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Journey to the End of the Night
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B+ : bleak but powerful
See our review for fuller assessment.
* review of the Marks translation
** review of the Manheim translation
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
[Note: While the Ralph Manheim translation (1983) is the one currently in print, I only had the (a print copy of) the John H.P. Marks translation (1934) at hand, and all translations from the French below are, unless otherwise indicated, Marks'. (Comparisons to the Manheim translation suggests the differences between the two are, for the selected passages and quotes, not significant enough to warrant the trouble of seeking out all of those.)]
Journey to the End of the Night was Céline's first novel, published in 1932; for those used to his later ellipsis-strewn writing -- all "...", all over the place -- it at least looks like a remarkably conventional throwback (though it is amusing to see the ...-usage creep in, in fits and starts, in a few of the later sections). .
Nevertheless, in its sustained intensity and grim worldview it already bears the hallmarks of much of his later work, and there's a similarly breathless pace to it; like much of Céline's work, it is a heap of a novel, on the one hand roughly chiseled in how the story is presented, yet also with many finely-hewn sentences, Céline's ear for language -- and his ability to adapt it to his purposes -- already very evident here.
(There are two English translations of this work, by John H.P. Marks (1934) and Ralph Manheim (1983); both give a decent sense of much of Céline's style but don't entirely capture it; tellingly, both feel dated in a way that Céline's French does not.)
De temps en temps montaient des bruits de pas et l'écho entrait de plus en plus fort dans ma chambre, bourdonnait, s'estompait... Silence. Je regardais encore s'il se passait quelque chose dehors, en face. Rien qu'en moi que ça se passait, à me poser toujours la même question.Bardamu lusts -- and seeks out the pleasure of the female body -- a great deal; he admits: "J'étais à vrai dire un sacré cochon" (he's a real 'lecher', as both Marks and Manheim have it; the former an 'appalling' one, the latter 'terrible'). Journey to the End of the Night has something of the reputation of a sex-filled book but, while often raw, its obscenity lies elsewhere. While not demure, the sex is rarely described in any close detail; Céline treats the subject matter-of-factly -- "Envie de s'embrasser malgré tout, comme on se gratte" ('Whatever happens, one has to make love, as one has to scratch'). Indeed, there's something of the romantic to Bardamu, as already suggested by his puppy-dog devotion ("making a complete fool of myself") to an early love, Musyne. But love, like sex, is just part of natural human condition to him, something which we have little control over and are practically helpless against. Indeed:
Puisque nous sommes que des enclos de tripes tièdes et mal pourries nous aurons toujours du mal avec le sentiment. Amoureux ce n'est rien c'est tenir ensemble qui est difficile. L'ordure elle, ne cherche ni à durer, ni à croître. Ici, sur ce point, nous sommes bien plus malheureux que la merde, cet enragement à persévérer dans notre état constitue l'incroyable torture.Bardamu's complaint that: "Le puritanisme anglo-saxon nous dessèche chaque mois davantage, il a déjà réduit à peu près à rien la gaudriole impromptue des arrière-boutiques" ('Anglo-Saxon puritanism is drying us up more and more every month: it has already reduced these impromptu backstair gayeties to negligible proportions') might also seem to apply to the Marks-translation, which is considered more ... decorous in regards to what there is of the coarser language here, but a cursory comparison to the Manheim translation finds the latter isn't all that obviously more explicit. Some matters are handled slightly differently -- when Bardamu acknowledges an avortement, Marks opts for 'miscarriage' rather than 'abortion' (and there are many of both in the novel) -- but on the whole Marks' translation feels nearly as unvarnished as Manheim's. (Both, as noted, can have a somewhat dated feel.)
Journey to the End of the Night begins with the First World War, a young Bardamu literally swept away by the enthusiasm for it. The reality of life on the front and the absurdity of (trench-)warfare quickly bring him back down to earth. Céline's descriptions are not long-drawn out ones, understanding that this particular horror is one that practically defies being properly captured and presented:
C'est difficile d'arriver à l'essentiel, même en ce qui concerne la guerre, la fantaisie résiste longtemps.He encounters a man named Robinson (as in Crusoe ...), who already here in parting mentions: "Maybe we'll be meeting again sometime !" -- and indeed the figure, a mirror/shadow/alter-projection of the protagonist, crosses Bardamu's path again and again and again. (As he notes at one point, when Robinson appears in his life yet again: "I shall never see the end of him".)
As they go their separate ways this first time Bardamu observes:
On est retournés chacun dans la guerre. Et puis il s'est passé des choses et encore des choses, qu'il est pas facile de raconter à présent, à cause que ceux d'aujourd'hui ne les comprendraient déjà plus.Physically and psychologically damaged, Bardamu is then able to avoid actual combat, recovering in hospital and then a sort of half-way house -- the threat of being called up again (or worse) always hanging over him. He has an affair with a nurse, Lola, and then falls hard for Musyne, an ambitious little musical angel ("Un véritable petit ange musicien") who humors Bardamu but does what's needed to move up in the world, "Implacable dans son désir de réussir sur la terre, et pas au ciel" ('determined to be a success in this world and not in the next').
Bardamu comes to seek experience and adventure elsewhere; initially, he doesn't have enough money to get to the United States, so he heads to Africa:
I let myself be hounded towards the tropics where I was told you only had not to drink too much and to behave fairly well to make your way at once.Needless to say, that doesn't quite work out. Bardamu's voyage is one into a heart of darkness. (Céline wrote from some first-hand-experience, going to work in Cameroon in 1916.) Eventually he finds: "J'essayais de me représenter à quel niveau d'impuissance j'étais tombé mais je n'y parvenais pas" ('I tried to get some idea of how helplessly low I had sunk, but I couldn't manage it').
Bardamu flees his African outpost, though his situation barely improves on the ship he eventually finds himself sailing away in -- but at least it carries him far away, to New York: "Pour une surprise, c'en fut une" ('Talk about a surprise !') he notes when he sees where he wound up. He doesn't spend that much time there either -- though enough to re-encounter Lola -- but it's in some of these quick sketched impressions of place that Céline shows, again and again, why he's worth reading, as in the description of Broadway:
C'était comme une plaie triste la rue qui n'en finissait plus, avec nous au fond, nous autres, d'un bord à l'autre, d'une peine à l'autre, vers le bout qu'on ne voit jamais, le bout de toutes les rues du monde.Bardamu makes his way to the industrial hub of Detroit, and finds employment as a factory drone. At his job interview, when he mentions that he had been a university student, it's quickly made clear to him that all they want and need are automatons:
Ça ne vous servira à rien ici vos études, mon garçon ! Vous n'êtes pas venu ici pour penser, mais pour faire les gestes qu'on vous commandera d'exécuter ... Nous n'avons pas besoin d'imaginatifs dans notre usine. C'est de chimpanzés dont nous avons besoin ...He does find a woman here, Molly, who is devoted to him, but can't bring himself to settle down. The dream of domestic happiness remains foreign to him -- indeed, it's as if any form of stable happiness is simply beyond his imagination and ken. He is restless and returns to France, where he completes his medical studies and becomes a doctor (as Céline did).
Bardamu barely wastes a word on his: "five or six years of academic tribulations", but at the end of it he has: "mon titre, bien ronflant" ('a swell degree') and opens a doctor's practice. The medical degree is not a passport to financial security or social standing: Bardamu continues to struggle. His patients are poor and he barely ekes out a living; he's also not very adept at winning the locals over. Everyone struggles, and Bardamu is sympathetic to their situation (and his own); as he understands:
Quand on n'a pas d'argent à offrir aux pauvres, il vaut mieux se taire. Quand on leur parle d'autre chose que d'argent, on les trompe, on ment, presque toujours. Les riches, c'est facile à amuser, rien qu'avec des glaces par exemple, pour qu'ils s'y contemplent, puisqu'il n'y a rien de mieux au monde à regarder que les riches.Here again Robinson comes back into his life -- as a patient, after he gets involved in a scheme to help a family regarding the old grandmother the family is looking to rid themselves of, one way or another. (They repeatedly try to get Bardamu to have her committed, but he refuses to go along with their plan.) Amusingly, the injured-in-the-attempt Robinson is tended to by the family that hired him, as everyone tries to avoid involving the police. The scheme to get rid of old Mme Henrouille doesn't end there, but continues with the help of a young woman Robinson becomes involved with, Madelon. Bardamu gets mixed up with them as well -- having an affair with Madelon behind the blind (or is he ... ?) Robinson's back. Things take several turns for the worse, and Bardamu flees when it's clear things are about to come crashing down.
Robinson actually escapes relatively this awkward situation unscathed, but his decision then to abandon Madelon will come back to haunt him. Bardamu goes to work in an asylum -- the pay isn't good, but he gets food and lodgings (and: "You could take the nurses to bed with you") -- and eventually runs the place, when the actual director goes on an extended voyage of discovery. Robinson shows up -- as then does Madelon. Things do not end well.
During a time of relative quiet at the asylum, Bardamu still has to admit:
Moralement, nous n'étions pas à notre aise. Trop de fantômes, par-ci, par-là.Bardamu is not a man who has done that much which he has reason to feel too guilty about, though he hasn't always acted nobly or correctly. On the whole, however, he is a decent man -- one of the reasons he suffers so. He finds it difficult to find -- much less embrace -- happiness. Indeed, restless and dissatisfied, he seems more interested in change and experience. He almost revels in some of his misery, and notes, for example, of his time abroad:
En Afrique, j'avais certes connu un genre de solitude assez brutale, mais l'isolement dans cette fourmilière américaine prenait une tournure plus acca- blante encore.At twenty he can already world-wearily claim he: "already had nothing but the past", while almost two decades later:
Elle s'éloignait au passé notre trentaine sur des rives coriaces et pauvrement regrettées. C'était même pas la peine de se retourner pour les reconnaître les rives. On n'avait pas perdu grand-chose en vieillissant.Bardamu is a survivor -- though at the cost of any sense of self-respect. His self-loathing isn't pitying, but rather matter-of fact:
I felt my self-respect, which was about to leave me anyway, slipping still further from me, then going completely and at last definitely gone, as if officially removed.At the asylum where he works his boss laments:
On en a plein les mains de ce qui reste de l'esprit, on en est tout englué, grotesque, méprisant, puant. Tout va s'écrouler, Ferdinand, tout s'écroule, je vous le prédis, moi le vieux Baryton, et pour dans pas longtemps encore !But the world has been describing, from the war front to wartime Paris, then Africa, America, and France again, has always been crumbling. Right at the end Bardamu is asked: "Did you lose your way, Doctor ?" ("Vous vous êtes perdu Docteur ?") but Bardamu's account suggests someone who has always been at sea. (Tellingly, among the few locales he seems to find some comfort in when he is there are the hospitals and asylums he lives in.) He also has a strong will to live, to defy death -- even though the human toll it takes on him to do so is great. Still:
On n'explique rien. Le monde ne sait que vous tuer comme un dormeur quand il se retourne le monde, sur vous, comme un dormeur tue ses puces. Voilà qui serait certes mourir bien sottement, que je me dis, comme tout le monde, c'est-à-dire. Faire confiance aux hommes c'est déjà se faire tuer un peu.It's a dark worldview, and a dark story to go with it, but Bardamu remains a surprisingly hopeful figure. There's a vitality to him, and his clinging to life is not one simply out of desperation. If incapable of finding and holding onto happiness, he remains a seeker; he does not really seem to enjoy much of his experience, but it is important and fulfilling for him to have it.
It makes for an odd novel, but also one that is undeniably compelling -- a torrent of story to get carried away in. Céline strong language and expression contributes greatly to the overall success of the otherwise very bleak story; descriptions such as of the African sunset are powerful bursts of prose that still impress -- and there's a lot of this in the novel. If the story is somewhat rough and tumble, and unevenly paced, it ultimately holds together well enough -- not least through the use of reäppearing characters, and especially the odd double-figure that is Robinson, "that most unlucky man" (as Bardamu already recognizes very early on).
Journey to the End of the Night remains a strange but worthwhile modern classic.
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2021
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Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) was one of the leading as well as most notorious French authors of the 20th century.
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