Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Journey To The End Of The Night (Amazon.com)
Journey To The End Of The Night (Amazon.co.uk)
Journey To The End Of The Night (Powell's Books - new or secondhand)
Louis-Ferdinand Céline was the pen-name of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (1894-1961). Journey to the End of the Night, first published in 1932, is a semi-autobiographical novel that has been hailed as a masterpiece, with some justification. Its uninhibited, vernacular style makes it almost contemporary, perhaps even timeless.
The main character (and first-person narrator) is called Ferdinand Bardamu and is the author's alter-ego. His life takes him from World War I to French Colonial Africa, to the USA and then back to France, where he becomes a doctor, practising among the poor, then later among the insane. The question of quite how much of this story is *fiction* and how much is *autobiography* becomes irrelevant from the very start of the novel, as it begins with the words "Travel is very useful and it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our own journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It's a novel, simply a fictitious narrative" (p.7).
Céline has some interesting ideas about truth and fiction. As if to remind readers they're in the realm of the latter, he deliberately includes false geography of Paris, distortion of French history and characters' names based on sexual puns. Also, the reader cannot entirely trust Bardamu. His voyage from Africa to America defies belief and may be a delusion. Molly, his girlfriend in America, notes that he roams "around all night dreaming" (p.213). Are we merely privy to the narrator's waking dreams?
Bardamu comes across many liars. A girlfriend, Musyne, tells bogus war stories. "She had a gift for locating her fantasies in a dramatic faraway setting that gave everything a lasting glow. It often struck me that when we combatants would spin yarns they tended to be crudely chronometric and precise. But she, sweet creature, worked in eternity. Claude Lorrain was right in saying that the foreground of a picture is always repugnant and that the interest of an art work must be seen in the distance, in that unfathomable realm which is the refuge of lies, of those dreams caught in the act, which are the only thing men love" (pp77-8). Later in the book, Bardamu is "exasperated and dismayed" (p.354) to hear his friend Robinson lying at a party.
Yet Bardamu himself lies. After he hears Robinson lying, he finds himself "invaded by pride" and starts doing so himself: "Tangled in phrases and cushions, fuddled by our collective effort to make one another happy, more deeply, more warmly happier by the spirit alone since our bodies were replete, we did everything possible to suffuse the present moment with all the pleasure in the world, with every marvel known to us in and outside of ourselves, so that our neighbour might at last get the full advantage of it and confess to us that this was just what had been lacking for so and so many years to his eternal happiness!" (pp.355-6). Bardamu lies throughout the novel. He lies to a poet who wants to write about WWI heroism: "Luckily, when it comes to heroism, people are willing to believe anything" (p.95). He lies to an employer, Baryton, about his travels, to impress him: "All my peregrinations were served up, related at length, doctored of course, made suitably literary, amusing" (
p.364). To Baryton, Bardamu jabbers "about anything under the sun in line with his tastes or recommendations, like a human talking machine" (p.377).
Bardamu has much to say on the purpose and nature of lies: "...if there were no more lies to tell. People would have practically nothing to say to one another" (p.193). His lies are "inspired by boredom" (p.376). On occasion, Bardamu fears the truth. "That's what exile, a foreign country is, inexorable perception of existence as it really is, during those long lucid hours, exceptional in the flux of human time, when the ways of the old country abandon you, but the new ways haven't sufficiently stupefied you as yet" (p.194). Lies seem to give meaning to existence. "The truth is death," says Bardamu. "You have to choose: death or lies" (p.183). He associates confessing secrets with death, or at least a kind of death: "We won't be easy in our minds until everything has been said once and for all, then we'll fall silent and we'll no longer be afraid of keeping still" (p.290). He also points out the disadvantage of being human: "A dog only believes what it can smell" (p.91).
Journey to the End of the Night is fascinating in the way it portrays life, travel, happiness, unhappiness, memories - but most fascinating of all is its concept of *night*. Céline uses the word both metaphorically and literally. One manifests itself in the other. Sometimes the literal "night" is used as a clue to what is about to happen on the metaphorical level: Bardamu, walking along, is "black and shapeless, in the night" (p.306) and Robinson's girlfriend Madelon, while sitting in a cab, "kept her face turned toward the outside, toward the landscape, toward the darkness would be more like it" (p.427). These are hints.
Night is a metaphor for an internal darkness. "I had developed a taste for shady undertakings" says Bardamu. "...you want to understand, and after that you never leave the depths" (p.335). Is it this desire to understand that takes him into the darkness? "You're sure to find whatever it is that scares all those bastards so" he says to himself. "It must be at the end of the night, and that's why they're so dead set against going to the end of the night" (p.200). He and Robinson's involvement with the Henrouille family takes him there: "I couldn't see any objection to all of us together drifting deeper and deeper into the night" (p.294). Protise, an *accomplice* of sorts, "was simply joining us in the night" (p.300). It is not only the Henrouille family but the entire poverty-stricken rancid suburb where Bardamu works that has this dark pull: "Before you know it, you're deep in the noisesome regions of the night" (p.327). Sometimes Bardamu laments being *in the night*. He recalls the words of an executed army corporal and longs to ask him what he had meant all those years ago but the man is dead and Bardamu can only tell himself that "we just have to go on alone in the night. We've lost our true companions, and we didn't even ask them the right question" (p.332). At one point Bardamu is happily filled with food and drink but tries not to doze off: "Keep it for the night, that's my motto! Always be thinking of the night" (356). He defines despair as a lack of sleep: "If someone tells you he's unhappy, don't take it on faith. Just ask him if he can sleep... If he can, then all's well" (p.375). Tellingly, Robinson is described as being "always a little short o
f sleep" (p.428). Eventually, Bardamu sees himself as having gone further into the night than Madame Henrouille and can no longer talk to her: "You need a heart and a certain amount of knowledge to go further than other people... she couldn't get down to where I was... There was too much night around me" (pp.404-5).
Is the end of the book the end of the night? I can't exactly say. There is a sequel - Death on Credit - but Céline wrote "Of all my books it [Journey to the End of the Night]'s the only really vicious one... That's right... The heart of my sensibility."
- Barry Kavanagh
barry at June 17, 2006 9:28 PM