Céline – On getting a grip (la banlieue)

Louis-Ferdinand Céline lurks at every turn in the Parisian hinterland. For all the wanderlust that takes the character Bardamu to Africa and America, Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932, issues essentially out of the ruined landscape left by the war, particularly as it spread its poverty-ridden, shoddily-built form across the Parisian banlieue. Céline’s first and greatest novel is the epic of the war-scarred generation struggling for some respite from a violent, hypocritical world that would send you to your death without a second thought, a world not only without pity, but worse: which actively sets upon you. Spat out by history and its apocalyptic destruction as it twists and turns through war, colonial expansion and industrial modernisation, a medical degree acquired along the way by dint of pure perseverance, Bardamu turns precisely to the banlieue as the best sort of haven available, a place where he can ‘get a grip’ on something, a place that resembles him: ‘I had no great opinion of myself and no ambition, all I wanted was a chance to breathe a little and eat a little better.’[1]

The promise of respite will prove illusory. Céline’s night continues on long into the apparently placid backwater of civilisation, and his depiction of the poor suburbs north of Paris not only reworks some of the same tropes as popular newspapers of the time; it both cements and heightens their pitch, achieving a resonance that has transformed Céline’s banlieue into the definitive vision of interwar suburban misery. His motifs and obsessions can be found echoing on through the wave of gritty urban crime novels produced in and about Paris since the 1980s, and into the lyrics of some of the more inventive rap and slam artists of the Paris region, as well as featuring prominently in academic writing about Paris’s working-class suburbs. Inevitably quoted for its abject vision of poverty, crossed by a risible desire to live better, Céline’s oeuvre has undoubtedly contributed to the stigmatisation of the banlieue, which has mutated according to the racial and social convulsions of the twentieth century without ever alleviating the now nine million banlieusards of their stain. Yet this reading of Journey to the End of the Night drives out of the picture all possibility of empathy or affection. It would be a stretch to look for some promise of lasting social amelioration in Céline’s company, admittedly, but there is still something to be said for, or at least about, the small, almost utopian islands in the constantly rising dystopia of human grief, islands or moments that bear some trace of the association between the banlieue and escape from the nightmare of history.

Deep into the rising tide is where Céline takes us first, borrowing and amplifying what are the standard newspeak references to mud, smoke and promiscuity throughout the late 1920s and into the mid-1930s when the banlieue mushroomed into makeshift urbanity. The buildings are pictured as ensconced in the mud – ‘gadoue’ – appearing from afar like the mooring posts at the sea’s edge, ill-shapen forms washed over by the sea or left high and dry in the viscous sludge, in a clear evocation of the ubiquitous wooden posts that demarcated individual plots in the newly divided land. And the water descends from the sky too, as a ‘smoky soup’ that leaves the plain sodden, extending from the suburb of Rancy to Detroit, drawing the Parisian banlieue into an existential fetidness that overwhelms its socio-cultural particularities. Indeed, loss of individuality, loss of agency are as much the plight of the banlieusard as they are of the young soldier. Repeating the pattern of volunteer engagement that turns into an experience of conscription, Bardamu’s decision to head for the banlieue quickly turns into a suspension of self-determination: ‘then you realise where you’ve been put.’ Rather than warped commanding officers that instruct you to carry out acts of evident madness, here it is the ‘houses that possess you,’ and the place closes in around you, shutting down any possibility of escape.[2] Worse, the banlieue ends up even shutting down all desire for escape, any realisation that escape might be possible: ‘When you live in Rancy, you don’t even realise any longer that you’ve become sad. You just don’t want to do much, that’s all. Driven to economise on everything, because of everything, you just stop wanting anything.’

Contrary to his neighbours, Bardamu claims to be able to see the ubiquitous, deliquescent sameness to which the poor are reduced, and he can see it because he’s been elsewhere, he’s had the benefit of an education. Down with the crabs in the unrelieved slim of existence, he can pick out the ‘lingering smells of war, the whiffs of half-burned, badly cooked villages, of aborted revolutions, and bankrupt businesses’; he documents the ‘discouraged dresses, silk stockings, sour stomachs and feet as dirty as socks, collars that are as unusable and stiff as monthly payments, on-going abortions, war heroes, and overcoats “for all seasons”,’ appearing to offer an inventory that makes the mud-caked landscape readable. Underscoring the ‘nowhereness’ of his home – on the very edge of the zone, as he says, up against the embankments of the fortifications – he sees the omnipresent worker who himself ‘sees’ nothing: ‘the worker always standing up there, looking at nothing, with his arm wrapped in thick white cotton, injured at work, who has no idea what to do or what to think and not enough in his pocket to go and drink to fill his consciousness.’[3] But this picture is also just another re-working of a long inscribed poetics of the banlieue, associating lack of form with human misery. In this sense, Bardamu is accurate in ascribing the lucidity he has regarding the condition of the banlieusard to ‘academic’ influence: his rendition is academic in its resonance with Victor Hugo’s Misérables from 1861 and Zola’s Assommoir from 1877. Hugo had already declared that ‘to observe the banlieue is to observe an amphibian,’ seeing the banlieue as caught between beginnings and ends –  ‘the end of the murmur of things divine, the beginning of the noise of humankind’ – marked forever by the epithet ‘sad’ and crisscrossed by the ‘aimless’ promenades of the dreamer.[4] The directionless viscosity of the space is already a literary and artistic topos by the time Céline comes to describe his hometown, and the equation between the banlieue and generalised anomie or alienation does little to anchor the psychological despair in a particular socio-economic context and even less to plot the specific traits of the banlieue as it was spreading in the interwar years.

Perhaps even more ‘academic,’ though, is the trip up to the top of Montmartre to see the desolation of the banlieue is all its extension, as if the hybridity of the semi-rural, semi-urban space beyond the walls could only be seen properly in contrast to a fully fantasised version of pastorality associated with Montmartre. Seeing the banlieue from the actual city was, after all, to run the risk that the distinction might no longer seem so neat. And neat, or abrupt, is definitely what is needed, as is shown in Van Gogh’s wonderful picture from the top of the small hillock known as the Butte Montmartre in which the lampposts start to slip and slide a bit as they approach the huge plunge out into the murky sea-like nothingness beyond Paris, then stop, abruptly. The last beacon after which the eye gets lost in indistinction reoccurs in another of Van Gogh’s paintings of the outskirts of Paris, this time down on the ground, in the mud, as the thickly applied paint suggests, with the lamppost standing as the only almost stable element in a landscape of half-hearted fences, directionless movement and scattered, ill-shapen buildings.

Van Gogh, The Outskirts of Paris, 1887 (Santa Barbara Museum)

The need to underscore the frontier is perhaps, however, clearest with Zola’s long-suffering Gervaise, who clings desperately to Parisian respectability before finding herself obliged to seek out the partially lit spaces of the periphery when reduced to a failed attempt at prostitution. Before this final déchéance, she wanders up the hill with her lover Goujat to the almost ‘heavenly’ preserve of Montmartre, passing goats on the way and admiring the clouds drifting by at near eye-level like swans in a magical elevation of this comparatively small hill. Holding hands, their eyes brimming with tenderness, they look down on the chalky desolation of the banlieue, almost reduced to tears by the patches of trees offering irregular shade to the cheap drinking holes – ‘les cabarets borgnes.’[5] Baked as opposed to sodden, the banlieue is still coated in a uniform skin and still lacking all perspective on itself – ‘borgne,’ or one-eyed. For Céline, who also ascends to the sunshine of the ‘beautiful outlook’ of the Sacré-Coeur, what you realise is that down in the plain there are no ‘details’ to be found, ‘so ugly is everything you see, so uniformly ugly.’[6]

But this is just scene setting, and though Céline initially evacuates all detail in a further rehearsal of the emptiness of the terrain vague that is the indescribable zone that serves merely to mark the limit to the order of the city and the freedom of the country, he goes back down into Rancy, and it is in the following episodes where we find what Yves Pagès has referred to as the ‘enchanted materialism’ of Céline’s writing.[7] The general failure to read these subsequent episodes as material for thinking about the banlieue is just another sign of how willing we are to equate the banlieue with nothingness.

Bébert, the young boy who attracts Bardamu’s attention by his unsullied gaiety and willingness, and who subsequently dies of a mysterious typhoid, despite the lengths that Bardamu goes to in search of a cure, is the most obvious focus of a certain, short-lived optimism in Céline’s world. But more significant perhaps than Bébert is the Henrouille family, victims of their desire to escape behind the walls of their home. Martyrs to the long process of paying off their ‘pavillon,’ or villa, they have homeownership inscribed on their bodies, as indistinguishable from them as the snail is from its shell. Finally finding themselves free of the payments when Bardamu comes into their lives, the very walls they have spent so long building seem to collapse around them: ‘The Henrouille couldn’t get over the fact that they had passed through life for nothing but a house and like people recently freed from the walls imprisoning them, they were amazed.’[8] Archetypes of the pioneer banlieusard, in the early days they had walked the three kilometres to the nearest station in their clogs along the muddy tracks, leaving their clogs at the fruit merchants near the station and donning shoes to go and work in Paris. They had kept their careful accounts in notebooks stored in the dining-room chest of draws, grown their vegetables, raised their son. And now, secure and free of debt, they are attacked from the inside, Monsieur Henrouille by ringing in his ears, and Madame Henrouille by her mother-in-law, Mère Henrouille, who lives at the bottom of the garden in a sort of shack, refusing to come out in a exacerbation of the very insular instincts that have driven the son and daughter to pour everything into their home.

The irony is self-evident: at the end of their quest for seclusion, they find the aggressions of the world welling up inside themselves. Monsieur Henrouille is tormented day and night because ‘he has all the noises inside himself.’[9] Their one indulgence now that the house is paid for is to buy the daily newspaper, another ill-judged aspiration for social ascension that also brings the ‘noises’ of the world in, provoking fears and doubts that leave Madame Henrouille as frightened as her detested mother-in-law of being ‘assassinated.’[10] But their plight is one that solicits muted empathy from Bardamu, particularly for the husband and his mother. He listens at length to Monsieur Henrouille’s story of frustrated ambition after his father’s business went bust, which forced eighteen-year-old Henrouille to take up a job as a clerk for a notary on the Boulevard Sebastopol – all symbols of the post-Haussmann Paris consolidating its wealth at the expense of the poor – instead of pursuing his studies and becoming a teacher, an alternative symbol of social ascension in the Republic of Teachers, as the Third Republic has been named. ‘You remember things like that,’ comments Bardamu. Here Céline is enriching his inventory, picking out particular detail in the unredeemed drabness of rabbit stew and gaslight. And even Madame Henrouille doing piecework in the evening – sewing buttons on waistcoats – for a Parisian department store to pay the mortgage off faster, takes on a certain individuality that distinguishes her from the great human tide that washes in an out of Paris everyday.

But it is Mère Henrouille who breaks with the uniformity of misery most strikingly, shining out of her cave-like hypostatization of the banlieusard’s retreat from civilisation. When she finally opens her door to Doctor Bardamu, whose mission it is to declare her mad and fit to be interned, her gaze dances joyfully all around and her voice leaps and bounds in some sort of return to an era where speech was closer to song, an ideal that haunts all of Céline’s writing. Described as an ancient tree covered in new shoots, she embodies grumpy, grouchy gaiety: gay despite and in full knowledge of the vileness of life, she radiates with another sort of purity to that of the fragile child, who is yet to be fully exposed to the ills of the world. Moreover, the new growth that she represents stems from her retreat behind the walls, at the bottom of her garden. She is ‘tensed against the outside,’ of another era and without any of the trappings of the contemporary world, and as such she strikes a small utopian light in the murkiness of the world.

The plan to snub her out casts another, more ironic light across the proceedings. Robinson, Bardamu’s ill-fated alter ego, also hitches up with the Henrouille family and, contrary to Bardamu who refuses to earn his bread and butter at the expense of Mère Henrouille, is quite willing to hatch a plan to dispose of the old hag in the hope that he will subsequently have a hold over the family that will keep him at least minimally comfortable for the rest of his days. Inspired by a story Bardamu himself had related, and thereby sneering at the doctor’s refusal to get his hands dirty, Robinson uses another classic symbol of banlieue self-sufficiency culture: he builds some rabbit hutches at the bottom of the Henrouille garden, replaying the key notes of small-scale home improvement, with the intention of luring Mère Henrouille out of her own hutch to feed the rabbits where she would meet her death when an explosive device, planted to protect the rabbits from theft, would explode in her face. The plan backfires, and Robinson himself nearly loses his eyesight in the explosion.

The whole clapier culture – or rabbit-hutch culture – of cobbling together strategies for survival is thus rather hilariously revealed to be as potentially blinding as it is rejuvenating for Mère Henrouille, whose bright eyes twinkle on through Robinson’s agony. But before the final explosion, there is a moment when the old woman, Bardamu and Robinson find themselves united in the dark night in Bardamu’s waiting room, along with Bébert’s aunt, the night before the little boy is due to be buried. The light in the sky fades, and all the wariness and opportunism that both keeps them all apart and holds them together falls into abeyance, leaving just their voices between them: ‘and all that they always seem so close to saying, those voices, and never say.’[11] As an image of community it is weak in the extreme, a wavering thread of silence, but it is one of the only moments of its kind in Céline’s literary world, and it stills the relentless wastage and misery of life.

In this moment, with its comic prelude of Mère Henrouille’s song-like vociferations, and its aftermath of Robinson’s clownesque craftiness, there emerges a sort of island – not of hope, but at least of affinity, an association that is outside and temporarily immune to the onslaught of life and history. And it is what Céline’s narrator grips on to in the amphibian slim of the banlieue.

[1] Voyage au bout de la nuit, Folio, 1952, p. 304 ; trans. Ralph Manheim, p. 215, translation modified.

[2] pp. 304-5

[3] p. 307

[4] Les Misérables, Garnier-Flammarion, vol. 2, p. 108

[5] L’Assommoir, Garnier-Flammarion, pp. 267-69

[6] p. 308

[7] Yves Pagès, Céline. Fictions du politique, Paris: Gallimard (TEL), 1994.

[8] p. 316

[9] p. 321

[10] p. 316 and 317

[11] p. 374