Thursday, June 18, 2009

Céline's "London Bridge": Book Review

Unpublished during Céline's life, left behind in WWII France by the author when he fled to Germany and Denmark, this sprawling sequel completes the earlier fragment "Guignol's Band." At three times the length, not much changes or happens! Late on, the author's stand-in "Ferdinand" reflects that in the WWI mayhem, "I didn't know how yet to doodle out seven hundred pages like that in crazy quilt patterns." The work combined's about that long, but little plot development occurs.

The themes can be summed up. In a novel whose setting remains hermetic, stuffy, and simple, not much of the City breaks out to show itself to you until the final scene. Most of the novel's a thundering set of arguments, fights, and snits in closed rooms, labs, and bars. You see little of wartime London itself. Under fear of air raids, the people seem to be herded inside to rail and rant with little resolution and little reason; a claustrophobic atmosphere permeates this thick novel. While Céline conveys the pressures of such a life, the fiction fails to rise above it much.

There's not much social commentary or description of events that readers may expect from other novels of this time. The war causes chaos at the home front as well as the trenches where Ferdinand's been wounded: "social conditions had turned the whole world topsy-turvy...morals were out the window...customs too."(212) Cornered, Ferdinand fights against whatever system he can find to resist.

He excuses Virginia's lack of standards, given the situations they find themselves trapped in: "all of us crazy to live life to the fullest, give it everything we got, and today not tomorrow, nobody has a single second to waste, on your feet or on your back, that's the law of the world...There's no room for lame ducks...can't let them be a drag on our delights...They're just left with their imaginations, with beating their meat for all they're worth, hunkering down, keeping a low profile..."(225)

I cite this to show Dominic diBernardi's ability to render the 'metro emotif' style of Céline better than the English translator of "Guignol's Band" (1944) did in 1954-- this tone does capture Céline's verbal assault well, although it resonates feverishly and endlessly over nearly 450 pages here that may exhaust those less devoted readers! You don't find a character to pity, or latch on to: all are tainted, all whine, and all carry on for pages rarely broken even by a pause between paragraphs in this book without chapters. It's a daunting narrative to take on.

More so than Céline's best works, "Journey to the End of the Night" (1932) and "Death on the Installment Plan" (1936), the lack of story and concentration on urban, if far from urbane, London tends to make "London Bridge" and "Guignol's Band" monotonous. Even the character of Sosthéne de Rodiencourt, who at least enlivened the final pages of the first part of this fiction, turns tedious in his ranting and dancing. So, too grows the garrulous narrator, during his hallucinatory descents into a night at the Tweet-Tweet Bar, and his imagined caprices as a war-horse possibly under the influence of deadly gas, and his carrying-on during his saint's day's evening's debacle along the docks while a zeppelin attack occurs over the City.

These three scenes elevate the tone from mundane bickering and brawling to more of the same, if under the influence of the narrator's war wounds, perhaps. The plot, such as it is, remains simple. Sosthéne's flim-flammery takes him and the narrator where "Guignol's Band" left off mid-scene; the novel opens with the pair arriving at Colonel O'Colloghom's place to test gas-masks. The narrator falls for the Lolita-like fourteen-year-old nymphet, Virginia, and she becomes pregnant soon enough, although it seems he only had one go at her; she seems more experienced than she lets on to him amidst the pimps like Cascade and prostitutes like Curlers who return from the previous novel to prattle and battle endlessly.

The presence of the corpse of Claban, who in the "Greenwich incident" of the earlier novel, also complicates matters in the last part set on the docks. The narrator must decide if he's to go off to the Americas or stay with his pregnant companion and Sosthéne, even as the police appear to be set by the publican Prospero, or Cascade, or even Claban's companion Delphine, on the trio's trail for the narrator's involvement in the death of Claban. "Just because you say 'America' doesn't mean it's all going to work out!" (373) Whether or not Ferdinand will jump ship or cross London Bridge with his elderly charlatan and pubescent charmer constitutes the climactic scene in this "crazy quilt pattern."

(The three other novels by Céline have all been reviewed by me on Amazon US; I reviewed "Guignol's Band" earlier this month on this blog also. This review posted by me 6-16-09.)

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