Sunday, July 13, 2008

Celine: Conversations with Professor Y

I found Celine's Journey to the End of the Night extremely disappointing specially because I had wanted to read it for such a long time. (I had mentioned it briefly here.) I thought may be I didn't pay enough attention and was impatient, and so I decided to pick up another one of his books. Death on the Installment Plan is another of his famous work but Conversations with Professor Y sounded more amusing (and it was very short too) so I picked it up.

The book is indeed a very amusing little literary oddity. It will make sense only in the light of story of Celine's career after the second world war. In short, after his first two books, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Installment Plan were published to great critical acclaim (and also shock and bewilderment) he undertook to write a series of quasi-political pamphlets, which were violently anti-semitic, anti-Russian and anti-communist. The language he used was so extreme that even the fascist establishment in France shunned away from him and his writings. At the end of the war, with the looming defeat of the occupation forces, and fearing vengeful and retributory justice he ran off to Denmark where he was soon imprisoned and had to serve a jail sentence for more than a year. Only a few years later the French government granted him an amnesty and he returned to France. By that time the reading public and the literary establishment had either completely forgotten him and his early works or were actively hostile to it.

Goaded by his publishers, he then wrote Conversations With Professor Y in order to put forward his side of the story. It is however far from being a work of mea culpa - there are no signs of remorse or desire for atonement anywhere in the book. Instead it is totally the opposite - an egomaniacal self-portrait full of delusions of grandeur. He for example says that he has killed off the traditional novel and traditional novelists with his "little technique." Everything he says is undercut by a tone of self-mockery and self-deprecatory humour which though being often hilarious still makes him look like a sort of creep in the end.

As the title makes it clear the book is a fictionalized interview of Celine with the eponymous Professor. It is however Celine's version of what happened during the conversations. The professor always remains in the background and he hardly gets a chance to speak or ask any real questions. Most of it is either Celine's monologues or else his speculations about the reactions of his interviewer. Half way through the novel the professor turns out to be someone else but nothing else really happens. This is all just a collection of Celine's thoughts on literature and the official French literary establishment and as expected he has pretty strong views and opinions on everything. One main motif of the monologues is what he calls his "little technique" - the way he reproduces the cadences and intensity of oral language in his writing and the "emotive" style of writing that results from it. As he says in Journey, Mind creates lies and only visceral emotional experiences can be spontaneous, authentic and so true. Everything else is just falsehood and lies. The official mode of literary language with stiffness and deliberate sentence constructions, he finds dull, banal and sterile. He also explains why there is so much of "I" in his novels (without which lyricism is not possible he says), why he doesn't like ideas in novels and why there are so many "three dots" in his writings! Most of it is very hilarious and easy to read. The interviewer for example has to go pee but Celine continues to hold forth and chides him for not paying attention. He is also very self-conscious of number of pages of interviews he has given. In between all this he pours scorn on officially celebrated literary figures like Romain Rolland or Francois Mauriac. There is not much of misanthropy here. The rants are much more good humoured here than Journey to the End of the Night. It is only the context of his biography that gives all this an ugly subtext.

The book has an excellent and very informative introduction by Stanford Luce who also translated it. This is short and amusing read though it may be of interest only to Celine fans. There is a brief review of the book at the complete review. Finally a brief extract from the book which will give a flavour of the writing. (Frankly, I was a bit giddy with all the ellipsis and exclamation marks after I finished it in one sitting.)


"Don't worry!...Don't be afraid! Politics is anger!...and anger, Professor Y, is a mortal sin! Remember! an angry man runs off at the mouth! all the furies charge after him! tear him to shreds! that's justice! for me, Professor Y, you know? they won't catch me at it again! not for a kingdom! Never!"

"What do you say about a little philosophical debate?...are you up to it?...a debate, let us say for example, on the mutations of progress through the transformations of the Self?..."

"Oh, my dear Professor Y, I'm willing to respect you and all...but I'll tell you flat out: I'm against it!...I have no ideas, myself! not a one! there's nothing more vulgar, more common, more disgusting than ideas! libraries are loaded with them! and every sidewalk cafe!...the impotent are bloated with ideas!...and philosophers!...that's their trade turning out ideas!...they dazzle youth with ideas! they play the pimp!...and youth ie ever ready, as you know, Professor, to gobble up anything to go ooh! and ah! by the numbers! how those pimps have an easy job of it! the passionate years of youth are spent on getting a hard on and gargling ideaaas!...philosophies, if you prefer!...yes sir, philosophies! youth loves sham just as young dogs love those sticks, like bones, that we throw and they run afer! they race forward, yipping away, wasting their time, that's the main thing! just look around at all the imposters endlessly playing their games, tossing their little sticks, their empty philosopher sticks...and youth moaning in ecstasy, trembling with delight! grateful!...the pimps know what it takes! ideaaas, and still more ideaaas! syntheses! and cerebral mutations!...toasted with port! with port, every time! and symbolic logic! wonnnderful!...the hollower they are, the more youth can lap them up, gorge themselves! everything they find in those hollow little sticks...ideaaas!...playthings! now you, Professor Y, may I say with no intent to outrage, you've got the breezer of an intelligent man! a dialectician even! hang out with youth, of course! I bet you stuff their little noggins! you live off of them, don't you, off of youth! how you must adore youth!...their impatience, presumption, idleness!'re probably a casuist even! am I right?...probably can out-casuist Abelard! you're in fashion!"

No comments: