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

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State