The first time his name was brought up I seriously asked, “Who is Louis Ferdinand Celine?” I was older than I’d like to admit, but Celine has been all but disappeared from history for anti-semitic writings in the 1940s, which is seriously unfortunate considering how valuable his writing is. Smart writers like Philip Roth look past this because there is so much to be learned (and just enjoyed) from Celine’s prose and now that I am reading Celine it is clear to me how much Roth borrowed from the French doctor. Roth once said, “Celine is my Proust!” and added that regardless of his anti-semitism he was “a great liberator”, which probably explains why Roth became such a great writer, as he wasn’t afraid to study anywhere and everywhere, regardless of unpopular political sentiments.
I first tried to read Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night in 2013 to no success. I am not a pretentious reader so if I find a book hard to understand or have trouble getting into the story, I admit it, and I put it down. I did this with Naked Lunch, which I still can’t get into (though Junkie and Queer are great).
However, after reading Donald Goines’ Dopefiends for the second time recently, I figured, why not, I’ll pick up Celine again and see if I can get into him.
I took it slow, reading every sentence at about half the pace I would normally read a book. I started to appreciate his constant use of ellipses, as if the narrator is trailing off when he loses his thought, then returning with a new one. Then his mixture of ellipses and exclamation points started to make sense, as I realized it was the stream of consciousness of Ferdinand Bardamu pausing when lost and then returning full of energy to make new jokes about French dragoons wandering around in the countryside, shooting at each other as often as they shot at the Germans. The disorganization, the misanthropy, the deification of a dickhead corporal—it was all starting to make sense.
I am about halfway through the book at this point. Bardamu has survived the miserable torment of soldiers on the ship to Africa, an interesting subplot filled with unreliability and misanthropy, as Ferdinand explains to the reader that he has no idea why they hate him, though they accuse him of muttering all sorts of anti-patriotic things in the halls of the ship. He eats his meals in solitude, hides from the soldiers, and prays that he will see the coast of Africa before long. He also alleges that the humidity and heat of the African coast bring out the worst in otherwise decent Europeans, men who would be perfect gentleman in the freezing shit rain of London or Paris.
Celine takes time to get into. Like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger or Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, his writing is so off-kilter and so unstable from the high voltage prose that every sentence requires unpacking. Perhaps because he was a medical doctor, Celine’s ability to describe the human carcass is without equal, as he illustrates the pig-like god-soldier-cavalry who order him around or the African black man huddled over, larger than anyone else in the hut, being kicked to his knees after someone wraps a small scarf around his child’s neck and claims that he is clothed. The situations and interactions that Ferdinand Bardamu finds himself in are increasingly unreal, yet the obsessive nature with which Celine describes these meandering illustrations is more than real, it is hyper realistic and full of excess descriptions, almost like footnotes or captions flung right into the sentence. Celine is always describing the world on more than one level: he provides concrete illustration of the realism, coupled with extremely dark (and hilarious) riffs on the behavior, mannerisms, and Bardamu’s characteristically pitiful responses. An example of this is when soldiers bar his movement in the hall of a ship and he disappears into an internal monologue about the merits of cowardice, as anything that can help a dead man survive his execution is surely worthwhile.
Having read half of Journey to the End of the Night (I may write about Celine again in a couple days when I finish) it is becoming extremely obvious how many of my literary favorites borrowed or stole directly from this man. Bukowski’s Post Office, and the way in which Bukowski illustrates the postal manager, are ripped straight from Celine’s style of illustrating a corporal when he was in the military. I borrowed this idea from Bukowsi (which means I really borrowed from Celine without knowing it).
People largely seem to credit Celine with writing misanthropy with a stylish flair, but I think this is an underwhelming credit. Celine mastered the pitiful and misanthropic protagonist, sure, but he also took what Knut Hamsun did and pushed that a step further. While Hamsun was content to let a reader writhe inside the mind of a starving and totally insane wanderer, Celine took that wanderer on an adventure all over the world. To call Journey to the End of the Night a travel novel would be like to call Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground a book about toothaches, but Celine’s willingness to put the totally unreliable Bardamu through a series of eventful transitions around the globe shaped the future of loser lit, stream of consciousness novels, and dark comedy.
I am loving reading this book. I just had to take a three or four year break and come back to it in order to appreciate it.
Stay savage friends,