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Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Mort à credit (Death on the Installment Plan; UK: Death on Credit)

Though not particularly well received during his life, this book has received more critical approval since his death and, for some people, it is his best book. Like his other books, it is semi-autobiographical, giving a somewhat fictionalised account of his childhood. After starting off in the present, with an account of his difficult life as a doctor, he soon does a Proustian jump back to his past. Ferdinand, the hero/narrator, lives with his father and mother in Paris. His father has a soul-destroying job with an insurance company, while his mother sells lace out of their home. His father is an ogre of a man, always shouting and screaming at his unfortunate wife and son, always having money problems and never content with anything Ferdinand does. His mother is a meek woman, who does her lace and cooks noodles (the family’s sole diet). The father also takes it out on others. There is, for example, a story of his feud with a neighbour, who also owns a shop. Poor Ferdinand struggles at school, is very ill and suffers his father’s abuse. He leaves school early to work. However, his career is not a success. He loses the two jobs he has. The first one is in a haberdasher’s and he is fired because he is incompetent. For the second, he is carrying a jewel for a client and visits a prostitute en route. When he returns, he realises the jewel is missing. He suspects that the prostitute stole it but, of course, he cannot prove it. Nor can he tell either his employer or his parents what happened.

At this point, Uncle Edouard intervenes. Edouard also always seems to be having financial difficulties but he is much more sympathetic than Ferdinand’s father. He recommends that Ferdinand be sent to England. He is sent to the Meanwell Academy but, apart from the headmaster’s wife, he finds little positive to say about England. On his return Uncle Edouard intervenes again and finds him a position, this time with Courtial des Pereires. Des Pereires is an inventor and Ferdinand enjoys working with him and they get on well together despite des Pereires’ many problems – financial, legal, technical and marital. He has already many inventions to his credit, including a house that can be built in seventeen hours and a fancy telescope. But his problems get the better of him and, when he disappears, it is Ferdinand who finds his body after he has shot himself.

What makes this novel interesting is that for its well over 600 pages, Céline never lets up. His intense style of writing is not, as one critic has said, for wimps. This is reflected in the relationships between the characters who seem to spend a lot of time at each others’ throats. Ferdinand’s father is the worst, with a range of swear words far greater than I have seen or heard elsewhere in French, but he is not the only one. Céline uses a direct style, piling sentence on sentence in long paragraphs, using exclamation marks and suspension points non-stop, using a ribald and slangy French and generally not giving the reader a comfort zone or let-up from the tirade. Whether it works depends on whether you like this style of writing. It is not easy work.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Denoël & Steele
First published in English 1938 by New Directions
Translated by John H P Marks (earier editions); Ralph Manheim (later editions)