Book Review of Ferdinaud Céline by Pierre Siniac
Jordan Stump’s recent (2010) translation (Dalkey Archive Press) resurrects and makes available to anglophone readers Pierre Siniac’s Ferdinaud Céline (1997), one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read in any language.
I am here reviewing the French original, so should emphasise that Stump, who teaches at the University of Nebraska, is an old and distinguished hand, having translated a plethora of novels, along with a mongraph on Raymond Queneau (Univ. Nebraska Press, 1998), once winning the French American Foundation’s Translation Prize and twice nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Siniac himself penned around 50 novels and short stories, mainly mysteries, being awarded Le Grand Prix de littérature policierè in 1981, his annus mirabiilis of three simultaneously published fictions. His biography is constantly relevant to the work under review. Né Zakariadis on June 15, 1928, in Paris, to a bootmaker father and dressmaker mother, he was apprenticed to become a plumber.
Soon bored with this, and at odds with his parents, he decamped to the country where he odd-jobbed around farms until forced into the army from which he was finally demobbed in 1949. There followed some years of shifting employments, from cashier to chauffeur to astrologer, during which he resumed the fiction writing he had begun at the age of ten in school. He broke into print in 1958 with a noir entitled Illégitime défense, an immediate success which realised his boyhood dream of becoming a famous writer in this genre. A stream of books followed, including Les Morfalous which was filmed by Heneri Verneuil, and a 6-volume series featuring a pair of grotesque protagonists, Luj Inferman and la Cloducque.
His death in 2002 was suitably macabre, ‘de vie à trépas façon absurde,’ as one French necrologist put it (on the A L’Ombre du Polar website). Alarmed by the smell emanating from the modest flat at d’Aubergenville (Yvelines) outside Paris where he had lived hermit-like for 30 years, his neighbours summoned the fire brigade who broke in on April 11 and found Siniac’s body in an advanced state of decomposiiton. A full account of this by Philippe Lançon in Libération (June 20, 2002) can be read in that newspaper’s online archives.
Reviewing Stump’s translation, Christopher Butler (TLS, September 10, 2010) concluded, ‘It may be prolix and wildly self-indulgent, but is continuously entertaining.’ The online reviews I have seen by (e.g.) M.A. Orthofer (The Complete Review) and Glenn Harper (International Noir Fiction) concur. The influential Pierre Bayard, in his delightful How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (translated by Jeffrey Mehlman from the French Comment parler de livres que l’on n’a pas lus, both 2007) – a volume Stephen Potter would have adored – devotes an entire chapter to it, neatly encapsulating the novel’s primary plot thus: ‘Pierre Siniac demonstrates that it may be important to watch what you say in the presence of a writer, especially when he himself hasn’t read the book whose author he is.’
Siniac’s quadripartite (sections entitled Les Plumes Sanglantes, Céline, La Java Brune, Démons et Merdouilles) story begins in 1995. Two previously unknown authors, Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel, sullen and uncommunicative, are being interviewed on the television programme Bouillon de Lecture – an obvious skit on Bernard Pivot’s famous Apostrophes, which is actually mentioned elsewhere, as are a galaxy of other French and non-French writers, past and present – about their novel La Java Brune (Englished as Dancing the Brown Java), a yarn (announced as first in a series) set in wartime German-occupied France which has taken the French literary establishment and general reading public by storm.
Afterwards, driving around and beyond Paris, a quarrel between this pair reveals that their authorial collaboration was unequal and a matter of convenience, indeed duress, with one having an undisclosed hold over the other, all this a matter for future revelation, on which I here maintain a holy silence.
The clock then turns abruptly back -such changes in chronology and narrative voices from third to first person are a feature of the novel, making for more mystery and demands on the reader – to 1990, spotlighting Dochin as a wannabe writer, his one previous effort, a run-of-the-mill crime story, in French ‘un polar’, having sank without trace.
His seedy appearance gets him turned away from one hotel after another. At the last one, a friendly maid tips him off to try the obscure, rural Halte du Bon Accueil which welcomes guests (and their pets, including an orang-outang) whose various physical and mental problems debar them from ordinary hotels. To what extent this recurring motif is true of French moeurs, I cannot say – imagine the complaints and law-suits it would nowadays provoke!
Dochin gets a warm welcome from the septuagenarian proprietor Ferdinaud Céline, the temperature rising to boiling-point when she (a former bookseller in Paris) discovers his literary ambitions. After settling him in a room to grind out his novel, Céline is soon so enraptured by the pages he self-deprecatingly (‘all merde scribbled by un con), that she offers to type the manuscript for him, adding the bonus of inviting him to become her lover, a position he accepts with reluctance that turns into delight at her accomplished and still-vigorous eroticism – being in Céline’s age-bracket I find this most encouraging.
Her name is a dead giveaway in one respect, a major element of the on-going mystery in another. It obviously evokes Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the French author (1894-1961), notorious for his wartime collaboration, equally famous for the novels Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) and Mort à Crédit (Death on the Installment Plan) and infamous for the virulent anti-Semitism which earned him post-war condemnation and imprisonment before amnesty (thus prefiguring, mutatis mutandis, Jean Genet).
Céline was much admired as a writer by Henry Miller – one of the names dropped by Siniac – whose Tropic of Cancer was influenced by Voyage (read in pre-publication manuscript), their common universalising view of life being the Frenchman’s ‘I piss on it all from a considerable height,’ a philosophy shared by Dochin and various other of the literary characters.
His name and works constitute a running motif in Siniac. Ferdinaud constantly compares Dochin’s novel to Voyage in favourable terms. Dochin does the opposite. At one point, this produces a good joke, when Dochin reflects that his effort is but a ‘Voyage au bout de la nullité.’ In fact, of course, the theme, style, and reception of his La Java Brune mirror exactly those of Céline’s Voyage.
There is also a good deal of Siniac himself in this novel, both small and large scale. He trained to be a plumber: one such helps the police with their enquiries. He dabbled in astrology: Ferdinaud predicts Dochin’s literary success via Tarot cards.
He wrote it on an Underwood typewriter (What’s a typewriter, Dad?): so does Ferdinaud. Dochin eschewed the major publishing houses: Siniac, who frequently moved from one to another, gets in gibes at the likes of Denoël and Gallimard. They both began by writing ‘polars’ before moving up to multi-volumed novels. There are no doubt other details which a biographer of Siniac might expiscate.
On the larger scale of things, Siniac, as Dochin and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, lived through the war and German Occupation, both with dodgy records and delayed returns to civilian life. Above all, both enjoyed simultaneous popular success and critical pumelling for their black comedy and coarse argot-crammed style.
Every page of Siniac’s novel contains words and idioms which send one scurrying to a dictionary of French slang (the standard lexica lack countless of his usages) – I recommend A Dictionary of colourful French slang and colloquialisms by Etienne & Simone Deal (Dutton, New York, 1959), albeit it inevitably cannot include Siniac’s modernisms and (frequently) what look like his own coinages.
One wonders how many of the French themseves actually know and use all of this argot, also how often his English translator was (dare I say it? Yes) initially Stumped? I might subjoin that one does not have to be a feminist to be struck by the sheer number of coarsely derogative terms for women.
When his manuscript is finally typed by the indefatigable Ferdinaud, Dochin, after secretly seeking and receiving a discouraging opinion from one critic, decides to bypass the big Paris publishing houses and submit his bulky (‘ours’ is Siniac’s word for its size) oeuvre to a small press owned and operated by the seedy Gastinel who in partnership with the equally disreputable publisher Malgodin (evoking the likes of father and son Jack Kahane and Maurice Girodias, respective founders of the Obelisk and Olympia Presses, publishers of serious writers such as Miller alongside plenty of pornography) both gets its printing underway and contrives a lethal way of getting Dochin under his thumb and his name on the cover as joint author.
Despite his continuing feeling that the book is ‘merde’, La Java Brune is a colossal hit with the general public, bringing instant fame and fortune to himself and Gastinel. Not so with all the top critics – again, the parallel with Voyage is blatant. And here, as they used to say, the plot thickens. Those critics hostile to the book start dying in luridly mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, Its Occupation theme, and the promise of future volumes that will name some still-living ex-collaborators, attracts malign attention from influential individuals and state services.
The pace quickens, the plot ramifies. Gastinel and Malgodin enjoy their ill-gotten literary profits. The police, notably a female officer, Tracy le Cardonnel, relative of one of the victims, begin their enquiries into the critics’ deaths. After an effusive greeting and celebratory dinner (food and drink, not surprisingly in a French novel, play a considerable role in Siniac),
Ferdinaud starts cracking the whip over Dochin until he gets down to writing the second volume, Sous la cagoule, la rage (Under the Hood, the Fury), which is completed and scores another success, though not before Dochin is nearly killed by a mysterious falling rock, putting him out of circulation in a private clinic run by the sinister Dr Crespiaud.
The announcement of a third volume, Si les francisques poouvaient parler (If the Franciscans Could Talk – ‘Francisque’ was the name of the Vichy adaptation of the French Tricolor flag), with its promise/threat of definitive naming and shaming, brings various matters to a head, and the novel ends with a series of revelatory (the truth about Ferdinaud’s previous life and present scheming is finally laid bare) and violent dénouments which I shall naturally not here betray – no Spoiler Alert! needed.
There are some questionable details. As Orthover observes in his above-mentioned review, a major implausibility is how long it takes Dochin actually to see a finished copy of the book – Siniac might riposte that this heightens the tension since as soon as he has finally (page 308, French edition) laid hands on it, Dochin (now as often speaking in the first person) is made to say ‘Alors, brusquement, j’ai compris pourquoi ils adulaient tous La Java Brune.’ Still, the delay strains credibility.
The constant business of a missing, then transferred, page from the manuscript is clumsily contrived and (to me, at least) never logically worked out. Likewise, the way in which they get away with the faked proofs of the first volume.
Although the pun is obvious, Dochin’s fictional protagonists ‘Max et Mimile’ could/should have been more clearly developed; so also Ferdinaud’s opaque staff, Odette the all-purpose cook-maid, and Félibut the factotum, especially in the light of the roles played by both in the latter parts. A strict wielder of editorial blue-pencil would have reduced the repetitivenesses of this excessive book, especially the grossly-overplayed parade of Fellini-esque grotesques who keep turning up at La Halte du Bon Accueil.
How to estimate this sprawling multi-layered novel? At one level, it is a noir mystery – or parody thereof? At another, a satire on the Parisian literary scene and its glitterati. As Glen Harper’s above-mentioned review points out, there are similar anglophone combinations of both genres in (e.g.) Charles Willeford’s Burnt Orange Heresy (Crown, London, 1971, plus – shades of Siniac – several paperback editions all with different pubishers) and Wyndham Lewis’ Mrs Duke’s Million (Coach House, Toronto, 1977 -actually written 1908-1909) – the same generic coupling is a feature of many contemporary murder mysteries. I expect there are critics who will see it as a double literary ‘deconstruction’.
Other tenable propositions might range from parody of Céline’s Voyage (perhaps implied by Dochin’s previously-quoted ‘au bout de la nullité’ self-deprecation) to a serio-comic tackling of the problems and tensions caused in post-war France down to the present day by guilt over the collaborations and their role in the arrests and transportations of Jews, the much-delayed trials of some big name Vichyites, and concomitant national hypocrisies, not forgetting Jean-Marie le Pen’s notorious dismissal of the concentration camps as ‘mere details’ and the Sorbonne professor Robert Faurisson, a prime mover in Holocaust Denial, who has gone so far as to dub Auschwitz and the rest as ‘holiday camps.’
Although not a direct influence, since it was published six months or so after Siniac’s death, A. Louise Staman’s With the Stroke of a Pen: A Story of Ambition, Greed, Infidelity, and the Murder of French Publisher Robert Denoël(Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002) deals with events presumably known to Siniac and should be adduced. Staman investigates and proposes a solution to the 1945 shooting (cf. Siniac’s final sentence) of controversial publisher Robert Denoël, whose authors ranged from Céline himself to the communist Louis Aragon.
Denoël’s devotion to what he saw as great literature put him at political odds with Nazis, Vichy, and even post-Liberation governments, his murder and arch-rival’s seizure of his company creating what Staman dubs ‘a web of crime, murder, betrayal, love, and cover-up not often found even in the most intricately plotted crime fiction,’ a bill that Siniac might be thought to fit perfectly.
Be all this as it may, whether you read it in English or French, I defy anyone not to keep turning the pages of this meanderingly mesmerising phantasmagoria until the very end, an irresistible ‘Voyage au bout du livre.’
Publication Date: 06/06/1997
Number of pages: 406
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.