Speaking to Dollar

If I haven’t previously put excerpts of L.-F. Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night on the site, then I have been derelict in one of my few actual duties. Let’s try to fix that. Find this book (translated from French by Ralph Mannheim), open it up and start anywhere:

When the faithful enter their bank, don’t go thinking they can help themselves as they please. Far from it. In speaking to Dollar, they mumble words through a little grill; that’s their confessional. Not much sound, dim light, a tiny wicket between high arches, that’s all. They don’t swallow the Host, they put it on their hearts. I couldn’t stay there long admiring them. I had to follow the crowd in the street, between those walls of smooth shadow.

Suddenly our street widened, like a crevasse opening out into a bright clearing. Up ahead of us we saw a great pool of sea-green light, wedged between hordes of monstrous buildings. And in the middle of the clearing stood a rather countrified-looking house, surrounded by woebegone lawns.

I asked several people in the crowd what this edifice was, but most of them pretended not to hear me. They couldn’t spare the time. But one young fellow right next to me was kind enough to tell me it was City Hall, adding that it was an ancient monument dating back to colonial times, ever so historical… so they’d left it there… The fringes of this oasis formed a kind of park with benches, where you could sit comfortably enough and look at the building. When I got there, there was hardly anything else to see.

I waited more than an hour in the same place, and then toward noon, from the half-light, from the shuffling, discontinuous, dismal crowd, there erupted a sudden avalanche of absolutely and undeniably beautiful women.

What a discovery! What an America! What ecstasy! I thought of Lola… Her promises had not deceived me! It was true.

I had come to the heart of my pilgrimage. And if my appetite hadn’t kept calling itself to my attention, that would have struck me as one of those moments of supernatural aesthetic revelation. If I’d been a little more comfortable and confident, the incessant beauties I was discovering might have ravished me from my base human condition. In short, all I needed was a sandwich to make me believe in miracles. But how I needed that sandwich!

And yet, what supple grace! What incredible delicacy of form and feature! What inspired harmonies! What perilous nuances! Triumphant where the danger is greatest! Every conceivable promise of face and figure fulfilled! Those blondes! Those brunettes! Those Titian redheads! And more and more kept coming! Maybe, I thought, this is Greece starting all over again. Looks like I got here just in time.

What made those apparitions all the more divine in my eyes was that they seemed totally unaware of my existence as I sat on a bench close by, slap-happy, drooling with erotico-mystical admiration and quinine, but also, I have to admit, with hunger. If it were possible for a man to jump out of his skin, I’d have done it then, once and for all. There was nothing to hold me back.

Those unlikely midinettes could have wafted me away, sublimated me; a gesture, a word would have sufficed, and in that moment I’d have been transported, all of me, into the world of dreams. But I suppose they had other fish to fry.

I sat there for an hour, two hours, in that state of stupefaction. I had nothing more in the world to hope for.

You know about innards? The trick they play on tramps in the country? They stuff an old wallet with putrid chicken innards. Well, take it from me, a man is just like that, except that he’s fatter and hungrier and can move around, and inside there’s a dream.

I had to look at the practical side of things and not dip into my small supply of money right away. I didn’t have much. I was even afraid to count it. I couldn’t have anyway, because I was seeing double. I could only feel those thin, bashful banknotes through the material of my pocket, side by side with my phony statistics.

Men were passing, too, mostly young ones with faces that seemed to be made of pink wood, with a dry, monotonous expression, and jowls so wide and coarse they were hard to get used to… Well, maybe that was the kind of jowls their womenfolk wanted. The sexes seemed to stay on different sides of the street. The women looked only at the shopwindows, their whole attention was taken by the handbags, scarves, and little silk doodads, displayed very little at a time, but with precision and authority. You didn’t see many old people in that crowd. Not many couples either. Nobody seemed to find it strange that I should sit on that bench for hours all by myself, watching the people pass. But all at once the policeman standing like an inkwell in the middle of the street seemed to suspect me of sinister intentions. I could tell.

Wherever you may be, the moment you draw the attention of the authorities, the best thing you can do is disappear in a hurry. Don’t try to explain. Sink into the earth! I said to myself.

It so happened that just to one side of my bench there was a big hole in the sidewalk, something like the Métro at home. That hole seemed propitious, so vast, with a stairway all of pink marble inside it. I’d seen quite a few people from the street disappear into it and come out again. It was in that underground vault that they answered the call of nature. I caught on right away. The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking feces with barbarous noises in front of everybody.

Men among men, all free and easy, they laughed and joked and cheered one another on, it made me think of a football game. The first thing you did when you got there was to take off your jacket, as if in preparation for strenuous exercise. This was a rite and shirtsleeves were the uniform.

In that state of undress, belching and worse, gesticulating like lunatics, they settled down in the fecal grotto. The new arrivals were assailed with a thousand revolting jokes while descending the stairs from the street, but they all seemed delighted.