NOTE: In (belated) commemoration of the 119th anniversary of Céline’s birth, I’m republishing my review of his first novel, originally published at In Mala Fide on November 16, 2011.
Four years of college taught me that not only does the ivory tower have no idea what makes good literature, they couldn’t care less; they’ll erase truly talented writers from the history books if they wander off the plantation. Case in point: the 20th century’s most reviled and imitated novelist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Ask an English professor about Céline and half of them will have no idea who you’re talking about, and the other half will react like you just snapped off a Hitler salute. I still remember how my junior year Early American Lit professor reacted when I told her I was reading Rigadoon: “Wasn’t Céline a Nazi?”
I may be biased on this front, but Céline is arguably the finest Western novelist of the past hundred years. With the publication of this, his debut novel, in 1931, Leon Trotsky wrote that Céline “had walked into the pantheon of great literature like a man walks into his living room.” But with the rise of Nazi Germany, Céline made the fatal error of becoming a fascist, and like magic, he was suddenly a non-person in the world of books. Of course, he wasn’t alone in joining the losing team; Ezra Pound gave anti-Semitic propaganda speeches on Italian radio and was arrested for treason when the war ended. But Pound is still taught in the universities while Céline is a leper.
Don’t give me the argument that it’s because of Pound’s influence on literature, because Céline was just as influential if not more. Numerous writers up to the present day have mimicked or outright ripped off the bad doctor, from the good (Bukowski, Miller, Burroughs, Houellebecq) to the awful (Kesey, Heller, Vonnegut). It’s not hard to see why when you pick up Journey to the End of the Night. Like Mark Twain, the first great American novelist, Céline is less of a formal writer than a storyteller: he pulls you into his world as assuredly as your best friend bragging about the crazy adventures he had last night. His prose explodes with energy and life, never shying away from the dirty details, holding you captive in its grotesque grip. So the quality of Céline’s writing has nothing to do with his being blacklisted from the curriculum.
Nope, the reason why Pound is still loved and Céline is hated is because the latter was honest. Like all popular hacks, Pound was a better entrepreneur than a writer, a charmer who knew how to say all the right things at all the right times. Like the trendy lefties who lined up to root for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War while they were disemboweling Catholic priests, Pound converted to fascism because he thought they were the winning side, then staged a public repentance to avoid having to face a firing squad. Céline, the poor sincere bastard, never surrendered to the jeering hordes. An open supporter of the Vichy regime and author of anti-Semitic pamphlets, Céline wore his convictions on his sleeve even when public opinion shifted against them. He went to the grave without apologizing for or recanting anything he’d ever written.
But more than that, Céline is persona non grata in the literary world because he alone confronted the nihilism and emptiness of the post-WWI West. Oh sure, Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote about the aimlessness of the Lost Generation, but they were strictly amateur hour, bedtime stories for the kids. Céline was dead serious. His books were glorified accounts of his own life, with the boring bits taken out and new details added in. In Journey to the End of the Night, he grabs you by the back of the neck, shoves your face in it and doesn’t let go.
Journey begins with Céline’s protagonist, Ferdinand Bardamu, shooting the breeze with his buddy in 1910′s Paris. Bardamu joins in a passing military parade to mock his patriotic countrymen, and ends up being drafted into the war. Deserting the front lines, he flees into the jungles of French colonial Africa to escape punishment. Bardamu’s bizarre odyssey takes him all the way to New York City, Detroit to work for Ford and fall in love with a prostitute, and finally back to France where he establishes a medical practice caring for poor Parisians who are always looking for ways to cheat him. Along the way, he is continuously dogged by Robinson, an off-and-on-again friend whose own escapades never end happily.
By Célinean standards, Journey is mild stuff, a gateway drug for his later nihilism. As is the nature of geniuses, however, even his less-exemplary works are miles ahead of everyone else. The translation by Ralph Manheim does a fantastic job of preserving the unpretentiousness and humor of the original French, as shown by the excerpt where Bardamu runs into a communal toilet in New York:
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 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.
The morose aloofness of the men on the street above was equaled only by the air of liberation and rejoicing that came over them at the prospect of emptying their bowels in tumultuous company.
The splotched and spotted doors to the cabins hung loose, wrenched from their hinges. Some customers went from one cell to another for a little chat, those waiting for an empty seat smoked heavy cigars and slapped the backs of the obstinately toiling occupants, who sat there straining with their heads between their hands. Some groaned like wounded men or women in labor. The constipated were threatened with ingenious tortures.
Of course, a true artist like Ezra Pound would never have written about something as plebeian and low-class as the sight of Americans straining to shit in a public restroom. But that was the reality of post-WWI West: it was Shit World, everywhere, and Céline chronicled it like no writer before or after. In a way, I’m thankful that “respectable” people don’t dare touch Céline; it makes it easier for me to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s the reverse of the Hunter Thompson Idiot Test; anyone who likes Céline is usually intelligent and worth paying attention to, even if I disagree with them.
One thing that annoys me about this edition of Journey is the glossary. Céline’s writing was steeped in the vernacular of interwar France, and he frequently employed wordplay that doesn’t accurately translate into English. For example, in an early part of the book where Bardamu is recovering in an army hospital, he shares a room with a Sergeant Branledore, whose name is derived from branler, the French verb “to masturbate.” Instead of using footnotes, this edition forces you to flip to the back of the book whenever you come across an asterisked term. But this is a minor ding and won’t stop you from enjoying yourself.
Click here to buy Journey to the End of the Night.