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Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Nord (North)

Though the second of his accounts of his experiences at the end of World War II to be published, it was the first chronologically, telling of his time in Baden-Baden and Berlin in 1944. It is distinguished from its predecessor, D’un château l’autre (Castle to Castle), not just by the period in which it is set but because Céline the writer and Céline the character are much more restrained. In D’un château l’autre (Castle to Castle), both the author and the character were ranting and raving about how unfairly he had been treated and generally criticising virtually everyone he could think of who treated him badly. There is little of that in this work. It is not that he is totally restrained. He still uses his trademark machine-gun style, spitting out half-sentences, sentences ending in exclamation marks and suspension points and slang. He is still sarcastic and critical – Hitler and his fellow Germans come in for most of the criticism – but he no longer acts as though he is on trial or as though the entire world is against him. As a result, unless you like novels of paranoia, this one is far more readable and accessible and far more enjoyable.

It starts in Baden-Baden where Céline, with his wife, Lili, his cat, Bébert and his friend, La Vigue, has taken refuge. They will have trouble with the cat later, as he is not a thoroughbred and therefore not allowed under Third Reich rules. There they meet Mme von Seckt, an aristocratic German woman, highly critical of Hitler. They have to move on and head for Berlin. This is the period when the Allies were bombing the city prior to the invasion but for Céline it is the beginning of the end, the Götterdämmerung. The city is in chaos and when he meets Harras, an old friend who is now an SS officer, they are offered help and move to Zornhof, just outside Berlin, in a Ministry of Health facility. Here they come across an assortment of strange characters – the sort you might expect to see in an apocalypse – from a variety of refugee Slavs to a count who hates everyone, including, specifically, the French and the Nazis. Céline mocks many of them and, indeed, this book’s success is partially due to its humour, some of which is clearly gallows humour.

This is without doubt the best of his post-war trilogy of his wanderings in Denmark and Germany. He shows more authorial detachment, is happy to make fun of all he sees, yet, in his view, the end is very near and he makes us well aware of this. The next and final book of the trilogy will be the weakest (he died a few days after completing it and never had time to revise it) so this one remains his last great work.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Gallimard
First published in English 1972 by Delacorte Press