Céline's London
John Goto

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Céline’s London

I write in the waking dream mode
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, letter to Léon Daudet

Set in London during the First World War, Céline’s picaresque novel Guignol’s Band follows the narrator Ferdinand’s misadventures amongst the capital’s demi-monde. Discharged from the French Army, Ferdinand finds his way to Soho where he becomes involved with Cascade Farcy’s gang of French pimps and prostitutes. Business is booming as embarking soldiers’ swarm into the West End.

Ferdinand hangs out with a piano playing Eastern European chemist, Borokrom, and through Cascade meets the sickly Dr. Clodovitz of the London Hospital. After a drug-fuelled orgy in which Ferdinand participates, Borokrom murders the eccentric Jewish pawnbroker, Titus van Claben. The accomplices accuse each other of the crime, and Ferdinand goes on the run.

With his newly found buddy the mystic impresario Hervé Sosthène de Robiencourt, he finds sanctuary with a crazy inventor, Colonel O’Colloghan. Together they develop a dangerously faulty gas mask, which they hope to sell to the British Army. Ferdinand’s real interest, however, is in the Colonel’s pubescent niece, Virginia, to whom he declares his love. She soon falls pregnant.

The narrator’s feverish state of mind is echoed by the fragmented topography of the city. A simple journey from Piccadilly to the Whitechapel Road, for example, takes him via the Strand and Fleet St, turning sharply northwards to Bank and beyond to Seven Sisters, before plunging south of the river to the Elephant and Castle, from where he eventually heads north east towards Whitechapel. The settings restlessly shift between London’s cardinal points, between Docklands and Piccadilly, Greenwich and Willesden, Limehouse and Maida Vale, Stepney and the outer suburbs of Bromley and Chislehurst.

Guignol’s Band is based on Céline’s memories of wartime London. Having been wounded and honourably discharged from the army, he was assigned to a desk job at the French consulate in May 1915, and stayed in the British capital until March of the following year. London was at that time considered to be a culturally advanced city, with avant-garde movements including the Imagists and Vorticists.

For many critics Céline’s greatest contribution is as a literary stylist. Written in a fast paced staccato slang, replete with ellipses, his novels made a highly original contribution to the modernist canon. His account of humanity is at once atrociously disparaging, and very funny.

The negativity that fuelled Céline’s black humour also led him to fascism. Between 1937- 41 he wrote a number of anti-Semitic pamphlets. Guignol’s Band was begun in Brittany in the summer of 1942, by which time he already thought Germany would lose the war. In October the BBC French Service named Céline as a collaborator.

He continued to work on the book at Bezons, a poor suburb of Paris where he was employed as a doctor. With an Allied invasion imminent, he decided to have the finished part of the novel published as Guignol’s Band I whilst there was still time. Fearing that the Resistance would kill him, Céline then fled north with his wife Lucette to Berlin, and eventually on to Denmark. Versions of Guignol’s Band II were drafted before leaving Paris, on their hazardous journey north, and in Denmark whilst in prison. Completed there in 1947, it was posthumously published in 1964 under the misleading title of London Bridge.

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