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Books Journey to the End of NightThe first one-fifth of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, [1934, Ralph Manheim translation, 1983] is from his own experience in the French Army (from 1912) and the war in France in 1914 — not yet dubbed The First World War in acknowledgement there would be others.  Though a fictioned-up memoir like so many novels of that war, it does not so much ‘come’ from those experiences, as explode out of them, a barely organized cascade of impressions, images, curses, slang and outrage — and not only against the war or the officers, but against himself first of all, his ineptness, his cowardice.

After a bracing argument with a friend, mocking “King Misery” and his “hand at their throats,” a regiment of soldiers passes by in the street.

Enthusiasm lifted me to me feet… And there I was with the regiment, marching behind the colonel and his band.  That’s exactly how it happened … We marched a long time.  There were streets and more streets, and they were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us on, bombarding us with flowers from cafe terraces, railroad stations, crowded churches.  You never saw so many patriots in your life!  And then there were fewer patriots …  It started to rain, and then there were still fewer and fewer, and not a single cheer, not one.

From light irony, he soon moves to the sardonic.  The shooting has started.

Could I, I thought, be the last coward on earth?  How terrifying! … All alone with two million stark raving, heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs?  With and without helmets, without horses, on motorcycles, bellowing, in cars, screeching, shooting, plotting, flying, kneeling, digging, taking cover, bounding over trails, root-toot-tooting, shut up on earth as if it were a looney bin, ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, whole continents, everything that breathes, destroy, destroy,  madder than mad dogs, worshiping their madness (which dogs don’t) a hundred, a thousand times madder than a thousand dogs, and a lot more vicious!  A pretty mess we’re in!  No doubt about it, this crusade I’d let myself in for was the apocalypse!

 From the euphoria of enlisting, to the first terrifying battles, to the grotesqueries of the mechanized war.

They were embracing each other for the moment and for all eternity, but the cavalryman’s head was gone, all he had was an opening at the top of his neck, with blood in it bubbling and glugging like jam in a kettle.

He imagines being taken prisoner, as if that would end the war for him. He tries for the best wound of all – that which would leave him alive but removed from the battle field.  He goes out on scouting parties “night after idiotic night.”

“When the grave lies open before us,” he says, “let’s not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word.”

The roads are clogged with artillery going one way and refugees going the other.  Bardamu, Celine’s alter-ego, and the others can’t move.  Nor can they sleep.  Nor is there food, except for the ranking officers.

“Those who still had a bit of spirit lost it.  That was when the started shooting men to bolster their morale …”  And then August moves into September when ‘certain stretches of the road and parts of the forest were still propitious to the doomed.. In those places you could still toy with the idea you were more or less safe, you could finish eating your bread and bully beef without being too much plagued by the idea that this was the last time.  But from October on there were no more of these little lulls, the hail fell thicker and sharper and faster, spiced with shot and shell.  Soon we’d be at the heart of the storm and the very thing we were trying not see, our own death, would be so close to our noses that we couldn’t see anything else.”

He makes real, in ways that others [Sassoon, Barbusse, even Chevallier] with more measured prose, do not, the jangled nerves, the heightened sensibility. His conversations with himself in which the exaggerations – with no pretense of self control– point to how demonically exaggerated the conditions of life are, a hyperbole which is simultaneously terrifying and comic.  There isn’t a page without an arresting image, the kind of book which, as Borges tells us, can only be summarized by repeating every line.

He tells us, moving from the war to his post-war travels, to Africa and then to the United States (to work at a Ford factory!]  “I’d saved my guts, but my brains were scrambled for good.”  It seems they were.  The dark, lacerating humor against the war and those who committed it grew darker, and lost its humor. The generalized misanthropy grew bigoted and specific in a 1937 viciously anti-Semitic pamphlet, Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre) (1937) followed by others, and equally ugly.  He supported a French alliance with Hitler’s Gemany and during the occupation of France was a fervent collaborationist. He fled to Denmark in 1945, not returning to France until 1951 after being granted amnesty for a conviction in absentia of being a Nazi collaborator.

Despite never renouncing his anti-Semitism, continuing with ties to the Holocaust deniers of France, his literary reputation grew.  Death on Credit, based on his work as a public health doctor, continued and expanded his slashing, non-sequential prose and his themes of suffering and captivity in a society going to rot and madness.  The war had swallowed up, and become, life itself.  He was honored among the American Beats for his style and vision.  Ginsberg and Burroughs visited him in France in 1958. Kerouac spoke of his influence.  Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, Henry Miller and Ken Kesey all found material and inspiration. Jim Morrison of “The Doors” joined them.  Charles Bukowski, above all, praises him as the “greatest writer of 2,000 years.”

His non-fiction, pamphlets and propaganda, have not been re-printed in France following the wishes of his widow.  Journey to the End of Night, devoured when it was published is not so well known today.  Even though it is thought by many to be one of the most important novels of the 20th century it is on few lists of WW I Fiction to read.  If I were to recommend one fictional WW I text, however, to 21st century folks with short attention spans, this well may be it. Have a read of the first 1o pages and see if you want to put it down.

Nothing was left in the village, no living thing except terrified cats.  First the furniture went, smashed up for firewood, chairs, tables, sideboards, from the lightest to the heaviest.  And anything that the boys could carry, they made off with.  Combs, lamps, cups, silly little things, even bridal wreaths, everything went.  As if we’d had years of life ahead of us.  They looted to take their minds off their troubles, to make it look as if they had years before them.  Everybody likes that feeling.

As far as they were concerned, gunfire was nothing but noise.  That’s why wars keep going.  Even the people who make them, who fight in them, don’t really get the picture.  Even with a bullet in their gut, they’d go on picking up old shoes that “might come in handy.”  The way a sheep, lying on its side in a meadow, will keep on grazing with its dying breath.


For more on Céline and Journey to the End of Night see:

The Guardian, U.K. Feb, 2014

The New Yorker, May, 2013

Interview with Celine, 1961 in The Paris Review