The Journey to The End of The Night

The Journey to the End of the Night - L-F Céline.

The Journey to the End of the Night – L-F Céline.

Finally I finished reading this infamous novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961).   The Journey to the End of the Night was first published in 1932 in French.  I think I got this book sometime in the spring/early-summer of 2013.  I started reading it then, but I just completed it now.  I think, though I’m uncertain about this, that I actually re-started it from the beginning somewhere in that timeline.  Needless to say, this was a long slog through murky waters.

A bit about L-F Céline:  this is his penname, derived from his grandmother’s name.  His real name is Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches.  There’s plenty of photos of him as a handsome young fellow who turns into a smirking middle-aged chap, and finally a cantankerous looking old man. He had a diverse life, working in jewelry shops, as a sergeant in the military, as a writer, and a physician.  He traveled extensively.  In fact, one wishes that Céline just wrote an honest autobiography instead of hiding behind characters.  But one cannot trust Céline – he embellishes and he clearly knows how to slip away, around, and under.  He is world-wise and absolutely not simple.  On the other hand, of all the things I would think of as compatible employment for his personality, medicine is not one of them.  Oddly incongruous.

Céline has this bizarre fascination, though, with the worst and/or lowest of society.  Not, please, like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi; but in some morbid, weird way he is drawn to them.  This novel is supposedly semi-autobiographical.  I feel like that statement is misleading. It seems somewhat difficult to tell where the autobiography stops and the fiction begins and vice versa.  The main character, Ferdinand Bardamu, follows a timeline very much like Céline’s own.  The locations and some of the stories change a bit, I think, but overall, this is Céline ripping loose through the guise of a fictional character – loosely fictional.

Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you’re not a fool. That’s my opinion.  Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you’re a victim of.  Escape is good enough for the wise. – pg. 102

The first half of this novel is actually quite engaging and well-written.  It is a bit grumpy, let’s say, but it still contains that flavor of gullibility or goofiness in the narrator.  Bardamu really seems to go wherever the current takes him and does not seem to do a lot to help himself.  Generally, the situations and places in which he finds himself are coincidence and fate, but he never seems surprised about it.  He makes bad choices and from the start of the novel we learn that his vices control him.  Nevertheless, there is an adventurous and almost exciting thrill to following Baradmu’s overseas adventures.

The street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it, filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world. – pg. 166

Nothing in the first half of the novel is worthy of the shock and raving that people heap on this novel.  It’s pessimistic and there is sex and violence.  But it is all relatively literary.

The second half of the novel is where all the misanthropic, nihilistic, savage criticism, and shock appear at full strength.  Even so, this is 2014 where there exist TV shows like True Blood, Dexter, and Spartacus.  The 50 Shades of whatever also has been dumped into society like a burst-sewer.  So, it is actually a case of society outgrowing even Céline’s vicious writing.  It is somewhat shocking to read how extreme Céline/Bardamu think and act, however it is not special or unique to someone in 2014 who lives with the extremes we find in contemporary media. That fact makes me a bit dismayed.

It was true what she’d said about my having changed, I couldn’t deny it.  Life twists you and squashes your face.  It had squashed her face too, but less so.  It’s no joke being poor.  Poverty is a giant, it uses your face like a mop to clear away the world’s garbage.  There’s plenty left. – pg. 187

What makes Céline’s style of ribald nihilism so fascinating (even this many years later) is that he writes it with such literary style and double-edged wit.  Céline, himself, and therefore Bardamu, are not dumb.  These are not bumbling idiots writing out strings of vulgarities just because they want to zap us.  Céline actually writes with skill and the vulgarities are just part and parcel of it.

The thing is, roughly around page 300 (around La Garenne-Rancy scenes), I felt the novel change.  Not only did Bardamu stop having international adventures, but the tone became much more vicious and dark.  There seemed to be more vulgarity and more despondency.  To put it bluntly:  Bardamu wasn’t very entertaining anymore and any interest or sympathy I had as a reader was now gone.  The storyline and the characters had become tedious. Dare I say, before the events at the insane asylum, I was even bored with the storyline. It was a struggle to get through the last 150 pages of this novel.  The famous “ellipses” one hears about Céline’s writing are present in this novel – though less so in the first half.  The second half ramps up those – another sign of how the novel degrades.

Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment.  Being in love is nothing, it’s sticking together that’s difficult.  Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow.  On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state – that’s the unconscionable torture. – 291

I really don’t know what to say about most of the characters in this novel – especially Robinson.  I feel like all the characters in this novel are immature and juvenile – as if they really never ever “grew up.”  And so, the last 25 pages or so, which heavily involve Robinson, were tedious and droll.  Yeah, yeah, we could read this existentially, or in terms of the nihilism, or in any other sorts of filters – but if we are being honest and not just trying to impress others – the novel is good, but it isn’t great. And its just not that shocking anymore. Or maybe I am just as miserable and jaded as Céline.

Interiors are no good.  As soon as a door closes on a man, he begins to smell and everything he has on him smells too.  Body and soul, he deteriorates.  He rots.  It serves us right if people stink.  We should have looked after them.  We should have taken them out, evicted them, exposed them to the air.  All things that stink are indoors, they preen themselves, but they stink all the same. – 308

Overall, I am between a 3-star rating and a 4-star rating for this novel.  Nothing else is like it – and if there might be something like it, it is not as good as this.  And it probably owes a debt to this.  Nevertheless, I cannot lie and say that the second half of the novel was on par with the first.  That’s tricky, because is that like saying Céline’s second half of life was not as “entertaining” as the first part? Hence the difficulty with this so-called semi-autobiographical label.  I’m going to give it 4-stars, though, because I do think it will remain in my brain for quite some time for mulling and pondering and comparison.  Plus, Céline is so quotable!

4 stars

Hygiene and the Assassin

Hygiene and the Assassin

Hygiene and the Assassin – Amelie Nothomb; Europa; 2010

Amélie Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin was first published in 1992.  The English edition was published by Europa Editions in 2010.  I read this novel in February of 2013.  At 167 pages, I was not entirely sure what to expect.  Anything I read of the author always highlights her multicultural personal life.

I do not have a lot to say about this novel.  I did not really like it.  First of all, a lot of the novel is vulgar.  It harkens back to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his writings – off-color, politically-incorrect, and vibrant.   Nevertheless, it is not easy to emulate really good authors and, in many cases, it is not always a good idea.  Oddly, I found this novel even more vulgar than one would find Céline’s.   Yes, the language is vulgar, but so are the topics.  I am an adult, I am not a Puritan – so my concept of “vulgar” is a bit more critical.  When I say vulgar I mean to suggest a work that is vulgar and also does not have to be.  So, language and topic is, at times, vulgar – but when I look at the whole concept of the novel, I do not think this was necessary for the story.  Does it work with the story? Yes. Is it the only way for the story to work? No.  And there you have it.

Second problem:  Jean-Paul Sartre.  I am not a fan of existentialism and I am an even bigger not-fan of Sartre.  I really, really dislike him.  And his “philosophy.”  If I knew him personally – he is not someone I would trust.  Also, I find his “philosophy” to be pathetic.  In general, I find existentialism to be what people who want to pretend to be philosophers talk about. You know, dilettantes and such.  So, you can find people in Starbucks discussing authenticity while a copy of Being and Nothingness sits on the table.  All of this scene is repugnant to me.  Kierkegaard was alright. . . . I will have no truck with Sartre. I mean it:  I am so not sharing my truck with him.

In Nothomb’s novel she is really heavy-handed with the Sartrean concept of bad faith.  If you do not know what is meant by the terminology “bad faith,” you will probably miss a lot of the “depth” of this novel.  However, if you do not, in general, know about this terminology or concept, it’s okay because you are not really missing anything profound.  (Oh I know my dislike of existentialism is dripping here… sorry.) “Bad faith,” like many concepts developed in existentialism, seems to me to just be a pile of empty verbiage.  Yeah, sure, okay, sounds cool….. and then what?!

The main character is an author.  His name is Prétextat Tach.  He has been diagnosed with cancer and has only a couple of months to live.  In the meantime, this Nobel Prize winner is being interviewed by journalists eager to get the scoop on this reclusive and misanthropic writer.  The entire novel takes place in Tach’s “apartment” and almost all of the novel is in dialogue form.  This is all a big conversation/interview.  Again, some readers find this sort of storytelling to be tedious.  I, personally, do not mind it, and I find that it reads quickly.  However, in some places it just seems too obnoxious and fake.  Ultimately, this is the same sense that I got from the usage of existentialism and Sartre in this novel:  seems too fake and forced.  And well, yeah, isn’t that really the overarching scenario; i.e. authenticity.

I read the novel quickly, was repulsed in some parts, was vaguely entertained in parts.  When the ending came along I kind of saw where it was going and felt it was a bit drawn out.   Nevertheless, you can mostly guess what will happen.  Well, it happened, I went: “Huh.” …. and moved on to the next book.  There just is not anything really and truly awesome and deep in this one.  It’s not a wretched concept, but I think there are some pieces that did not come together perfectly.  However, I will be merciful and reiterate that this is the author’s first novel.

There are only two pages that I was able to draw anything worthwhile from.  I want to share what the main character says here about people who read:

There are a great many people who push sophistication to the point of reading without reading.  They’re like frogmen, they go through books without absorbing a single drop of water.  Those are the frog-readers.  They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life.  I am so terribly naive.  I thought that everyone read the way I do.  For I read the way I eat:  that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all.  You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or caviar; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau.  Well, when I say “you,” I should say “I myself and a few others,” because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state:  they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction.  They have read, that’s all:  in the best-case scenario, they know “what it’s about.”  And I’m not exaggerating.  How often have I asked intelligent people, “Did this book change you?” And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, “Why should a book to change me?”  . . . . . .  Most people do not read.  In this regard, there is an excellent quotation by an intellectual whose name I have forgotten:  “Basically, people do not read; or, if they do read, they don’t understand; or, if they do understand, they forget.”

The character who says all of this is convinced he is never read – and certainly never read by the readers who actually are changed by reading his works.  The character is really a complete psycho who utilizes sophistry and who snarls and insults everyone.  But finally, at the end of his life, he is met by someone who has truly “read” his works and who sits across from him representing the things that he despises, doubts, and denies.  Bad faith. etc. the end.

2 stars

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the HHI cannot tell you how pleased I am to be reviewing what I consider to be a five star novel as the first book review of 2013.  After a smattering of so-so, also-rans, and sub-par reads, I was recommended this novel by someone in my family. (Not something that happens often.)  I ordered it from Amazon and got it sometime after Christmas.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog ( L’Élégance du hérisson ) was first published (in French) in 2006 and was translated into English in 2008.  I did not know this for a fact until after reading the novel, but the author, Muriel Barbery, is a philosophy professor.  I say “for a fact” because as I read it – I probably knew this in some subconscious level. After all, what other profession could keep me amused, enthralled, and at points ready to argue.  I have a lot to say about this novel, so settle in!

First of all, it seems there are a lot of people out there who have read the novel and find it pretentious.  They use this word to describe it and then go on to pontificate about how much they disliked it.  I wholeheartedly agree that it is pretentious as heck.  And that is merely one of the reasons I love it.  There are lots of “pretentious” books out there. Let me give some examples:  Wicked by Gregory Maguire, Embassytown by China Mieville, One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell, Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I consider these novels to be in the category of BADLY pretentious, which please note, is not a charming self-assured pretentiousness.  In order to be pretentious in a good way, one must also be arrogant – but, like Kid Rock sings, “It aint braggin’ – if ya back it up.”  Frankly, Barbery can and does “back it up.”

One clue that a philosopher wrote this:  there are direct, short, brutally assertive sentences. Only the mad and confident philosopher dares (particularly in the modern world) to write sentences that actually assert things. None of this wishy-washy ambiguity. No political correctness.  No hedging, weasling, or whining. It’s so refreshing to read – and so comfortable for me to read.  Barbery makes assertions in the sense of she states it how it is and does not care to coddle readers who may disagree. And we are talking about topics like the divine, Art, beauty, and humanity.  You do not have to agree with these bold, frank assertions, but I sure did enjoy reading them for their clarity, brevity, and staunchness.

Throughout the book there are plenty of positions taken by the characters to lead the reader to want to disagree at times with everything.  There is a feeling of nihilism.  I think readers rebel from the bold assertions (and criticisms) leveled from autodidact characters.  And the whole thing offends every sensibility our egalitarian social slumber has forced upon us.

Moreover, this is why the novel had to be French. Only the French (and a philosopher) could possibly have written this work.  Because throughout there are direct criticisms of humanity and social classes.  Indeed, there is a direct complaint against a specific class of people:  namely, the yuppie, the nouveau riche, and the pretentious.  This class of people is presented as inauthentic, insufferable, obnoxious, and self-absorbed in foolishness.  And the fact that these complaints come from a member of the lowest class who is self-taught in higher intellectual pursuits, clearly is reason to annoy readers.  My personal suspicion is that we can discern a great deal about the readers themselves based on their reaction to the book. Naturally, the yuppie (interestingly to whom this book is actually marketed!) will despise it with great rancor.

I’m a blueblooded elitist. I’m a professional philosopher. I harbor a lot of distaste for the yuppie-class.  I absolutely loved this novel.

Do you see what I did there? I described myself in direct assertions. I used words to describe positions that are, at best, uncommon and at worst vex everyone in society. It’s not “polite” or deemed “acceptable” to be a blueblood. Or a philosopher. Or an aristocrat. Or an elitist. I know that. But I am what I am and I would rather not lie and say I am other than I am.  However, I am not foolish enough to think that being a person of these traits is well-accepted in the USA in 2013.  It conjures all sorts of images of Boss Tweed, conservative, Establishment things that irk the WASP who was grown to love American concepts of society and the Protestant Work Ethic.  That being said, yeah, I do not go about flaunting and putting on airs and exhibiting any of these opinions and positions of mine.  I mention this because many reviewers of this novel were unable to fathom why a person would pretend to be dumb or hide their intelligence.

I do it all the time.  One cannot go around being truly intelligent – it rubs people the wrong way. And, of course with great predictability, they call it being arrogant or pretentious. Sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.  You cannot use an extensive vocabulary with your waitress, the gas station attendant, or the cashier. I know – I’ve tried; and gotten the blank looks, misunderstood glare, and the horrible dullard grunts of “hunh?”   So you have to speak the language of the culture you are in. Sometimes, right wrong or indifferent, if you want to function in society – you have to be a chameleon. Among the working man, you blend in and get along.  Don’t worry – it goes in reverse. When among the yuppie nouveau riche one has to be a certain way as well, lest one usurp and undermine their fragile edifice of self-importance. Gradually, with astute care, you can use clues and hints and discover more about your interlocutor – and then adapt and open up the conversation to a broader and more developed one. But it’s a subtle give and take.  Don’t just march up to people speaking without slang. I have a tendency of using archaic words, but they are familiar and commonplace to me. I get a lot of stares of non-comprehension.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote a poem about this. Maybe I’ll share it. We’ll see. I was young and silly. But it makes the point better than anything I’ve said so far.

Anyway, the point is that the novel offends people. Because, I think, only rueful, thick-skinned, intelligent, and witty people can “get” this novel for what it is. After all, before everyone starts calling the author and her characters “pretentious” or “holier-than-thou” or “high & mighty” – there are several places wherein the characters even hack on philosophy/philosophers.  If you don’t have thick skin, stay the hell home. Philosophers are used to twisting words at each other and critiquing everything. We can take it – can you?

All of this aside, I really enjoyed the theme of the novel. I enjoyed the setting, the characters, and the storyline. I enjoyed the writing above all.  Barbery is so dang witty, she had me laughing aloud at several points.  I knew this was a five star novel because I was actually jotting down quotes.  I cannot stop myself from sharing them here!

Ripping on phenomenology (which I, too, dislike) the main character says (pg. 63):

But enough of phenomenology:  it is nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness, a hard-core autism that no real cat would ever importune.

…..and another reason I adore this novel is because of the plethora of animal characters. Barbery also understands animals – really understands them (not like yuppies understand anything). And I am an absolute sucker for animals.

On page 92, the young character says this considering her father’s morning breakfasting ritual.  She concludes her thesis a few pages later:

In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life:  you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.

What do we do in the morning?  Papa reads his paper while he drinks his coffee, Maman drinks her coffee while she leafs through catalogues, Colombe drinks her coffee while she listens to France Inter and I drink hot chocolate while reading mangas.  Just now I’m reading Taniguchi mangas; he’s a genius, and he’s teaching me a lot about people.

And another witty and fun quote is from the main character on page 220:

What toilet paper does for people’s derrieres contributes considerably more to the abyss between the classes than a good many external signs.

Now, although as you read the novel, you may feel it is really just a false setting/personae dramatis so that the author can make bold assertions.  It can be accused of that – and I am okay with it. But there is a deeper theme:  that of meaning of life, of Fate, and of Beauty.  And if you don’t pick up on these threads, heaven help us, you will be writing a negative review soon after finishing the novel.  The novel has a somewhat “tragic” ending – but a good tragic. I do not want to give anything away, but know that the ending is both happy and unhappy.  It’s actually a pretty good ending – that you should see coming a few chapters beforehand.

And beyond all that I have already said here:  do not take this novel too seriously.  I mean it. If you do, you are guilty of falling prey to the typical French trickery.  Just like with the Italians, there is emotion and content and bold assertion:  but we are still going to finish our bread and tea and smile like goofy children at the end of it.  WASPs really aren’t gonna like this novel.  Don’t take this too seriously. For your own sake.

Reading this novel has decided that this year will be the year of French.  (Last year was the year of Russian.) I will, obviously, still continue the Russian path, but I really love the French and their constant wrangling and defining of social classes, politics, and society. Vive la France!

5 stars