The 1932 publication of the cynical and darkly comic Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894–1961) sent immediate shock waves into a French literary world still reeling from the social and artistic disruptions of World War I. Its audacious literary use of spoken French—a colloquial Parisian slang, itself vulgar, funny, street-smart, and corporeal—together with its running first-person commentaries on the imbecilities of war, colonialism, industrialism, and what Henry Miller would call the “air-conditioned nightmare” of 20th-century life, were embraced in the anti–status quo intellectual atmosphere of 1930s Paris. The novel has since remained a brilliant and insightful, if bitter and often misanthropic, commentary on the modern condition. Its influence has extended beyond the postwar French existentialists to the United States, where it can be felt in writers as diverse as Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.
Episodic in structure, picaresque in form, Journey to the End of the Night is told in the first person and covers the experiences of the narrator, Bardamu, from his early 20s until his mid-30s, tracing his adventures across three continents and chronicling his “aimless pilgrimage” toward self-knowledge. It opens as the young medical student, caught up in the martial spirit that engulfed Europe in the weeks preceding the outbreak of war in 1914, enlists in the army. Suddenly, he informs us, “The music stopped. Then I said to myself, as I saw how things were going, ‘It’s not such fun, after all. I doubt it’s worth it.’ And I was going to go back. But it was too late! They’d shut the gate behind us, quietly; the civilians had. We were caught, like rats in a trap.” Bardamu’s journey begins.
The horrors of war scenes, drawn from Céline’s own experiences on the front, are justly famous. Bardamu’s early naïve idealism quickly gives way to cynicism; the war is civilization’s death wish. “You can see,” he says of the dead, “that they died for nothing. For nothing at all, the idiots. I swear that’s true; you can see that it is. Only life itself is important.” For Bardamu, the carnage exposes the language of glory, country, and patriotism as a deadly lie. “The poetry of heroism,” he argues, “appeals irresistibly to those who don’t go to war, and even more to those whom the war is making enormously wealthy. It’s always so.” Bardamu himself becomes its victim. Wounded and subject to hallucinations and panic attacks, he survives the war in and out of hospitals, always walking a dangerously fine line between being permanently institutionalized, ordered back to the front, or executed as a coward.
Finally, invalided out of the regular French army, Bardamu next finds himself a minor official in a remote French African trading post, a lone European wracked with fevers and no real duties or purpose. He soon discovers the horrors and insanities of the colonial system are equal to those he endured at the front. “The wielder of the lash,” he finds, “gets very tired of his job in the end, but the white man’s heart is brimful of the hope of power and wealth that doesn’t cost anything.” Yet if the native peoples must be whipped to force compliance in the absurd farce, “the whites carry on on their own; they’ve been well schooled by the state.” Nevertheless, in this unlikely place, Bardamu encounters the selfl ess officer, Alcide, who reenlists in hell to provide an education for his crippled niece, giving her “the gift of years of torment, the annihilation of his poor life in this torrid monotony, without making conditions and without bargaining, uncalculating.”
After escaping the European wars and African jungles, America beckons to Bardamu as the 20th-century’s Promised Land. It is a false promise, a desire-driven trance induced by that “two hour whore,” the movies. A different reality confronts Bardamu, first in New York and later in Detroit, where he works on the Ford assembly line. Urban America is “an insipid carnival of vertiginous buildings,” a “cancer of promiscuous and pestilential advertising,” and its factories and workplaces merely dehumanizing machines, better designed to employ well-trained chimpanzees than thinking, feeling humans. Always on the move, always in a hurry, America fascinates Bardamu. “What is it that frightens all these bloody people so?” he wonders. “It’s probably somewhere at the farther end of the night. That’s why they don’t go into the depths of the night themselves.”
The last sections of the novel find that Bardamu has finished his studies and is practicing medicine as best he can in the poor, working-class suburbs of Paris. Twenty years older, and more resigned than indignant, he is no longer running from either life or himself. Yet, in the face of the medical establishment’s complete indifference, he cannot prevent the innocent young Bebert from dying of typhoid or save a young woman from slowly bleeding to death of an abortion when the family, to avoid a scandal, refuses to send her to a hospital. There is “no exit” from life but death, an exit which, as Germaine Bree notes in The French Novel from Gide to Camus, is held in check by Bardamu’s “unreasoning animal instinct for physical survival.”
Throughout the novel, Bardamu’s adventures parallel and often intersect with those of his alter ego or double, the shadowy and mysterious Robinson, whose experiences more than once prefigure Bardamu’s own. When the two first meet on the battlefield, Robinson has already made his plans to drop out of the war. When Bardamu reaches his remote African post, he discovers he is replacing Robinson, who had just absconded with the company funds. In Detroit he again encounters Robinson. Even in the Paris suburbs, he cannot escape Robinson, whose active nihilism mirrors Bardamu’s passivity. Now a petty criminal, Robinson has agreed to murder an old woman for a thousand francs. When the plot falls through and he is injured in the failed attempt, Bardamu oversees his recovery. The novel ends with Robinson’s death. The murder accomplished, Robinson is shot by a jilted girlfriend, leaving Bardamu both free and alone. “Try as I might to lose my way, so as not to find myself face to face with my own life, I kept coming up against it everywhere. My aimless pilgrimage was over. Let others carry on the game! The world had closed in. We had come to the end.”
BIBLIOGRAPHY Ostrovsky, Erica. Céline and His Vision. New York: New York University Press, 1967.
Thomas, Merlin. Louis Ferdinand Céline. New York: New Directions, 1980.
Vitoux, Frederic. Céline: A Biography. New York: Paragon House, 1992.