From New International, Vol.4 No.10, October 1938, p.318.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Death on the Installment Plan
by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
translated from the French by John H.P. Marks
Little, Brown & Co. $2.75.
Death on the Installment Plan is an inverted sequel to Journey to the End of the Night. It describes the childhood and adolescence of Ferdinand, whose War experiences occupied so much of the earlier book. Writing of the Journey, Trotsky remarked that although it ignored the substance of politics, it dealt realistically with the “substratum” of class and party strife. This could equally well be said of Death on the Installment Plan; and because here Céline is concerned with his hero’s origins, the social motivation is even more explicit.
Céline strains to impress us with the vileness of the whole of humanity; he convinces us chiefly of the misery of its impoverished majority.
“There was only one thing the whole family in the Passage shared in common, and that was a carking fear of the wolf at the door ... The very walls of every house oozed with the dread of want. So we came to look askance at every mouthful, to curtail each meal that turned sour on us as we hurried around on our errands, zigzagging like fleas from one quarter of Paris to another, from the Place Maubert to the Etoile, in terror of being sold up, afraid of quarter-day, of the gas man, shrinking from the spectre of the demand-note for the rates ...”
To this summing up of the family predicament, Céline’s Ferdinand adds a personal note with considerable bearing on Céline himself: “I never had time to wipe myself properly, we were always in such a hurry.”
Haste and filth – these are the peculiar properties of Céline’s universe. Sometimes, in its vast animation, this universe resembles a moving-picture of which the projector has run wild; sometimes it suggests a city built on a latrine.
Ferdinand’s family is of the small Parisian bourgeoisie. They inhabit a flat above Mama’s lace shop in a congested and airless arcade. Mama, with her lame leg, is obliged to travel around to village fairs in order to dispose of her laces; and Papa, a frustrated gentleman and water-colorist, lives in terror of his miserable job at the insurance office. Both parents are ferocious studies in the psychology of humiliation with its attendant cruelty, and all the traditional family values are here perverted into vices. The father dominates by virtue of his weakness for hysterical invective; the wife’s loyalty to her husband leads her to sacrifice Ferdinand to his father’s mania for a victim; and the center of family life is the family brawl. Constantly assured that he is his father’s nemesis, Ferdinand grows up in the conviction of guilt and the premonition of disaster. His swollen, Fury-like conscience, infecting his very companions and employers with a distrust of him, puts him in the wrong where actually he is innocent; and all his later ventures, in business, education, science, end in the most violent fiascos, alike for himself and for those with whom he is associated. And the book concludes as Ferdinand seeks in the army a refuge from the stormy insecurity of life as a “free” individual.
Apparently Ferdinand is Céline himself; and both in the present book and in the Journey there appears to be sufficient factual truth from the author’s life to justify our describing them as two installments of a fantastic autobiography. But the effect of Céline’s ruthless realism depends less on literal data than on imaginative distortion. As Joyce borrowed the devices of symbolism in order to extend the scope of his naturalism; so Céline reverts to the heightenings and extravagances of an earlier age of social picaresques; and Ferdinand is doubtless a throwback to the exploited apprentices of Dickens. But Joyce, regardless of his innovations, was still a philosophical naturalist of the pre-war tradition. In Céline the relative objectivity of that tradition, the solid structural mechanics, the painstaking accumulations of historical detail, give way to a new technique, fluid, episodic, prone to caricature and grotesquerie, which reflects the postwar consciousness in all its tormented maturity. Both methods, Céline’s and Joyce’s, conform to the needs and impulses of their respective decades, and each has its appropriate dangers. In Céline’s case, the absence of a sustaining fable and the choice of a rhetoric of hyperbole oblige him to rely at every point on his own sheer power of spontaneous invention. In Death on the Installment Plan his power sometimes fails; he is occasionally repetitious; and the obligation to provide emotional relief has led him to introduce, in the character of Ferdinand’s Uncle Edward, a rather sentimental foil to the pervading meanness and lunacy.
In recent months Céline has published a book on French Semitism called Bagatelles for a Massacre. His ravings on “the Jewish strain” in French culture are such that they might easily pass for a sardonic travesty of Aryan science; but if Céline is in earnest, as it appears he is, then his novel, with its insights into the workings of one type of scapegoat mechanism, tends likewise to expose the compensatory psychology involved in his own manias.
Last updated on 6.8.2006