Tuesday, September 21, 2010

From the Paris Review Interview Archives: Céline's Nostalgia for Cholera and Interest in Butts

Posted By on Tue, Sep 21, 2010 at 4:13 PM

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As we track back through the newly opened online archives of the Paris Review interviews, we note that, in the 60s, when not giving a platform to their contemporaries, the Review sought out a number of the colossi of world literature and philosophy, including several French authors who died in between the interview and its publication. The Winter-Spring 1964 issue, three years after the death of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, featured The Art of Fiction #33, comprised of selections from Jacques Darribehaude and Jean Geunot's late interviews with the author, in which he let loose about his past:

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember having had a shock, a literary explosion, which marked you?

CÉLINE

Oh, never, no! Me, I started in medicine and I wanted medicine and certainly not literature. Jesus Christ, no! If there are any people who seem to me gifted, I've seen it in—always the same—Paul Morand, Ramuz, Barbusse, the guys who were made for it.

INTERVIEWER

In your childhood you didn't think you'd be a writer?

CÉLINE

Oh, not at all, oh, no, no, no. I had an enormous admiration for doctors. Oh, that seemed extraordinary, that did. Medicine was my passion.

INTERVIEWER

In your childhood, what did a doctor represent?

CÉLINE

Just a fellow who came to the passage Choiseul to see my sick mother, my father. I saw a miraculous guy, I did, who cured, who did surprising things to a body which didn't feel like working. I found that terrific. He looked very wise. I found it absolutely magical.

INTERVIEWER

And today, what does a doctor represent for you?

CÉLINE

Bah! Now he's so mistreated by society he has competition from everybody, he has no more prestige, no more prestige. Since he's dressed up like a gas-station attendant, well, bit by bit, he becomes a gas-station attendant. Eh? He doesn't have much to say anymore, the housewife has Larousse Médical, and then diseases themselves have lost their prestige, there are fewer of them, so look what's happened: no syph, no gonorrhea, no typhoid. Antibiotics have taken a lot of the tragedy out of medicine. So there's no more plague, no more cholera.

INTERVIEWER

And the nervous, mental diseases, are there more of those instead?

CÉLINE

Well, there we can't do anything at all. Some madnesses kill, but not many. But as for the half-mad, Paris is full of them. There's a natural need to look for excitement, but obviously all the bottoms you see around town inflame the sex drive to a degree . . . drive the teen-agers nuts, eh?

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