Céline Blows My Mind, Which is Awesome

Journey to the End of the Night – Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)

            One of the greatest sources of information about books and writers that I am not aware of comes from the authors I read.  Charles Bukowski, and his raw, unvarnished views on the world around him, always fascinated me, and when I read a quote stating that Bukowski considered Louis-Ferdinand Céline “…the greatest writer of 2,000 years” I was intrigued, having heard mention of this French author whose style and mind helped set the stage for the modernist works of the 20th century.  As I always like to note any synchronicities around me, soon after reading that quote by Bukowski I was listening to the Doors, specifically the song “End of the Night.”  Looking up the song I found that it was a reference to a Céline novel titled “Journey to the End of the Night.”  I had to go and find this novel, and see what all the fuss was about!

            We jump right into the story of Ferdinand Bardamu, a veiled double for our author, and his cynicism about the world he inhabits, France during The Great War.  While talking about the terrible state he and his companions find themselves in, with the war getting closer and closer to them, our protagonist rashly jokes he will join the army, as he has no other prospects.  The crowd’s patriotic fervor eggs him on.  He proceeds to fool around, joining a column of marching soldiers.  By the time he realizes that the cheering crowds have thinned out, he was inside the army compound and in the military.

            The novel jumps from there right to Bardamu in the middle of a predictably chaotic and pointless skirmish, and his cynical view of things stands in sharp contrast with the patriots and flag-wavers he encounters.  His superior officers are brain-dead nitwits, some seeking glory, and others seeking power, with no concern for the safety and well-being of the men they lead.  This is a point that Céline/Bardamu reiterates constantly.  He finds the war to be as stupid and vapid as the cheering morons who support the war from the safety of their cafes and parlors.

            We follow Bardamu as he proceeds to go AWOL, get discovered by another patrol, gets sent to a far-flung outpost in Africa, manages to find his way out of that, get “Shanghaied” on a steam-ship, and then make his way to the United States.  In New York, he sees the glittering lights, absorbs countless films at the air-conditioned movie house, and is overwhelmed by the massive amount of beautiful, young, energetic, hopeful women he sees.  Compared to the lifeless women he knew in France it was a big change. 

            From the moment he entered the military, Bardamu’s tale coincides with a fellow Frenchman named Robinson. They run into each other in the Army, again in NYC, and then again in France once Bardamu returns home.  Bardamu eventually ends up in Medical school, and becomes a doctor for hire in one of the poorest parts of the poor parts of Paris.

            Throughout these adventures, Bardamu lets fly with some of the wittiest and most caustic analysis of the world around him that I have ever read.  I can see why Bukowski, Heller, Beckett, and others were such big fans.  Céline lays bare every bit of corruption, chicanery, and falsehood that we all live under.  These lies and obfuscations help make our society function as a whole but they destroy the individual mind and will.  I would love to re-read this novel with a highlighter in my hand so I can mark every amazing sentence and truth.

            Céline was one of the first authors to make use of ellipses, jumping forward in time with no connective exposition.  Kurt Vonnegut makes use of this method in his novels, and I first found it in Slaughterhouse 5, thinking it was a very cool way to tell a story.  This is Céline’s first novel, and it was a sensation in Paris, with people discussing the crudeness, pain, and horrors that Céline describes casually.  In the Europe before WWI, the aristocracy and well-off lived their lives ignorant of the common masses and their troubles.  This book must have been one bitter pill for them to swallow, as Céline excoriates the people in power, showing their stupidity, greed, and self-delusion.  Not many novels before this one delved into such ugly things.  It really is a great piece of writing.  I am very glad the synchronicities lined up to introduce me to this book.

(This book can be downloaded and read in PDF format here: https://neoalchemist.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/louis-ferdinand-celine-journey-to-the-end-of-the-night.pdf

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