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Journey to the End of the Night
Translated by Ralph Manheim
First published in 1932, Journey to the End of the Night was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece and a turning point in French literature. Told in the first person by Céline’s fictional alter ego Bardamu, the novel is loosely based on the author’s own experiences during the First World War, in French colonial Africa, in the USA and, later, as a young doctor in a working-class suburb in Paris.
Céline’s disgust with human folly, malice, greed and the chaotic state in which man has left society lies behind the bitterness that distinguishes his idiosyncratic, colloquial and visionary writing and gives it its force.
Journey to the End of the Night, first published in 1932, is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century … It could be said that without Céline there would have been no Henry Miller, no Jack Kerouac, no Charles Bukowski, no Beat poets.
My favourite French classic has to be Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It’s an epic that takes you all around the world, but the centre of the world is Paris, or Céline’s delirious, slightly hallucinatory, incredibly poetic vision of it.
Born in the shadow of entrenched realism and naturalism, Céline ripped up the textbook. He wasn't the first French writer to use a colloquial style, but he was the first to use it so relentlessly and powerfully, to create a brand, the rant, whether it was delirious, lyrical or raging.
Céline’s expletive-laden, first-person narration influenced Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski and Beat poetry. But the influences do not stop there: one cannot help but appreciate the palpable influence that the author's anti-war invective and defence of cowardice had on Joseph Heller's Yossarian and Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim respectively. But, the interest of those he influenced aside, Céline’s novel remains as readable and vital today as it was in the 1930s.
The blackest comedies can baffle readers not trained, or just unwilling, to recognise the comic in human extremis. It's obscene, rock-bottom laughter, disabused of all idealism, that provides the tonic Céline speaks of.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline was one of the most controversial authors of the twentieth century, a writer who mixed realism with imaginative fantasy, and like his contemporary Henry Miller, an iconoclast who shocked and frightened many of his readers. Céline, the pen name of L.F. Destouches, was a doctor in poor Parisian districts whose experience of the misery and chicanery of the poor gave him a jaundiced view of humanity that he poured into prose that is comic as well as often frightening and obscene.