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)

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