Exquisite Corpse
HomeSearchSubmitArchivesCorpse Mall
issues 5 & 6 home | ec chair | broken news | celine | critical urgencies | burning bush | ficciones
secret agents
| stage and screen | letters | gallery
by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, translation by Simon Green

On board-April 30, 1917.

The few passengers gathered together in the smoking lounge of the SS Tarconia made up a motley crew, consisting of diverse confessions and breeds.
     Major Tomtkatrick, puffing on a pipe and firmly ensconced in the deepest sofa, regularly emptied a glass, alternating between either a soda and whiskey or a brandy and soda, which was immediately refilled with another healthy dose.
     The features of this Scottish officer's face bore the imprint of a serene rigidity that could just as easily be taken as the mark of an honest face, or as a face in a drunken stupor.
     Seated on what remained of the sofa was a smallish, oily man, Governor of a Portuguese colony who, speaking in a warm, picturesquely accented French uniquely his own, was engaged in lively polemics. His antagonist was Swiss, a Mr. BrŽnner, who it was difficult to put an age to and who was as rich and peaceful as a Swiss meadow. Mr. Brunner spoke deliberately and excruciatingly slowly. He was only too aware then, that whenever he spoke of things he would rather forget, his voice became voluble and excitable and sounded like the rustling of straw being chopped up. He assured the Governor that the reason for this trip overseas bore witness to his interest in the Allied Cause. He was about to fill a post left vacant by the draft in one of the belligerent countries. He used several arguments to back up this assertion; one of which was the risk he ran of being torpedoed, and that he had also refused a well-paying job offered by a company in Pfortzeim just days before he sailed.
     "It's more likely," riposted the Governor in a voice of thunder, "that the German mark had collapsed just that very day!" He pronounced "collapsed" as if it made him dizzy.
     Perceiving that this was no time for a display of wit, Mr. BrŽnner preferred, perfidiously, to question the motives underlying Portugal's entry into the lists. According to him they were not as equally selfless. He attempted to draw insidious conclusions from the amount of enemy shipping seized in Portuguese ports. This set the Governor off on a tirade of legitimate and noisy indignation. He had no hesitation in accusing the Swiss Confederation of the most vulgar venality, attributing the maintenance of their strict neutrality to the paucity of Swiss ports.
     But a short distance from this quarrel sat Mr. Camuzet, perched on a swivel chair and fighting off sea-sickness. For this reason, he was displaying a disdainful lack of interest in the general conversation. At one time he had received a chair in History on one of our faculties. His teaching was free of all dogmatic restraint and he willingly affected Voltarian tendencies. This resulted in some of his lectures being more than somewhat perturbed at the instigation of the noisy and reactionary section of the press, but which fortunately had no effect on his promotion; a subject which greatly occupied his thoughts.
     He even acquired a certain fame, consisting of a mixture of glory and opprobrium which he attained after a series of resounding lectures in which he presented, as the fruit of his personal research, proof of an habitual and special relationship between Louis XI and his counsellor, Philippe de Commines. He boasted of even having shone a harsh light on the Pious King's demise, attributing it to the final stages of an illness which is viewed most disfavorably.
     If these astute enquiries had earned him a deplorable reputation as far as the Guardians of the Noble Cause were concerned, they had nonetheless considerably strengthened his position publicly. From that day on the Government was able to number him among the enlightened and active propagators of liberal thought; some enthusiasts even seeing him as a new apostle of conscious, non-religious thinking.
     Among many of the events that were largely unforeseen was Mr. Camuzet breaking out of his shell with fervently patriotic tendencies. For several days he lost all positive control of his soul which he felt to be driven by violent, combative and irrefutable sentiments of a grandeur that he had never previously suspected. He resolved to descend into the street where he would speak freely in a harangue of rare excitation and indignant anger which would move the crowd, in an excess of hatred, to conquer the enemy. Desiring to transform the resolution into reality, he turned his thunderbolts on a German caf».
     Standing shakily on a table in front of the caf», he stirred up the still hesitant condemnation of the hostile crowd gathered at the front entrance. His eloquence went straight to the heart of the masses, for a moment later nothing remained intact within the establishment except for a bottle of Gentian, which was later smashed against the metal sides of the public urinal, located on the opposite sidewalk, by a frustrated cabby.
     Camuzet was already likening his success to that of Caton the Censor, when a gentleman in sober dress asked him to accompany him to the police station. There he was asked a number of indiscrete questions even though his fame, allied with having mutual friends, was a guarantee of the Police Chief's indulgence. He limited himself to deferentially pointing out to Mr. Camuzet the serious and untimely drawbacks of popular ire being aroused and that sometimes results were blindly achieved which were the very opposite of those expected.
     The crowd was now rumbling in front of the Police Station, as it had previously rumbled in front of the German caf», calling for the release of the orator. A few discordant voices proclaimed him to be a spy.
     The Chief of Police released a Mr. Camuzet convinced of his sway over the masses; but he was tired of being a public speaker and preferred to be a consul. It was with more moderate demagoguery that he returned from the police station to the street, saying, "I shall go and calm the people."
     Happily, there came a drop in the fever and Mr. Camuzet considered applying his formidable gifts in more rational directions. Remembering the contacts he had within the government, he requested and was granted the honor of defending French Thought abroad, believing that his presence at home had become both without purpose and superfluous. Charged with divers missions and propaganda, he talked unceasingly to neutrals both near and far, both benevolent and rather less so.
     Armed with a variety of missions to carry out, he was on his way to Santa Lucia, the capital of the Republic of Assumption where the population was, in the majority, Christian, and their deep-rooted Catholic convictions showed them to be strongly in favor of ourselves in the testing trials of war. Within this state it was the Jesuits who were most largely listened to among the ruling classes, and they made our victory on the Marne seem like a miracle; they had exploited it in our favor with lively success.
     Mr. Camuzet counted on giving several conferences in Santa Lucia where he intended to display our victories in a positive light and thereby dissipate any pious misunderstandings among the people of Assumptions that he himself considered to be out of date but nonetheless capable of biasing France's liberal renown.
     For the moment his face was drawn while waiting on the inevitable and was going through the whole range of colors from white to green. So apparent was his discomfort that Major Tomkatrick was moved to ask him if he wasn't cold. "No, but I'm not hungry, either," Mr. Camuzet replied in a sad voice.
     In the least noticeable corner of the smoking lounge were Dr. and Mrs. Bronnum, Danish Protestant missionaries. Mr. Bronnum was as bright and pink as a cherub, his face a picture of innocence and purity, while Mrs. Bronnum's stomach indicated a far advanced pregnancy. The impartial observer, assuming that mysteries were still in fashion these days, would have been in a veritable dilemma as to which of the two had the least interesting features; he would have willingly refused to decide on one or the other.
     Prince Catulesco of the Rumanian Royal House was stretched out in a becoming half-light on a couch covered with a faded yellow cover. His pose was calculatedly negligent. His youthful face was wan, the features drawn, a long lick of dark hair fell down nearly over his eyes which were deep-set and feverish beneath pink eyelids with sparse eyelashes. His puny body, precociously worn out, could be discerned inside a tight suit with patterns on it. His knowledge of the French language was vast, and in it he composed verse which before the war had enjoyed a certain success in those select circles where one likes to think one knows about literature. His muse wandered with familiarity through the dark periods of the Middle Ages where she harvested strange accents that were commonly accorded to be incomprehensible and which modern critics, through dearth of anything else, declared to be of wild beauty. It was above all at night, in the scenery of his choice, that he sought inspiration. In order to penetrate this shadowy epoch with greater acuity, he placed his faith in morphine and other substances, leaving them to cut the last ties with this century to which he refused to belong-it was contemporaneous with a modernism he found outrageous. He had been privileged with unforgettable visions that, when recounted, left even his admirers bemused. His favorite place of meditation was the Pont des Arts, where he was horrified, as if it were happening at that very moment, by the bells of St. Germain de l'Auxerrois, being rung for the massacre of the Protestants on Saint Bartholemew's Day, by Quasimodo balancing on a flying buttress of Notre Dame, grimacing at him in the moonbeams with a realism that left him enraptured.
     But regretfully, it has been observed through the ages that such cerebral gymnastics, whilst exalting the faculties of the soul, also exhaust our bodies which are only too concrete. The poet's being, overworked by such immaterialism, had little by little reached the lamentable stage where it was withering away. Just before it was completely consumed it had been decided that the Prince should recover some of his vitality; but the war having rendered his over-sensitive brain so painfully feverish, it was concluded that distant and, for the moment, tranquil shores would be required to restore the consistency he had driven away.
     At this precise moment he was removing a slim cigarette from his pallid lips, from which was escaping a wisp of unusually scented smoke. His eyes swept over the listeners and he said in an astonishingly grave voice, "Don't you find that they're talking more and more about America? Will they declare war at last?"
     Mr. Camuzet pricked up an ear, for he harbored mitigated feelings toward the United States, having only had a partial success on a round of conferences in that country, in which he had dealt in a doctorly fashion with the current parliamentary divergences between the two republics, deploring loudly that two forms of government apparently so similar at the core, represented such radical differences. But despite a desire to spread himself on this subject, the very richness of which beckoned his expertise, Dr. Camuzet was forced to remain silent; the hard fight against sea-sickness absorbed him entirely.
     The Prince went on. "An American lady, one of my best and most sincere friends..." he paused for a short moment, glancing sideways, which confirmed what his listeners had already guessed, "...and who has connections with political circles in Washington, was telling me that the day war would be declared, would be the day when women were in favor of the war. Gentleman, it is the women who think in America. Win over the women to your cause and they will make the old senators think."
     Though Major Tomkatrick did not understand the finer political points of this argument, he nonetheless appreciated its libertine ring. And as he only felt a lukewarm sympathy for his cousins across the Atlantic, he went further and said, "You're quite right, Sir! These people have no breeding, but they're too proud to fight."
     For some while now, Mr. BrŽnner had suspected some further attack by the Portuguese Governor, and one which would anger his national pride; he moved to the defensive by creating a diversion: "Nevertheless, it is wonderful, as it is said, how one can adapt to all new dangers..." but he had no time to finish this laborious sentence in which he had placed so much hope, because suddenly the door of the smoking lounge sprang open letting in a gust of violent freezing air which caused every one of the occupants to huddle up. The intruder was the telegraph operator who said in a single breath, "Gentlemen-the-United-States-have-broken-off-all-diplomatic-relations-with-Germany!" and the door slammed shut behind him, making the frame shake.
     Major Tomkatrick, knowing what should be done in such circumstances, did not hesitate even for a second, but cried out with all the strength of his lungs, "Hip Hip Hooray!" He was astonished and hurt to find no echo. Setting his glass down, he fell silent.
     Then Mr. Camuzet said in a faint voice, "This is of course encouraging, but I'm wary of its definitive nature, of diplomatic ruptures, as well as of..." A larger than usual wave suddenly tipped the SS Tarconia to an exaggerated angle, and once again Mr. Camuzet was reduced to silence.
     As for Major Tomkatrick, he considered the typically French need for going on and on about the appearance of facts completely ridiculous. However, it did provide him with a certain inner satisfaction, confirming as it did all the ready-made opinions he held and which his parents had conceived for him.
     The luncheon gong summoned the passengers three times, and sounded the death knell in Mr. Camuzet's stomach, who at the end of his long heroic efforts, went swiftly through the door and ran to the ship's railing. Major Tomkatrick finished his cocktail, and then, with noble steps, crossed the smoking lounge, demonstrating an astonishing sense of balance, and made an entrance into the dining-room which the Prince's vagabond imagination found beautiful.
     He swiftly pictured Major Tomkatrick with the majesty of Charles VII, the Victorious-causing him to mount the steps and cross the threshold of the great portico of Reims Cathedral, directing him to the altar. Then, refusing the meal, he remained on his couch with the faded yellow cover, imagining that the smoke coming from his cigarette was the slow perfume of incense, as he invited his muse to the grandiose ceremonies of the Coronation.

L. des Touches.

Email: follandgreen@hotmail.com

issues 5 & 6 home | ec chair | broken news | celine | critical urgencies | burning bush | ficciones
secret agents
| stage and screen | letters | gallery
home | search | submit | corpse cafe | archives | corpse mall | our gang
Exquisite Corpse Mailing List Subscribe Unsubscribe

©1999-2002 Exquisite Corpse - If you experience difficulties with this site, please contact the webmistress.