Friday, May 2, 2014

The Misanthropic Vagabond - On Celine's Novel "Journey to the End of the Night"

Luis-Ferdinand Celine’s 1932 novel “Journey to the End of the Night” is one of the most haunting and intriguing books I’ve ever read. I loved every page of it.

The reader enters Celine’s world with a bang, right in the middle of the explosions and dead bodies of WWI France. But it’s not long until you’re ferried from the French theater to the steamy swamps of colonized Congo. Then we’re off to the streets of New York City, then to the clang of the Detroit factories. It all happens in abrupt and random fashion, as if Celine’s alter ego, Ferdinand, has little to no control over which road he travels.

Ferdinand is the ultimate vagabond. He’s in a constant state of mental distress and emotional detachment, and he’s filled with equal parts cynicism and anxious travel lust. Here’s a quote that sums up the anti-hero narrator’s plight: “This body of ours, this disguise put on by common jumping molecules, is in constant revolt against the abominable farce of having to endure.”

But Ferdinand’s unique personality jumps off the page as he travels around making poetic proclamations about all sorts of things:

“Everything that’s important goes on in the darkness, no doubt about it. We never know anyone’s real inside story.”

“In the kitchen of love, after all, vice is like the pepper in a good sauce; it brings out the flavor, it’s indispensable.”

Ferdinand sucks the marrow out of life, like a proto-Henry Chinaski but with less alcoholic tendencies. He’s also got a streak of that blue collar disdain for the rich, which strikes chords with me: “I hadn’t found out yet that mankind consists of two very different races, the rich and the poor. It took me… and plenty of other people… twenty years and the war to learn to stick to my class and ask the price of things before touching them, let alone setting my heart on them.”

The edition I own (New Directions 2006 paperback) has one of the best afterwords I remember reading, written by William T. Vollman.

It starts like so: “Reader, fuck you!... You think I give a shit whether or not you’ve read this book? Or that Celine’s ghost does? That would be the day!”

Vollman does a better job that I could in describing Celine’s chaotic prose: “Why’s Celine a great writer? Because he pisses on everything… These scene changes become insane, ridiculous. Just when you start to know where you are, Celine pisses you down another rathole, damn it!”

The novel is free of the trappings of plot, rising and falling action and most signs of cause and effect. As a student in a master’s writing program at Johns Hopkins, I can say this book would’ve gotten shredded to pieces in a writing workshop. And perhaps that’s what makes it so refreshing and lively.

I’ve heard “Journery to the End of the Night” described as one of the most nihilistic books ever written, but I don’t believe any creative work can be truly nihilistic. This book’s themes and language may have nihilistic tendencies, but the book itself is creative genius. Any work of art is the result of positive action, which pisses all over nihilism. Ferdinand’s humor and sarcasm also bring some levity to the prose.

I can only imagine what it must’ve felt like to read this novel when it was first published in 1932. Had the world seen such misanthropic, satiric and incisive writing before?

I realize this is a short “review,” but I had to say a few words about this book. I finished it a few months ago and it’s stuck with me since. It’s one of those few novels I know I’ll go back and read again. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read, and it’s no wonder so many writers point back to this novel as an inspiration. 

What was that about nihilism?

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