French police in Paris in 1941 arresting 5,000 workers who dared to stage an anti-nazi demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images
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Céline: Master of misanthropy

"Journey to the End of the Night" is the finest novel ever written by a far rightist.

Voyage au bout de la nuit, or Journey to the End of the Night, first published in 1932, is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It is also the finest novel ever written by a far-right sympathiser, as its author was retrospectively labelled by critics after the war. Other examples of novels by political extremists of the right – On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger, or Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt – are at the least interesting, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s exuberantly misanthropic masterpiece, which does not declare any political affiliation or entertain anti-Semitic ideas, is unique as a revolutionary work of art and had a profound influence on writers as disparate as Samuel Beckett and William S Burroughs, Jean Genet and Günter Grass. It could be said that without Céline there would have been no Henry Miller, no Jack Kerouac, no Charles Bukowski, no Beat poets.

Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches – his grandmother’s first name was Céline, hence the pseudonym – was born in 1894 in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie. His father worked as an insurance clerk and his mother was a lacemaker. In later years he liked to claim that he had spent a miserable childhood with his constantly warring parents, but this seems to have been another of his many exaggerations and embellishments, for a friend claimed that the couple lived together in comparative tranquillity. Ferdinand was barely into his teens when he went to work as a messenger boy, but his much-maligned parents must have had high ambitions for him, since they sent him to live for a year in Germany and another year in England in order that he should learn a couple of useful languages. His early education was largely self-administered, and he seems from the start to have wanted to be a doctor.

First, however, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the French army and two years later found himself fighting in the First World War. Within weeks of the opening of hostilities he was wounded in the arm while attempting to deliver a despatch under heavy German fire, a piece of bravery – or stupidity, as the older and wiser Destouches would surely have said – for which he was awarded a medal and which even brought him a brief moment of fame. The injury later led to his discharge from the army. He had a job for a while in London, where he got married – a union that was never registered with the French authorities – then went to Africa to work for a French trading company in the Cameroons. Returned to France, he was sent by, remarkably, the Rockefeller Foundation to Brittany to help in the fight against tuberculosis in the region.

By the early 1920s he was studying medicine in Rennes and was married, this time officially, to the daughter of the director of the medical school there. The couple had a daughter, Colette. However, in 1925 Céline abandoned his wife and child and got a job with the League of Nations and travelled extensively in Europe, Africa and America – his experiences studying working conditions at the Ford factory in Detroit left a lasting impression and form the background to one of the most powerful sections in Journey to the End of the Night. Returning to France he opened a medical practice in a Paris suburb, specialising in obstetrics. Later he gave up the practice to work in a public dispensary, largely tending the poor.

These are the facts that were to be embellished, exaggerated and twisted into fantasy in his first and greatest novel. Céline was an autobiographical writer of a special kind. To say that he was cavalier with the facts would be an understatement. Journey is a dream-version of his life. “Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar,” Wallace Stevens wrote, and Céline’s guitar was tuned to a mode that had not been heard since the days of Rabelais, François Villon and Jonathan Swift. He described himself as a comic lyricist, but while there is deep comedy and high lyricism in Journey, the savagery of its vision puts its author in the company of the Greek tragedians.

Journey is usually thought of as a First World War novel but in fact the opening wartime sequence takes up only a fraction of the narrative. War for Céline is a kind of murderous circus performance. “Could I, I thought,” says his protagonist, Bardamu, “be the last coward on earth? How terrifying! . . . All alone with two million stark-raving heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs? . . . You can be a virgin in horror the same as in sex.” Caught up in this murderous roundabout, Bardamu quickly loses his innocence and learns the essential lesson: “Men are the thing to be afraid of, always, men and nothing else.” And what is a man? “You know . . . the trick they play on tramps in the country? They stuff an old wallet with putrid chicken innards. Well, take it from me, a man is just like that, except that he’s fatter and hungrier and can move around, and inside there’s a dream.”

The unexpected gleam of light at the end of that simile is typical of Céline’s style. Journey may look like a rambunctious hotchpotch thrown together by a misanthrope in a hurry but the book is very carefully, indeed beautifully, crafted. At intervals in Bardamu’s fierce fight with the world the cannon smoke clears and we are given a glimpse of another landscape, where peace and beauty are possible:

Between two lines of roses, the avenue, rising gently, led to the fountains . . . [A]long the side paths, great cubes and rectangles of dark-coloured canvas were flapping, carnival booths, which the war had taken by surprise and suddenly filled with silence.

Bardamu’s frenetic adventures take him from the battle front to a convalescent home for shattered psyches, on to a Conradian heart of darkness in colonial West Africa where he is sold as a galley slave aboard a ship that takes him to New York, “a standing city”, as he says in wonderment. He goes on to Detroit, where he is confronted with the horror of the assembly line – “We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din . . .” – until at last he escapes the New World nightmare and returns to France, finishes his medical studies and sets up as a doctor in the fictional suburb of Rancy, working among the poor, the maimed, the helpless and the hopeless.

Before and during the Second World War Céline disgraced himself by writing a series of rancidly anti-Semitic pamphlets. After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 he fled, first to Germany and then to Denmark. He was branded a collaborator and was sentenced to prison in absentia, although later he was granted amnesty and returned to live in France in 1951. He died of an aneurysm in 1961, broken in spirit and reputation, but still defiant. It was a sad and ugly end to the life of a great literary artist. His political enormities will not be forgotten, but neither will Journey to the End of the Night, his legacy and his masterpiece. It is a very great work, which opened an entirely new chapter in fiction-writing. Céline’s personal and artistic honesty are of a piece. If he made mistakes, grievous mistakes, in his life, as a novelist he remained true to himself and to his art.

A new edition of Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night”, with a foreword by John Banville, is published by Alma Classics (£9.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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