"Anybody who comes to this godforsaken place expecting something out of the movies -- romantic exile, comfortable smoking rooms and exalted outlaws -- will be in for an unpleasant surprise," Céline wrote to a friend in Paris who was considering a visit. "It's a superglacial cloister, the vault at the end of the world where death and night are kept."
Sitting in his frigid cloister, a yellowed newspaper photo of the old mill in Montmartre -- the view from his former rue Lepic apartment -- tacked on the mildewed plaster wall in front of him, a rug on his lap and heated bricks beneath his feet, he continued to struggle with the novel he'd begun in prison. He tried to block out his surroundings, but their impact on his senses was too immediate -- the air, for instance, thick with smells of peat smoke, wet fur, melting candle wax and leeks being cooked. In the silence of the room, the sounds of his sentences drifted away before he could catch them.
Outside, it was a dead world. The Baltic ruled everything, even the bone-white sky which merged imperceptibly into the mist-sheeted outer waters like a slab of blank marble sliding into soapy dishwater. Nothing moved. Skovly's walls wore a thick hair shirt of frost and mildew.
As late as April, wind still shook the roof at night, but finally the mornings began to carry new sounds: In place of the roaring winds, one heard the crackling, creeping, trickling noises of life seeping back into the landscape. Small animals began to move around in the beech trees behind Skovly, and a few wild flowers popped up between the planks of Lucette's makeshift exercise platform out in front -- their pale watery colors looking fragile and temporary against the dense black-green backdrop of the still slumbering pine forest.
In May the prevailing winds turned. A soft breeze came in warm and fresh from the south. Céline took Bessy and walked the beech woods for the first time since fall. There were so many birds that the big dog barely had time to recover from one crashing pursuit before the next one began. Overhead, returning storks wheeled across the sky, headed inland to find nesting spots after wintering in Algeria or Tunisia.
The forest floor had erupted in tiny starlike flowers, each one as shiny white as pure candle wax, growing in banks as soft and thick underfoot as a spongy new carpet. These banks of anemones reflected their collective luminosity back up into the lime-green aerial translucencies of the beeches, whose first leaves had just begun to fill out the canopy of branches overhead.
Bessy bounded forward, plunging through thick underbrush. Trying to keep up, Céline moved faster, tromping over flowers, pulling himself along on his walking stick. His heart beat hard against his chest. The dog splashed into a pool of stagnant water and came out shaking off water drops in a propulsive shower. She stood across the pool from her master, panting and eager to continue the fun.
He stopped and gestured. The dog looked back at him doubtfully for a moment. Then there was a quick covert movement from a few yards deeper in the woods. Twigs snapped; the white tail of a startled rabbit appeared as it exploded into flight. Bessy charged off into the woods on the track of the fleeing animal.
from The Exile of Céline: TC, 1986
Skagerrak: photo by Tomasz Sienicki, 2005
Hyacinthoides non-scripta: photo by Keith Hulbert and Paul Zarucki, 2005
New beech leaves, Grib forest, northern Sealand, Denmark: photo by Malene Thyssen, 2005