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Louis-Ferdinand Céline:Guignol's Band & John Hawkes:The Goose on the Grave
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Louis-Ferdinand Céline:
Guignol's Band & John Hawkes:
The Goose on the Grave

Guignol's Band , by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Translated by Bernard Frechtman and Jack T. Nile. New York: New Directions, 1954.

The Goose on the Grave , by John Hawkes. New York: New Directions, 1954.

Guignol's Band lies so vulnerable to attack, like they say, that only a man with a penchant for beating carpets can really take much pleasure in working it over. But it can serve as occasion for several comments, among them, (1) that following the war a number of American 'violence' novels were published in French translation, and (2) that the reason for this was due, at least partially, to the fact that French writing had at that time no 'vocabulary' for that character of apparently gratuitous violence which they had just experienced.

So there is something strangely an insult in the publication of this particular novel in America, i.e., it is much too much like sending out some drugstore cowboy to help with the branding and all that. Because Céline is very much the dude, spit and froth as he will. And the basis of his novel, an implied attack on the conditions that make for a man like this "young French veteran now turned spiv" and his milieu, is both too late (the first World War) and too general in outline (these are types, not people). More than that, the novel's manner stays very static: "I got to know Clodo well later on. It's true that he was obliging, eager, you might say even zealous, only he'd falter for a moment, he was vague with words, had to tell him right

Black Mountain Review , Autumn 1954.


away what you wanted, to put it on the line . . . had to know how to handle him . . ." I don't think Céline has considered the necessary mess involved in writing a novel in which it is impossible to give a damn about any of the characters. If this is the point (and/or Life's Forgotten Men, etc.), then he makes his statement of it the weakest yet on record. Which is a considerable come-down for the author of Journey to the End of the Night .

John Hawkes' The Goose on the Grave gives us a little of the same dilemma, backwards, since the title novel (one of two) proves he can cut the Italians, at least as we have had them in English translation. Hence the Italian campo, given Hawkes, becomes:

The eyes were upon the body in the clay beyond them. Only Adeppi glanced up to see the crow flying. The silent figure turned in the white mud. Dragging itself, slowly animated, hardly visible, bones of the fingers resting upon the rot of the helmet filled with mud, its bare head lifted and was unable to catch breath in the rain.

Hawkes has a genius for the singularly unpleasant, and his use of it seems sometimes too simple, by which I mean, to no evident purpose but that of being unpleasant, etc. But it would be a literal distortion to put him off with that. Whereas Céline's fantasy has gone old-maidish, Hawkes' world rides in with a deep and careful terror, best used and best seen, I think, in the first of the two novels, The Owl . Admittedly, it is a dream-structure, a place which is more real, as one says, in its capacity to suggest than in the literal elements of which it is composed. And the hangman is the Hangman, Il Gufo, the Owl. People fade, eyes divorce from faces, peering out, a field tilts, men whisper. There are great heights, and wind.

The prisoner, delivered into altitude where there was time and silence to devour him, was the hangman's. The fortress which kept him safe was cleft in two parts on the pinnacle of the city, high tower and low tower, and from either battlement there was an iron-edged view of the world, its cliff, the tilted slopes at the bottom, the sunrise and sunset, and, not so far off, the border itself of a definite black and white. To the east it was possible to find a thin white horizon, the sea. If any in Sasso Fetore saw out there a Venetian sail, they pretended it was a dream.

Disaster has only to declare its form; its premises, barrenness, despair, have already been accomplished. In that way the novel is an 'allegory,' and much of Hawkes' writing, even most of it, has been that. In this book, authority in its absolute form, the Hangman, moves with an inexorable rigidity—like those movie shots of locusts


covering a field. Except that this is one man, rather one face, two hands, one mind, etc. The town, the women, the men, the Prisoner—actually they take the forms of characters, virtues and vices (though hardly that unshaded) which are met in the old morality plays. But Hawkes puts these things against the final character of a landscape, his own mind, I think, in point of the moods it takes on.


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