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Title: Journey to the End of the Night
Author: Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Translator: Ralph Manheim
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: New Directions; Reprint edition (May 17, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0811216543
ISBN-13: 978-0811216548

Louis-Ferdinand Celine's revulsion and anger at what he considered the idiocy and hypocrisy of society explodes from nearly every page of this novel. Filled with slang and obscenities and written in raw, colloquial language, Journey to the End of the Night is a literary symphony of violence, cruelty and obscene nihilism. This book shocked most critics when it was first published in France in 1932, but quickly became a success with the reading public in Europe, and later in America where it was first published by New Directions in 1952. The story of the improbable yet convincingly described travels of the petite-bourgeois (and largely autobiographical) antihero, Bardamu, from the trenches of World War I, to the African jungle, to New York and Detroit, and finally to life as a failed doctor in Paris, takes the readers by the scruff and hurtles them toward the novel's inevitable, sad conclusion.


For the uninitiated, Journey to the End of the Night is a 450-page chronicle of anger, bitterness, hopelessness, despair, disillusionment, and resignation. It is one of the most pessimistic, negative books ever written. It addresses almost every base and negative aspect of the human experience: warfare, cowardice, lies, corruption, betrayal, slavery, manipulation, exploitation, perversion, persecution, cheating, greed, sickness, loneliness, madness, lust, gossip, abortion, disease, vengeance, and murder. In a book that explodes with adjectives, there is hardly a cheerful word to be found.

But don't let that stop you from reading it. It is also a weird and wonderfully written mix of prose, philosophy, rant, and slang. At times it is hilarious. It is also sad, moving, and deeply insightful. Celine's voice is unique, and his dark vision changed the face of twentieth century literature.

True to its title, the book is a metaphorical journey into the dark side of humanity. It doesn't really have a plot. In a nutshell, it follows Ferdinand Bardamu (who is telling the story), who joins the army on a whim, entering World War I. The fear and madness of his war experiences leave him shell-shocked. He spends the remainder of the war convalescing in a hospital, where he spends his time avoiding the front, laying nurses, and pulling himself together. After the war, he yearns to escape, so he travels to the French African colonies to run a trading post deep in the jungle. There, he contracts malaria and is sold into slavery by a Portuguese priest, only to be dumped in a quarantine facility in New York.

He eventually winds up in Detroit, where he works a dead-end factory job at Ford and falls in love with a prostitute. Restless, he leaves his love behind and returns to France. There he completes his medical studies, and begins a practice in a Paris slum. After enduring abject poverty for several years, he leaves his practice in disgust; eventually he winds up working in a private mental hospital in Paris.

Throughout the story, and at each major stop of his journey, Ferdinand encounters Robinson, a fellow traveler and nihilist. As the book progresses, Robinson lures the unwilling Ferdinand into a series of misadventures, taking him deeper and deeper "into the night."

-John M. Lemon


Celine was a WWI veteran, sometimes discontented vagabond, and qualified but barely surviving Doctor/Physician who wrote one of the greatest novels of the 20th Western century. This is it. It's like a bomb hitting you on every page. The level of pessimism, cynicism, black humor, and its concomitant in the bargain--unflinching honesty--had never been equaled before in literature & few have matched it since. By his example, he inspired Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jack Kerouac & many other luminaries to write in a similar no-holds-barred style. But as they say, the original is always the best & Celine was an original. No less a literary master and 'black satirist' than Nabokov himself has called Celine nothing but a second-rater; but even if you agree with that assessment of Celine's purely literary skills, you have to give credit to the guy for originating the no-nonsense style which made possible an artistically illuminating foray of unprecedented brutal honesty into the seedier aspects of life.

During the second World War, Celine wrote and distributed anti-Semitic pamphlets and was ardently pro-Nazi and pro-German occupation of France. A lot of people couldn't understand how such an indisputably important artist could also be a Fascist sympathizer. Fascism & art didn't go together in their minds (especially since most of the literati in France who had liked Celine's novels were either strong leftists and/or pro-USSR Communists). Celine had to live in exile for many years as a result of this war-time pro-fascist business, and never regained the scary perfection of form, the shattering style evident on every page of "Journey" (and its less impressive but still amazing follow-up "Death On the Installment Plan").

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