Translated by Greg Johnson*
Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s extraordinary “pamphlets” — Trifles for a Massacre , The School for Cadavers , A Fine Mess — may have caused many admirers to forget that our recently-minted prophet first surfaced in the literary world as a novelist. It seems to me that Journey to the End of the Night — illustrious though it may be, and as unforgettable as the arrival of a cyclone — is still neglected in accounting for the makeup of the prodigious artistic phenomenon that is Céline. For art is irrelevant to political enthusiasts, and today people are more interested in theoreticians than creators, which is a shame.
More than ten years after Journey appeared in late 1932, there is nothing wrong with attempting the test of time: and since we know Bardamu—the crotchety, courageous, and immortal Bardamu—better now, we can link his old reactions with those inspired by the Jews, the Popular Front, Moscow, warmongering, defeat, the National Revolution. The Journey continues, it will never end until it arrives at the place of the dead, which is “the true home of the stubborn,” as Céline put beautifully one day in a letter. Reread Journey, it is worth the trouble.
This is, first of all, an admirable fictional creation, which burst upon us like a storm. Over time, its density appears to have increased, its eternal aspect has become weightier. Beyond the bloodless novels of the 20th century, beyond even the great French works of the 19th, it seems apparent to me that its 18th-century counterparts are unappreciated. Many times we think of Daniel Defoe’s neglected masterpiece Moll Flanders, of his lyricism, of his casual way of encompassing the world scene and then suddenly zooming in on the misery of the big city, its pickpockets and obscure murders. But Moll Flanders is more unconscious than Bardamu, the hero of Journey. A novel with stories within stories, like so many novels of the 18th century, a novel of a city in mist, in which Paris strikingly resembles Dickens’ London, his crushed proletariat and thieves in the fog, a truly dilapidated and unique creation . . .
In re-reading Journey, we may be able to judge, to differentiate its parts and development. The war novel summarizes tons of war literature and is an anarchistic and violent masterpiece; the colonial novel, oozing sour sweat, devoured by mosquitos, baked by the sun, is in the same vein, with the same intensity; the American novel concedes nothing; and the story of the Henrouille family, poor pensioners in a poor suburb, who commit a sordid murder, in which a daughter plots to kill her old godmother, in which a penniless bohemian is charged with the crime, is an unforgettable snapshot of modern misery, with its seedy doctor, greedy little people, rutted roads, and disease-ridden tenements. Perhaps the end of the book could not maintain these heights, and Bardamu, having become a doctor for refugees, watches the dénouement of the drama of the Henrouille family in the murder of the penniless killer, which is handled in a rather repetitive and slipshod manner. But the color of three quarters of this thick volume remains unaltered against a background of storm and lead.
Journey shocks us with its vocabulary. The torrent of slang is relentless. Of course, compared to Céline’s present works, the language of his first novel seems almost classical. The syntax is also closer to literary French; it is more varied than in the works that followed, with their short sentences separated by endless ellipses and their sometimes confusing monotony and simplicity. In Journey, everything is clear: few words are invented or deformed, although coinages abound elsewhere, and their invention, often splendid, is also sometimes useless and abusive. For example, the outlandish episodes, the surrealism of the rabble, the macabre little ballets, and the unbridled imagination of Trifles for a Massacre. For example, the pages full of exclamation points and rather hysterical scalp dances, which, according to one’s mood, dazzle or puzzle, as in Death on the Installment Plan, a novel that is often extraordinary and often powerful, but which is inferior to Journey. Here Céline uses the slang pithily, effortlessly, but within a restricted frame. And let’s face it: the result is much more striking. When you make the attempt and re-read Journey you will have the slightly surprising impression that you are tackling a classic text, in which nothing surprises us from the start, in which everything is simultaneously smooth, hard, and shadowy. It is the way that all great works age.
And no doubt, when the novel appeared, people were perhaps less sensitive to the truth of such terrible pictures, or the classic and juicy presentation of this Bardamu criss-crossing the globe like Candide from the war to the colonies, through love and money. But we knew immediately that we always understand: this book is one of the finest refractory books of our literature. Our writers have always been bourgeois: it was the bourgeois Hugo who wrote Les Misérables. Vallès, the authentic rebel, is nothing next to Céline.
Céline quarrels with the whole universe: he knows bourgeois vulgarity, and he knows proletarian baseness; he has no illusions about any class, or any being. War is ugly; society is awful; man is a horrible termite in his great filthy stinking cities — and the countryside is no better; and beyond that, it’s boring. Journey is a total indictment, and Céline’s later works are a series of fragmentary indictments against the Jews, against society, against the army, against Moscow, against the bourgeois republic. How ironic to think he could be enlisted against his will among the petty bourgeois writers of the Popular Front!
This instinctive revolt places harsh tableaus before us, especially cityscapes of unmatched power. There is Balzac’s Paris in 20 volumes, Baudelaire’s Paris in 20 verses, and Céline’s Paris, or rather his suburbs, the suburbs ignored by our novelists, the setting for the lives of millions, the dilapidated planet, home of tuberculosis and alcoholism, stunted children, squalid economies, dying pensioners. This is Céline’s world, a dreadful world, an image of the moral world of barbarism and social slavery, the fulfillment of the 19th century bourgeoisie and industrialism. Bardamu’s language, with its slag and its slang, may be destined to age quickly — unfortunately, nothing dates faster than slang — but his discoveries and developments seem transferable only into these blackened photographs, developed in an acid bath.
Is all lost, then? Can no light shine in this doomed world? I have searched Journey for little beacons of salvation. They are there, badly beaten by the storm. On the African shore, Bardamu met a big brute of a N.C.O., who had a portrait of his niece in a locket, and for her he remained six years in the colonies, suffering the sun, disease, and possible death, all to send her money. “He knew the angels by name, that boy, though he didn’t look it. He offered this little girl quite enough tenderness to create a whole new world, and it did not show . . . He seemed quite ordinary. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a mark to distinguish the heroes and the villains.” And in America, there was the servant girl, kind and gentle, of whom Bardamu cherished warm and vivid memories. I think that’s all. That’s a lot. That’s a lot, because in addition, there are the children.
In A Fine Mess, the pamphlet of the defeat that is so hard for us, one finds at the end a few heartfelt but precise pages on education and what can be done for children whose hearts are still not rotten. One is sometimes stunned by his freshness. But it is already there in Journey. “So he must love something, there is less risk with children than men, at least we have the excuse to hope that they will not turn out to be swine like us . . . It is never that sad when an adult passes away, it’s always a cow under the earth, as they say, while a child is still less certain. There in the future.” The future is not certain, of course. But there is hope, which is the most seductive form of life.
We love to discover future catastrophes in this writer, who has so often prophesied evils to come with an implacable precision. A few years before the crushing defeat struck the world in which we live, the sentence had been pronounced by Journey. There is historical importance, like that of Dangerous Liaisons, on another plane, which pronounced the sentence on the aristocratic society that the Revolution would decapitate. But historical importance has never been enough to effectively insure the destiny of a book.
What makes the worth of Journey so striking, beyond the contingencies of its birth — the expansion of the bourgeoisie, the euphoria of the League of Nations, France on the “joyous path to its destiny,” as one of its rulers claimed then — is the book’s visionary power. This book, whose base is realistic, constantly surpasses realism. The war is remembered, not through true details, but through lyrical reconstruction, black and murky. It is in a galley that Bardamu reaches America, and this incredible detail is significant: we are carried beyond the flat transcription of reality, as in some all-too-rare old movies, to where the world is revealed. Never a slave to technique, morality, or politics, with Journey, Céline begins a dark vituperation against a universe without God, and in doing so, he predicted in advance disasters written in the sky above the rotting edifice. Someone had to stand up and say “no” to the lies of our civilization and paint advance visions of the Apocalypse.
Journey is a dark epic, sooty and sullied, where modern man is wonderfully insulted by a poet with a furious heart, a poet who perhaps only ever believed in children.
* I wish to thank Philippe Régniez for providing the original text and helping me through a couple rough spots.