The usual thing. Always getting shoved out into the night like this, I said to myself, I'm bound to end up somewhere. – Céline, Journey to the End of the Night
A bald summary of Céline's first novel is enough to put anyone off and yet from its very first page through to the last, some 180,000 words later, I was thoroughly entertained. The new release from Alma at just over 400 pages is misleading and if you struggle to read type that is too close together then you might want, as I did, to opt for the ebook. Normally spaced type would have been 700 pages during which the narrator has very little good to say about anything, beginning with himself and the French in general:
What you call a race is nothing but a collection of riffraff like me, bleary-eyed, flea-bitten, chilled to the bone. They came from the four corners of the earth, driven by hunger, plague, tumours, and the cold, and stopped here. They couldn't go any further because of the ocean. That's France, that's the French people.
He's just about the most pass-remarkable character I have ever encountered, combining the nihilism and loquacity of Samuel Beckett's Molloy with the acerbic wit and fatalism, despite his best efforts to wangle his way out of his own, of Captain Edmund Blackadder.
Little happens throughout the book and most of what does is due to the protagonist's inability to avoid things happening to him. He's the kind of man who side-steps a mucky puddle only to put his foot in a fresh cow pat. If you enjoy black humour then this is worth considering.
When asked if her own first novel was autobiographical Jeanette Winterson had this to say:
Yes and no. All writers draw on their experience but experience isn't what makes a good book. As the stand-up comics say, 'It's the way you tell 'em'. Oranges is written in the first person, it's direct and uninhibited, but it isn't autobiography in the real sense.
Céline could say much the same. When you look at the life of Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches (Céline was a penname, the first name of his grandmother) it's obvious that the character of Ferdinand Bardamu has more than a little in common with his creator. On a whim a twenty-year-old Bardamu enlists, is wounded during the war for which he receives the médaille militaire for assumed bravery ("[l]uckily, when it comes to heroism, people are willing to believe anything"), wastes some time in colonial Africa (where he contracts malaria and dysentery), travels through post-World War I America (where he works on the production line of the Ford Motor Company), before returning to France, where he becomes a medical doctor and establishes a practice in a poor Paris suburb, the fictional Garenne-Rancy, which he quits when the going gets tough and after drifting through a few odd jobs ends the book managing an asylum. Destouches joined the French army two years before the start of the first World War in what he describes as an act of rebellion against his parents, had a moderately successful war—he was also awarded the médaille militaire for actual bravery—worked (although not very successfully) in French Cameroons as a representative of the Sangha-Oubangui company; after contracting malaria and dysentery he returned home, became a doctor, married, abandoned his family to move to America where, amongst other things, he studied the conditions of the workers at the Ford Motor Company before returning to France where he set up a short-lived practice in in Montmartre, in the north end of Paris, specialising in obstetrics which he subsequently left due to financial pressures to take up a position in nearby clinic and later a commercial laboratory.
Destouches was—and appears to have remained throughout his life—an anti-Semite. There is only one brief mention of Jews in this book which is more funny than upsetting—he mentions at one point a "Negro-Judeo-Saxon band"—but I can imagine those who are sensitive boycotting his entire oeuvre on general principles. The irony, of course, is that the protagonist of his first novel is cast very much in the mould of the wandering Jew. As he had been a vocal supporter of Hitler, Destouches was forced to flee France after the end of the war. Named a collaborator, he was convicted in absentia and held on Death Row in a Copenhagen prison before being sentenced to one year of imprisonment, having half his property seized and being declared a national disgrace. He was subsequently granted amnesty and returned to France in 1951. He died in 1961 at the age of sixty-seven. Before you're too quick to judge him consider this:
Céline’s practice was a financial shambles but this did not prevent him from publishing pamphlets about the sanitary conditions endured by poor working families, savagely criticizing the public health policies that bore little relation to the social reality that he saw each day.
Céline served most of his life as a general practitioner in the working class suburbs of Paris where he cared for the sick and the penniless. Not accepting any payment from patients with little or no money and paying for the medicine for paupers from his own pocket, docteur Destouches was especially renowned for his gentle care with children and the elderly. The literary figure Céline may have been portrayed as a nihilist and a monstrous being, but docteur Destouches served his community.
When I first heard about the book I assumed I was going to be reading a war novel, a French All Quiet on the Western Front, but in reality only about a twelfth of the book deals directly with the conflict although what happens there is important because it changes the protagonist's world view. Talking about the book in an article for The New York Times, Will Self—who in the article admits that that Journey to the End of the Night "is the novel, perhaps more than any other, that inspired me to write fiction"—writes:
Céline’s war is not the familiar, muddy charnel house sketched by Remarque or the British war poets but a free-form affair, characterized by delirious mobility, the garish illumination of burning villages and chance encounters between renegade and cowardly combatants. It is a Goya etching animated in the style of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
I think this must be where I first imagined Bardamu as some sort of Gallic Blackadder. Take this bit:
Down the road, way in the distance, as far as we could see, there were two black dots, plunk in the middle like us, but they were two Germans and they'd been busy shooting for the last fifteen or twenty minutes.
Maybe our colonel knew why they were shooting, maybe the Germans knew, but I, so help me, hadn't the vaguest idea. As far back as I could search my memory, I hadn't done a thing to the Germans, I'd always treated them friendly and polite. I knew the Germans pretty well, I'd even gone to school in their country when I was little, near Hanover. I'd spoken their language. A bunch of loudmouthed little halfwits, that's what they were, with pale, furtive eyes like wolves; we'd go out to the woods together after school to feel the girls up, or we'd fire popguns or pistols you could buy for four marks. And we drank sugary beer together. But from that to shooting at us right in the middle of the road, without so much as a word of introduction, was a long way, a very long way. If you asked me, they were going too far. This war, in fact, made no sense at all. It couldn't go on. Had something weird got into these people? Something I didn't feel at all? I suppose I hadn't noticed it . . . Anyway, my feelings toward them hadn't changed. In spite of everything. I'd have liked to understand their brutality, but what I wanted still more, enormously, with all my heart, was to get out of there, because suddenly the whole business looked to me like a great big mistake.
This early section has a light and flippant tone but as the sections move on—there are no formal chapters to the book merely section breaks—we see a level of paranoia set in that never quite leaves Bardamu. As he puts it:
There are different ways of being condemned to death. Oh! What wouldn't I have given to be in jail instead of here! What a fool I'd been! If only I had had a little foresight and stolen something or other when it would have been so easy and there was still time. I never think of anything. You come out of jail alive, out of a war you don't! The rest is blarney.
Bardamu's war really doesn't last too long which is perhaps fortunate because Bardamu is not a brave man:
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.
He dreams about going AWOL and had circumstances not got in the way before the opportunity to desert had presented itself he likely would have. As it happens he is wounded, sent to Paris to recuperate and it becomes clear very quickly that he is in no rush to get back to "the flaming graveyards of no man's land". He meets Lola, a sexually attractive but deeply stupid American who had "come to help [them] save France … to the best of her humble ability but with all her heart!" It is she who first makes Bardamu curious about the States, although Fate and finances dictate he take a circuitous route to get there.
Invalided out of the army he decides—on a whim one must imagine because he seems to make all his major life decisions that way—to head for Africa where he is set "to become a minor employee of Compagnie Pordurière (one might translate this as Pshit & Co.)" That or the decision is made for him and he has no strong opinions either way because he writes, "[t]hey shoved me on board in the hope that I'd recuperate in the colonies." Either way he doesn't possess sufficient funds to be able to head straight for America. He boards a ship "so old that the copper plate with its birth date had been removed from the upper deck; the date was such ancient history it had inspired the passengers with fear and witticisms. … If it kept afloat on those tepid seas, it was only thanks to its [many coats of] paint." He is lucky to survive the voyage. For some reason some of the crew and passengers take a dislike to him, treat him like the ship's Jonah
I learned from one of the stewards that my fellow passengers, by common accord, thought me affected, not to say insolent . . . that they suspected me of being a pimp and a pederast . . . something of a cocaine addict on the side . . . but only on the side . . . Then the suspicion made its way around that I must have left France to escape the consequences of certain heinous crimes. But I was only at the beginning of my troubles.
so he spends much of the trip skulking in his room and doing his business out of a porthole. But survive he does. His expectations do not. What he imagined he would be experiencing was
…the real, grandiose Africa of impenetrable forests, fetid swamps, inviolate wildernesses, where black tyrants wallowed in sloth and cruelty on the banks of never-ending rivers. I would barter a pack of "Pilett" razor blades for big long elephant's tusks, gaudy-coloured birds, and juvenile slaves. Guaranteed. That would be life! Nothing in common with the emasculated Africa of travel agencies and monuments, of railways and candy bars. Certainly not! We'd be seeing Africa in the raw, the real Africa!
That is a far cry from what greets him. Just as he had marched off to join the army without really knowing what he was getting into, the same could be said for his experience of the colony of Bambola-Bragamance.
Understandably, a life spent waiting for the thermometer to go down made everybody more and more cantankerous. The consequence was private and collective quarrels, preposterous and interminable, between the military and the administration, between the administration and the traders, between these two in temporary alliance and the military, between the whole lot of them and the black population, and finally between blacks and blacks. The little energy that hadn't been sapped by malaria, thirst, and the heat was consumed by hatred so fierce and deep seated that it wasn't uncommon for these colonials to drop dead on the spot, poisoned by themselves like scorpions.
You've got to watch out. It's not just the people who are hysterical down there, objects are the same way. Life only becomes tolerable at nightfall, but then almost immediately the darkness is taken over by swarms of mosquitoes. Not one or two or a hundred, but billions of them. Survival under those conditions is quite an achievement. A carnival by day, a colander by night, a quiet war.
He learns that "[t]he director of the Compagnie Pordurière du Petit Congo … [is] looking for an inexperienced man to take charge of one of the trading posts in the bush" and so he applies; it looks like light work. The man he finds out he has to replace is one Leon Robinson a soldier he had encountered in Flanders during the war, a man cut from the same cloth as he (his doppelgänger if you will); they had planned to surrender to the Germans together … if only they could have located some Germans; that particular night none were abroad and the two were forced to go back to their respective regiments. He had run across him once in Paris, too, so we know Robinson survived the war and the simple fact is that Fate/God/unforeseen circumstance keeps arranging for these two to cross paths if not swords; they meet again in Detroit, in Paris and in Toulouse. "Céline once confided to his secretary, 'Bardamu? He's not me, he's my double. But so is Robinson.'"
The relationship between Bardamu and Robinson is the key structural device employed, and it is through contemplating the actions of Robinson that Bardamu attains a kind of acceptance of his destiny.
They are each journeying—as are we all—toward the end of night. Like Molloy (and numerous other characters in Beckett's novels and stories) these are basically indolent men. Of course life won't permit them to be completely idle but neither has any real get-up-and-go. The irritating thing—from their perspective—is that they both exhibit a restlessness and so, albeit often without a backwards glance, every few years (sometimes only months) they find they can no longer fight the urge to shuffle along. Bardamu realises that movement brings only temporary relief—even Beckett's bedridden Malone shifts position from time to time—he nevertheless has come "to regard moving as his only defence against destiny." There are differences: Robinson has at least some degree of ambition and a greater fondness for money (and the comfort it affords); Bardamu is the more sentimental and guilt-ridden of the two. He never quite manages to shake of the idealism we see in that young man marching off to war and revelling in the attention from those waving him on his way. War has opened his eyes and he sees everything that bit clearer on his return but the death of a young boy from typhoid fever can still get to him. At one point he takes a stroll around the old neighbourhood where he used to practice medicine:
Passing the house where Bébert's aunt had been the concierge, I'd have liked to go in and see who was living now in the lodge where I'd taken care of Bébert and where he had died. Maybe his schoolboy picture was still hanging over the bed . . . But it was too late to be waking people up. I went on without showing myself . . .
Bébert is the young boy he went to extraordinary lengths to try to save. Bardamu says:
I was much more interested in preventing Bébert from dying than if he had been an adult. You never mind very much when an adult passes on. If nothing else, you say to yourself, it's one less stinker on earth, but with a child you can never be so sure. There's always the future.
He can't save him and ends up simply putting on a show for the mother's sake:
"Camomile!" Bébert murmured faintly, an echo submerged in his fever. Why try to tell her different? I'd go through the two or three professional motions she expected of me, and then I'd go and face the night, not at all pleased with myself, because, like my mother, I could never feel entirely innocent of any horrible thing that happened.
He meets an old woman near the Saint-Georges Métro station.
[She] was wailing about her granddaughter in the hospital, stricken with meningitis, so she said.
With that as an excuse, she was taking up a collection. With me she was out of luck. All I could give her was words. I told her about little Bébert and also about a little girl I'd taken care of in Paris, who had died of meningitis while I was in medical school. It had taken her three weeks to die, and her mother in the bed next to hers was so unhappy she couldn't sleep, so she masturbated the whole three weeks, and even when it was all over there was no way of stopping her.
Which goes to show that we can't do without our pleasures for so much as a second, and that it's very hard to be really unhappy. Life is like that.
For all Bardamu looks down on humanity it is not from a great height. He is well aware of what he is. The only difference he might argue is level of clarity; he doesn't pretend to be what he is not except perhaps in job interviews where the less said the better: caveat emptor. If the war has taught him one thing it's that people will do whatever is necessary to survive and so when things don't go his way—for example when he gets sold into slavery after abandoning his post in Africa (probably a fantasy provoked by fever)—he is nothing if not philosophical about his plight and might have stayed in that state longer had the galley (an honest to goodness Spanish slave galley) not taken him exactly (and a little conveniently) where he wanted to go: America. He hasn't even left Ellis Island when he's fallen into a job as a flea counter, something he has developed a talent for:
One two three I reeled off the little spiel I had prepared. "I believe in the enumeration of fleas! It's a civilizing factor, because enumeration is the basis of the most invaluable statistical data! ... A progressive country must know the number of its fleas, broken down according to sex, age group, year and season . . .”
It is a job he excels at and his successes earn his immediate boss a promotion which means Bardamu can step into his boss's shoes—it's the American way—but what does he do? He indulges his "mania for running away from everywhere in search of God knows what" and never looks back. This whole episode is farcical and that is typical of the book, the way it provides 'light' relief from all the doom and gloom. After he has fled Ellis Island he's concerned that he might attract the unwanted attention of the authorities. To avoid a cop he slips into what turns out to be a public convenience:
It so happened that just to one side of my bench there was a big hole in the sidewalk, something like the Metro at home. That hole seemed propitious, so vast, with a stairway all of pink marble inside it. I'd seen quite a few people from the street disappear into it and come out again. It was in that underground vault that they answered the call of nature. I caught on right away. The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking faeces with barbarous noises in front of everybody.
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 to 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 faecal 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 equalled 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 labour. The constipated were threatened with ingenious tortures.
When a gush of water announced a vacancy, the clamour around the free compartment redoubled, and as often as not a coin would be tossed for its possession. No sooner read, newspapers, though as thick as pillows, were dismembered by the horde of rectal toilers. The smoke made it hard to distinguish faces, and the smells deterred me from going too close.
To a foreigner the contrast was disconcerting. Such free-and-easy intimacy, such extraordinary intestinal familiarity, and up on the street such perfect restraint. It left me stunned.
I returned to the light of day by the same stairway and went back to the same bench to rest.
This is characteristic of the uncompromising and graphic way in which Bardamu perceives things. At the start of the book his colonel is killed right in front of him and this is how he describes it:
As for the colonel, I didn't wish him any hard luck. But he was dead too. At first I didn't see him. The blast had carried him up the embankment and laid him down on his side, right in the arms of the dismounted cavalryman, the courier, who was finished too. They were embracing each other for the moment and for all eternity, but the cavalryman's head was gone, all he had was an opening at the top of the neck, with blood in it bubbling and glugging like jam in a kettle. The colonel's belly was wide open, and he was making a nasty face about it. It must have hurt when it happened. Tough shit for him! If he'd beat it when the shooting started, it wouldn't have happened.
I'm not going to tell you what happens to Bardamu in the end other than to say that were it not for the continual reappearance of Robinson and the trouble that follows him around like a lost puppy, there really wouldn't be much of a story and, to be honest, there isn't much of a story. He trudges from A to B to C to D and on, through mud, through jungle, along congested streets by day and down empty streets by night. Once he's used a place up he moves on. He's not exactly running from or to anything. He simply can't sit still. I guess he imagines it'll be harder for Fate to hit a moving target.
It's hard to see looking back just how radical this book was—not so much in its sentiment (everyone was in the throes of existential angst back then) but its style. He presents an "extraordinary linguistic mélange" that, at its most extreme, reminds one of the stream of consciousness writings of Joyce. "Style," as defined by Proust, "is not an embellishment as certain people think, it is not even a master of technique, it is—like the colours with painters—a quality of vision, the revelation of the private universe that each one of us can see and which others cannot see" and Céline writes with great style. In addition to an exceedingly casual use of language—"Me, I've slipped the spoken word into print. In one sole shot," he boasted in interview—he probably uses ellipses more than any other writer, although, from all accounts, he uses them even more in later books:
This stylistic trait, which Celine would later designate as the "ties' of his "métro emotif," gives Céline's writing its particular pulsating rhythm. Dislocated phrases, the connective tissue between them having been replaced by ellipsis points, are meant to bombard the reader with almost explosive verbal energy.
If you like Beckett (the trilogy and the novellas), Sartre (Nausea), Malraux (Man's Fate), Bukowski (Post Office) and Camus (The Outsider, The Plague) then this is a book you will very likely enjoy. Not sure 'enjoy' is the right word but it'll do for now. "Céline raises his negative feelings to the level of art, and makes it easy for us to admire the virtuosity of their expression. If he hoped to lower our spirits, by bringing us to share his own gloomy philosophy of life, then he failed … its effect is the opposite."
Finally a word on the translation. To this end I defer to the Amazon commenter H Tuco who writes:
Some people swear by the newer Manheim translations as the absolute best, but I for one, found them a little too willing to please 'hip' American audiences by using certain more popular forms of speech, at the expense of a stronger but more restrictively high-brow literary quality. That's why I say, read the Manheim versions but don't ignore the older translations available in the libraries , some of them are brilliant and turn Céline into a much more refined writer than Manheim, even if the curse words are toned down and euphemised. Of course, most French people will tell you that it's absolutely ridiculous to read Céline in anything but French!
And in response Chad W. Post over at Three Percent:
The two translations [John Marks’s and Ralph Manheim’s translation of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night] are so different, line by line, word by word, that it is obviously extremely difficult, requiring much ingenuity, judgement and (presumably) compromise, to render Céline’s language into English. More interestingly, though, the distinctive lineaments of Céline’s creation emerge so unmistakably from both translations that, though made of words, they seem impervious to words. The ideas are too cool not to make it across. (Within limits, obviously; they are immune to the fluctuations of skilled translators doing their level best by the work.) This, and not premature senility or recollected mania, was why I’d felt such ennui reading Manheim’s new translation: I was expecting a revelation, but I’d already had it. Manheim’s new version was more smoothly readable while more sharply particular, grittier, earthier, an improvement in most (not all) ways over Marks’s fifty-year-old, and now a little fusty and clunky by comparison, original. But —
Personally, the Manheim is the one I prefer. Possibly because that’s the one I’m familiar with, the Céline I know, but I think it goes beyond that. Manheim is more direct, vulgar, and vivid. His translation leaps and crackles in a jangly, almost out-of-control way that I find captivating . . .
Having only read Manheim's I really can't say but I agree with Post's description. You can read an extract from the book on Alma's site here. Judge for yourself.
One last thing: the title of this book is Journey to the End of the Night not A Long Day's Journey into Night which is a play by Eugene O'Neill. Ask me in a week's time what the book's title was and I bet I get it wrong.
P.S. For the record, after my wife had edited this, she asked me what the name of the book was and I did indeed get it wrong.
 Andrew Irving, 'Journey to the End of the Night: Disillusion and Derangement among the Senses', Journeys, Volume 9, Issue 2, p.142
 Alexander Styhre, 'Céline and the aesthetics of hyperbole: Style, points, parataxis and other literary devices' in ephemera vol.11(3), p.260
 Alexander Styhre, 'Céline and the aesthetics of hyperbole: Style, points, parataxis and other literary devices' in ephemera vol.11(3), p.262
 Marcel Proust, Days of Reading, trans. J. Sturrock, p.119
 'Louis-Ferdinand Céline, The Art of Fiction No. 33', The Paris Review, Winter-Spring 1964, No. 31