Tony, a French friend, recently sent me an illustrated French novel by a novelist that I was embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961). I googled him, as you do, and discovered that he is not only regarded as one of the greatest French novelists of the 20th Century, but also the most reviled. I was plunged, yet again, into that dangerous territory where I had to decide how to regard a great artist, like Ezra Pound or Richard Wagner, who held unacceptable and shocking anti-semitic opinions, even if, in Céline’s case, they are not expressed in this, his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the end of the night), published in 1931. I am pleased that I have read it.
Later he wrote two anti-semitic polemics which I will never read but which, I am told are very different to his first novel which is a truly revolutionary work of fiction where, in scenes of dark cartoonish horror and humour, the author writes in vivid working class French, almost dialect, about life in and after the 1914 – 1918 war, as well as about the degrading living conditions of the poor in society, in France, Africa and the USA. Conditions he witnessed first hand as a soldier and later as a doctor. The story is told in the liveliest of language by the narrator, the much put-upon and unfortunate Ferdinand Bardamu, a semi-autobiographical caricature of Céline himself. This great novel must not be ignored even if that is not the case for Céline’s later work.
Bardamu, with his sinister and ultimately tragic friend, or even enemy, Robinson, experiences a series of picaresque adventures at war in Flanders, where human life has no value for the generals, and in peacetime, where life is still harsh and unfair. In French colonial Africa native Africans endure hardships every bit as harsh as those in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and French colonial officials live abandoned lives of poverty and disease.
Bardamu and Robinson meet up again in New York where rampant capitalism has gone wild in a frenzy of sex and materialism and when or if, inhumane industrial conditions allow for any remission, poor workers like Bardamu find their only comfort in flea-pit cinemas and in the arms of affordable sex-workers.
Back in Paris, Bardamu sees the same harsh realities of life where money is everything and most people never have enough. There is no hope in this world, wherever Bardamu and Robinson go, life is only a preparation for death, which will be as good as your courage allows. That is the journey to the end of the night.
My absorption in this extraordinary novel (reading in French but with a parallel English translation on my Kindle), was made all the more gripping by the wonderful and appropriately cartoonish illustrations by the great French artist, Jacques Tardi. Those haunted faces and lives will stay with me forever.
So many of the issues of inhumanity and existentialist uncertainty tackled so powerfully in this novel remain with us today that it is a double tragedy that someone of Céline’s genius should, like Ezra Pound, poison their profundity of thought with the unforgivable and still threatening evils of anti-semitism. It will also be a tragedy if this book’s insights are missed by anyone put off reading it by the author’s reputation.
Many thanks, again, to my friend Tony for giving me this magnificent and thought-provoking book.