Friday, November 23, 2012

Louis-Ferdinand Celine - Journey to the End of the Night

I haven't posted much lately, but I have been reading. Just had a very challenging book on my plate. I'm fascinated by Paris in the early 20th Century: the explosion of philosophy, the unprecedented freedom of expression, the manifestos, the radicalism, all of it. It seems to be such an exciting time for a creative person to have been alive, as if the air was electric with change and genius. (I clearly romanticize the period a bit!).

Much of the literature is absurdist, existentialist, even nihilistic as writers shattered standards, social norms, and revolutionized self-expression. As a result, much of the literature is rather black in outlook. For some reason, though, I have always found this literature stimulating, even when it is downbeat, because of the questions being asked and dealt with. My latest read from the period is the infamous Journey to the End of the Night by the equally infamous Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Celine published Journey to the End of the Night  in 1934, and I believe it was his first novel. It was a success but also shocked the critics of the time. The shock value may have faded a bit by now, but what remains shocking about Celine's writing is the unmitigated revulsion and social cruelty bleeding from every sentence of his prose.

In one sense, Journey to the End of the Night builds off the realism of Zola. It takes a detailed, semi-autobiographical approach to the 'story'. However, there is no plot, no true conflict, and no character development. What we do get is a very clear view of the narrator's reflections on his life and the people around him. The narrator - named Ferdinand Bardamu - is a directionless failure, battered by life, and moving from one negative environment to the next, always feeling alienated and alone (and even hated). Add to this a strong nihilistic streak and Celine's prose, which is very casual and colloquial, and you have something thoroughly 'modern' in purpose and style.

Celine writes with utter candor, his brutal observations and acidic black humor adding a layer of omnipresent loathing to the bleak potpourri of the novel. That said, Celine has a wonderful command of language and is able to deliver stunning turns of phrase to perfectly capture the thoughts he wants to get across. This can be thought-provoking as well as appalling. A few choice lines/images:
- "My soul was as obscene as an open fly."
- "He had always been afraid of life, and now he attached his fear to something different, to death, to his blood pressure, just as for forty years he had attached it to the peril of not being able to finish paying for the house."
- "Youth may be nothing more than a hurry to grow old."
- "The morning papers hang yellow and limp, an enormous artichoke of news going bad."
- "Good work is tolerated only when hammed up."

He is also able to deliver images to illustrate his view of life. The image that has stuck with me most is from the following passage. This sums up Journey to the End of the Night quite well and also neatly encapsulates Celine's view of life and humanity:

"The crowd was outside a butcher shop. You had to squeeze into the circle to see what was going on. It was a pig, an enormous pig. He was groaning in the middle of the circle, like a man who's being pestered, but louder. The people were tormenting him, they never stopped. They'd twist his ears just to hear him squeal. He'd tug at his rope and try to escape and squirm and wriggle his feet in the air. Other people would poke him and prod him, and he'd bellow even louder with the pain. Everyone was laughing more and more.

"The pig couldn't manage to hide...He couldn't escape from those people, and he knew it. He kept urinating the whole time, but that didn't help him either...No hope. Everybody was laughing. The butcher back in his shop was exchanging signs and jokes with his customers and gesticulating with a big knife."

No lack of clarity there. Journey to the End of the Night represents - without doubt - the bleakest view of humanity and life I have ever encountered in a serious novel. The characters careen through events and experiences which suggest that - to Celine - life (the journey to the end of the night of the title) is a meaningless gauntlet of torment to endure before we die. As a result, the vices and crimes of characters are rarely described with the dramatic flair or outrage one might encounter in the novels of Camus or Zola. The vice is natural, the crimes irrelevant. His people are too jaded to find drama in anything and too petty and/or aware of the hopelessness of life to be outraged.

As I said, I find the literature of this period stimulating despite it's sometimes black tone. However, this book was almost too much even for me. The fidelity of Celine to his pessimism and disgust for life is artistically impressive, but it makes for a very tough read. I will also say that Celine sometimes loses control of his material, with sections of the novel lacking purpose. The book could have been condensed by perhaps 50-100. At the same time, the drudgery of the book is part of the point.

As always, I like to visit these dark corners of the human psyche, so I'm glad I've read Celine. If nothing else, I've expanded my education. Will I read another book by him? I'll give an answer I think Celine would approve of: What the hell for?

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