Dancing Macabre: The Ballets of Céline  
      © Thomas Christensen   right reading news service

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Céline’s fascination with dance spans his career: his first ballet, “The Birth of a Fairy,” was written a few years after he published his astonishing first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, which he dedicated to the dancer Elizabeth Craig; and at the time of his death he was, according to his wife, Lucette—also a dancer—planning a book devoted to dance. Céline did love dancers (“That’s all I love, really,” he wrote dancer Karen Marie Jensen. “everything else I find horrible.”) and he love dance (“A man who doesn’t dance confesses some disgraceful weakness,” he wrote Milton Hindus. “I put dancing into everything”).

In 1936, after finishing his monumental second novel, Mort à crédit, Céline visited Russia, where he hoped to have some of his ballets performed at the Theater Marinski in Leningrad. How much foundation he had for this hope is unclear, and to my knowledge none of his ballets has been performed. On his return from Russia (in the highly politicized ambience of the late thirties), Céline turned to pamphleteering, not publishing his third novel, Guignol's Band, until 1944. His hysterical wartime diatribe, Bagatelles pour un massacre, however, begins and ends with a ballet, so that the ballet could be said to represent his major published literary activity in this period. The ballets remained largely overlooked in the unpleasant context of Céline's offensive anti-Semetic outpourings, although he returned to the form sporatically. (He continued to cherish hope of having his ballets performed. He thought that "Wicked Paul. Brave Virginie" might be performed at the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Around the same time, he lobbied to obtain a British performance of "The Birth of a Fairy." In 1945 he tried to get "Slings and Arrows" performed by the Copenhagen Opera.)

In 1959, when Céline was sixty-five years old, five ballets were collected in an edition of 5500 copies published by Gallimard and nicely illustrated with line drawings by Éliane Bonabel. Bonabel was the daughter of an old friend. Her kind visit to Céline when he was imprisoned in Denmark (the "tiresomeness" that interrupted his work on "Slings and Arrows) had cheered him in that dark time: Éliane's arrival is really something miraculous!" he wrote his wife. "The whole past flooding back in a whirlwind. I see myself as a young doctor in Clichy, she was five years old! And now she sees us again under such conditions!" That book, entitled Ballets sans musique, sans personne, sans rien, is the work at last presented here in English translation, some forty years later, thanks to the dedication of Doublas Messerli, the publisher of Green Integer Books.

* * *

Dancing is a prominent element in Céline's fiction, figuring especially in L'Eglise, Feérie pour une autre fois, Guignol's band, and Nord. For Céline, dance serves three principal functions: it helps to ground his rhythmical prose in a firm musical mode; it offers a model for managing crowds and choreographing complicated, frenzied scenes of apocalypse and delirium; and it provides an example of ideal beauty that is a thematic counterpart to his obsessions with evil, deterioration, death, and the grotesque.

Céline's fiction, written in the first person (unlike the ballets), is intensely emotional and personal (in Entretiens avec le professeur Y, Céline said that he sought a stylisitic means of achieving an "emotive subway" — the most direct conveying of emotion possible). "I am not a man of messages," Céline once claimed. "I am not a man of ideas, I am a man of style." One of his techniques for achieving his goal of direct emotion was the use of a comic rhythm that became increasingly intrinsic to his prose. He once gave a friend a copy of Voyage with the admonition, "It's all dance and music — always at the edge of death, don't fall into it." His elliptical style was suited to his writing largely for this reason, and in his later works he employed it more and more as a device to control phrasing and timing, breaking down his sentences into smaller and smaller units. In a preface to Guignol's band, he defends his technique on musical grounds: "Three dots! ... ten! twelve dots! help! Nothing at all if that's what's needed! That's how I am. Jazz replaced the waltz ..." (Céline also uses the exclamation mark as a rhythmic device.) Here, on the level of the phrase, one senses the phantom presence of a Célinean ballet master, pounding out rhythms by beating on the floor with his cane, whipping the authorial voice to a furious climax.

Despite the personal quality of his writing, Céline very often takes the long view. He is to a large extent a wartime writer. He was hailed as a hero in the first world war (which figures prominently in his first book) and assailed as a villain — a scapegoat, he said — in the second (which figures prominently in his last books). Partly for this reason, Céline often describes scenes with great masses of characters. Dance suggested a way that such large groups could be choreographed and managed. Repetition and acceleration are his main devices. Typically, waves of "dancers" enter from various directions and goad each other to a kind of frenzy that culminates in a black comic apocalypse of almost sexual release. Such apocalyptic scenes can be viewed as the fulcrums around which the novels are balanced. In many of them, a destructive, satanic figure — a Grand Guignol, a diabolic ballet master — directs the action, whipping it into délire, frenzied excess, and finally destruction. Céline's dance is a dance of action and abandon — critics have described it a Dionysian (Céline approvingly quoted Nietzsche's assertioin that he could only believe in a god that dances).

Céline lived through a time of madness and horror. All the rest of his life he was troubled by a ringing in his ears that was the result of a wound suffered in battle, which came to seem an internal air-raid siren heralding the apocalypse. As a recruit in the first world war, as a doctor who worked among the poor, as a refugee in the second war and a prisoner afterwards, Céline witnessed degradation, depravity, despair, decay, destruction. Against this overwhelming demonstration of evil, he was only able to oppose a pallid, played-out romantic visioin left over from a more vigorous Europe of a past, a vision that could hardly help seeming remote and unobtainable. Céline, says Frédéric Vitoux, "is a man of the past, i.e., despairing, like all nostalgics." Small wonder that this aspect of his work is overshadowed by his darker vision.

This kind of conflict grips Bardamu in Voyage au bout de la nuit; in Mort à credit, the Krogold legend makes it explicit. The narrator of that book, Ferdinand, has written a work called "The Legend of Krogold": "an epic, sad to be sure, but noble ... resplendent." This work is quite similar to aspects of the ballets in style, theme, plot, and setting. Ferdinand, a broken-down doctor, finds the beauty of the story a relief and respite from the foul and dirty world he actually inhabits. It is the story of Gwendor the Magnificent, Prince of Christiania, who betrays King Krogold and is killed in battle. As he expires on the battlefield, he converses with Death, who tells him, "There is no softness of gentleness in this world, Gwendor, but only myth! All kingdoms end in a dream..." (Against the dream of Krogold Céline's works give us the nightmare of an expiring Europe.) Ferdinand reads his "Legend" to a colleague — who promptly falls asleep. No one is interested in his legend: "The only one who cared was myself." Everyone turns away from beauty. Beauty is no longer possible in this world — it belongs to the world of myth. The world of the ballets.

"If the world were not so evil, if the author had been left the possibility of living the life he wanted, Céline would have sung touching airs of long-ago times, told beautiful stories of fairies and of King Krogold," says Maurice Nadeau. "He dreamed of transporting ballets in the moonlight, rustic phantasmagorias. More than novels, many of his books ... are poems: they transform an unbearable reality into a kind of thick black dream." when the evil puppet master, the Grand Guignol, drives his characters into a destructive frenzy, the wispy grace of the dancers is hardly equal to the task of holding the spirit of destruction in check. In Céline's vision, beauty is ephemeral and elusive, and it rarely triumphs for long — the lovely dancers he dreams of represent a beauty that is unobtainable in a world that is irredeemably impure and destestable.

* * *

These five works are explicitly ballets, but some are more formally balletic than others: the early ballets, such as "The Death of a Fairy" and "Wicked Paul, Brave Virginie," contain a faiir amount of stage direction. By the time of "Slings and Arrows" and "Scandal in the Deep," Céline was writing something closer to fiction — not his usual fiction but something more like the romance of Krogold — and in fact "Scandal in the Deep" barely acknowledges its supposed ballet form, and it includes many passages that would pose real difficulties for staging. The longer later works also have more involved and developed plots and a greater variety of settings and situations.

While ballet rehearsal scenes appear in "The Birth of a Fairy" and "Slings and Arrows," more common are dance hall interiors, street and dock scenes, even folk and ritual dance. In his youth, Céline was a habitué of dance halls and burlesque shows, and their influence can be sensed, especially in his decor and costumery. And surface elements such as these often seem his primary interest. In "Scandal," his description of the undersea kingdom of Neptune, for example, reads as a last gasp of the old European tradition of the court masque. Where once the masque represented what Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called a "dialogic open form," in which conventions and expectations were routinely undone and overthrown, in Céline's ballets the grotesque and the burlesque, though amply present, cannot overpower the picturesque and sentimental. Much as Harlequin's crude antics and coarse motley eventually gave way in the Commedia dell'Arte to stagey acrobatics and a merely decorative pattern of diamonds, so in Céline's ballets such traditional carnivalesque figures as the lord of misrule, the clown, the fool, the ogre, the juggler, the pedant, the parasite, lose much of their raw vitality and become elements in a largely decorative display. The use of the third person and an off-stage vantage point further distance the work. Even as dark a piece as Wicked Paul, Brave Virginie — which satirizes and parodies the popular eighteenth-century Rousseauian novel Paul and Virginie, in which the shipwrecked couple find nobility among promitives and a loss of innocence in civilized society — cannot achieve the emotional force of the novels.

If Céline's fiction chronicled what he regarded as the death of Europe, his ballets, even though in many respects a positive counterbalance to the dark vision, also manifest a carnivalesque European tradition that has here declined and atrophied. Despite this, the ballets are unique, original, and revealing — fascinating curiosities from one of the twentieth century's most innovative authors.





This essay was written as the introduction to my translation (with Carol Christensen) of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything. The book was published by Green Integer and should be available from them.


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