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).