Critical Appraisals: Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

During the Thirties, Louis-Ferdinand Céline shocked the literary establishment with the release of two novels: Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936).  Both novels acted as companions to each other, focusing on different parts of re-imagined autobiographical material set within fictional narratives.  Ralph Manheim, the translator of Death on the Installment Plan, dubbed the genre “creative confessions.”

The original French title is Mort à crédit, a staccato-sounding title that became translated as Death on Credit by John H. P. Marks.  The book braids together the strands of comedy, despair, and debt, since nearly all the characters suffer personal and financial ruin.  Reading the book today has a special resonance is Céline’s being “profoundly affected by the mentality of the petits bourgeois and lumpenproletariat among whom he grew up, by their cynicism, their deep distrust of their fellowmen, their persecution mania.”  The current economic and political situation, combined with the common American experience of crushing personal, school, and medical debt, make Death on the Installment Plan especially resonant and relevant reading.  Céline transfigures suicide-inducing despair and calamity into Rabelaisian comedy.  Faced with debt, war, and hypocrisy, sometimes all one can do is point and laugh.

Céline combined scabrous wit, unsentimental depictions of human behavior, hallucinations and rants.  While Journey tells the tale of Bardamu-Céline’s experiences in World War I, French colonial Africa, and postwar Paris, Death focuses almost entirely on the childhood experiences of a fictional character named Ferdinand.  Journey is written with standard paragraphs and sentences, whereas Death introduces the reader to the reader to the notorious three dots (…).

To readers unfamiliar with Céline’s style, the three dots can be a point of contention.  Unlike English, where the ellipses are seen as pauses and breaks, the French read it in the opposite manner.  The three dots function as a means to push the reader forward.  As Céline’s later works testify, he pushes the forward momentum of the reader to near delirium, practically sacrificing continuity and comprehensibility.

The plot of Death is that of a bildungsroman, a picaresque series of events in Ferdinand’s childhood.  The novel begins with the adult Ferdinand suffering hallucinations from an illness and the hallucinations gradually transitioning into his childhood memories.  Young Ferdinand is one of the great charismatic bastards of modern literature.  A walking Id.  He cheats, he steals, he screws around, and still comes across as a charmer.  Part of Ferdinand’s charm finds its genesis in the impoverished slums of Paris.  His parents sell antiques, although it seems like they peddle junk to the gullible.  His father is a benighted employee at an insurance company, slaving away and enduring the persecution of co-workers.  His mother works on lace and tries to get rich customers to buy her wares.  Instead of the upward bound trajectory in something like Horatio Alger, the situation remains Sisyphusean.  All the labor, effort, sweat, blood, and tears yielding nothing but a desperate attempt to avoid total ruin.

Throughout the novel, Ferdinand has to deal with persecution manias of the petit bourgeois and the accusations made against him.  Through an act of carelessness, he loses an expensive golden brooch made by his employer.  In the end, Ferdinand is unable to explain what really happened and his parents suffer the penalty of having to pay back the employer.  His critique of the Symbolist-style decorative arts sold by his employer, Monsieur Gorloge, is hilarious:

Everything we opened was horrible … nothing but gargoyles and bottle imps … made out of lead, turned and tortured, fussed and finicked … it turned your stomach … The whole Symbolist orgy … Chunks of nightmare …  A putty “Samothrace” … more “Victories” in the shape of little clocks … Necklaces made out of Medusas, coils of snakes … More chimeras … Hundreds of allegorical rings, one crappier than the next … My work cut for me … All those things were supposed to be put on fingers, on belts, or stuck on ties.  Or hung on somebody’s ears … It was unbelievable! … Somebody was expected to buy them?  Who?  Great God, who?  No form of dragon, demon, hobgoblin, or vampire was missing … A complete collection of nightmares … A whole world of sleepless nights … The manias of whole insane asylums served up as trinkets.  I was going from punk to horrible … Even in my grandmother’s store on the rue Montorgueil the most moth-eaten white elephants were things of beauty by comparison.

The passage is reflective of Céline’s playful propulsive style.  Ferdinand detests the sensational and claustrophobic style of Symbolism, prevalent during the corrupt rule of Emperor Napoleon III.  The recent defeat suffered by France into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870s still lingers over the novel.  The military defeat, the aristocratic decadence, and stylistic garishness would push many to seek solutions in other forms of government.  But in this work, Céline’s later political transgressions remain in embryo.

Disaster and financial ruin are commonplace in the novel.  What would seem like raw material for a work of agonizing despair become bawdy comedic set-pieces.  All of this set against a writing style by turns poetic and obscene.  For a piece written in the Mid-Thirties, it sounds eerily similar to that of Goodfellas and the Wire.

After time spent interned in an English boarding school, Ferdinand gets a job with Courtail des Pereires.  Courtail runs a scientific journal called the Genitron that caters to inventors and owns a hot-air balloon, the Enthusiast.  Courtail and Ferdinand barnstorm the country, putting on ballooning exhibitions, until the fixed-wing aircraft puts an end to that lucrative business.

Courtail is yet another victim of technological progress.  Stubbornly grasping his dream, he refuses to believe that the airplane will succeed.  He calls it a fad and presses on.  But it is a motif that drives the novel, whether it is his mother trying to sell her bolero jackets even after they have fallen out of style or his father refusing to use the new-fangled contraption called “the typewriter.”  Obsolescence and ruin follow the characters like Death itself.  Sometimes the only escape the characters have from creditors hounding their ankles is the sweet embrace of death.

Near the end of the novel, one feels the jagged wheels of change overtaking society.  Ferdinand has become physically fit from his misadventures.  He yearns to escape the hell of poverty and desperation.  The escape hatch would be entry into the military service.  The greatest joke remains the one unspoken because its horror is too great.  The book began in the fetid twilight following the ruin of the Second Empire.  The book ends with the promise and glory associated with the War to End All Wars.