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!