I first read Journey to the End of the Night in 1981. I was 18 years old and, because I'd seen the book cited in the NME as an influence on Jim Morrison, I took it with me on my first journey to Paris, where I intended to make a pilgrimage to the singer's grave. This was a journey which began with an early-morning bus ride to Lime Street Station.
It was the morning after the first night of the Toxteth riots and the familiar streets of Liverpool 8 were a battle-zone. The city was still smouldering when I got on the train and began to read Celine. By the time I got to Paris, 20 hours later, I was physically exhausted and in a mildly traumatised state. This was, I supposed, partly a delayed reaction to the violence in my own city. But it was mostly because of Celine's book, which I had devoured through a night of travel on trains, in a pub, on a ferry, and on more trains. As I stepped into Paris for the first time, I felt sick and faint, as if I'd just breathed in the stench of a rioter's petrol bomb.
I discovered, much later, that Journey to the End of the Night had much the same effect on its early readers when first published in 1932. One commentator of the period described it as an incendiary device that had exploded on to the French literary scene. Others described its author as an anarchist, a foul-mouthed subversive, a traitor to the French nation and an apologist for revolutionary violence. The judges of the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize in France, were divided on the book's merits, but were finally unanimous that the prize could not be legitimately awarded to a writer whose work was so full of hate. Celine himself responded with contempt, declaring that "French literature is a catastrophe . . . a game played by grotesque and degenerate arseholes".
On the left, in contrast, Celine was accepted as a hero. Andre Gide hailed the book as an instant classic, while Leon Trotsky wrote that Celine "had walked into the pantheon of great literature like walking into his own house". No less than the stern figure of George Orwell, who described Journey as "a cry of unbearable disgust, a voice from the cesspool", still judged it to be one of the best books he had ever read.
The simple reason for this is that Journey to the End of the Night is shocking, powerful, funny, moving and, above all, a great story well told. It is the picaresque autobiography of Bardamu - medical student, army deserter, vagabond - whose 15-year journey across the world, from Paris to Africa and America, shadowed by the mysterious figure of Robinson, is also a journey into the horrors of the 20th century. Bardamu witnesses the meaningless slaughter of the Great War and declares all political conflict a crime against humanity. He participates in the French colonial adventure in Africa, and is sickened by exploitation and his own role in it. He fetches up in New York, the cold heart of the capitalist world, and then Detroit, where he is reduced to working like a zombie in a mass-production car plant. He finally returns to Paris, and works as a doctor among the poor and dispossessed of the city.
But this is not a gloomy book. The narrative rattles along at a delirious pace (it was, in fact, written in the small hours while Celine, whose real name was Destouches, was himself working as a doctor in Montmartre). Celine has both an acid wit and an eye for genuinely daft comedy (Robinson's gormless and ill-fated plot to kill the moaning pensioner Madame Henrouille for her cash is straight out of Steptoe and Son). Most memorable of all is the language.
Journey, published in 1932, was one of the first novels in France to be written entirely in the vernacular of the Parisian street, rather than using argot and other linguistic eccentricities as picturesque colour. The English translations (there are two of them, one into cockney English and the other into New York American) must inevitably lose some of this flavour, but they still crackle with the scabrous comic invention that can come only from the city of Paris and its people.
Celine was not a hero of the literary left for long. Soon, he was muttering favourably about Hitler and then, a few short years later, he horrified his leftist supporters, including the young Jean-Paul Sartre, by publishing a series of "pamphlets", which were not only openly pro-Nazi, but contained page upon page of the most sickening anti-Semitism. Worse was to come. During the Occupation, Celine wrote regularly denouncing Jews, Freemasons and the English as agents of corruption (hygiene and its metaphors were a favourite motif). At the end of the war, he made for Berlin, but was tried and imprisoned first in Denmark, and then Paris. The war had taught him little. The problem with the Germans, he wrote in 1951, was that they had been too soft on the "Yids".
Celine's "pamphlets" retain the power to shock and I was not surprised when my (Jewish) thesis supervisor at university refused to read them. Today, they can be found only in Paris, at overinflated prices in dodgy bookshops, or bought under the counter at fascist gatherings across Europe. (I bought several of the "pamphlets" myself from an ugly skinhead at a right-wing book fair in Madrid a few years ago.) I was not surprised, during a stay in Bucharest in the mid-1990s, to find that Celine's novels and pamphlets were bestsellers there, and that this had been the case under Nicolae Ceausescu. The appeal of Celine - the most perverse, paranoid and obsessive of writers - is not always strictly literary.
And yet, over in sunny California, a million miles from the rotting streets of northern Paris, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers cites him as a favourite author and as an inspiration. It makes slightly more sense that over here, in England, Mark E Smith of The Fall, poet laureate of Britain's decaying inner cities, describes him as a kindred spirit (I once spent a drunken afternoon in a pub in Salford interviewing, or trying to interview, Smith on this same point for the French rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles). Will Self praises Celine in print and on the telly. Even in Paris, where Celine's ghost is still causing trouble, Journey is endlessly referred to as one of the great prose epics in French literature.
For me, its impact was entirely visceral. Reading Journey is a challenge and a threat on every moral, political or philosophical front. It is this aspect of the novel that can make you feel sick, sad and despairing all at the same time. But in the end, it is Celine's language that takes the novel to a higher place, where poetry and vision meet the idiom of the street. For all his hatred and tortured self-loathing, he never quite turned his back on the redemptive force of writing truly and writing the truth. And this is what makes Celine - even more than his despised enemy Marcel Proust - the most necessary author of the French 20th century.
Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)