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Influences: Angelic and Demonic

05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Three Weissmanns of Westport
by Cathleen Shine
Farrar Straus and Giroux
292 pp $25.00

Normance

By Louis-Ferdinand Céline
translation and introduction
by Marlon Jones
Dalkey Archives
371 pp $14.95

Bagatelles pour un massacre
By Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Denoël 379 pp 1938

There are days, Helen Mirren's lady detective efforts notwithstanding, that we seem stuck in a self perpetuating gender warp; the gents, still influenced by Humphrey Bogart and "The Big Sleep" go through one door, while Mma Ramotswe (played by Jill Scott) and her hilarious detective agency in Botswana, another. My question for Cathleen Schine's marvelous The Three Weissmanns of Westport is - does the publicity for it, insisting on its "homage to Jane Austin's Sense and Sensibility " create unnecessary static ? Is there too much signaling of 'chick lit?' Of Channel 13's Jane reruns? (I will get to Céline further along.)

I bring this up because potential readers may be inadvertently robbed of the amazing originality of Schine's current novel, and its homage to the new rather than the old. Yes, of course, the inimitable Jane is inimitable, and many male novelists, including Harold Brodkey have drawn inspiration from her, but novels should give us new news of the external and internal world. Has the author put us on to a fresh foot path? I remember as a student coming home from Paris, bringing with me a Dyna Panhard, a tiny sea blue French car, buying a copy of Catcher in the Rye, and sitting in my parked Dyna (in the 1950s Madison Avenue was relatively empty) - I've often written about that day - and not getting out of the car until I'd finished Catcher. The literary skies suddenly opened up. I didn't need to be burdened with Simone de Beauvoir's chic smarts, war novels, southern eccentrics, Faulkner's Temple Drake, Tolstoy's Anna dead beneath the Russian railroad tracks, Blanche DuBois or even Mary McCarthy. Salinger gave my generation a permission to write about our lives, our very ordinary adolescent times. He gave us our voice, our right to be serious in our own postwar, perhaps over-privileged, tones.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport has gotten superlative reviews. Still a contemporary artist wouldn't want his/her work too tightly nailed to say, Matisse or Picasso, and this over insistence on Jane ignores the book's originality. Schine has a wide range -- her New York Times' book review last year of Alexsandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project is a complex account of the way Eastern Europe is now. And her Westport isn't the place of 20 years ago, and certainly not the Westport with memories of F.Scott Fitzgerald and theatre folk, nor the arty crowd, nor the later advertising bunch, and it certainly isn't the anti-Semitic Connecticut of Gentleman's Agreement. Her Westport has become a provincial town, prosperous and dreary, somewhat like Emma Bovary's Tostes, near Rouen.

Betty Weissmann, in her mid '70s, isn't dreaming of lovers: her romantic "love" is Manhattan from where she has been temporarily banished. She and her two grown daughters, Miranda and Annie, have joined economic forces in order to combat her husband's divorce lawyers, who are attempting to filch the family assets, namely her beloved Central Park West apartment. The Holocaust is a distant drum beat, it might as well be taps played in the last century, its only relevance is that rich Uncle Lou spreads his generosity to all the inhabitants of the novel - Jews and Christians alike - as a result of having been welcomed into America as a child escaping the Holocaust. Lou provides the three women with his beachfront extra cottage, so that they have the means to wait out the divorce lawyers.

Betty wanders disconsolate through Westport:

"There was nothing to do, no one to do it with, and she wouldn't drive at night, so on top of everything else there was no way to get there. She daydreamed about the buses in New York with their interesting bits of poetry or quotes from George Eliot, their ads for Con Ed or the Bronx Zoo. How civilized and communal New York seemed from the vantage point of this lonely land of cars and crows and Lanes and Drives and Crescents....'Very cosmopolitan little town,' Betty had answered her friend in her most chipper voice. But Westport struck her as neither cosmopolitan nor little. In fact, it did not even strike her as a town. It was large and spread out and bustling and provincial."

Its geographic advantage has disintegrated into its nearness to COSTCO gallon vodka bargains; even its weather seems a bleak knockoff of Manhattan skies.

Jews and WASPS co-mingle, references to Hanukkah and Christmas have become mere after thoughts. In fact, the only WASP to make an issue -or celebration - of his WASP heritage turns out to be a phony: a third rate actor from the West Coast into movieland pretend who has invented his WASP background. Miranda falls in love with Leanne, a Westport doctor into good works in Africa - again, their lesbian marriage causes no melodrama. Betty, still dreaming of her return to her great Central Park West apartment with its grand faux fireplace, barely takes note of this change of mores. Alas, her legal win has a wistful tragic note. She dies of a staph infection before she can repossess her home, but, due to her foresight, the inheritance will pass on to her daughters. In her astonishing novel, Schine grounds her witty dialogue and sharp new way of seeing the familiar with bursts of authentic feeling between the unmoored mother and her protective daughters.

Meanwhile, in a totally different take on the effect of influences, Wyatt Mason's much needed reappraisal in The New York Review of Books of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (Céline), on the occasion of Dalkey Archives' publication of Normance is excellent. He correctly points to a lack of balance and a lack of knowledge of the author's total works (the murderously anti-Semitic Bagatelle pour un massacre still is banned in France) in the admiration of his American writer fans. Voyage au bout de la nuit with its furious, hot, first person voice had particular appeal to the Beats, who saw in Céline's anti-bourgeois stance one of their own, but we shouldn't ignore that Céline's true buddies, the Nazis, were also anti-bourgeois democracies.

Mason quotes from the English translation of Philip Roth's remarks (Roth is also a fan) on Céline originally published in 1984 in La Quinzaine Littéraire: "To tell you the truth, in France, my Proust is Céline! There's a very great writer. Even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn't at the heart of his books, even Castle to Castle. Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice." Well, "liberator" - though we know Roth means to admire Céline's voice, is hardly le mot juste for a writer who called for the death of all Jews. And what does Roth think Castle to Castle is about, if not Céline's successful attempt to escape from a French trial for his war crimes? Can we so neatly chop into separate compartments voice, morality, stylish style, and intent?

This sort of muffled debate - a debate that never seems to quite see the light of day -- was further mangled by John Updike, who imagined Céline as being mainly a "sweet country doctor." In my 1991 interview (reprinted after his death in The Daily Beast), Updike said: "I think what I was trying to say [in one of his essays] is that there aren't any anti-Semitic portraits in Céline as deadly as Bloch in Proust. I may be wrong. But Céline's views didn't seem to carry over into his art. He didn't bother to give us caricatures of Jewish people." Really?

Proust, in his insistence on the fluid nature of his characters, was one of the first novelists to liberate Jews from fictional stereotypes, while Céline turned them into dangerous anti-Semitic caricatures. In a letter to his mother, Proust describes the anti-Semitic ravings of a friend's father, besotted by the anti-Semitic radical right rag Libre Parole, later so useful to the Nazis, whom in La Recherche he transforms into Baron de Charlus's ravings against Bloch. In a letter to Violet Schiff (usually ignored is that many of Proust's most profound friendships were with people who were Jewish or part Jewish) he points out that Swann who starts out effete, in another volume becomes okay: "He becomes a Dreyfusard." While granting Céline's talent, particularly in Journey to the End of the Night, isn't his American fan club a bit too nonchalant? Or, one wonders - might it be that Proust, the chronicler of the Dreyfus Affair, simply accomplished too much for Roth and Updike? Or were they simply playing Peck's bad boy?

Saul Bellow had no use for Céline, and managed a hot, intime voice quite on his own. Now, about Norman Mailer. Both his biographer Michael Lennon and I feel that the back jacket of Frédéric Vitoux's biography Céline needs a tad correcting. George Steiner claims that (among others) Norman Mailer's novels would never have been written without Céline's precedent. In my interviews with Norman I never heard him mention Céline, and Céline was certainly not on his mind when I first met him in Paris. According to Lennon, Mailer told him that the French writers in order of importance to him were: "Stendahl, Proust, Malraux, then Flaubert, Zola, Gide, Huysmans, Baudelaire's journals, Sartre, Simenon, and Jean Malaquais - the largest single influence on my intellectual life." Lennon says he never heard Mailer mention Céline, and he believes that Céline's works were not in Mailer's extensive library.

So why are American writers so casually inclined to give Céline, including his ideas and actions, a pass? I think it is hard for us to grasp (we see World War II in terms of military battles) that words -- the Nazi propaganda machine - were a potent instrument of war. We cannot imagine a society in which every bit of media, and every publishing house, is controlled and manipulated by the enemy. French writer collaborationists helped destabilize the French government in advance of the "phony war", thus facilitating the German control of the French government and population, and the sending of Jews to the death camps. Céline, who called for all Jews to be killed and the French and British governments destroyed, went on an "intellectual" junket to Germany, and, more significantly, was on Dannecker's and Ambassador Otto Abetz's list of candidates to head the Vichy established "central Jewish office", which put in motion the final solution. Dannecker, a chief architect of the final solution, committed suicide in 1945. Abetz, whom Céline, along with Petain and Laval, joined in Sigmaringen Castle in their attempted flight from France (Céline's flight is the subject of Castle to Castle), was convicted by the French of war crimes and the deportation and murder of Jews. A long way off from the experiences of the Beat Generation, Philip Roth and John Updike.