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Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)

If you are looking for a bit of light relief, don’t read this book. It really is one of the most depressing works you could read. No-one ends up happy or even close to happy. Few if any of the characters have any redeeming features. Poor old Céline, he must have been one hell of a sad son of a bitch.

The story is about Ferdinand Bardamu. One day in 1914, hearing military music, he eagerly signs up for the French army. He soon realises that this was a big mistake, as the army and war are no fun. He accepts that he has nothing in particular against the Germans and that he is a coward. One night, when on reconnaissance, he meets a reservist called Robinson and they plan to desert. Of course, it all goes wrong and Bardamu is wounded. He is sent to a hospital in Paris, where he is treated, gets a medal and meets Lola, an American nurse. Lola soon dumps him and he takes up with a violinist, Musyne but she, too, leaves him.

He decides to make his career in Africa, where he again meets Robinson. But Africa is barely better than the war. He sees the whites brutally exploiting the blacks. He does not adapt to the climate and is soon ill. He is shipped out on a Spanish ship, which takes him to the United States. New York is no better than anywhere else – he meets up again with Lola – and, like his creator, moves on to Detroit, where he goes to work for Ford and finds the work like working on a chain gang. He does meet up with Molly, a prostitute with a heart of gold, but despite her good will, she is not for him and he returns to France, where, also like Céline, he studies medicine and becomes a doctor in the poor suburb of Rancy.

But he is no better off here. He struggles to make a living, he sees death on a daily basis and is powerless to do anything about it and he all too often sees the worst side of human nature. This is the case with the Henrouille family, who want to get rid of their aging mother. They hire Robinson to do the dirty work but he messes up and temporarily blinds himself. Bardamu now gives up medicine and heads off to Toulouse where Robinson is living with his fiancée, Madelon, with whom Bardamu takes up. When Mrs Henrouille is finally killed, falling down the stairs (almost certainly pushed), Badamu decides to return to Paris. He goes to work for Dr Baryton, who runs a psychiatric clinic. Things start off well but Baryton goes insane and hands over his clinic to Badamu. Robinson turns up again and Badamu hides him from Madelon who is trying to get back with him. When she does find him, she shoots him. Badamu is left alone.

There is nothing redeeming or fun about this novel. It is, indeed, a journey to the end of the night, with misery, cruelty, exploitation and unhappiness everywhere. Some of it is clearly autobiographical. But the book has touches of humour (black humour), makes inventive use of language and gives us a vision of the world, which reflected the grim reality of World War I Europe. That he retains a sense of humanity is to his credit and makes this book well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Denoël & Steele
First published in English 1934 by Little, Brown
Translated by Ralph Manheim (New Directions)/Alma; John Sturrock (Cambridge University Press); John H.P. Marks (Chatto & Windus/Penguin)