Book Review

Journey To The End of the Night by Céline

accidentally read a book by a nazi

This book has taken me ages to read. Ages for me, probably not ages for you. I have been in multiple different places, on two train rides, three flights, loadsa bluddy public transport and even an uncharacteristic Uber in the week and a half it has taken me to finish this. In that time I have attended a wedding as my lover’s plus one, I have attended the first graduation I’ve ever been to (as a guest, in spite of my two degrees), I have visited the stunning Titanic Museum in Belfast, been rained on like a bastid at the Giant’s Causeway, have had a somewhat morose oldschool night on the booze on Upper Street with friends I left behind following my #brexodus. I also wandered around gorgeous Brighton, and got a three hour midnight coach from Dublin Airport to County Antrim (not in that order). I’ve also finished the course I was taking in Barcelona, applied for over 50 jobs (and counting), and spent a LOT of time thinking about the future, both anxiously and productively.

My life is exciting, my life is strange. I’ve also continued to discuss class and love and sex with people, both in real life and online, and I’ve continued to find myself in strange arguments with multiple people which I sometimes walk away from and sometimes dig my fucking heels in. I’m having a strange time, a new time, a fresh time: a time of movement and change, of optimism and hope and positivity, of fresh horizons and left despair and pleasing uncertainty. Here’s me in the rain at the Giant’s Causeway, scroll past to like read about a book:

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was an infamous French writer of the mid 20th century and Journey to the End of the Night is widely hailed as his masterpiece. I didn’t know much about either the writer or this book when I began reading it, but it had been very heartily recommended to me recently and I thought: why not? Let’s give it a go. I did what I often do when reading something that I feel may be difficult, and I read the introduction [and forward] before beginning the text. What it told me about the novel excited me, its themes of travel and the end of colonialism and the rise of American industrialisation, the first hand experience of low ranking soldiers in the first world war, lust and medical practice in the suburbs of Paris in the 1920s… It sounded like my kinda thing, however, there was an unpleasant undercurrent to the introductory words (from John Banville and André Derval) that struck me pretty heavily: Céline (or whatever his real name was) became a Nazi sympathiser within a few years after the 1932 publication of this book. He wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets and enjoyed living in occupied France so much that he was rumoured to be a Nazi collaborator and had to flee the country and live as an exile when the war was over. Whether or not Céline committed acts of violence or not, he approved of them being undertaken by other people and – which is arguably even worse – believed in the ideology behind the genocide. Though Céline may not have directly caused the deaths of members of the French Resistance (though there are rumours that he did, and he did run away when the war ended), he certainly directly approved of the thoughts and opinions they were fighting against.

Céline was a fascist. A Nazi. And had I not known that when I started reading the text of the novel, I would have approached it in a different way. I know people disagree with me on this, but I absolutely do think it’s right to judge art based on the actions of the person who created it. Maybe we don’t judge its techniques, its fluidity, its composition, its lyricism or the ideology “expressed” in that particular artwork by the artist’s later actions (eg should we judge the central relationship of Manhattan by the later alleged behaviour of Woody Allen? [yes]), but when there are unpleasant moments in the text that support or pre-figure later action, maybe we should leave alone?

Céline wrote a novel – based on his own experiences – that involved travelling the world, however most of the characters he writes are unsympathetic, and often gently caricatured. Nobody is to be trusted, nobody is better than the stereotypical idea of said person a middle class Frenchman might have of them. We can argue – and I feel we should – that the dehumanising experience of being in the first world war must have had a deeply, deeply destructive impact on the ability to empathise in later life, and perhaps more readings of the 20th century should take into account that the “lost generation” of that period didn’t just lose their minds, their limbs or their lives, but some of them lost their ability to care. That isn’t necessarily the same as insanity, because the direct understanding of the fragility of life, and the fragility of peace is important. Céline witnessed friends die, be torn apart, he was injured himself, and in the hospital scenes of this book he describes horrendous injuries in a felt, realistic way (here translated by Ralph Manheim).

When Journey to the End of the Night was released, it was sensational: it is gruesome and full of sexuality and “coarse” language, but it is also about people who can’t really “function” in the way that people are expected to. No one here can hold down a job, a relationship, a friendship, a business… everyone is easily distracted and confused, everyone is horny and hungry and – the least pleasant bits of the text – paedophilic desire is rampant, and there is a thin line between seduction and rape, even when the female characters are adults.

The chauvinism isn’t the worst I’ve encountered in fiction, but the normalisation of the pederasty is a bit more problematic. There are several scenes that revolve around perving on children, and one character has to move to the country due to the exposé of his “inappropriateness”. This, though, can be argued as part of the text’s attempt to deliberately shock and scandalise, but it’s also painfully evocative of the hateful opinions that Céline would come to espouse a few short years later. There is, famously, a correlation between domestic abuse and acts of terrorism, and it isn’t hard, again, to see Céline’s casual attitude towards the humanity of women morphs towards more hateful, pointed, prejudice when approved by an aggressive state.

I think to pretend that any work is created in a vacuum is ignorant, and I think this Céline-being-a-Nazi thing is as significant as the Polanski, Allen, etc. allegations. Had I known Céline was a Nazi before I bought the book, I wouldn’t have done. Maybe if I’d realised it would take me over a week to read, I wouldn’t have opened it. Maybe that makes me prejudiced, maybe that makes me a fool, but fuck it: while I still have my lower middle class attitude that I have to finish the book I’m reading / clear the whole plate / empty the bottle etc, then I need to be more careful with the books I pick up to read.

Journey to the End of the Night is an engaging and often thought-provoking exploration of a changing world, specifically in its evocation of the ascent of the capitalist modernity we now live within. It’s a clear precursor to existentialism and to much of the writing of the ’50s and ’60s: but Céline was a man who saw the world and became less compassionate, who helped the poor and sick but became a Nazi. Bits of this book are amazing, most of it is engaging, but like with many hugely influential texts, it feels too familiar and like someone later – and more empathetic – did it better. Worth a read, I suppose, if you have the time.

Here’s a picture of my favourite paragraph. Like I said, it’s good.

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2 comments on “Journey To The End of the Night by Céline

  1. I’ve never got round to reading Celine, but even with him being a terrible human being, I would not rule it out in the future. But equally I think it’s his personal reputation which means I’ve still not taken the step to actually buying one of his books

    Liked by 1 person

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