Reconciling what I believe to be one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century with his unforgivable views has not been easy for me. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the famed French novelist, was also an anti-Semite. His 1932 novel Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) avoids the polemical stance he exhibits elsewhere; as I strongly believe in separating the art from its artist, it should be read as an ingenious work isolated from its creators’ wretchedness and controversial legacy.
Voyage au bout de la nuit was Céline’s first novel. This semi-autobiographical work follows the adventures of Ferdinand Bardamu as he makes his way through the never-ending existential crisis that is life. The novel begins as Bardamu, a young and enthusiastic Parisian medical student, enlists in the French army on the outbreak of the First World War. Once there, Bardamu discovers the meaninglessness of dying for one’s country. This encounter with war leaves our protagonist depressed, distressed, and disillusioned. He finds absolutely no solace in patriotism, and loses whatever ambition inspired him to study medicine. Thus begins Bardamu’s adventure. Through colonial Africa to the United States, Bardamu experiences the rawest aspects of human existence. And, through it all, is Céline’s exquisite style.
This novel is the apogee of literary existentialism. Suffering, injustice, and death are eternal truths that no one can escape. The rich wallow in their wealth, buying fleeting and superfluous moments of happiness, while the poor live miserably, allowed no escape to this universal condition. Voyage is the single greatest expression of what it is to truly be alive, with absolutely no filters added. It is the reality of our existence, stripped of all the pompous and trivial beliefs we try to decorate it with. Céline’s account of physical existence is something we can all relate to, for we know inside that even while we adhere to the societal structures that control us, life has no deeper meaning.
I know what you’re thinking: what about love? Bardamu tries and fails to love and be loved. In this aspect, I believe, the book struggles to give a real account of what it means to be alive. A life without love is not a life worth living, yet Céline fails to address this. Still, the genius of his work lies in his ability to call society’s bluff. ‘Under the cardboard trees the stench of the waiter’s breath was real’: this is my favorite line of the novel, and the most depictive of the author’s unique literary language.
I would recommend Journey to the End of the Night to anyone who is interested in delving deep into the meaning of life. I don’t assure you that you’ll find it there, but it will certainly get you thinking about what you think that meaning is, what it should be, and what determines it.
Image: Luc Viatour via Wikimedia Commons
Image depicts a reflection of the Eiffel Tower at night