“Reader, fuck you!”
--William T. Vollman,
in the afterword to the novel
I'd high hopes for Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. All the cool cats had read Celine long ago (the coolest of them in the original French) and Henry Miller had it on his list of personal faves. And for the first two-hundred pages I was right there with Celine's misanthropic misadventures-- in fact, reading the novel I could not help but think that Henry Miller would not have existed without Celine-- here was an anti-hero, Ferdinand Bardamu, who was as funny, horny, and charismatic as Miller's starving artists. The free-flowing prose, the dirty old man vibe, the profane nuance, this was proto-Miller, which does not diminish Tropic of Cancer in my eye-- in fact, it elevates his work, as if Miller stole a page from Celine's dirty canvas and made it actually likable. If your protagonist is going to be an absolute dick, then it's best if he is at least someone worth breaking bread with. To be honest, I am too much of an optimist and I don't quite hate myself enough to love Celine's most famous novel.
But what a start. Celine's surrogate “hero,” Bardamu, a ne'er-do-well with no career prospects or money is swept along early 20th century France in a tide of social upheaval. An infantryman in World War I and horrified by the idea of being cannon fodder, Bardamu attempts desertion, then fakes lunacy to escape the trenches. Released from the asylum, he winds up on a boat to the Congo in colonial Africa, where everyone is drunk and disorderly and where he is stationed alone in the bush with nearly nothing to live on. He escapes this scenario as well and winds up on a ship to America where he is hungry in New York and later, after a brief tenure on Ford Motor Car's assembly lines, finds the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold to sugar mommy his habits until the need to move on seizes him again. The changing scenery, often capricious and episodic, is nevertheless exciting, and Bardamu reminds the reader of a latter-day Job or Candide, though Bardamu is never under the Panglossian impression this is the best of all possible worlds. All he wants to do is get laid and have a little food in his belly and a place to sleep. Self-preservation is the priority. Fraternal brotherhood or such utopian “flapdoodle” never enters his febrile mind: “Each man for himself, the earth for us all.”
Though this is not necessarily a most sympathetic sentiment, Bardamu is just likable enough, and Celine's portrayal of mankind's hypocritical foolishness compensates for the narrative leaps, until we skip five years ahead and Bardamu is a penurious doctor. The remainder of the novel takes place in France, and lacks the propulsion of the first half-- what was a philosophical adventure has evolved into a bitter misanthropic tirade against life itself and it goes on for at least a hundred pages too long. Bardamu is an unrelenting head case of negativity. There are no “genuine realizations of our deepest character except war and illness, those two infinities of nightmare.” No one can nail one-liners about the futility of living quite like Celine.
The titular “end of the night” is death (and I don't need to tell you there is any sort of glorious afterlife to be expected in Celine/Bardamu's world view), and everything before that is suffering. As William T. Vollman paraphrases Celine in the novel's afterword, this void might be a relief for creatures that are “no more than decaying, flatulent assemblages of phlegm and fecal matter, animated by lechery and self-delusion to commit acts of increasingly futile denial of the grisly fact that existence is spoiled.” This adequately summarizes the characters's motives and world views. If you're not cool passing a long novel reminded of the meaninglessness of your existence and your indignation only exemplifies what a presumptuous asshole you really are, Celine might not be the right author for you at the moment. Myself, I've flirted with nihilism, but never courted her. I'm only glad that I managed to finish the book with most of my idealism intact.