Louis-Ferdinand Celine, ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ (1932)

Celine’s first novel is an unrelenting savaging of contemporary society rendered in unmistakable prose. Beginning in France in World War 1, Journey‘s protaginist and Celine’s alter-ego in this semi-autobiographical novel, Ferdinand Bardemu, tracks a path of debauchery and despair through colonial Africa and post-war America, before returning back to the suburbs and sidestreets of Paris. In the process, no vice goes unexplored: from cowardice and avarice to murder and extortion, Celine’s novel exhumes every base and reprehensible aspect of human nature. Indeed, it is the novel’s thesis that–with few exceptions–baseness is all that is to be expected of man: a nihilistic conclusion that Celine reaches with relish. Far from the measured philosophical novels of his contemporaries Camus and Sartre, Celine’s work is a schizophrenic narrative plucking from a grab-bag of genres and styles: the war novel, in which WW1 France is described with almost Pynchon-esque verve; the colonial novel, full of Conrad-ian darkness and sweat; the psychological crime novel a la Zola, which burrows into the disfunctions and dissatisfactions of one grubby suburban household; the modernist city novel; the fictional autobiography…

The prevailing tone of Bardemu’s narration is of contempt. Nothing is spared Celine’s baleful eye: the patriotic discourse of war is reprehensible; capitalism and imperialism alike are absurd; the proletariat and bourgeoisie are equally flawed. This egalitarian disgust is conveyed in an unmistakable prose style that is at once kinetic and aphoristic. One can turn to any page at random and find a line, saturated in sardonic humour, that one cannot help but want to repeat: ‘my soul was as obscene as an open fly,’ ‘the landlord is shittier than shit,’ ‘there’s no tyrant like a brain,’ etc. etc.. Despite the pessimism, though, glimmers of humanistic hope shine through–the possibility of goodness is not entirely foreclosed. Among the most memorable of the plethora of characters Bardemu meets on his journey is Alcide, a seargent in colonial Africa who–as Bardemu eventually finds out–is working to fund his orphaned neice’s attendance at an expensive school. Bardemu remarks, after Alcide has fallen asleep, that ‘there ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.’ In these (rare) moments of sentiment, a flicker of light punctures the novel’s dark night. There’s no redemption for Bardemu, and the horror far outweighs the happiness, but it is a testament to Celine’s style that despite the 400+ pages of existential rot, the novel is a brisk, eminently enjoyable read.

Country: France
Genre: Fictional Autobiography
Ism: Modernism, Nihilism
Influences: Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire
Influenced: Jean-Paul Sartre, James Joyce, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Will Self.

From Will Self, ‘Celine’s Dark Journey,’ in The NY Times (10 Sept 2006) (https://nyti.ms/2oNQwvS):
What else is there in “Journey” to relieve the succession of taunts, jibes and foul-mouthed insults Celine flings against the world? A great deal. There are so many aphorisms–at least one per page–that the whole reads like La Rochefoucauld on LSD. (“Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment.”) Celine offers devastating critiques of Christianity, capitalism, socialism–all the kleptocratic belief systems devised to keep the poor in their place, and the bourgeoisie in theirs as well. But liberationists of all stripes […] are mistaken in claiming Celine as one of their own. Despite a critique of imperialism that reads like a scrambled “Heart of Darkness,” passages set in the United States that recall a crazed reworking of Kafka’s “Amerika,” and even the war sections, with their echoes of “The Good Soldier Schweik,” “Journey” is no political picaresque. Rather, the novel is a furious attempt to place one man’s consciousness at the epicenter of a world that is exploding under the centripetal influences of capitalism, imperialism, consumerism and licentiousness. In this, Celine anticipates the essentially apolitical rodomontades of the American Beats, quite as much as he belongs with the excruciating Marxian posturing of the interwar French existentialists and Surrealists.

Further Reading:


Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938)

Sartre’s Nausea is the book that launched a thousand existential voyages. Fashioned as the diaries of Antoine Roquentin, a disaffected twenty-something living in the fictional town of Bouville, Nausea oscillates between modernist stream-of-consciousness psychological novel and detached exercise in philosophical exploration. I’m inclined to agree with Camus’ review (himself influenced by the novel while writing The Stranger) that these two halves don’t quite always marry up, and that Sartre’s philosophical tracts, delivered in Roquentin’s listless narration, occasionally induce a sense of anomie that makes the book a hard fought read. Roquentin’s titular nausea, brought about by a growing sense of the absolute meaninglessness of his own–and all things’–existence, owes a debt to Dostoyevesky’s nascent existentialism, Husserl’s phenomenonlogy, even Saussure’s linguistics (the latter pushing Nausea into postmodern territory). That an object, including a person, can exist extant of any structure of meaning and outside of language is ultimately both a terrifying and a liberating revelation, and it allows Roquentin at the close of the novel to begin to exercise some control over his listless life: a sense of agency derived from the existentialist epiphany that meaning must be self-constructed (though, to differentiate Sartre from Camus, the former doesn’t incorporate the self-awareness of the arbitrariness of this meaning structure itself in the same way as the absurdist latter). In the closing pages Roquentin begins to grasp this notion, embodied in a desire to write his experiences into a coherent novelistic narrative.

Like Camus’ The Stranger, Sartre’s book is finally empowering (if one believes Roquentin’s latest venture will be followed through), though the journey is somewhat less enjoyable, mostly on account of the endless spiral of overthinking and inaction that imprisons Roquentin and renders him a sort-of Cartesian caricature. However, Roquentin’s notes are not without their moments of humour: to read his sardonic account of requesting cheese ‘heroically,’ or his horror at his ‘mushroom existence,’ is to find a playfulness in the novel that seems often to be overlooked. Some scenes–I’m thinking particularly of the portrait gallery–are hard-going, but Sartre’s prose comes to life in the moments he describes the life of Bouville–the fog on the streets, the denizens in the cafes–through Roquentin’s clinical eye. Sometimes beautiful, often thought-provoking, and clearly influential.

Country: France
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Ism: Existentialism, Modernism
Influences: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Louis-Ferdinand Celine
Influenced: Albert Camus

From Steven Ungar, ‘Existentialism, Engagement, Ideology,’ in The Cambridge Companion to French Literature, 1800 to Present:
La Nausee subsumes Roquentin’s desire to exploit the creative potential of his nausea to what Sartre referred to when he conceived the novel in 1931 as a ‘factum on contingency’. By which he intended to have Roquentin’s identity crisis serve as an instance of the unstable ontological mode of existence that men and women try without success to transcend toward the more stable mode of being. While it is only several years later in L’Etre et le neant that Sartre analyses these ontological modes at length, La Nausee […] stage[s] the ongoing tensions between the desire to attain being in the form of a stable identity and an understanding that this desire opposes what existence imposes as a burden of freedom on all men and women forced to make and remake themselves within the evolving circumstances of their lives. Freedom is understood less in an absolute sense as the total absence of constraint than as a condition of responsibility for one’s actions in specific circumstances linked over longer duration to the variables of continuous flux.

Further Reading:
https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521495636.009 (Cambridge Companion)

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)

Tolstoy’s brief novella describes the rise and fall of Ivan Ilyich, a high-court judge in 19th century Russia, who develops an increasingly serious and debilitating illness that prompts in him an existential examination of his own life. Another precursor (along with Dostoyevsky) to the slew of existentialist fiction that would arrive in the 20th century, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an accomplished short, late work from an acknowledged master. The novel opens with Ilyich’s death and the apparent unconcern of those who know him. Those in his bourgeois social circle are more concerned with the ramifications Ilyich’s death will have for their hopes of promotion and their chances of making a card game, than for the loss of the man himself. Tolstoy proceeds to take us on a rapid tour of Ilyich’s life, which is devoted above all to the maintainence of an easy, pleasant lifestyle. Despite a few hiccups, Ilyich is largely successful. But when, upon receipt of another promotion, he moves his family into a luxurious apartment he insists on decorating himself, Ilyich slips and bangs his side, and this seemingly inconsequential moment begins the end. As Ilyich’s injury develops into an unspecified but terminal illness, Tolstoy slows the rapid pace of the novella to a crawl. Bedridden and increasingly self-scrutinising, Ilyich grapples with the raw reality of his impending death and its metaphysical implications. Why has God seen fit to deal him this blow? As the novella, and Ilyich’s life, draw to a close, Ilyich begins to suspect that his carefree and decadent lifestyle have been his undoing. In his increasing agony Ilyich can take solace only in the care of his peasant servant Gerasim, who represents a sort of Marxist vision of the idealised lower class. The novel embodies Tolstoy’s ethical beliefs: that a sinful life is a moral death. The rapid pace and artful construction of the novella, as well as its perennial central conflict, makes it a brisk and yet powerful read, and Tolstoy’s newly developed anarcho-Christian values find here an eloquent and forceful expression.

Country: Russia
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Ism: Existentialism, Realism
Influences: Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Stendhal
Influenced: Contemporaries: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert. Successors: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabakov

From Peter Kropotkin’s entry ‘Anarchism’ in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:
Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus and from the necessary dictates of reason. With all the might of his talent, Tolstoy made (especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force. Robbers, he says, are far less dangerous than a well-organized government. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state, and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars. His religious arguments are, however, so well combined with arguments borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils, that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious and the non-religious reader alike.

Further Reading:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)

Dostoyevsky’s novella is widely considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature, credited as the precursor to everything from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The book is narrated by an anonymous and unreliable voice hailing from the underbelly of 19th century St. Petersburg, a city in the midst of mechanisation and scientific revolution. In the first part of the novel, the narrator leads the reader on a twisted, convoluted journey through his own personal philosophy: he rails against au curant theories of determinism, materialism, socialism and utopianism in a fractured, layered monologue constantly threatening to collapse in on itself. This Underground Man offers an account of his apathetic existence based in his belief that, contrary to the rationalist ideas of his contemporaries, socialist utopia is an impossible dream fatally reliant on a vision of man as an inherently rational creature driven to act in his own self-interest. For the Underground Man, though, ‘people are stupid.’ That is, they will often act against their self-interests for inscrutable reasons: whether out of petty revenge or simply to assert their own individuality. Man is a fundamentally self-destructive beast, the Underground Man argues, and therefore any hope of a collective utopia is doomed, and furthermore, any claim for an intrinisc meaning in human existence is unfounded.

In the second half of the novel the narrator reminisces about several scenes from his past which are illustrative of his beliefs, including an attempt at petty face-saving, a spiteful disruption of a farewell dinner, and the emotional abuse of a young prostitute. In this final episode, Dostoyevsky tantalises the reader with the possibility of some shared sense of repentence and resolution for the two characters. But as we know from the opening, set several decades later, the Underground Man will achieve no such salvation. Instead the novel is an exultation of human perversity without end, and indeed, the novel ends arbitrarily, with Dostoyevsky’s interjection: ‘one might as well just stop here.’ Despite the neurotic narrator and his dense, circular style, the book fairly hums along, and the theories it espouses–and the influence they have enjoyed–have lost none of their urgent appeal in the intervening years.

Country: Russia
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Ism: Existentialism
Influences: Nikolai Gogol, Honore de Balzac, Edgar Allen Poe
Influenced: Albert Camus, Anton Chekhov, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka

From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of Notes from Underground (1961):
‘[Dostoyevsky’s] early writings placed him politically and were greeted enthusiastically by Russian liberals. […] His humanitarian feelings led Dostoyevsky to join a liberal circle of enthusiastic young men who met to discuss socialism. […] During one such meeting of the Petrashevsky group, Dostoyevsky and his companions were surprised by the police. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death. This sentence, however, was nothing but a gruesome farce, devised by the tsarist authorities for the edification of subversives. […] The effect on Dostoyevsky was shattering. […] He was sentenced to eight years in the Omsk penitentiary in Siberia, a sentence which, again thanks to the tsar’s magnanimity, was reduced to four years, followed by a stretch in the army as an enlisted man. [Afterwards] all liberalism had left him; he was no longer a revolutionary, nor even a would-be reformer. […] Having renounced any attempt to alleviate the human condition through practical, man-made measures (he had tried and the tsarist authorities had taught him that there was nothing to be done in that direction), Dostoyevsky preaches submission and the acceptance of suffering, recommending it as a way to redemption and salvation. As he does so, however, he is still trying to convince himself of the existence of God.’

Further Reading:

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)

In House of Leaves Danielewski seems to provide a fullstop to the postmodern project, blending the academic satire and Borgesian playfulness of Eco, the unstable ontologies of Pynchon, the epistemological uncertainty of Auster, and the eccentric verbosity (and footnotes) of Wallace into one formidable (some might say obnoxious, some virtuoso) package. The body of the novel is comprised mostly of reclusive blind man Zampano’s esoteric academic study of The Navidson Record, a documentary film about a house that is a quarter-inch larger inside than out. Following the discovery of this discrepancy by the filmmaker Navidson, the house further mutates, opening up a hallway that leads into an impossibly vast labyrinthine space into which most of the Navidson family and various friends and colleagues are compelled to enter, often with life-threatening results. Zampano’s study is found and edited by Johnny Truant, and the book as a whole is presented to us as an edited collection of Truant’s assemblage of Zampano’s notes on Navidson’s film about an unassuming and unheimlich house on Ash Tree Lane. Danielewski spent a decade writing the novel, and the ergodic aspects of the book reflect his ambitous vision. Just as the space of the house is revealed to reflect the consciousness of the character entering it, so the text of the novel reflects the space of the house: text contracts until only a few words occupy each page, or flips upside-down, or stretches across several pages at once; all according to the current status of the endlessly mutating space. Ironically for a satire of academic obsession, HOL has developed its own dedicated community of theorists online. How old is the house? What is Yggdrasil? Where is Thamyris? Danielewski extends the layers of his fiction out into the world, exerting real force and developing the staid relationship between reader and writer. From the physicality of the object to the legacy of its unanswered questions, Danielewski’s work feels not just like the culmination of postmodernism but also the beginning of something new.

Country: America
Genre: Philosophical Novel, Metafiction, Horror.
Ism: Postmodernism, Postpostmodernism.
Influences: Umberto Eco, Paul Auster, Edgar Allen Poe, David Foster Wallace, John Cage.
Influenced: ???

Nicoline Timmer’s Do You Feel it Too? The Post-postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millenium. (New York: Rodopi, 2010):
Timmer writes how, unable to explain the extra rooms in his house, Navidson eventually decides just to explore them anyway; unable to decide on the relative reality of the film, Johnny explores Zampano’s account of it anyway: ‘in this Johnny perhaps also shows, as fallible ‘model interpreter’, the reader a way (not necessarily the way) to tread into the novel House of Leaves itself: suspend your disbelief and then see what happens. We could say that if a realistic reading results from a basic suspension of disbelief and a postmodern reading consists in a suspicion of this suspension of disbelief, House of Leaves seems to invite the bracketing of this suspicion in turn’ (256). Later, she notes that ‘the personal in House of Leaves is actually not presented as an enclosed, limited space – the personal is reconfigured in this book as shared space. And the construction of the story of the self is likewise an endeavor that cannot be taken on alone, but is an interactive process that in House of Leaves is conceived spatially, through what one may call a form of echolocation’ (289). While she doesn’t name it as such, this idea of ‘faithful reading’ and of interpersonal selfhood bears all the hallmarks of the postpostmodern literary shift towards sincerity, the so-called ‘New Sincerity.’

Further Reading:

Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)

Existentialist short novel (novella really), though Camus would resist the label ‘existentialist.’ Mersault is a haunting narrator, providing a sensual account of a life lived in the moment–a commitment to the everday pleasures of objects and sensations: of the sight of a cat crossing an empty street at dusk; the taste of black pudding and red wine; the feel of the sea, sand, and the warmth of another body–at the expense of any consideration for the undercurrents of human society: respectability, discretion, impermeable codes of conduct and comportment. Mersault is fated to his end from the moment he fails to cry at his mother’s funeral, because he is a stranger–an outsider–to ordinary society. Yet this otherness also saves him. One is tempted to agree with Louis Hudon’s assertion that Camus’ novel is not existentialist (Louis Hudon, ‘The Stranger and the Critics.’ Yale French Studies. No. 25 (1960)) because Mersault suffers none of the torments of, say, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, who suffers in his alienation, brought about by his consciousness of the absurdity of society. Mersault reconciles himself with this absurdity, with the notion that nothing matters, and in doing so he finds a sort of peace, almost zen-like in its asceticism. His raging response to the priest at the end of the novel is not a breakthrough or a breakdown, as such, merely a confirmation of what Mersault has known all along: that nothing really matters, that the universe is indifferent to our suffering and our success equally, and that all there is to do is live, 24 hours at a time. This is Camus’ idea of ‘Revolt.’ Weirdly uplifting.

Country: France
Genre: Philosophical Novel, Crime Fiction
Ism: Absurdism, sort-of Existentialism.
Influences: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Influenced: Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
[Camus] developed the twin philosophical ideas—the concept of the Absurd and the notion of Revolt—that made him famous. These are the ideas that people immediately think of when they hear the name Albert Camus spoken today. The Absurd can be defined as a metaphysical tension or opposition that results from the presence of human consciousness—with its ever-pressing demand for order and meaning in life—in an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe. Camus considered the Absurd to be a fundamental and even defining characteristic of the modern human condition. The notion of Revolt refers to both a path of resolved action and a state of mind. It can take extreme forms such as terrorism or a reckless and unrestrained egoism (both of which are rejected by Camus), but basically, and in simple terms, it consists of an attitude of heroic defiance or resistance to whatever oppresses human beings.

Further Reading:
IEP: http://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/#SH5a
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stranger_(novel)
Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10425821/Camus-the-great-writer-of-the-absurd.html