This novel is the one I quitted four days ago, re-started and quitted again. I love its plot and the language of Ferdinand but I have plenty of readings flying over my head which make me wish new pages. I do not definitely quit this story [note at @goodreads]
Journey to the End of the Night
Journey to the End of the Night brought Céline immediate critical attention upon its publication, and it continues to be the best known of his novels. The journey of the young and innocent Bardamu is one of discovery and initiation. Bardamu’s illusions about human existence in general and his own possibilities in particular are progressively stripped away as he confronts the sordidness of the human condition. His limited perspective is counterbalanced by the cynicism of the novel’s narrator, an older and wiser Bardamu. The voyage ultimately becomes a conscious project—to confront the darker side of life so that, with the lucidity he acquires, he can one day transmit his knowledge to others by means of his writings.
Having enlisted in the army in a burst of patriotic fervor, Bardamu, as a soldier at the front, discovers the realities of the war. Despite their puzzlement about the politics of their situation, the men involved in the conflict have a natural penchant for killing and are generally fascinated by death. The most trenchant image of the war can be found in Bardamu’s perception of a field abattoir, where the disemboweled animals, their blood and viscera spread on the grass, mirror the slaughter of human victims that is taking place. Given the insanity of war, the asylum and the hospital become places of refuge, and fear and cowardice are positively valorized. After Bardamu is wounded in the head and arm, any means to avoid returning to the front becomes valid.
Bardamu finally succeeds in having himself demobilized. He travels to the Cameroons to run a trading post in the bush. Through Bardamu, Céline denounces the inhumanity and corruption of the French colonial administration. More important, however, is the lesson in biology that Africa furnishes Bardamu. The moral decay of the European settlers manifests itself in their physical debilitation as they disintegrate in the oppressive heat and humidity and as they succumb to poor diet and disease. The African climate “stews” the white colonialists and thereby brings forth their inherent viciousness. In more temperate regions, Céline indicates, it requires a phenomenon such as war to expose humankind so quickly for what it is. Unable to tolerate the climate or his job, Bardamu burns his trading post to the ground and, delirious with malarial fever, embarks on a ship bound for New York.
Bardamu believes that America will provide him with the opportunity for a better life. He considers his journey to the New World a sort of pilgrimage, inspired by Lola, an American girlfriend in Paris. His New York is characterized by rigid verticality and the unyielding hardness of stone and steel; it bears no resemblance to the soft, supine, compliant body that Lola had offered him. As a “pilgrim” in New York, he discovers many “shrines,” but access to them is open only to the wealthy. Bardamu is no more successful in Detroit than he was in New York. His work at a Ford motor assembly plant recalls the Charles Chaplin film Modern Times (1936). The noise of the machinery and the automatonlike motions Bardamu must perform eventually cause him to take refuge in the arms of Molly, a prostitute with a heart of gold. Molly has the legs of a dancer; Céline’s protagonists, like Céline himself, are great admirers of the dance and particularly of the female dancer, who is able to combine Apollonian form with Dionysian rhythms in movements that defy the body’s inherent corruption.
In Detroit, Bardamu encounters an old acquaintance named Léon Robinson. Hitherto, Robinson had been functioning as Bardamu’s alter ego, anticipating, if not implementing, Bardamu’s desires. They first met during the war, when Robinson, disgusted by the killing, wished to surrender to the Germans. Robinson preceded Bardamu to Africa, where he served as the manager of the trading post that Bardamu would later head. When Bardamu learns that the resourceful Robinson has taken a job as a night janitor, he concludes that he, too, will not succeed in America. He decides that his only true mistress can be life itself, that he must return to France to continue his journey into the night.
Bardamu completes his medical studies and establishes his practice in a shabby Parisian suburb. Reluctant to request his fee from his impoverished patients, Bardamu is finally obliged to close his office and take a position in an asylum. Bardamu envies his patients. They have achieved an absolute form of self-delusion and are protected from life’s insanity by the walls that imprison them.
Robinson reappears in Bardamu’s life. In his desperate attempt to escape his poverty and its attendant humiliation, Robinson joins a conspiracy to murder an old woman. The plot backfires, literally, and Robinson is temporarily blinded when he receives a shotgun blast in the face. His “darkness,” however, does not bring him enlightenment; his disgust with life simply increases. Bardamu realizes that he is bearing witness to an exemplary journey that must end in death. Robinson finally dies at the hands of his irate fiancé, whom he goads into shooting him. His “suicide” terminates his own journey to the end of the night and Bardamu’s as well.
Journey to the End of the Night proffers a vision of the human condition that serves as the basis of all of Céline’s literary production. Concomitant with this vision is the elaboration of a particular style that, with certain modifications in later works, afforded, according to Céline, a means of revitalizing French literature, by freeing it from the abstractions of classical writing. The most salient stylistic effect in Journey to the End of the Night is Céline’s use of the vocabulary, syntax, and rhythms of popular speech as a vehicle for communicating the concrete, emotional impact of Bardamu’s experience.