Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Journey to the End of the Night

Louis-Ferdinand Céline Journey to the End of the Night (1932)
I'm sure I remember hearing that it was Céline who first came up with the three little dots signifying a pause, although I don't seem to be able to find any sort of confirmation for this. Never mind.

Anyway, I've been meaning to read something for a couple of decades now, at least since discovering his writing to be an influence on that of Billy Childish, and of course Bukowski, and - as I've eventually realised - pretty much everyone else I'd consider worth bothering with. His innovations mainly seem to have been in introducing a crude - although not lacking eloquence - working class voice to literature, and a willingness to examine all of the gritty details, stains, and skidmarks from which we extrapolate reality at least as much as we do from prettier, less disturbing sights. He was never too worried about delivering a crowd pleaser.

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 own class and ask the price of things before touching them, let alone setting my heart on them.

Journey to the End of the Night is roughly autobiographical, kicking off with our man's experience of the first world war and the unpleasant truths accordingly revealed.

People moved flabbily about like squid in a tank of tepid smelly water. From that moment on we saw, rising to the surface, the terrifying nature of white men, exasperated, freed from constraint, absolutely unbuttoned, their true nature, same as in the war. That tropical steam bath called forth instincts as August breeds toads and snakes on the fissured walls of prisons. In the European cold, under grey, puritanical northern skies, we seldom get to see our brothers' festering cruelty except in times of carnage, but when roused by the foul fevers of the tropics, their rottenness rises to the surface. That's when the unbuttoning sets in, when filth triumphs and covers us entirely. It's a biological confession. Once work and cold weather cease to constrain us, once they relax their grip, the white man shows you the same spectacle as a beautiful beach when the tide goes out: the truth, fetid pools, crabs, carrion, and turds.

Driven to the end of his rope, Céline sits out some of the war in an asylum before being sent to French colonial Africa, itself only another variant of hell, from which point the narrative becomes oddly Swiftian, or at least more blatantly allegorical as he becomes a galley slave, rowing to the Americas.

Talk of surprises! What we suddenly discovered through the mist was so amazing that at first we refused to believe it, but then, when we were face to face with it, galley slaves or not, we couldn't help laughing, seeing it right there in front of us…

It's probably just me but this passage immediately put me in mind of Bernal Díaz describing the Spanish forces first arriving in the Valley of Mexico in his True History of the Conquest of New Spain of 1568.

With such wonderful sights to gaze on we did not know what to say, or if this was real that we saw before our eyes.

Of course, if it isn't just me, then the parallel probably constitutes weapons-grade sarcasm, given Céline's time in the Americas representing only a minor improvement on his time in Africa, and that it is characterised by escalating absurdity.

'I believe in the enumeration of fleas! It's a civilising factor, because enumeration is the basis of the most invaluable statistical data! . . . A progressive country must know the number of its fleas, broken down according to sex, age group, year and season . . .'

Indeed, this part of the novel might be taken as a descent into an underworld newly industrialised in the wake of the first world war.

The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking feces with barbarous noises in front of everybody.

The power of Céline's testimony is such as to deliver something pithily quotable on more or less every other page, hence my thus far having used more of his words than my own. If there's a single theme to the novel it would seem to be humanity revealed as reduced to an industrial resource for the first half of the book.

'But you know, doctor, I'm an educated man. I even studied medicine at one time . . .'

At that he gave me a dirty look, I saw that I'd put my foot in it again, to my detriment.

'Your studies won't do you a bit of good around here, son. You're not here to think, you're here to make the movements you're told to. We don't need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again! We'll think for you, my boy! A word to the wise.'

...and at the risk of hammering this one into the ground:

It's sickening to watch the workers bent over their machines, intent on giving them all possible pleasure, calibrating bolts and more bolts, instead of putting an end once and for all to this stench of oil, this vapour that burns your throat and attacks your eardrums from inside. It's not shame that makes them bow their heads. You give in to noise as you give in to war. At the machines you let yourself go with the two three ideas that are wobbling about at the top of your head. And that's the end. From then on everything you look at, everything you touch, is hard. And everything you still manage to remember more or less becomes as rigid as iron and loses its savour in your thoughts.

All of a sudden you've become disgustingly old.

All outside life must be done away with, made into steel, into something useful. We didn't love it enough the way it was, that's why. So it has to be made into an object, into something solid. The Regulations say so.

The second half of the book describes Céline's return to France where he sets up a medical practice, which in narrative terms allows for further exposition and reflection on both his misanthropy and its attendant self-loathing. Unfortunately, this second half lacks the dynamic of the first, pinning its narrative to events of lesser consequence, and so feeling a little formless in places, at least to me.

Anyway, the significance of Céline should hopefully be apparent from the quotes, in so much as that as a writer he clearly strove to get to the bones regardless of stroked egos, sales, or pleasing images, and yet without going too far the other way and serving up what may as well be Lovecraftian disgust. That he is not so well remembered as might be the case is unfortunate but understandable given his later antisemitism, and not just the sort of thing we tend to pass off as being of its time, but properly antisemitic material written as a vocal supporter of Hitler and the axis powers.

In his defence, or at least in the defence of Journey to the End of the Night, there's nothing antisemitic here, and not even anything particularly racist, which seems noteworthy given the African setting of a few chapters, and when it was written. In fact, given Céline's generally poor view of authority figures, it's far from obvious how he could ever have ended up as cheerleader for the Third Reich. The key is most likely to be found in his enduring misanthropy.

It's no use trying, we slide, we skid, we fall back into the alcohol that preserves the living and the dead, we get nowhere. It's been proved. After all these centuries of watching our domestic animals come into the world, labouring and dying before our eyes without anything more unusual ever happening to them either than taking up the same insipid fiasco where so many other animals had left off, we should have caught on. Endless waves of useless beings keep rising from deep down in the ages to die in front of our noses, and yet here we stay, hoping for something  . . .

Sadly it seems to be a thin line which divides this sort of general realism from that which gets so thoroughly pissed off at everyone apparently wallowing in their own shit as to get misty-eyed over anything punishing which just so happens to entail jackboots; so Celine's slide to the far right should probably be considered reactionary in the literal sense, a move facilitated by the desire to attribute blame - as he himself once acknowledged.

When men can hate without risk, their stupidity is easily convinced, the motives supply themselves.

It's a fucking shame, and that whole argument about whether it's possible to divorce a piece of art from the shithead who created it is more complicated than I have time to really consider right now, and is an issue which should probably be settled on a case by case basis; but for what it may be worth, Journey to the End of the Night is a genuinely great book, or at least the first half is a genuinely great book, regardless of anything else.

No comments:

Post a Comment