Though I have read a fair number of French authors—Camus, Sartre and Mauriac, to name a few—only Céline has made me laugh; and only in this particular book of his: “Journey to the End of the Night”.
Published in 1932, it is an autobiographical novel that is told in first-person by a character named Ferdinand Bardamu. He is a doctor but talks like a criminal, and his slangy, vulgar voice is generally gripping and sometimes uproarious. It can also be quite disturbing, as when he describes his combat experiences during World War I. Bardamu’s caustic voice during these episodes carries a definite potency. The prospect of losing his life in battle induces in him a general state of panic. His girlfriend at the time, a woman named Lola, says to him that only people who are insane or cowardly could reject war when their country is in danger. “If that’s the case,” Bardamu replies, “hurrah for the crazy people!” He does admit at certain points that he may not be right in the head.
After the war, he goes to Africa and provides the reader with fresh descriptions of injustice and despicable cruelty. But it is here where he encounters a spark of goodness in the world—in the person of a man named Alcide. This fellow has consigned himself to years of loneliness and drudgery for the sake of an orphaned niece whom his income supports. “Motivated by nothing but his good heart,” Bardamu observes, “he had set no conditions and asked nothing in return. To that little girl far away he was giving enough tenderness to make the whole world over…”
Though the novel’s overall tone is pessimistic and corrosively cynical, these flashes of plain goodness sometimes appear. Bardamu’s tender, sad affair with an American woman named Molly also comes to mind. Such moments in the rambling narrative do not result in a redemptive outcome, but they make the journey more agreeable than it otherwise would be. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, which may have been partly inspired by “Journey”, contains nothing comparably humanizing.
I have never finished anything else by Céline. I started “North” and “Castle to Castle”, but quickly lost interest. It’s doubtful that he ever topped “Journey to the End of the Night” anyway; least of all when he became an anti-Semitic crackpot and wrote a series of racist essays. Given Céline’s support of Nazism, I’m surprised that his literary status has stood firm. I’m glad, however, because I always try to separate the given work of art from the artist. For me, a novel always stands or falls according to its own merit, independent of the goodness or badness of its creator. So if the devil himself writes a good piece of fiction, I will give him his due.