Celine’s ‘Journey’

Much like his novels, Louis Ferdinand Destouches is a controversial character.  The French medical doctor and writer, better known under his pen name Louis Ferdinand Celine, revolutionized early twentieth century fiction with Journey to the End of the Night, introducing an immaculately vicious tone and trigger-happy literary rhythm that was unmatched at that time on continental Europe.

First published in 1932 in Paris, Celine’s work swirled in controversy, denounced by the literary establishment of his day, while admired by generations that followed.

Celine also attracted fire for being a Nazi-collaborator and anti-Semite during the occupation of France.  As a disillusioned leftist, disappointed with the workings of society, Celine’s zealous conviction that we live in a hypocritical system whose role was tailored to ensure the rigid division of classes, working for benefit of the rich and the exploitation of the poor, resulted in a hatred towards humanity that exploded onto the world in 1932 with the publication of Journey.

Yet, the semi-autobiographic novel detailing the epic journey of the young medical student Ferdinand Bardamu, from the trenches of the WWI across Africa to America and back again, was met with mixed feelings. Some denounced Celine as an Anarchist, others as a sociopath and Thomas Mann referred to Journey as a “wild product.” Celine’s growing contempt for Parisian society and the criticism of his writing as paranoid, caused the rift between Celine and the French world of letters that widened to irreconcilable proportions. By 1937, he was publishing the first of his anti-Semitic pamphlets, Bagattelles pour un Massacre (a trifle for a massacre), containing severe attacks against the Jewish community, and later as well towards the English as agents of corruption.

Fleeing to Sigmaringen after the fall of Vichy France, Celine acted as Marshal Petain’s personal physician for a short time, an experience that he wrote about in his novel Nord in 1960. In 1945, Celine was sentenced to death in absentia, being held in Denmark and returning to France only after gaining amnesty in 1952.

Although the controversy surrounding the character of L.F. Celine leaves his name more often muttered than spoken, his debut work continues to be one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and Phillip Roth have all cited Celine’s unrestrained social criticism and his defiant style as leading influences.

“My Proust in France is Celine!” Roth wrote. “He is really a great writer, even if his anti-Semitism turns him into a repugnant figure. To read Celine, I have to shut off my Jewish consciousness.

“But I do this because anti-Semitism is not the essence of his novels.”

And Journey is perhaps one of the most fascinating literary works ever written. Celine’s novel deliberately rejects the established norms of French Literature, which he saw as closed-off, elitist congregation of the upper classes, the pages spewing forth a venomous tirade of hatred and sarcasm throughout the story, paralleled by a blatantly honest denial of patriotism, selectiveness of the upper classes, and the petty bourgeoisie.

Celine’s outbursts are unbridled, and sentences often fragmented to mimic a thought process, the repetition of terms, neglect of proper grammar and the use of three periods conveying a state of bewildered disenchantment:

“When you don’t have any imagination, dying is but a trifle, if you have some, dying is losing way too much,” Bardamu explains while dodging bullets in the trenches “That is my opinion in any case.

“Never before have I understood so many things at once. The colonel never had any sense of imagination. That was the cause this man’s misfortunes, and most of all ours. Was I the only person in this regiment who had enough imagination to picture what death would look like? I would have preferred to die my own death, a later death…in twenty years…thirty years…maybe even later, much rather than the death that was prepared for me right now, in addition to that the grub of Flandrian dirt, a mouthful, more than a mouthful, my mouth ripped open to the ears by grenade shrapnel.

“I should be allowed to have an opinion on my own death.”

The journey of Celine’s anti-hero is deliberately given to the reader in colloquial terms, to distance himself from the intellectual elite he so detested. Celine doesn’t refrain from insulting his characters, at times picking out the basest of terms to refer to them, and on other occasions producing witty analogies to link the hypocrisy of his protagonists to the sordid world he saw himself living in.

Another technique of ridicule came in the names he gave his characters: the enthusiastic patriot Dr. Bestombes is a homonym of Baise-Tombes, or necrophiliac. Parapine, Bardamu’s voyeuristic professor has a name containing the slang term for male genitals.

Within this manifesto of hatred though there are rare instances of compassion towards characters that display an act of selflessness, which he finds to be a quality nearly extinct in the world unbridled self-determination. Sergeant Alcide, for example, whom Bardamu meets in the African colonies. After Bardamu finds a picture of a little girl among his possessions, Alcide explains that the girl is his niece, whose parents have died and whom he has placed a monastery in Bordeaux,

“The bashful Alcide! How much of his miserable pay must he have saved…of his famine inflicting bonuses and his tiny blackmarket activity… Month after month, year after year, in Topo, this equivalent of hell!… I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t have a concrete clue, but it touched me to the extent that I turned red…Next to Alcide, I was a lout (…) I didn’t dare to talk to him anymore, I felt myself unworthy of talking to him.”

Yet, although Celine’s aversion towards the upper classes might have caused him to lament the misfortunes of the poor, he remains on his own side. The poor are born poor and will remain poor, he says. And they are satisfied with their roles as victims, viewing anyone who is there to aide them with suspicion and mistrust.

Celine is determined to keep his contempt indiscriminate, and identifies that the greed of the poor is equal if not worse than the ones of the elite, picking up a topic accurately summarized by Hugo and exploited by many writers whose primary role was social criticism: “The only thing worse than the evil rich, is the evil poor,” he writes.

Finally, the name of the novel remains one of the most interesting aspects. Celine’s night is the darkness that surrounds him, produced by the hypocrisy of established society and its values, causing in him a state of despair and constant unease that he tries to evade and deny by his travels and by hurling himself from one ultimately self-destructive adventure to the next to reach the “End of the Night.”

Judging by what followed, he didn’t manage to reach his destination , but fell from grace as an embittered villain.

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