Journey to the End of the Night was Céline’s first novel and his most famous, but not his best; that honor goes to his later works. And while I have a soft spot for Journey, I’ll readily admit that Death on the Installment Plan is the superior novel in terms of content and form. Céline had further refined his disjointed, elliptical writing style, bringing with it an increasingly cynical, bleak view of the world he inhabited.
Compared to Death, Journey is a children’s book; this is where the true darkness begins.
Death on the Installment Plan is both sequel and prequel to Journey, continuing the misadventures of his literary surrogate Ferdinand Bardamu. The opening picks up where the previous novel left off; Bardamu is a struggling doctor in the Parisian slums, regularly cheated by his poor patients and abused by his friends and co-workers. Céline’s narration frequently blurs the line between reality and fantasy, to the point where they become indistinguishable:
The grass is full of them, thousands are pouring down the drive. More and more of them come stepping out of the darkness… The women’s dresses are in tatters, tits torn and dangling… little boys without pants… they knock each other down, trample each other, toss each other up in the air… some are left dangling from the trees… along with smashed-up chairs… An old bag, English, comes along in a little car and sticks her head out the window so far it almost falls off… she was beginning to get in my way. Never had I seen eyes so full of happiness. “Hurray! Hurray!” she shouts without even stopping her car. “Great stuff! You’ll crack her ass open. You’ll send her sky-high. You’ll knock the eternity out of her. Hurray for Christian Science!”
While the initial hundred pages of Death are styled like Journey, Céline’s ellipses become more prominent as the narrative slogs on, imitating the fragmented and whirlwind nature of life itself. Despite both this and the language barrier, Death is an absolute joy to read, as Céline’s prose and humor had me cracking up every other paragraph. Much like in Journey, French vernacular phrases and references that can’t be translated in English are placed in a glossary at the end of the book, though there are thankfully far fewer of them.
After a violent visit from his mother, Bardamu moves into discussing his childhood; his frequent beatings at the hands of Auguste, his failed insurance clerk father, and routinely emasculated by his mother. Of course, young Ferdinand does his best to be a complete weirdo, constantly talking about how he always had “shit on [his] ass” because he was too busy to wipe, stinking up everywhere he goes with his reek. Sent to work as a salesman, he gets fired for slinking off to the back storerooms to slake his masturbation addiction:
Along around five o’clock he went out for a cup of coffee, and I took the opportunity to take my shoes off for a minute up in the stockroom. I’d do it in the can too when nobody was there. So one day those cocksuckers go and tell the boss. Lavelongue did a hundred-yard dash, I was his obsession… He was there in two seconds flat.
“Will you come out of there, you little skunk? Is that what you call working?… Jerking yourself off in every corner you can find… Is that your way of learning the trade?… Flat on your ass with your dick in the air!… That’s the younger generation for you!”
Every attempt his parents make to turn Bardamu into a productive member of society fails. They apprentice him to another businessman, where he gets fired for jacking off on the job again. They send him to a boarding school in England, where he flunks out after pigheadedly refusing to learn a word of English and spending his free time getting handjobs from a retarded kid. Finally, they apprentice him to the inventor-cum-con man Courtial des Pereires, a schemer constantly trying to scam money for his next big project.
This is the true darkness of Death: Céline turns his cynical gaze on himself. Any emo idiot can cry and whine about how other people are cruel, stupid and greedy; it takes true courage to apply that same standard to yourself. Furthermore, at no point does Céline ask for sympathy. He recognizes everything that happens to him, from his dalliances with the diseased slut Mireille to his scamming with Courtial as the font of comedy that it is, playing up the humor in life’s pointlessness. In this, his characterization is far stronger than his bathetic contemporaries, to the point where inanimate objects such as the Génitron (Courtial’s maze-like laboratory) and the worn-out hot air balloon that Bardamu is constantly forced to patch up become characters in and of themselves.
And it’s these reasons why Céline is the greatest author of the twentieth century.
Death on the Installment Plan, Journey and Céline’s other novels capture not just the atmosphere of everyday life, but it’s very essence. The fragmented sentences, the ellipses, the constant shifting of places and people all imitate the rush of life itself, the nature of human existence as a long series of half-remembered events. Céline’s work exists at the intersection of reality and memory, where history fades into the recesses of our imagination, bluster and senility and confusion blending together.
And while life might be cruel and short, it’s still funny as all hell.
If you haven’t read Journey to the End of the Night, read that first, but otherwise, Death on the Installment Plan is a glorious triumph. It may not be for the faint of heart, but good art rarely is.
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