The World War of 1914-18 brought not only radical changes regarding borders, governments and relations between countries, but it also had a lasting impact on people and society. An important, though controversial novel that shows how the war shadowed life and attitude of two average French combatants, and that I’m reviewing today for both the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge and The Great War in Literature Special, is Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The plot begins with the belligerent atmosphere before the war which led the French army into incredibly atrocious battles in Belgium. The narrating protagonist survives, but carrying the burden of what he has witnessed and participated in his soul remains in the gloom of a never-ending night.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches in Courbevoie, France, in May 1894. Eleven years old he left school to work in different jobs until he joined the army in 1912. Wounded at the right arm early on in the Great War, he was discharged from the army in 1915 and resumed working in different jobs, while already preparing to become a physician. Although he had published the Carnet du Cuirassier Destouches (The Notebook of Cuirassier Destouches) and a short story titled Des vagues (The Waves) in 1913 and 1917 respectively, his doctoral thesis, Semmelweiss. A Fictional Biography (La Vie et l'Œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis: 1924) is considered as his true literary debut. He worked as a physician and supplemented his income doing research and writing articles, later pamphlets. The novels Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit: 1932; re-published as Fable for Another Time [Féerie pour une autre fois] in 1952) and Death on Credit (Mort à credit: 1936) made his fame. In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand Céline became – for the rest of his life – a rabid anti-Semite, racist and supporter of Nazi-ideology. The author’s third novel, Guignol’s Band, was released in 1944, shortly before he went into exile in Germany, later Denmark where he was imprisoned for some time. In France he was convicted in absentia as a collaborator and granted amnesty in 1951. Years after his return to France he brought out his successful German trilogy comprising Castle to Castle (D'un château l'autre: 1957), North (Nord: 1960) and Rigadoon (published posthumously in 1969). Louis-Ferdinand Céline died in Meudon, France, in July 1961.
The story of Journey to the End of the Night is that of the narrator Frédéric Bardamu. The opening scene is set in Paris before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, when he still is a naïve student of medicine frequenting anarchistic circles. During a military parade general enthusiasm carries him away and he finds himself caught in the trap: he belongs to the French army all of a sudden! Before soon he is on the battlefields of Flanders and during a dangerous reconnaissance mission he meets Léon Robinson. None of them knows yet that their lives will be interconnected for decades. Back to Paris on leave Frédéric distracts himself best he can, but in the end the effects of the constant horrors and fear lived in Flanders show. After a break-down in a restaurant he is committed to hospital and eventually declared mentally unfit for further military duty. Branded as a coward and a madman he earns a meagre living doing odd jobs. He thinks about Léon sometimes and one day he meets him by chance. A while later Frédéric tries his luck in French West Africa and finds to his great surprise that he follows in the footsteps of Léon. Their encounter in the jungle is short because Léon can’t wait to leave the ramshackle hut to Frédéric who takes over his job. When Frédéric falls dangerously ill with a fever, the villagers transport him to the coast. As he later realises, they sold him as a slave to the owner of a galley heading for New York. In America, too, the paths of Frédéric and Léon cross unexpectedly. Both are disappointed by the land of unlimited possibilities and long to return to Europe. Frédéric is the first to arrive in France and to start a new life. He resumes his studies of medicine and opens a private practice which hardly yields enough to pay his rent and other living costs. After a while Léon shows up and drags Frédéric into his miserable life of unfulfilled dreams which inevitably lead to capital crime and make him the object of a fatal amour fou. Unable to distance himself from Léon, Frédéric stands by his friend changing jobs and scenery repeatedly.
Although Journey to the End of the Night isn’t an autobiographical novel, its outlines are obviously drawn from the author’s own life. The first-person narrator, Frédéric Bardamu, is the author’s alter ego, but also the biography of Léon Robinson follows the same traces. Both protagonists stumble through the seemingly endless night that life has become for them on the battlefields of Flanders where they lost faith in the entire human race. However, their strategies to still go on and cope with life are contrary. While Frédéric tries to recover some of his former idealism working hard to become a physician and leading a decent life, Léon only yearns for quick and effortless wealth compensating him for the hardships he has lived through. In a nutshell Frédéric is the fairly honourable, though resigned and passive opposite of Léon who would do anything to get a chance to idle away his life in peace. The basic tone of the novel is enormously pessimistic and misanthropic although the author mostly clothed it in wit and irony, even sarcasm, which make it a very black comedy. The language in which it is written is extremely colloquial, sometimes to the point of vulgarity, but today we are quite used to such style and no longer shocked by it as people were when the book was first released in 1932. I definitely enjoyed the read.
As a matter of fact, Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline will never be one of my favourite novels because it conveys a far too negative picture of people and society. Despite all it’s a masterpiece of literature which I appreciated a lot and which I’m ready to recommend for its obvious literary qualities.