Translated by Mitch Abidor
Prior to its publication Céline shopped the manuscript of Journey to the End of the Night around to a couple of publishers. He wrote the following summary of the book to the prestigious Gallimard publishing house, but before they could agree to publish it he had already accepted the offer of Denoël et Steele.
To NRF, shortly before April 14, 1932
I submit to you my manuscript “Journey to the End of the Night” (five years of work).
I would be particularly grateful if you would tell me as soon as possible if you want to publish it and under what conditions
You ask me to provide you with a summary of this book. In truth, it’s a bizarre task you ask me to accomplish and I would never have thought of it. You might say it’s time I did. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel capable of doing it. (A little like the divers we see in films who splash out of the water onto the jetty…) I’m going to try to do it but without being fancy about it. I don’t think my summary will make you want to read the book.
In fact, this “Journey to the End of the Night” is a novelized tale written in a singular form, of which there are not many examples in literature in general. This wasn’t the way I wanted it. But that’s how it is. It’s a kind of literary, emotive symphony more than a real novel. The pitfall of this genre is boredom. I don’t think my thing is boring. From the emotional point of view this tale is close to what we get – or should get – from music. It stays at the edge of emotions and words, of precise representations, except at the accented moments, which are mercilessly precise.
From which flows a number of diversions that little by little join in with the theme and finally make it sing like a musical composition. All of this is quite pretentious and worse than ridiculous if the work has failed. I leave it to you to judge. For my part it’s a success. This is the way I view people and things. Too bad for them.
The intrigue is both complex and simple. It also belongs to the operatic genre. (This isn’t a recommendation!) It’s a great fresco of populist lyricism, of communism with a soul, and so mischievous, full of life.
The tale begins on the Place Clichy at the beginning of the war and ends fifteen years later at the Clichy festival. 700 pages of voyages around the world, men and the night, and love, especially love, which I hunt down, ruin, and which comes out of this tired, deflated, defeated . . . Crime, delirium, Dostoevskyism: there is something of everything in my thing, to learn from and to be amused by.
Robinson, my friend, some kind of worker, goes off to war (I think the war in his stead ), he flees from battles some way or another . . . he goes to tropical Africa . . . then to America . . . descriptions . . . descriptions . . . sensations . . . Everywhere and always he is ill at ease (romanticism, the evil of the twenty-first century ). Confused, he returns to France . . . he’s had it with traveling, with being exploited wherever he goes and with dying of inhibitions and hunger. He’s a modern proletarian. He’s going to decide to kill an old woman so that he can finally have a small amount of capital, that is, the starting point of freedom. He fails to kill her, the old lady, the first time. He wounds himself. He temporarily blinds himself. Since the old lady’s family was in cahoots with him they are all sent to the south of France in order to stifle the affair. It’s the old lady who now takes care of him. In the south they engage in a strange form of commerce. They exhibit mummies in a cellar (this brings in money). Robinson begins to see again. He gets engaged to a young woman from Toulouse. He’s going to fall into normal life. But in order for life to be normal you have to have some capital. And so he again gets the idea to knock off the old woman. And this time he doesn’t fail. She’s good and dead. He and his future wife are going to inherit. Bourgeois happiness awaits. But something prevents him from settling into bourgeois happiness, into love and material security. Something! Ah! Ah! And this something is the entire novel! Attention! He flees his fiancée and happiness. She chases after him him. She makes a scene after scene. Jealous scenes. She is the eternal woman confronting the new man . . . She kills him.
All this is perfectly presented. Under no conditions do I want this subject swiped from me. This is fodder for a century of literature. It’s the Prix Goncourt 1932 in an armchair for the happy publisher who will grab this peerless work , this capital moment of human nature . . .
With my best regards
1. In the original manuscript the characters of Robinson and Bardamu are reversed.
2. Typo for twentieth century
3. The novel failed – barely – to win the Goncourt