in for dissipation and that's lucky for me. I know how to choose. I'm capable of savoring things, but as some Roman said, debauchery isn't going into a whorehouse, it's not coming out. All my life I've gone into whorehouses, but I've come right out. I don't drink, I don't care about eating. Those things bore me. It's my right, isn't it? I have only one desire. To sleep and be left alone, which isn't the case.

Interviewer: In what writers do you recognize real talent?

Celine: My feeling is that there were three writers in the great period. Morand, Ramuz and Barbusse were writers. They had a feeling for it. They were made for writing. The rest of them aren't made for it. Hell, they're impostors, the whole lot of them, and the impostors are on top. If the critics don't watch out, literature will be devoured by charlatanism. But that's already happened, the critics are up shit's creek.

Castle To Castle Part 1

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