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.
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.