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Cara Hoffman on Who Influenced Her Writing on War

July 30, 2014 Writing 1 Comment

Joseph Heller was also a fan of Celine, who was a direct influence for Catch-22

First of a series of BTM pieces on authors and the literature that shaped their writing

By Cara Hoffman

“The poetry of heroism appeals irresistibly to those who don’t go to a war, and even more to those whom the war is making enormously wealthy. It’s always so.” –Louis-Ferdinand Celine
There is no finer novel about war and homecoming than Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. Published to great critical acclaim in 1932, it’s the story of Ferdinand Bardamu a World War I soldier unmoored by his experience but clearly saner than the forces that sent him into battle, and the society to which he returns.

Stylistically it is a masterpiece; immediate, evocative, hilarious. Driven by raging impatient half sentences tied together by elipses, it’s an emotional and visceral work that manages to be at once colloquial and deeply sophisticated. Journey is an honest, brutal book hateful of all that excuses, and whitewashes war. It is also a novel of ideas, (primarily anarchist philosophy) and a road novel, sprawling in scope but tightly contained by Celine’s mastery of language.

An anarchist and decorated veteran of the war, Celine grew up poor in Paris and went on to become a doctor specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. He was a teetotaler, lover of animals, patron of the ballet, and given to darkly comic hyperbolic rants.

Celine’s writing did not change my understanding of war. It changed my understanding of literature, of what could be done with words. There are passages in his second novel Death on the Installment Plan that are so funny, sad and disgusting at once they literally made me laugh out loud, weep, and gag in close succession. I worked for many years as a crime reporter and had never read—even in forensics reports—anything that made me physically sick. Celine is known for his ability to translate intense feeling into language. This is where he stands apart from other writers of his era, and indeed from the majority of modern writers as well.

But his greatest achievement is a moral one. By refusing to aesthticize war, and criticizing those who do, Celine destroys the sad literary trope that depicts violence as something meaningful, rather than simply the result of ignorance, biology, greed, or miscommunication.

What Celine reveals in Journey is the emptiness of institutional violence in all its forms from exploiting the poor to killing the person who lives just over the border. His disgust and incredulity at the idea of heroism is clear as in this passage where Bardamu laments that he may be the last coward: “All alone with two million stark raving heroic madmen…shut up on earth as if it were a loony bin, ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, whole continents, everything that breathes.”

Bardamu’s Journey through a sick absurd world in search of freedom remains the epic of our time.


CaraHoffmanCara Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed novels So Much Pretty and Be Safe I Love You, which was named one of the five best modern war novels by the Sunday Telegraph.

She is the recipient of a number of awards, including a New York State Foundation for the Arts fellowship for her work on the aesthetics of violence. She has been a visiting writer at St. John’s, Columbia and Oxford Universities. Her essays have appeared on National Public Radio and in The New York Times.


Smart eBooks: When the Text Is No Longer the Text

kindle-evileyeby Chris Abouzeid

If you’re using a Kindle to read ebooks, Amazon already knows a lot about you. They know you bought all the 50 Shades of Grey books. They know how quickly or slowly you read them. They know on which page you got bored and stopped reading, or which passages you highlighted for further “investigation.” In fact, at any given moment, publishers and big retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are trying to gather as much data about you as they can—and they’re succeeding.

Unfortunately, it’s not a one way street. Not only can they keep track of what you’re reading. They can also control what you get to read. Violate the terms of agreement for that copy of Capital in the 21st Century? Poof! It’s gone from your library. Something funny going on with your account? Zap! Your entire library is gone. Yes, Amazon can delete things from your Kindle. And they can push ads onto your Kindle—whether you want them there or not.

So with all this data flowing back and forth, doesn’t it seem like the next logical step will be for publishers and retailers to control what’s in the books themselves? Ebooks won’t just be digital text anymore. They’ll be smart ebooks. Everything about smart ebooks will be mutable. And everything inside them will be for sale.

Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

Customized Endings

Books with selectable story lines have been available for a long time. But the options have always been relatively limited and linear. Now, with smart ebooks, readers will not only be able to select the ending that works best for them, but even change the entire storyline to match their tastes.


Jane Eyre (select a style)

a)    Original Version: Orphan, Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, Thornfield Hall, Rochester, crazy wife, blah-blah-blah… End: “Reader, I married him.”

b)   Dominatrix Version: Jane, armed only with the dried peas she was forced to kneel on, leads a revolt against patriarchal Victorian society. Rochester, sent by the government to put down the rebellion, attempts to seduce Jane, but she puts a collar around his neck and makes him her slave. End: “Reader, I spanked him.”

c)    Action Hero Version: Bitten by a radioactive Yorkshire terrier, Jane suddenly discovers she has the ability to leap over and over again without tiring, knock people out with hypersonic yaps and tear apart even the most expensive leather with her bare teeth. Becoming Victorian England’s newest superhero, Knight Terrier, she uncovers a plot by the evil Earl of Rochester to create an army of stern but lovable governesses. End: “Reader, I buried him.”

  … Continue Reading


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