Rigadon by Celine

In his trilogy, Castle to Castle, North and Rigodon, Céline blew apart the last two years of the war, 1944 and 1945, showing himself wandering through the death throes of Germany. These books are the ultra-Célines, where the language is at its most shattered, most battered, most like poetry, and the hallucinations are constant, worse than they were in Guignol’s Band. Rigadon is my favourite I think, and loved or not, it must hold a special place in the canon as Céline was working on it the day before he died in 1961.

The chronology of Céline’s wartime movements are of interest, especially for those trying to establish his true sympathies. In July 1944 and after receiving death threats in France because of his collaboration with the Germans, Céline crossed the German border intending to get to Denmark. In Baden-Baden his papers were confiscated and for three months he waited in vain for permission to leave for Denmark. Finally he asked leave to go to Switzerland or to return to France, but was denied.

Céline then spent two weeks in Berlin trying to obtain a visa, and after refusing to broadcast Nazi propaganda, he was interned for three months at Kressling in a camp for ‘free thinkers’, and other scum. This camp, near Neurippen in Prussia, was the setting for the novel North, which is jampacked with the human drges of the worst comedic water, fanatics, screamers, belchers and various other variously emotionally emaciated filth.

Again Céline tried to reach Denmark and got to Rostock-Warnemunde, but couldn’t get across the border; and so he joined the Vichy refugees at Sigmaringen, where he stayed until March 1945. It was at this point that he began to epic 21 day journey that is described in Rigadoon, and which led him eventually to Denmark. Epic it is, hilarious it is, and above all an education. You may wish to read a book about the vast subject of WW11 that attempts to encompass every theatre of war, and express the violence, the politics and the implications of the conflict. Yet, the implications are more than evident on the train journey that Céline presents in Rigadoon.

The hero of the book is Céline himself, although it frustrates me that editors everywhere feel at pains to deny this. The back cover of the Dalkey Archive French Literature Series for example states that the hero is an ‘first-person autobiographical narrator.’   Forgive me for not being an academic, but I think that sucks, and it drives me crazy. The so-called ‘character’ in the book, who happens to be called Céline may well be a clue, but just because Céline’s project is a fantastic and exaggerated version of reality, that doesn’t mean that as an critic you can’t name him as being at the helm.

As with the other titles in this series, the other heroes are the cat Bebert, Céline’s wife and the many demented personages of the Third Reich, pathetically dying in illusionous poison.  Also heavily featured is ‘Le Vig’, or Robert Le Vigan, which was the screen name of the actor Robert Coquillard, whom you can see in Pepe le Moko and several other movies of the other period that are still available.

“There’s only one religion: Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish… all branches of the same ‘little Jesus’ chains! they hassle, they rip each other’s guts out?... blarney! … for the crowd! their big job, their only real job… perfect agreement… is to besot and destroy the white race.”

“What’s this, Céline? You?”

“Pure mongrelisation. By marriage of course! With all the sacraments! Amen!”

“I don’t quite understand you, Céline… “

I expect that modern writers spend a good amount of time generating a certain sense of universality in their work; it never pays after all to be too cultural specific, and it’s always best practice to keep personal battles to one side when setting out on a new book, which after all should be for the sake and benefit of humanity, as opposed to serving your own ends. What is remarkable about Céline’s writing, and what was so different about it, is that he states and rephrases everything in terms of his own experience, forcing that as vital fact into the reader’s mind.

The opening of Rigadoon is a perfect example. With the first blast of his pencil Céline heads straight for the jugular of his former friend Robert Poulet, a man who could only ever be historically remembered for… well, his appearance here.

Céline’s attitude to Robert Poulet is tricky to unpick. Poulet does not appear to the most memorable of characters, with a very questionable attitude to woman and Jewish people, among other things. Poulet was an Avant garde novelist, and was involved in politics during the early 1930s when he was a member of the corporatist study group Réaction. Although not a Nazi he still became the political director of Le Nouveau Journal, a collaborationist paper launched in 1940.

He was sentenced to death in October 1945 for collaboration but, after serving six years imprisonment, he was released and allowed to return to France. Following his return to France Poulet published several autobiographical novels in which he tried to justify his war-time collaboration as merely trying to safeguard the monarchy and Belgian independence, and he wrote for the far right journal Rivarol, the Catholic paper Présent and Ecrits de Paris, amongst other publications. He was a friend and supporter of Robert Faurisson and joined him in advocating Holocaust denial, and if you add to all of this the crime of falling out with Céline his credentials are very poor.

On the title, Rigodon, Anglicised as Rigadoon, isn’t really anything to do with the fabled Scots town of Brigadoon, but is the name of spritely Provencal two step dance.   On one level this book is beyond us all, given the amount of background knowledge and study we may have to do to grasp it. On another, it’s prose like no other, and you can treat it as a challenge — just how much can you read before you have to put it down and rethink everything.

OK, not everything. Just the following: narrative, character, and the entire point of writing in the first place. Reading the Rigadoon trilogy, you’ll get the sense that Céline was some kind of ultra-diarist, who sought to represent his experience for the highest of moral reasons. He either dwells far in the past, long before the idea of fiction was designed, commercialised and brutalised, or far in the future, where fiction is likewise non-existent, or at least subservient to an objectivity that gives it a class of its own.

Come on, Céline, cut the clowning… your readers have a right to expect it… even of you! that stuff about the Chinese in Brest may amuse people for a minute… no more!