Books of the century

Six writers return to works of great personal or political moment

Lisa Jardine on Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

If one is not to be facile or parochial, selecting a "best" book for the entire 20th century is a daunting task. Ours is the century that has produced James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust and Robert Musil. So my own inclination is to narrow the selection to books that have made a permanent and irreversible difference. Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses changed for ever our western understanding of what the impact of literary fiction on society could be. What better book to stand for the achievement of fiction writing at the end of the millennium?

For more than 20 years university teachers of English have taught their students (largely under the influence of such radical critics as Raymond Williams) that fiction is a potentially subversive cultural influence. Its dissident voices, we have argued - the voices of those ordinarily silenced in public life, which the novel animates and amplifies - seep into communal consciousness to reshape our beliefs and ideas. But until the publication of The Satanic Verses by Viking Penguin on 26 September 1988 we stopped short of suggesting that a work of fiction might impact directly and disruptively on our everyday lives. Nor did we recognise how protected the sphere of the literary was in Britain.

Unlike Rushdie's earlier, acclaimed Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses was slow to make an impact on Britain's literary community. The novel is a tour de force of what Rushdie himself calls "chutneyfication": a teeming mix of cultural influences, high and popular culture references, and semantic games with the languages of east and west. Phrases in Hindi, Arabic and Urdu jostle with Cockney rhyming slang, Americanisms and fragments of French and Spanish. Refrains from British pop music and glancing references to West End theatre and advertising collide with verses from Indian popular songs and allusions to Bollywood movies. Rushdie's characters move through the familiar streets of Kensington with the same ease as they do the alleys of Bombay.

The very virtuosity of Rushdie's cultural referencing made it a difficult read for westerners. The book was pronounced baffling and undisciplined. Ten years later it is much easier to respond to the two picaresque heroes - the forces of good and evil who tumble from a hijacked plane locked in a deadly embrace - as the metaphor for our unease in a contemporary, fragmented social and ethical world that Rushdie intended. We have learnt to read such novels precisely through Rushdie. His easy allusiveness to the culture of the global village we all now inhabit has trained us as readers, giving us access to other authors, such as Arundhati Roy, in this enriching, multi-vocal, multicultural tradition.

But in 1988 precisely those sections of the book that had resisted reading by the traditional London critics quickly proved immediately and transparently legible to that very oriental cultural community of "Others", whose voices were, in literary terms, Rushdie's most original contribution to the rich mix which is the novel in the developing tradition of English. The elaborate dream-sequence fantasies of what Rushdie himself calls the novel's "migrant's-eye view of the world" - sequences which capture "the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition" - were too clearly recognised as blasphemies by those for whom the English novel had little or no relevance as "entertainment".

The rest, as they say, is history. The lessons the liberal literary community in Britain learnt from the events that took place following publication of The Satanic Verses have made a permanent difference to our critical outlook and attitudes. The condemnation of the book in India, the fatwa, the violent demonstrations by Muslims in Britain, all taught ostensibly progressive critics that we had, unknowingly, depended on a charmed circle of liberal tolerance to shield the novel from the direct consequences of its words on the page. Even as we had proclaimed the possibility of undermining establishment ideology through reading and teaching novels in our classrooms, we had in fact relied on nothing really bad ever happening to those who challenged the status quo. We had inadvertently sheltered behind that establishment urbanity which has traditionally felt able to absorb and neutralise critique.

Rushdie himself has written of the dismay caused to him as a writer of fiction by the response to his novel. "The saddest irony of all," Rushdie has said, "was that after working for five years to give voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture of which I am myself a member, I should see my book burned, largely unread, by the people it is about, people who might find some pleasure and much recognition in its pages." As critics and teachers, we who were not under direct threat nevertheless had to acknowledge that that pleasurable reaction simply could no longer be relied upon as the response of reader to text.

In the global village, the novel as a literary form no longer has a privileged place, can no longer claim a protected platform from which to speak. That is the lasting lesson of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It is bound to have an impact on those who have written since the "Rushdie affair", and on the way those of us who teach engage with contemporary novels in our classrooms.

Bryan Appleyard on The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

At the end of The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky's last film, a dead cherry tree is planted on a pebble beach. The hero says that if this tree blossoms there is a God. Tarkovsky's camera pans up the body of a boy lying at the foot of the tree, up the trunk and into the dead branches outlined against a sun-dappled sea. The image blurs. The branches melt into the sparkling water. The flashes of sunlight become blossom on the branches.

The tree doesn't "really" blossom but, in some sense, it does. What is the weight of that phrase "in some sense"? It means "in our imaginations". But where else does anything happen? So what is this "real" world in which there is no blossom? We must believe in it and yet we cannot since our imagination is what we are. Yet it is not real. Our imagination is nothing and the world is nothing. Who, then, are we? "For the listener, who listens in the snow./And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Wallace Stevens wrote some of the most beautiful poetry of this or any other age. There are many artists I admire, a few I worship and a very few I love. I love Stevens. His single subject is the sharp, painful yet infinitely complex and deceptive interface between our imaginations and the world. He is, like Tarkovsky, one of the defining and enduring geniuses of our time. And, again like Tarkovsky, his sole concern is the status of the spiritual in a world which God has abandoned or from which he has been evicted.

Stevens was, though a modernist, the one great romantic poet of the 20th century. He was closer to Whitman and Wordsworth than to Eliot or Pound. Yet his life was almost flamboyantly dull. Born in 1879, he died in 1955 and spent a large number of the intervening years as an executive of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company of Connecticut. I was once discouraged from writing his life simply because it was so unspeakably boring. I later learnt that in 1936 in Key West he broke two bones in his hand after punching Ernest Hemingway on the jaw. He had an intermittent drink problem. But that was about it.

And yet, somehow, this makes perfect sense. The discontinuity between his frequently exotic poetry and his dull life amounts to an affirmation of the centrality of the imagination. Stevens' world without God was not Eliot's waste land, but rather a place of fabulous and poignant beauty. So his great early poem "Sunday Morning" ends with the spectacle of "casual flocks of pigeons" in the evening sky. They make "Ambiguous undulations as they sink,/Downward to darkness on extended wings". That "ambiguous" was the basis of all his work. It captured the possibility of transcendence in the imaginative perception of the material world. To the very end Stevens teetered on the edge of religion. The limitless strangeness of things would not allow him the peace of easy atheism.

Some of his poetry is damaged by this strangeness. At times he seems to be writing in a private language that offers the reader only bafflement. "Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" begins the dementedly whimsical "Bantams in Pine Woods". But at his finest - "The Man with the Blue Guitar", "Notes Towards the Supreme Fiction" and countless others - the strangeness is explained and justified by a piercing, meditative lucidity. Stevens is never easy - what great poet ever is? - but his difficulty is honest. He is contemplating the very limits of our being and knowledge, bringing messages back from the ultimate front line. No wonder they take some reading.

But they are worth it. The greatest poems attain a philosophical balance and an aesthetic purity comparable to the very best that has ever been written in English. In "The Idea of Order at Key West", for example, he sees a woman walking by the sea and singing. From this simple image, in 55 lines of intense beauty and concentration, he defines the mysterious autonomy of art, the human longing for imaginative order, and concludes with two lines that might describe his own work as words "of ourselves and of our origins/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds".

His late poems - "Of Mere Being", "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" and half a dozen others - are comparable to Beethoven's late quartets or Vermeer's Lace Maker. They are among the highest works of the human spirit. Supremely concentrated and yet exquisitely simple in tone, they are almost beyond explication. Even Stevens' most dogged explicator, the critic Harold Bloom, resorts to the word "uncanny" to describe these works. I want "Final Soliloquy" to be read at my funeral; in 18 lines it says everything. Stevens the man addresses Stevens the poet at the onset of evening. They wrap themselves in shawl "since we are poor" and allow themselves to feel that "God and the imagination are one . . ." And: "Out of this same light, out of the central mind,/We make a dwelling in the evening air,/In which being there together is enough."

The poem is about an unresolved possibility at the furthest reaches of the mind. Its greatness lies in balancing the impossibility of resolution with a simple, almost effortless resolution through an act of the imagination. Bloom has said that the poem does not assert as much as it appears to assert. Yet again, it asserts everything: it asserts that somewhere, somehow, the dead cherry tree blossoms.

One biographer has said that, on his death bed, Stevens was converted to Catholicism. Others have fiercely denied this. It does not matter. He got there, wherever "there" is. If Wallace Stevens is not now in heaven, then frankly, it's not worth having.

Natasha Walter on Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

In some ways I feel that a book of the century should be a weighty tome with an obvious influence on politics or philosophy, or an agreed place in the literary canon. If fiction, in other words, it should be Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past or One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book whose importance can never be doubted, whose first sentence is instantly recognisable in a Christmas quiz.

But I also feel that a book of the century should simply be the book that has meant the most to its chooser, one particular reader. By choosing Ada, Vladimir Nabokov's long, late novel, I don't mean to say that Ada is more important or better than whatever generally tops these lists, but that these lists really mean nothing to anyone who is not a bookseller or an academic; attempts to class and compare the unclassifiable and incomparable.

If the first sentence of Ada appeared in a Christmas quiz, readers might believe they were looking at the opening of an older novel: "All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike," Ada begins, neatly turning on its head Tolstoy's famous opening to Anna Karenina. That says much about where this novel stands in the literary canon - in a place, in fact, all its own. Its feet are in the 19th-century Russian novel, where noblemen fight duels at dawn and live in dishevelled country estates, but its head is in the intellectual frolics of the late 20th century.

Nabokov's ingenious twisting of multiple literary references, his love of puns, his shattered time frames and mazy topography have led many readers of Ada to dismiss it as a mere game, the novelist's little playtime at the end of a hard working life. But I see Ada as the heart of Nabokov's work, the novel in which he dares at last to break open the soft kernel of passion and tenderness that lies under all his fiction. The sweetest thing in Lolita is the brief glimpse we have, at the opening of the book, of another world in which children can love each other without guilt. "Did she have a precursor?" Humbert asks of Lolita. "She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea." That little tale, of the young Humbert's returned love for young Annabel, is tragically cut short by Annabel's death, and its memory of shared sweetness is what drives Humbert to his immoral pursuit of unreturned love.

In Ada we get a second chance in the princedom. Ada does not die young. Van does not need to recreate their shared love in gross fumblings with a reluctant substitute. At the tender ages of 12 and 14 they meet, they love, and that love, despite all the partings and misunderstandings imposed on them by a problematic plot, continues into old age, until death.

Ada is full of a fragile charm that elsewhere fragments in Nabokov's hands, the "happy for ever feeling at the end of never ending fairy tales". But is it just a fairy tale? I would say, no - or, like the best fairy tales, it distils a reality that more obviously realistic forms often bypass. Lolita is, apparently, a far more naturalistic work. It feels like a product of a certain place, North America, and a certain time, the 1950s, that make historical sense to us. But what realism did Nabokov really approach in Lolita? A stagey one at best. "Considerations of depth and perspective led me to build a number of North American sets," he says in his afterword to Lolita.

The landscape of Ada is not so straightforward. In its fantasy world, called Antiterra, elements of our world are twisted and reworked. Van Veen travels from his Turgenev estate to his Manhattan penthouse without having to move centuries and continents. This is a landscape created from literature and memory - but is it any less real for that? No; when he walks into "the green reality of the garden" near the beginning of Ada, Van takes the sympathetic reader with him into a different sort of realism.

Ada is not a perfect book, but its flaws fascinate me. There is the flimsiness of the plot - Van and Ada discover that they are brother and sister, and so must live apart, but Nabokov makes the barriers to their love pretty perfunctory. There is the weakness of Van Veen's asides on the philosophy of time, which, like the disquisitions on history in Tolstoy's War and Peace, tend to get skipped by the re-reader. There is the grossness of many of Van's reactions, his snobbery, his casual cruelty, his sexism - cute little whorelets and teenage virgins litter the margins of his emotional life. But these stumbles eventually serve only to underscore the long melody that is the love story in hand.

In Ada, Nabokov reminds us what literature can do when it is not engaged in being politically or socially relevant, when it is only engaged in being emotionally true - it can render the inner reality of our lives a transient but naked and unforgettable thing. As Van muses at one point: "Reality, better say, lost the quotes it wore like claws. For one spasm or two, he was safe. The new naked reality needed no tentacle or anchor; it lasted a moment, but could be repeated as often as he and she were physically able to make love."

Pankaj Mishra on V S Naipaul's An Area of Darkness

V S Naipaul first visited India in 1962. The book emerging out of that visit, An Area of Darkness, remains a valuable record of an India in transition - an India losing, under a weak and exhausted Nehru, a war with China, and losing along with it its flush of post-independence idealism and innocence. Indeed, each one of Naipaul's trilogy of books on India has come to stand as a historical document of India's post-colonial evolution. Published just after Mrs Gandhi's Emergency, India: a wounded civilization (1977) captures the post-Nehru years of drift and aimlessness, "the simplicity of a country ruled by slogans". In India: a million mutinies now (1990) Naipaul correctly intuited, and made his theme, the rise of long-suppressed identities that radically altered Indian society in this decade.

Many different ideas and expectations prompted Naipaul's first visit to India. He left Trinidad, where he was born in 1932, when he was 18 to study at Oxford. He had wanted to be a writer and had travelled to England, which was then the centre of the world for English-speaking colonials everywhere. It had taken him much time to sort out his writerly ambition, and even after a brilliant start as a writer - five books in just seven years, one of which was the considerable achievement of A House for Mr Biswas - the value of his work was slow to be recognised.

Published at a time when "Indian" novels were an oddity, particularly Indian novels from the West Indies, Naipaul's books suffered critical and commercial neglect. There were other disappointments. The life in London to which he had looked forward had turned out to be "sterile" and "mean". But what were the alternatives? What were the places he could think of as "home", as the centre of his world? He had been back to Trinidad; the visit - described in The Middle Passage - had merely vindicated an early childhood vow to distance himself from the island. There remained only India, the land of his Brahmin ancestors.

On his first visit, Naipaul took with him the conventional ideas of India - the India people then knew as the land of Gandhi and Nehru, the India of the glittering classical past, which had been meticulously dredged up by European Indologists in the 19th century. He took with him his own childhood memories of an old India, the Brahmanic world of rituals and myths that had been carefully preserved in Trinidad. This past held an emotional charge for Naipaul. His ancestors had come to Trinidad as indentured labourers in the last quarter of the 19th century. The regions of North India they lived in were systematically rendered destitute by the British in the post-mutiny period. Brahmins had been a special target. The long sea voyages to the "Great Unknown" - the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius - violated caste rules but were made necessary by the surrounding dereliction.

The history of these Brahmins was one of great poverty and wretchedness; and to the generations that followed the first arrivals in Trinidad those early traumas were fresh in the memory. Naipaul, a third-generation Indian, had just begun to outgrow this painful past when he went to India. But India, poor and abject, was to revive in the most unexpected way all the fears and insecurities he had known as a child.

"It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two," Naipaul wrote on the penultimate page of An Area of Darkness - a record of intense fear and anguish. But if this book was only about a lacerated sensibility, similar to books by certain kinds of western travellers to India, it would not be read any more. Remarkably, for a travel book published in 1964, it has outlasted its time; and it has done so because of literary virtues that sound simple but are hardest to achieve: honesty and directness.

Consider this moment towards the end of the book. Naipaul is winding up an awkward visit to his ancestral village; a boy asks for a lift back to town with him. Naipaul says, "Let the idler walk". The trip ends in "futility and impatience, a gratuitous act of cruelty, self-reproach and flight". Elsewhere, Naipaul first shows himself growing angry; and then examines the event with the writer's later detachment and serenity: "It was brutal; it was ludicrous; it was pointless and infantile. But the moment of anger is a moment of exalted shrinking lucidity, from which recovery is slow and shattering."

Anger and fear made Naipaul see things other travellers miss. Few writers had ever said as many incisive things about the cultural encounter between India and Britain as found in the chapter titled "Fantasy and Ruins". The work abounds in startling new perceptions, and for many writers and intellectuals in India, it became a crucial part of their self-education - Naipaul's radical interpretation of Gandhi, among other things, disturbed.

Serious-minded travellers to India continue to read Darkness as a guide to a range of bewildering Indian attitudes. Others cherish it for Naipaul's descriptions of places - particularly of Kashmir - which are precise and lyrical, without ever relying on the heavy vocabulary deployed by, for instance, Jan Morris. And in Naipaul's own intellectual journey, it is an important landmark. The Middle Passage, Naipaul's first travel book, is largely conventional in form and content. The unique mingling of social enquiry and autobiography that marks Naipaul's later non-fiction (and indeed his fiction) first occurred in An Area of Darkness. It is where you can see him developing his special ways of seeing and working towards new kinds of knowledge about himself, about India, about the "half-made societies" that would become his subject in later books. It is where he began to find that elusive centre of his world - the centre that lay not in any particular place but in the many areas of darkness of his own richly diverse past.

Richard Gott on Insanity Fair by Douglas Reed

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1959, I purchased for two shillings from a second-hand bookshop in Oxford a copy of Douglas Reed's Insanity Fair. First published by Jonathan Cape 20 years earlier, in April 1938, it had been one of the best-selling books of its time. My copy was the 41st edition, dated a year later in March 1939. Completed at the time of the Anschluss, when Hitler marched into Austria, the book describes in dramatic, autobiographical fashion what had been going on in Central Europe since the end of the first world war. It was required reading in 1938 and 1939, and still had a spark of life in it 20 years later. Even today it has more verve, insight and passion than the "quickies" produced more recently about Yugoslavia.

Insanity Fair was, I suppose, my own personal introduction to the tumultuous world of 1930s Europe, a highly subjective window into the unique and privileged world of the small band of foreign journalists who lived and reported from Central Europe in the years between the two world wars. I searched out the varied memoirs of the 1930s and, for weeks on end, I travelled with Douglas Reed of the Times, Sefton Delmer of the Daily Express, N W Fodor of the Manchester Guardian, Vernon Bartlett of the News Chronicle and G E R Gedye of the Daily Telegraph. I was left with a lasting fascination for the countries of Central Europe and a fierce ambition to follow in the footsteps of these highly opinionated reporters.

When I told my tutor of my enthusiasm for Douglas Reed, he frowned and said: "I don't think you'll be so keen when you know more about him." Mystified, I went to the library to read a couple more of his books, Disgrace Abounding and A Prophet at Home, published in 1939 and 1941, two books that made up a trilogy with Insanity Fair. As before, they were savagely hostile to the Nazis, indignant about appeasement, and critical of the British ruling class. But there was an added ingredient. Reed could no longer disguise his overt anti-Semitism. He criticised the Labour ministers in Churchill's wartime government for being more worried about the Jews of Europe than about the conditions of the British working class. And there was worse to come in the years that followed.

George Orwell took him to task in the pages of Tribune, while a Hungarian fur merchant, Francis Weiss, who had successfully moved his family firm to London out of the clutches of Admiral Horthy, published an entire book-length indictment of Reed's anti-Semitism in 1942, entitled "Insanity . . . Abounding, Reply to a Prophet Not Quite at Home". Weiss suggested that Reed had acquired an anti-Semitic "bacillus" when travelling in Central Europe, though I suspect that his affliction was entirely home-grown.

Douglas Reed was born into a lower-middle-class family in 1895, and, after being wounded in the first world war, he become a copy-taker on the Times, with a brief interlude as a secretary to Lord Northcliffe. Sent as a correspondent to Berlin in 1927, he had the luck to be present as the Reichstag went up in flames in February 1933. "Putting my head through the open window of my car," he wrote in his first book, The Burning of the Reichstag, published by Victor Gollancz in 1934, "I saw the great four-square mass of the Reichstag, a hundred yards to my left, surmounted by a ball of fire. Flames were leaping high through the glowing metal framework of the central cupola; clouds of sparks and ashes rose into the air and were distributed by the wind over the snow-clad Tiergarten, its trees bathed in a sombre red glow."

In subsequent years, Reed travelled round Central Europe for the Times, but resigned from the paper soon after the publication of Insanity Fair, having been forced out of Prague by the arrival of the Nazis in 1939. The pro-appeasement Times editor, Geoffrey Dawson, told him that "Insanity Fair is an excellent book, but not one for the Times". Reed went on to complete his strange autobiographical trio, in which he clearly saw himself as a cross between John Bunyan and John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness. He wrote a play about Hitler, briefly staged in Oxford, and later a few novels. All the time, in spite of his original savage indictment of Hitler and the Nazis, he moved steadily to the fascist right. Criticism of the Jews soon became a full-blown attack on the menace of Zionism. Hatred of communism was transferred to the government of Clement Attlee. In a further autobiographical volume, From Smoke to Smother, published in 1948, he wrote how "in the moment of victory a British government began . . . to set up in England, stage by stage, the regime I had watched Hitler build in Germany".

In 1947, like the good provincial doctor played by Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, he set off for South Africa, a country that became his spiritual home for the next 30 years. He wrote a book about Africa, called Somewhere South of Suez, published in 1950, and then set off for the United States. "I wanted to find out," he wrote, "how American state policy and the power of the American war machine had been diverted to serve the ends of spreading communism and leaving the communist empire a great step nearer to its goal of world domination."

The result of his American trip was a conspiracy theory book about America, Far and Wide, published in 1951. Jonathan Cape had stood loyally by him as his books grew ever more perverse, but it could now stomach him no longer. A second book, researched in America, dealt with what he perceived as the evils of Zionism. The manuscript, according to one of South Africa's right-wing publicists, Ivor Benson, "remained for 22 years, stowed away in three zippered files on top of a wardrobe in Reed's Durban home". Called The Controversy of Zion, it is a dreary trawl through 2,000 years of prejudice, and was published in South Africa after Reed's death, which occurred in 1976 at the age of 82. Reed, long before David Irving, was arguing that the figure of six million Jews killed in the Holocaust was an exaggeration. Another of his posthumously published works contains a memorable phrase: "Historically, General Eisenhower must be seen as a conscious agent of the communist conspiracy."

Reed spent the last 20 years of his life in Durban, at home at last in the anti-Semitic and anti-communist atmosphere of the apartheid Reich. In his seventies, he took to the road again, travelling through Angola and Mozambique to extol the virtues of Salazar and the Portuguese colonial regime, and writing a new book, Insanity Fair 1967, in which he praised the work of Ian Smith and the "rebel" regime in Rhodesia. It seems that the journalist who had once tried to wake up the British to the menace of Hitler was to remain a voice crying in the wilderness until the end.

Jason Cowley on Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

In George Steiner's novella The Portage to San Cristobel of A H, Nazi hunters discover an aged Adolf Hitler living quietly in a Peruvian jungle. Their plan is to kill Hitler but they offer him the chance to defend himself. He is defiant, reckless. He taunts them. "I am an old man . . . You have made of me some kind of mad devil, the quintessence of evil, hell embodied. When I was, in truth, only a man of my time. Oh, inspired I grant you . . . with a nose for supreme political possibility. A master of human moods, perhaps, but a man of my time."

Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (Celine was a pseudonym) was, like Steiner's Hitler, certainly an inspired man of his time - terrifyingly so. Born in 1894 of a lowly Parisian family, he had a brutal childhood. Poor, dysfunctional but restlessly ambitious, he longed to escape all that constrained him. He eventually found a kind of release through studying medicine and, after patriotically enlisting, in the trenches of the western front. He was seriously wounded and decorated.

His revulsion against his wartime experiences informed his debut Journey to the End of the Night (1934), perhaps the greatest work of nihilism - and certainly one of the finest novels - of the century. The first hundred pages contain descriptions of the absurd carnage of battle that few works, not even Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, have matched. After the war, Celine qualified as a doctor, travelled in French and Belgian colonial Africa, before returning to work as a doctor among the urban poor in Paris.

He draws freely from the bank of these experiences in Journey; the adventures of the hero-narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, exactly mimic those of the author himself: he travels from the "fiery furnace" of the western front to the screaming jungles of central Africa, and from New York to the slums of Paris. The engine of Celine's disgust is an irrational misanthropy. It is irrational because contradictory: those he scourges he later pities; those he helps he comes to despise. In Ferdinand's despair at what industrialisation and incipient democracy have done to the contemporary soul, we are reminded of the anguish of Nietzsche's raging free spirit Zarathustra. Ferdinand, like Zarathustra, rails against the instincts of mass man and of the herd, then crowns himself with laughter. For without laughter he knows he is nothing: "Death is chasing you, you've got to hurry, and while you're looking you've got to eat, and keep away from wars. That's a lot of things to do. It's no picnic."

Celine immerses the reader in a torrential flow of language - fragmented, coarse, street poetic, blackly comic, and full of neologisms and ellipses. He writes of suffering, debased lives and poverty with reckless abandon. His vision of humanity in thrall to its own weakness is utterly cynical. He leads his characters - Robinson, a romantic wanderer, conscripted soldiers, abused prostitutes - to the edge of the abyss, then pushes them over. As they fall we hear only the sad echo of their voices - and Celine's wild laughter.

Celine's indefatigable rage eventually propelled him, as it did Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel laureate and his obvious literary precursor, into the arms of the Nazis. As a collaborator who fled France at the liberation and followed the Vichy government to Germany, Celine wrote vitriolic and anti-Semitic pamphlets and articles before and during the second world war, including this sentence: "It [Hitler's anti-Semitism] is the side of Hitler that most people like the least . . . it is the side I like the most." His biographer, Maurice Bardeche, asks: "What kind of writer is he, who does not accept responsibility for what he has written, when what he has written has led others to their death?" It's a question that reverberates like an earth tremor across our century. For how eager should we be to read a writer's work through the filter of his actions, to reduce his fiction to the politics of his life? And is it not the duty of the artist to live intensely, beyond the boundaries of convention?

Yet reading Celine's preface to the 1952 Gallimard edition of Journey, you feel that, against Bardeche, he may have accepted responsibility for his actions. By this time, he had returned to Paris having been imprisoned in Denmark at the end of the war on charges of collaboration, where he was once again working as a doctor among the outcast and despised. His preface reveals a powerful sense of confusion and regret, expressed in the near-frenzy recognisable from the novels and pamphlets. "So, they're putting Journey on the rails again. If I weren't under so much pressure, forced to earn my living, I can tell you right now, I'd suppress the whole thing. I wouldn't let a single line through . . . I've been the cause of too much evil. Just think of all the deaths, the hatreds around me, the treachery, the sewer it adds up to, the monsters."

As we approach the end of the century it is hard not to glance back at the long shadows behind us, hard not to think of Celine as he lurks in the darkness, bewildered and electrified at finding himself at the epicentre of the Nazi storm that is knocking out the lights all over Europe. Celine wrote to affirm his solitude and he owes his best work to his ability to live under extremes of isolation and threat, to his wanton disregard of conventional society.

That his search for sensation took him to Germany at the moment of its supreme disgrace matters less to him than that he made the journey. He was, to the last, fearlessly beholden to no one. He believed in nothing. The uneasy truth is that perhaps he wrote fiction of great moral complexity and ashen beauty precisely because his own journey to the end of the night provided him with an existential knowledge unavailable to the calm, rational majority.

There is no tradition of stylised nihilism in English fiction, with the possible exception of Conrad and D H Lawrence, nothing to compare with the urban extremity of the high European tradition of Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Hamsun, Musil, Kafka or Beckett. Celine was the heir to this great tradition. Although there are writers I admire more than Dr Destouches and novels that mean more to me than Journey to the End of the Night, I shall never forget the excitement and shock of reading this great raging work for the first time.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!