Journey to nowhere
Voyage au bout de la nuit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ferdinand Bardamu begins his journey to nowhere at age twenty when, caught up in the enthusiasm of a marching band, he joins the army — in 1914. He recounts for us his panic and disgust in the bloody, muddy warfare and how, after seeing his colonel blown up as he talks to him, on a mission into possibly enemy-held territory, he runs into another lost soldier named Robinson. On sick leave in Paris, he goes crazy in an elegant restaurant and is hospitalized with other crazies from the war. To avoid being sent off to the front, he ships out to the colonies in Africa, where he becomes part of a machinery of brutal exploitation, and again runs into Robinson. Escaping from there, he accidentally arrives in New York, where he invents a specialty of counting and classifying the fleas brought on immigrants on Ellis Island. Cadging money from a former girlfriend, an American he had known in Paris, he escapes again, taking the train to Detroit where he finds a job in the Ford factory — a deadening routine from which he also escapes, after meeting the one woman who actually cares for him and again running into Robinson. Somehow he gets back to Paris after the war’s end, finishes medical school and gets a miserable assignment practicing in a lower-middle class neighborhood of suspicious, stingy families, where Robinson appears yet again. There he gets caught up in a murderous scheme, thanks to Robinson, leading to a new escape to an adventure in Toulouse and a museum of cadavers. Again he flees, this time back to Paris where he lands a job in a peculiar lunatic assignment, until Robinson — now clearly implicated in murder — shows up again.
Where is the “end of night” to which he is perpetually running? There is no end to his night, just deeper desperation by a man who has never had any greater ambition than to escape from anything that grows tedious or uncomfortable. And who is Robinson? Another, even more hapless version of Bardamu, without Bardamu’s gift for language or anything else beyond mere, precarious survival. Bardamu, that is, Céline, describes all these situations masterfully, in prose so elegant that his phrases are key examples of rhetoric in Le Petit Robert, the dictionary I had to consult repeatedly to follow his vivid expressions in a mix of educated syntax and vulgar slang. I read this book finally, after years of hearing it call to me from my shelves, both because it is so (justly) famous and because I am making every effort to learn more French. The fact that Céline became an insufferable racist, and even Nazi collaborator, later in life had made me hesitate, but those vicious attitudes are nowhere apparent in this, his first and most famous novel.