Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Night Train (I): L.-F. Céline


Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Elevated structure and buildings, Lower Manhattan: photo by Arthur Rothstein, December 1941

We had arrived. I bumped into a chair, it was my room, a big box with ebony walls. The only light was a faint ring surrounding the bashful greenish lamp on the table. The manager of the Laugh Calvin Hotel begged the visitor to look upon him as a friend and assured him that he, the manager, would make a special point of keeping him, the visitor, cheerful throughout his stay in New York. Reading this notice, which was displayed where no one could possibly miss it, added if possible to my depression.

Once I was left alone, it deepened. All America had followed me to my room, and was asking me enormous questions, reviving awful forebodings.

Reclining anxiously on the bed, I tried to adjust to the darkness of my cubbyhole. At regular intervals the walls on the window side trembled. An Elevated Railway train was passing. It bounded between two streets like a cannonball filled with quivering flesh, jolting from section to section of this lunatic city. You could see it far away, its carcass trembling as it passed over a torrent of steel girders, which went on echoing from rampart to rampart long after the train had roared by at seventy miles an hour. Dinnertime passed as I lay thus prostrate, and bedtime as well.

What had horrified me most of all was that Elevated Railway. On the other side of the court, which was more like a well shaft, the wall began to light up, first one, then two rooms, then dozens. I could see what was going on in some of them. Couples going to bed. These Americans seemed as worn out as our own people after their vertical hours. The women had very full, very pale thighs, at least the ones I was able to get a good look at. Before going to bed, most of the men shaved without taking the cigars out of their mouths.

In bed they first took off their glasses, then put their false teeth in a glass of water, which they left in evidence. Same as in the street, the sexes didn't seem to talk to each other. They impressed me as fat, docile animals, used to being bored. In all, I only saw two couples engaging, with the light on, in the kind of thing I'd expected, and not at all violently. The other women ate chocolates in bed, while waiting for their husbands to finish shaving. And then they all put their lights out.

'El': 2nd  & 3rd Avenue lines, looking W. from Second & Pearl St.,  Manhattan.

"El": 2nd & 3rd Avenue lines, looking W. from Second & Pearl St., Manhattan: photo by Berenice Abbott, 1936 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery)

Louis-Ferdinand Céline: from Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), 1932, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1988


leigh tuplin said...

Really enjoyed all three of these, Tom. Not familiar with Celine, but will definitely now look for more - could hear/see his landscape of sleep(lessness). Thanks.

Curtis Roberts said...

AMAZING to see the Sloan paired with this passage. I wonder how it would look with the colorful Sloan image duplicated in reverse at the bottom? The Celine is (to me) very, very black & white already.

The painting captures a Manhattan that used to exist, but doesn’t any longer. I journeyed along West 14th Street yesterday on my way to an appointment. It was entirely changed and entirely "unimproved". Curious and dispiritng.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be Celine, but that's where I run out of imagination.

Anonymous said...

'...fat,docile animals, used to being bored...'. One wonders what Celine would make of America now?

On a related note, they turned a remaining section of the old El, from Chelsea to 34th st, into a park.

They did the same thing here in London with the old Ally Pally line (Alexandra Palace line). It's rather wonderful (and rather odd), this narrow stretch of near-wilderness cutting through the city.

TC said...


Céline's bouts of insomnia seem to have had various causes, among them a condition called tintinnitus induced by proximity to explosions while a soldier at the front in WW I.

You might be interested in these excerpts from a novelization of his later period of exile in the Baltic, following his imprisonment after WW II.

Céline in the Baltic I: Arrival / Klarskovgaard (Spring)
Céline in the Baltic II: Sails / Fanehuset (Summer)
Céline in the Baltic III: Gravity / Skovly (Fall-Winter)
Céline in the Baltic IV: Pursuit / Exile (Winter-Spring)


Yes, I thought the Sloan captured, in its way, a bit of the nightmare vision of America which was Céline's first impression.

(Yes, he's always all black & white -- but I did think the vision of America as a vast island of monads was confirmed by Berenice Abbott's great photo of the El, at another stop on its way to the End of the Night.)

And the nightmare vision seems to have been his final impression as well, for that matter.

I've seen a letter he wrote (in English) to his publishers (Little. Brown) in advance of a later trip to America. If necessary he would, he said, undergo a bare minimum of publicity work. But:

"I surely will absolutely refuse to have anything *to do with* the boat interviewers. I will not either participate in banquet, dinner, lunch, tea or other. Absolutely not -- no use trying -- I don't like to sit at table at all. But to be very nice for your publicity I will see privately 2 or 3 people you will choose at different times."

Times change. An "author" with an outright aversion to wholesale pimping -- unthinkable today.


Interesting link. A luxurious "flying carpet" in the sky -- almost at the level of one of Céline's own delirious hallucinations!

TC said...

...while on the subject of "author" and "promotion": considering Céline's distaste for the latter puts me in mind of this.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating piece, Tom.

Returning to the El, I've always found elevated railways, bridges and viaducts hugely satisfying to travel over. Something about not quite being earthbound but not quite flying.

I drove across the Millau Viaduct not long ago, marvelling at the clouds scudding beneath me as I crossed. It is a fantastic (in its most exact sense) structure. Have a look:

TC said...


As they used to say in Preston Sturges movies, Well I never!

What a vertiginous drive through the sky that must have been.

A bit of reflection here reveals a complicated psychic history involving sky traversing structures.

The ur-memory lingers of a phobic fear of walking across the corrugated iron bridge over the filthy, greenish Chicago River. One would look down through the gratings at the scummy stream some sixty feet below, and one's mind would swirl to the brink of six-year-old unconsciousness.

Overcame the phobia perforce through years of riding the rickety Elevated trains to and from jobs downtown, where the swinging corners of the route around the "Loop" involved various freaky nightmare turns of the sort depicted so well in the Sloan painting.

Of late my favourite sky structure, perhaps because its plunge into the clouds seems an arrow into the unknown, is this one in Costa Rica.

(Of course I've never been there, but of late I find I am, of necessity, getting better and better at not allowing the impossibility of ever going anywhere to impede the vicarious pleasure.)

Curtis Faville said...

What a beautiful shot the Abbott print is!

It's powerful enough to bring back memories one never had.

So evocative. It creates its own narrative.

TC said...

Yes, wonderful, the narrowing of perspective, the solitary figure so small against the elevated superstructure, and then the "hidden window" opening out into a depth of field, misty vistas of promise, the skyscraper so near yet so far, maybe a dream...

A photo that captures so much, and yet leaves so much open to imagination: a narrative, as you say Curtis, for each of us to fill in.

This seems to convey, if not to contain, a history; and more.

leigh tuplin said...

Thanks for the links Tom. I enjoyed alot, and followed on to Jim knipfel's piece. I think we can safely say I'm intrigued, - 'a man who loved his wife and his cat and little else'. I have more imminent books on my list.