Friday, June 12, 2009

Céline's "Guignol's Band": Book Review

I found this a letdown. Like two earlier reviewers, I agree that the book loses a lot in translation. You'd think that it wouldn't be difficult, somehow, given those influenced by Céline in English, to channel the Henry Miller-proto-Kerouac pre-Pynchon meets Tom Wolfe breathless style of fulminating invective, mad rushes of detail, and scatalogical uproariousness from French. But, I guess it is.

The best scenes are at start and finish; without them this would have earned two stars as a maybe. The bombing of the Orleans bridge in WWI begins the tale "in medias res" and sparks great energy. But, soon the narrative and its semi-autobiographical protagonist dissipate in London, amid the usual crowd of no-good-niks, and the doldrums set in despite the typical pace that Céline tries to set up and keep going. Clodo and Cascade, who sound out of Beckett, lure the narrator into the underworld, and while the dealings in rough trade and smuggling do entertain, they fail to lift the escapades to the level of "Death on the Installment Plan" or "Journey to the End of Night" (both reviewed by me on Amazon US). It may always be a problem with Céline, as perhaps with the Beats and Miller, when basing so much of their work on themselves: even they had periods of comparative lassitude, in life and on paper, I suppose.

These persist in the novel even though it tries to move at fever pitch on every page. After a while, you tire even as the narrator never flags. This disjunction between daredevil events and prosaic overload wears you down as the reader; perhaps in French or a better translator, such a lack of fit between intended momentum and actual complacence would not be?

The middle section with pawnbroker Claben has its moments, but they got rather tedious after dozens of pages with little happening despite the effort. The last part, forty pages before the end, roused my attention with the sudden introduction of de Rodiencourt awash in fables of Tibetan mines and magic flowers. The book breaks off without warning, and picks up in what was only published in English over five decades later as "London Bridge." Still, as a faithful reader of Céline bit by bit, I'll be wanting more of de Rodiencourt, so I will continue with that adventure!
{Posted to Amazon US 5/18-09}

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