Critical Context

Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, Céline’s first two novels, are considered his most significant works and two of the greatest novels in any language. Critics are divided on which of the two is the more impressive, but they all agree that both have had a significant impact on the modern novel. Alain Robbe-Grillet has called Céline the greatest writer of the period between the wars and a major influence on le nouveau roman, the New Novel. Céline was admired by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet as well. Several North American writers have been influenced by him, including William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Mordecai Richler, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

When Death on the Installment Plan was first published, its obscene images, vulgar diction, and bleak picture of lower-class life in Paris evoked a hostile response from many reviewers. There were, however, several who recognized Céline’s novel as a work of genius. Céline was neglected after World War II because of his anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi stance during the war. Contemporary writers and critics, however, have come to see him as one of the few innovative writers of the twentieth century. In his first two novels, particularly Death on the Installment Plan, he forced readers to open their eyes to the darkest aspects of society. He gave currency to the telegraphic, elliptical style (les trois points) as a means of conveying his characters’ urgency and intensity of feelings, their emotional agitation, and their disturbed thought processes. He emphasized the effectiveness of everyday speech and slang (in his case, Parisian argot) in evoking the common life powerfully and authentically. He made the obscene poetic. He probed the subconscious, using the hallucinatory, delirious point of view. And he sought to free the novel from the traditional, linear, cause-and-effect narrative pattern by employing a loose, unconstrained, digressive, and rambling structure.