“Men don’t need to be boozed up in order to ravage heaven and earth. Carnage’s in their blood! It’s a miracle they’re still going strong, given how long they’ve been trying to wipe each other off the face of the earth. Just one thing on the brain—the Void! Nasty customers, born to crime! They see red wherever they look. Mustn’t keep hammering away at this, it’d spell the end of all poetry” (321).
Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s London Bridge is the sequel to Guignol’s Band. The works are presented as autobiographical; the narrator is “Ferdinand.” This narrative technique alone makes the murder of the dwarf Centipede by Ferdinand probably the most shocking part of Guignol’s Band. In London Bridge Ferdinand seduces—or perhaps is seduced by—a fourteen year old.
Celine is often characterized as a nihilist or a fascist—and sometimes even by the same person as both (I would love to know how someone can be a nihilist and a fascist). Both those attracted to him and those repulsed by him have a tendency to present him in terms that are “beyond good and evil.” Or people think he is moral in Journey to the End of the Night but gets over it in his subsequent works.
London Bridge starts out relatively sane, and the first 120 pages are presented in nice bite-sized sections of 6-20 pages a piece. Ferdinand, on the run from the police even before he murdered Centipede, and his friend, the eccentric Sosthene, hide out by going to work for the Colonel, testing gas masks. Ferdinand wiggles out of any dangerous work and serves as the group’s factotum. It is under these circumstances that he falls for the Colonel’s niece, Virginia—if she is, in fact, his niece; the work is presented in such a paranoid tone that one can never tell exactly what information is reliable.
When we first meet Virginia we can’t tell whether she is a blessed innocent, the lover (related or not related) of the Colonel, or something in-between these extreme positions. Ferdinand falls for this woman immediately; on the very first page, the narrator tells us that it was love at first sight. The thighs, calves, short skirt, and blue eyes of Virginia are treated repeatedly and with extraordinary attention throughout the work. Unless the reader is prevented by the young age of the woman from doing so, he will experience Ferdinand’s response to Virginia as a psychologically normal response to beauty: as Ferdinand falls in love, he deifies Virginia, considers himself unworthy of her, and forces himself to approach her nevertheless. None of this is weird; it is just that she happens to be fourteen.
In fact, Virginia has the soul of a whore. The prostitutes she encounters throughout the work immediately see her as one of their own, and this link is confirmed by the narrator: “Cracking up a gang of tarts is a snap… they laugh at every little fart… one drowning fly sets off wild fits… the really awful thing, and I do mean awful, was that my tenderest most delicate darling was getting just as big a bang… laughing her little head off just like the others” (342).
Where does this leave us? The narrator himself goes out of his way to overplay his own age; only at the end of the work do we learn that Ferdinand was twenty-two at the time of the action. Several times throughout the work Ferdinand is called “Romeo” as an insult; unlike Shakespeare, who quietly downplays the importance of any age gap between Romeo and Juliet, Celine hams up the gap between Ferdinand and Virginia. The narrator is relentless in telling us that she is only fourteen. Not only are we meant to find the situation repulsive, but also Ferdinand himself is repulsed by his attraction. Celine presents the reader with two contradictory thoughts, both held by Ferdinand: 1) the advances are inappropriate; 2) beauty is overwhelming, and attraction to beauty is inherently correct. I take Celine to be indignant at the likely hypocrisy of the reader—and to be indignant at hypocrisy indicates that one is concerned with morality.
The first major attempt at seduction takes place to the following tune: “Go ahead, laugh! Laugh! little bitch!… I’m going to gobble your thighs! I can’t hold back anymore! I roll around at her feet… I kiss her little shoes… the tips and then her socks… and then her leg the taut flesh down there so pink and tanned… her muscles laughing too, quivering… the downy blush of life… ah! laugh, laugh little girl! my goddess! I’m going to sink my teeth in you raw! (71). After almost ten pages of attacking and retreating, Ferdinand has almost won her over when suddenly there is a great “KEE-RRASH! all hell breaks loose again! what a godawful din!” (78). Sosthene and the Colonel have accidentally inhaled gas and proceed to tear their laboratory apart. This is Celine’s way of showing how technological development spoils appreciation of beauty.
Ferdinand is sent out with Virginia to buy replacement equipment. This is the beginning of a section over 100 pages long in which Celine slowly descends into a fever dream. Over the course of buying equipment, the duo become drenched by rain, and they stop to rest: “She’s so pale she scares me… she’s staring off into the distance on the other side of the lawns… ‘Did you catch your death?’ I ask her point-blank… poor little face… ‘What do you see, Virginia? Your face so drawn and those big eyes?…’ Nothing’s out there on the lawns… just more rain… puddles… long tatters of fog drifting along… I take a look too, peer hard… don’t spot a thing… not a blessed thing… ah! wait a sec, some guy’s over there….” (128). This is our first indication that Ferdinand is turning feverish. The man they encounter turns out to be Centipede—but wasn’t Centipede the man Ferdinand killed in Guignol’s Band? Did he somehow survive being pushed under a train? The man’s putrid body and rotting flesh indicate otherwise. The deceased Centipede joins the group, they get dinner and drinks, and go to a jazz club. This adventure is depicted as a descent into Hell, and the reader has no idea what the relationship is between what is happening inside Ferdinand’s head and what is happening outside of his head. We experience the same feverish uncertainty as Ferdinand. At the end of the fever dream Ferdinand escapes the society of Centipede with Virginia: “ ‘Honey buns! Honey buns!…’ I call her. ‘Sorry! Sorry!…’ I shake her… bite her!… suck her! Ah! it’s my hot love!… my blood!… my lightning passion!… I’m all revved up full blast!… I’m going to bust her up!… crush her alive!… can’t stop myself anymore!… I hammer my whole body into hers!… crush her… I’m out of control… I ram! I ram!… and talk… got to bellow… bellow… ‘You’ll do everything to her!… You’ll do everything to her!…’ I can feel her kissing me!… sucking at my lips… she’s a sweetheart!… I plough into her!… Ramming away!… Killing her!… Killing her!… That’s the truth!… The truth!… I ought to know! Even harder now!… Faster!… Got to be worse!… until we tear each other limb from limb!…” (175-6). Considering his feverishness, Ferdinand has to have what happened confirmed for him the next day. Virginia is pregnant.
Ferdinand goes through the expected train of thoughts. He curses his luck, imagines abandoning her, and imagines sticking it out with her. He decides to stick it out with her, and Ferdinand, Sosthene, and Virginia determine that it would be best if they moved along. Ferdinand attempts to book them passage either to Ireland or America. When the captain of the boat will allow only Ferdinand passage as a deckhand, he decides to leave Sosthene and Virginia behind.
The normal interpretation of what follows is that Ferdinand takes Sosthene and Virginia to a bar to have a few drinks together before he has to leave. The proprietor of the bar is an acquaintance and a party has been prepared for Ferdinand because it is his name day. All of his dubious English criminal acquaintances are there, and the party causes him to miss his boat. Evidence of a past crime is destroyed during the party and, afterwards, Ferdinand, Sosthene, and Virginia cross London Bridge together. It is an optimistic image implying that the uncertainty of the past is behind them.
This straightforward interpretation ignores the likelihood that the party in Ferdinand’s honor is a fever dream brought on by the prospect of abandoning Virginia. The party makes no sense. There is no reason to think that Ferdinand’s acquaintances would know where he is or be motivated to help him. More importantly, in what are apparently throwaway lines, the narrator twice mentions the presence of the deceased Centipede at the party. Ferdinand’s party, the apparent cause of his inability to abandon Sosthene and Virginia, is an expression of his fractured inability to decide completely in favor or against abandonment. The beautiful image of a new beginning is tainted by undertones of feverish paranoia and uncertainty.
—London Bridge translated by Dominic di Bernardi and published by Dalkey Archive.
—Essay by HerodoteanDreams