Journey to the End of the Night

by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

9/10

Like a cross between Orwell’s non-fiction, Kafka, and John Fante, as told by Camus’s narrator from The Fall, it should surprise nobody that Bukowski considered Celine the greatest writer of the last 2000 years. As far as modern writers go (besides Bukowski),Chuck Palahniuk and Poe Ballantine have similar sensibilities. And since I love all of these authors that Celine reminds me of, it makes sense for me to love this book as well. And I do.

I’ve had this on my shelf for awhile but allowed it to daunt me with its heft and perceived density, with philosophical underpinnings of existentialism and nihilism (I generaly suck at distinguishing the two from each other). I imagined a dour slog of a read that would nonetheless Be Good For Me (TM) when I finally got around to it. If I had known how kinetic, funny and beautiful it was — the lyricism, rhythm and imagery are outstanding — I never would have waited this long to read it.

Thankfully, I recently saw the gorgeous Italian film “The Great Beauty,” which opens with the same epigraph that Celine uses to open this novel. I happened to be between books and trying to figure out what to read next, so I took the cue and happily so! (And for those who see the movie, it not only opens with Journey‘s opening but ends with its ending; over the credits you are taken on a boat ride under the bridges of the Tiber river, mirroring Celine’s last paragraph on the Seine. Impressive filmmaking indeed.)

But back to the book. It will hopefully astonish you with its freshness as it did me. Before Camus, before the Beats, hell way before the godfather of the Beats, Paul Bowles (another one I love), even before John Fante (though not before Kafka and right after Hemingway and Faulkner), Celine came out with this, a novel that easily spans both classic and modern literature, no matter your definition of the two. It may not match Faulkner’s style, but it surpasses him in its overt delving of some pretty mucky depths.

The plot’s not all that important, the episodic nature of Bardamu’s adventures reminding me a lot of Kafka’s Amerika. William Vollman sums it up well in his brief-but-insightful afterword when he calls it an expression of the idea that, “We are no more than decaying, flatulent assemblages of phlegm and fecal matter, animated by lechery and self-delusion to commit acts of increasingly futile denial of the grisly fact that existence is innately. . . spoiled and that death is coming.” Not only is it a good description of what you’re in store for should you pick up Journey, but it’s also a decent example of Celine’s style. And wow, what style — I must have marked over 60 pages for insight, poetry or sheer pizazz. A short one as an example:

The possibility that there would never again be races at Longchamp overwhelmed her. The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time. 46

That right there is probably something that Fante, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett would have liked to come up with.

But you’ll notice I didn’t give it 5 stars, and that’s because it’s not perfect. I’m impatient with bloat and this book had it, notably the African episode (among others). I imagine part of that is the desired effect, this tedious drudgery that for Celine characterizes all of existence. . . I don’t really have a better response to that than a shrug with an “Ehh.” Also, there’s only so many different ways you can describe the shittiness of the world before the reader becomes numbed to it. Celine writes many variations of:

But just as a sick man changes sides in bed and in life, so we too are entitled to move from side to side, it’s the only thing we can do, the only defense that’s ever been found against Fate. No good hoping to drop off your misery somewhere on the way. Misery is like some horrible woman you’ve married. Maybe it’s better to end up loving her a little than to knock yourself out beating her all your life. Since obviously you won’t be able to bump her off. 299

And while his formulations of these variations are fascinating, they’re not endlessly so.

So that’s about where we’re at, a flawed book that I loved, totally bleak but occasionally rescued by some shocking flights of optimism and sentimentality, none more unexpected or beautiful than Alcides’s heartbreaking devotion to his niece. There’s also this Robinson guy: who is he exactly, and what is he to Bardamu? Vollman says he’s Bardamu’s guide through the night, trying to drag him ever lower and deeper, to show him what must inexorably await him should he continue down his path. I like that explanation better than any I came up with. The richness of the book will not leave you short of things to ponder.

I wonder how appropriate it is to consider the book outside the context of Celine’s later anti-Semitism. On the one hand, this came before that, so it should be relatively untainted. On the other, on full display is the depraved mindset that would allow someone to so rabidly latch onto that particular brand of hatred in the first place. I guess I don’t see it as relevant in the end, when trying to weigh the book’s merits anyway, which is principally what I’m here to do. But I will say that in order to fully understand Celine’s 1952 preface, you should at least read up on his Holocaust legacy (here, for example).

This is, at the end of the night, a must-read for all fans of Literature (Whether French, Classic, Modern, Philosophical, etc.). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

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