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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Journey to the End of the Night (1932) by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, forerunner of Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.

Book Review
Journey to the End of the Night (1932)
 by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

   Before there was Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, there was Louis-Ferdinand Celine.   Celine was also, regrettably, a rabid anti-Semite who was firmly committed to the Nazi cause in World War II AND after- eventually being convicted in abstentia of being a collaborator with the Nazis.  Celine's place in the literary canon is still debated.  He was famously included then excluded from a list of "500 French intellectuals" compiled by the French government itself.

  His widow, still alive at the age of 103, has ensured that his most rabidly anti-Semetic tracts are out of print and he's kind of a poster child for the impact that extremely non-p.c. believes can have on an artistic legacy.  Unlike many other authors I've not read in the 1001 Books project, I know exactly why I hadn't read Journey to the End of the Night before now: It's because Louis-Ferdinand Celine is a Nazi, more or less.  

  But now I'm quite clear on the philosophy of pardoning artists for moral flaws that would otherwise put them beyond the pale of polite society.  Being a Nazi may be more offensive than living as a unrepentant degenerate or heroin addicted trust-funder, but only as a matter of degree.  The direct and obvious comparison is to American author Henry Miller.   Like Miller, Celine directly confronted the reality of life on the margins of Western society in the 1920s and 30s.  Topics like venereal disease, back alley abortions and the ugliness of 20th century racism are put front and center to the reader.

   Journey to the End of the Night squarely fits into the literary genre of 'bildungsroman' or "coming of age story,"  but it represents the negative image of what that genre typically represents.  A fun house mirror, if you will.   Like so many other 20th century anti-heroes, Ferdinand Bardamu is deeply imbued with an existentialist philosophy before such a thing existed.   Bardamu isn't a thoughtful intellectual, but he isn't a thug, either.   He starts out in the army during World War I, finds his way to Africa, where he has some memorable adventures, makes his way to America for a year or so, and returns to France, where he becomes an unsuccessful doctor.

   There is also a kind of negative double to Bardamu, his "frenemy" Leon Robinson, whom he meets first on the battlefields of Belgium, where Robinson is trying to get himself captured by the Germans.  They renew acquaintances in America and after Bardamu returns to France, Robinson ends up becoming a focal point of Bardamu's existence.   This relationship between Bardamu and Robinson more or less constitutes the plot of Journey to the End  of the Night, but like Miller and Kerouac, the atmosphere is more of interest than any overarching narrative.

   Once you get past Celine's unrepentant, explicitly pro-Nazi Antisemitism (or if, I guess) it's clear that Journey to the End of the Night is an early classic of 20th century existentialist


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