On this day in L.F. Celine 1894 the French writer Louis Ferdinand Celine was born. He is still widely read in France today, while in the US he remains a somewhat obscure figure. His most enduring works are the semi-autobiographical novels Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936). Celine’s debut work takes his first-person narrator Ferdinand Bardmau from his service in the First World War, to the French colonies in Africa, then the United States, finally concluding with life as a doctor in a Parisian slum. Death on the Installment Plan is a follow up to Journey, detailing Ferdinand’s youth in the urban France around the turn of the 20th century. Celine remains controversial for his anti-Semitism and radical politics. He supported the Third Reich and fascism during the 1930s and World War II. Politics aside, his works are still worth reading.
I started with Journey to the End of the Night. The novel opens with Ferdinand Bardmau briefly talking with a friend, and then the chapter immediately ends with him enlisting in French Army for WWI as a cavalry trooper. The war story chapters bring to life the gruesome and disgusting details of life during the war. The entire war narrative departs from the tradition of Celine’s contemporaries. It is not an overt anti-war piece like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, nor is it a story of heroic tragedy as in A Farewell to Arms, nor is it a celebration of combat as Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. Celine’s specialty lies in giving the reader a sensory experience through ample description. One passage that stood out to me was where Bardmau’s horse is said to have stinking sores from where the saddle bites into its back, adding to the already miserable conditions the character faces at the front.
While these sensory experiences are excellent, Celine’s execution is sometimes bungled. The author…loves…to…use…ellipses. Like any literary device, an ellipsis can add to dramatic effect or be used to give a dialogue more flavor. And when used in dialogue in Journey (and in Death on the Installment Plan) it does give the characters’ conversations more realism, something Celine liked to do (the glossary in my edition of Journey notes the extensive use of French slang in the original text). Speech has starts and stops, and again, when this device is used appropriately it can add to a novel. Unfortunately, the author relies on this too much in the dialogue which made me drift in and out of focus at times. The narration is fairy…conventional, although the use of this kind of…meandering style…can become…somewhat…tedious. This style is not overwhelming in Journey, but is much more prevalent in Death on the Installment Plan, which I’ll get to later.
The next sections of the book concern Bardmau’s life in the French colonial empire in Africa and life in the United States for a time. The African chapters were another standout. Celine lampoons both the settlers—“half-baked little specimens”—and the natives who work for them—“mindlessly enthusiastic…worshipping their bosses” (ellipsis mine), all the while giving the reader a sense of what it was like to live in a place rampant with tropical disease, insects, and unending heat. Once again, Celine’s ability to convey a sensory experience glows with Bardmau’s adventures in Africa. Celine’s dark comedy is even better in the Africa chapters than in the war narrative. There is even a glimmer of humanity that is otherwise unseen in the other characters and situations in Journey in the African chapters. Bardmau meets a French officer leading colonial troops named Alcide. The dutiful Alcide drills his troops despite having no equipment or weapons. The soldier does this thankless task in order to send his pay to put a niece through school. Alcide is an interesting foil to Bardmau, who is motivated by his own whims and pleasure seeking. Having a foil to Ferdinand balances out the otherwise dark, gloomy tone that overwhelms the book, sometimes to the point where I was rolling my eyes. I found this becomes the case during the latter chapters of Journey set in America and then Paris.
Ferdinand then goes on to the United States to work in the Ford factory in Detroit. At this point in the book I was beginning to notice the novel’s lack of coherent plot. I am not a stickler for following the ‘rules’ of fiction by any means, but the story meanders from one location to the next where Celine can point out how awful everything is. But then again, it seems that’s the point of Journey to the End of the Night. After growing dissatisfied with America, Bardmau becomes a doctor in a Paris slum, where again he sees the ugly side of society and mocks his own work as a doctor. The plot of Journey is not at all tightly paced as it is not the kind of book that needs tight pacing. Celine wanted to show the ugly parts of world as examples of black comedy in his debut work. Overall, it’s an enjoyable read even if doesn’t have very many overtly bright passages.
Celine followed up Journey to the End of the Night with a prequel of sorts in Death on the Installment Plan, which is the story of Ferdinand Bardmau growing up in a working class family in urban France. I found this book to be much less enjoyable than the previous one, not for its content but for its style. Celine’s trademark black humor and astute social observation show through in this volume. However…the ellipses…return…and this time…it’s even less…readable. Journey used ellipses in dialogue primarily and only sometimes in the narration. While I found this to be somewhat annoying in places while reading through that book, Death takes the balanced in comparison style of its predecessor and upsets it. Journey has an overall very tight narrating voice in Ferdinand Bardmau, whereas the narration of a younger Ferdinand Bardmau in the second book takes the slowed down dialogue style of the first book and uses it in the narration. It’s incredibly hard for me to stay focused on this book, or any book written like this. There are no actual chapter breaks in Death either, just line breaks used in other novels as scene breaks. I am not sure if this was present in the original text or if it was a decision made by New Directions Publishing when they formatted the book, but it does give it a ‘wall of text’ feel when combined with the overuse of ellipses.
The book does have its appeal, despite some stylistic quirks I found irritating. Celine delivers sensory experience and dark humor. The novel takes place during the pre-WWI era, or the Belle Époque as it was known in France. While popular media and even some non-fiction paint it as a romantic time, Celine shows how for the working class French society at the time was very gritty and visceral. A young Bardmau goes from job to job as his mother and father’s finances slowly deteriorate. Even one of his employers, an airship pilot cum inventor slowly descends into financial ruin too. In Celine’s world, there are no easy ways out for Bardmau or any of the characters he meets; they all just scramble to get through life. I found Death to be a much less satisfying read than Journey, but still a fairly good novel overall if you can become accustomed to Celine’s more fragmented style.
Celine’s two works try to portray life as it is, with all of its messes and lack of closure. The world the author creates is dark and misanthropic, but in end he fills a niche. Celine shows the world, but just the ugly uncomfortable parts in order try and understand it.
More on Celine:
Paris Review interview with Celine shortly before his death in 1961:
French television (?) interview with the writer: