This novel, despite the blurb on its cover touting its "scabrous nihilism," actually winds up also affirming our struggle to keep such nihilism at bay. As we read on pg. 189: "What with being chucked out of everywhere, you're sure to find whatever it is that scares all those bastards so. It must be the end of the night, and that's why they're so dead set against going to the end of the night." The start reminds me of the post-WWI antiwar novel by Remarque, "All Quiet on the Western Front," or the later Dalton Trumbo screed "Johnny Got His Gun." The African section energizes a Conradian "Heart of Darkness" by bringing in more recognizably human characters rather than archetypes. Sergeant Alcide and the family bringing their rubber to trade at the store both leap off the page, and what Chinua Achebe has labored for many chapters to convey here becomes conveyed dramatically, ironically, and memorably in much fewer paragraphs.
The American episodes recalled for me Kafka's "Amerika" with their mix of comedy and confusion amidst industrial and urban freneticism. Celine anticipates Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London," which Eric Blair was exploring at the same time, roughly, as the latter part of Celine's epic. The return to France, not even halfway through the book, and the subsequent medical pursuits, arrive at not even the halfway point of the book, and you wonder how the plot (such as it is) will continue.
The humanism does reoccur, if sporadically, and every page contains aphoristic wisdom, often wittily if no less honestly uttered by Ferdinand. I'd like to find out, after reading this, how much "really" happened to Celine and how much was invented or revamped. I suppose, more than most authors, that the ties between reality and imagination on the page are drawn tighter than usual, in the style of "autobiographical fiction" like Francis Stuart's "Black List, Section H," by another author who found himself pursuing for the sake of artistic integrity less than popular stances during WWII. No surprise, as I'm reading Anthony Cronin's Beckett bio, that Sam was influenced by Celine, too. As such a work of uneasy inspiration from a raucous mind, Celine's craft might fall short of the formal perfection expected from the highest caliber of "classic" authors, but he errs for honesty's sake. He castigates modernism and transcends it. Instead, he pioneers existentialist 20c statements that challenge the primacy or the substitution of art for God.
I understand that Celine's later works fall much more into this darker zone between self-justification and self-release by prose. This novel was worth every long moment it took. It flows rapidly, yet demands close attention, curiously. You cannot enter into the mind of Ferdinand without being shaken up, and the author's narrative voice demands your full engagement. A bracing and novel, to use the French and the English terms, experience. In the end, you remember the moving moments of generosity, courage, and defiance amidst the grime and gloom.
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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
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When it was published in 1932, this then-shocking and revolutionary first fiction redefined the art of the novel with its black humor, its nihilism, and its irreverent, explosive writing style, and made Louis-Ferdinand Celine one of France's--and literature's--most important 20th-Century writers. The picaresque adventures of Bardamu, the sarcastic and brilliant antihero ofJourney to the End of the Nightmove from the battlefields of World War I (complete with buffoonish officers and cowardly soldiers), to French West Africa, the United States, and back to France in a style of prose that's lyrical, hallucinatory, and hilariously scathing toward nearly everybody and everything. Yet, beneath it all one can detect a gentle core of idealism.