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