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Céline, Not His Brother's Keeper

Of all the possibilities the Dresser had in choosing a play in New York January 18, 2008, she elected to see Journey to the End of the Night presented by The Flying Machine and starring Richard Crawford. Night was adapted by Jason Lindner and directed by Joshua Carlebach. Although the play when it was first workshopped at the Public Theatre had eight actors, the current version presents Crawford effectively playing all the roles.

The play is based mainly on Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (published in 1932) but also touches on Céline’s life and his anti-Semitic political pamphlets—Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937, Trifles for a Massacre), L’école des cadavres (1938, School for Corpses), and Les beaux draps (1941, A Nice Mess). It seems that like Adolph Hitler, Céline believed that the Jews kept him from being an artist. Because of these vitriolic pamphlets, the French government at the end of World War II denounced Céline as a traitor. Having fled France, he was eventually caught and imprisoned in Denmark. He was convicted of treason in 1951 but eventually granted amnesty. He returned to France where he resumed his life as a writer and a medical doctor. He died in 1961.

The Dresser’s interest in Céline is related to her study of Jane Bowles who encountered the French author when, at the age of sixteen, she was making a trans-Atlantic crossing. She told him without knowing who he was that Céline was “one of the greatest writers in the world.” Indeed the Dresser has been savoring Céline’s observations (however dark but so well stated) and his writing style that alternates between wisdom and wisecracks. Although the novel does not reveal his anti-Semitism, it clearly exhibits a racist view of black Africans. The darkness and the no-holds-barred slang of Céline’s writing has influenced many writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Charles Bukowski. The Dresser believes that his picaresque work also shaped the work of Jane Bowles.

The structure of The Flying Machine’s Journey to the End of the Night alternates between a scholarly but somewhat maniacal narrator who progressively seems to become Céline
Crawford.jpgPhoto by Piotr Redlinski
and characters from the novel, including Ferdinand Bardamu—the anti-hero, sad sack adventurer who becomes a doctor and Léon Robinson who turns up in various places like a frightful tar baby that Bardamu cannot shake. Crawford is adept in changing characters. In the scenes between Bardamu and Robinson, a flip of the brim of a hat signals the change of character. Crawford’s timing is impeccable and his characters believable. Trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, which emphasizes movement, improvisation and collaborative directing, Crawford is a founding member of The Flying Machine and he has directed clown work for Cirque du Soleil.

If you made it to this extraordinary hour-and-fifteen-minute show before it closed on January 26, you had to enter the theater carefully. It was very dark in this small below the ground level theater and that’s exactly what director Joshua Carlebach intended. And no, there was no attempt to mollify Céline’s anti- Semitism. Jason Lindner’s presentation of Céline made sense to the Dresser who thinks one cannot ignore one’s enemies. The Dresser also recommends reading an informed essay published by the Center for Book Culture.org on Céline by Jim Knipfel. Knipfel, who makes an attempt to understand what motivated Céline’s various hatreds, observed, “I've found that you reach a point in nearly all his novels where you have no choice but to simply stop searching for meaning and coherence, and just sit back and ride.”

Because Céline and his character Bardamu were not their brothers keepers, the Dresser offers this poem from Jay Rogoff’s new book The Long Fault (due for release in March 2008). Rogoff won the Word Works Washington Prize in 1995 for his book The Cutoff.


The blood cried up from the ground
and the air held its breath,
the earth’s sunset-stained
face now an epitaph
for Abel’s head and hands
thrust up from the grave,
that childish face profiled,
those hands clasped, a child

imagined by the sculptor
petitioning the God
who’d let the model murder
play out unimpeded.
From brother to his keeper
the singing from the sod
rose, a sunset lark
whose quavers left their mark

on Cain’s consciousness,
setting him aquiver
at walking the cooling face
of earth, banished forever
from Salisbury’s Chapter House,
a period put to his chapter,
and from the good book hurled
out to beget the world.

by Jay Rogoff
from The Long Fault

Copyright © 2008 Jay Rogoff


Comments (1)

This is one of the best reviews so far.

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