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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Conversations with Professor Y

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

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To purchase Conversations with Professor Y

Title: Conversations with Professor Y
Author: Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Genre: Fiction
Written: 1955 (Eng. 1986)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Conversations with Professor Y - US
Conversations with Professor Y - UK
Conversations with Professor Y - Canada
Entretiens avec le Professeur Y - Canada
Entretiens avec le Professeur Y - France
Gespräche mit Professor Y - Deutschland
Colloqui con il professor Y - Italia
Conversaciones con el profesor Y - España
  • French title: Entretiens avec le Professeur Y
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Stanford Luce
  • This is a bilingual edition which includes the original French text

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Our Assessment:

A- : very good, strange fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/8/1986 Nancy Ramsey
TLS . 19/6/2009 Karl Orend

  From the Reviews:
  • "Professor Y is a fictional foil for the author's digs at formal literature, and much of Conversations is hilarious. Celine is self-mocking as he tries to get his name back into circulation. He compares an eager genius to the new Big Bubbly soap product, is adamant in his revulsion at the ascendancy of ideas over emotion and is passionate in his desire to capture the immediacy of conversation on the page. (...) Conversations is essential for Celine fans, and a good, if tame, introduction for the uninitiated." - Nancy Ramsey, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) modern classic of irony and burlesque (.....) He sends the reader roaring through an "emotive subway", giving the impression of immediacy and a voice inside the head." - Karl Orend, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Céline's Conversations with Professor Y is a bizarre literary oddity. The French author hadn't fared too well after World War II, given his fascist sympathies (and writings). Imprisoned in Denmark for a year and a half, he was only able to return to France in 1951, after being amnestied. Even then he -- and his works -- weren't exactly made to feel welcome. What to do ? Write a fictional interview in which he explains himself and his genius !
       As Stanford Luce explains in his useful Introduction, Conversations with Professor Y was to be: "the vehicle for his rebirth in French literary circles". Since Céline can't stop being Céline -- for better and for worse -- the result is an over-the-top literary joyride careening out of control. Knowing he wouldn't be able to endear himself with the public or -- especially -- those literary circles, he tones down the politics (a bit) but otherwise goes on his usual take-no-prisoners, head-over-heels rampage. And what fun it is.
       The narrator -- Céline -- has some trouble finding an interviewer, suitable or otherwise, but finally settles on a sucker willing to play the role, a proper antagonist (as antagonism is practically Céline's lifeblood). He's not an ideal foil, but that's part of the point -- who, after all, can keep up with the author misunderstood and underappreciated by one and all ? The man he styles as 'Professor Y' is, in fact, revealed to be a Colonel Réséda less than a third of the way into the book; it's no surprise, either, that he also has a manuscript he hopes to see get published .....
       Céline constantly badgers him about not taking notes, not paying attention -- and the page count. Ultimately, of course, he doesn't even let the interviewer's account stand (or rather: he doesn't bother with it): this is his own version -- Céline's recollection of the dialogue, along with his asides. For Céline there aren't two sides to an issue, or a conversation. All he knows is the monologue -- and even though it's a fiction, he can't imagine it from the other's point of view. As to objectivity ... sure, there's some self-deprecating humour, but this is all very much Céline's show -- and Céline on show.
       At least he's fairly honest about it (including about being pretty full of himself). He lets the force of his personality overwhelm the interviewer; by the end, the poor guy is left passed out in the publisher's office .....
       It turns out that part of the reason the interviewer isn't as attentive as Céline would like is because of a need to take a piss; showing a wicked sense of humour, the trained medical doctor Céline is willing to lend a helping hand even here:

     "I'm a bit anxious right now ..."
     "Oh ?"
     "Prostate acting up a bit."
     "I could take a look ... but not in the park ! ... later on ! later on !"
     He thinks I'm kidding ...
       The book is written like pretty much all of Céline's books -- i.e. it features his distinctive style. There's the liberal use of the exclamation point (only Tom Wolfe rivals Céline in the (over)use of that), as well as the constant use of the ... three-dot break to move things along. The interviewer naturally addresses this gimmick:
     "Yes, but even so, your three dots ? ... your three dots ?"
     "My three dots are indispensable ! ... indispensable, thunderation ! ... I repeat: indispensable to my metro ! you understand, Colonel ?
     "Why ?"
     "To set my emotive rails on ! clear as day ! ... on the roadbed ! ... you understand ? ... they won't hold up by themselves, my rails ! ... I need ties ! ... "
     "What subtlety !"
       (See, he does have a sense of humour about it .....)
       Céline places a lot of emphasis on this style and what it's meant. Or at least what he thinks it has meant:
     "Colonel, see here ! ... my 'emotive yield' style ... let's get back to it ! despite being a modest discovery, as I told you, take that for granted, it does shake up the Novel even so in such a way that it will not recover ! the Novel no longer exists!"
     "It no longer exists ?"
     "I express myself badly ! ... I mean that the others no longer exist ! the other novelists ! ... all those who have not yet learned to write in 'emotive style' .. breaststrokers disappeared once the crawl was discovered ! ...
       (Someone needs to tell this guy he's no Joyce ... but, no doubt, his distinctive voice was a useful break-through.)
       What really gets to Céline is, of course, that those damn other novelists still do exist. Not only that: they enjoy much more success than him. He can have nothing but contempt for them (and he doles it out nicely throughout the conversation) but he can't escape the fact that he hasn't wiped them out.
       What an unfair world:
I bawl out the truth ! the others, those well-loved writers, are beseeched, revered ! every word they utter ! ... even their silences are revered ! their interviewers swoon !
       Céline -- who for the life of him can't shut up -- is understandably frustrated. He bawls away, and yet ... and yet .... ! (Tellingly, however, he does succumb, and if he can't get his (fictional) interviewer to swoon, he can at least affect the same result by rendering him unconscious (the state he presumably deems most appropriate for him).)
       Céline takes on the literary establishment with considerable gusto, swinging wildly all around him (and landing a few very nice punches) -- and he's none too soft on the reading public, either. Literary awards and the academy are obviously beneath contempt:
       "Anyone with a high school diploma can toss a Goncourt prize-winner together in six months ! a good political record, a good publisher, and two, three grandmothers scattered around Europe, and he's on his way !"
       Yes, here's a man who knows how to win friends and influence people ..... (But he recognises his weaknesses, too: in response to that little outbursts he has his interviewer chide him pitch-perfectly: "Vous rabâchez Monsieur Céline !" ('You're rechewing your cabbage, Mr. Céline !').)
       And there's something to be said for how true to himself and his vision he is. Because there's something to his writing. A lot, in fact: Céline is one of the 20th century greats. He understood:
I'm going to set you straight once and for all: men's opinions don't count ! dissertations ! decrees ! froth, gibberish ! ... yecch ! the thing itself, that's what counts ! the object, you know what I mean ? the rest, academics, social pother.
       Of course, not even his fictional interviewer can be set straight, not once and much less for ever, and that's where Céline gets stuck. But he recognises the futility. Yes, he rails against it, but he's also laughing at himself, and invites the reader to laugh with him (and it's hard not to: Conversations with Professor Y is a very, very funny book).
       He harps a lot on his little gimmick, trying perhaps too hard to convey the significance of his innovation:
     "Emotion through written language ! ... written language had run dry in France, I'm the one who primed emotion back into it ! ... as I say ! ... it's not just some cheap trick, the magic that any asshole can use in order to move you 'in writing !' ... rediscovering the emotion of the spoken word through the written word ! it's not nothing ! it is miniscule, but it is something ! ..."
       Certainly, this book too runs high on emotion, but despite all the criticism and take-downs and put-downs, it's less angry than almost joyful. Céline positively revels in his attitude. The interviewer complains early on: "You're so pretentious you're grotesque !" but you can practically see Céline grinning ear to ear at that compliment.

       This edition -- originally published by Brandeis University Press in 1986, and re-issued by Dalkey Archive Press in 2006 -- is a bilingual one. Céline is playful not only with punctuation but also language, and it's great having the French original side by side with the translation. Luce actually does a very good job (coming up with some nice solutions to a variety of coinages and phrasings), but it's nice also to have Céline's original.
       Luce's Introduction is also useful -- properly introducing the text. There are also Notes explaining Céline's references; there might even be too many of these -- including some which verge on the ridiculous:
   33. Brichantzky: It is difficult to find any information on this supposed teacher of the dramatic arts.
       (Difficult or impossible ? If merely difficult, then the note is entirely inadequate; if impossible, it is badly worded. Either way, the reader has been told nothing.)

       This is an imperfect work -- Céline does lose a bit of focus -- but it is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

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Conversations with Professor Y: Reviews: Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Other books by Louis-Ferdinand Céline under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) was one of the leading as well as most notorious French authors of the 20th century.

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