(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Death on the Installment Plan takes the form of a review by an adult Ferdinand of his boyhood and adolescence. Ferdinand’s reminiscence reveals the harsh, cruel world in which he grew up and shows the germination of his present attitude and temperament. In the opening fifty pages, Louis-Ferdinand Céline introduces the narrator as a gloomy, disillusioned doctor who views medicine cynically and is irritated by his patients. Employed at the Linuty Foundation Clinic, he is surrounded by sickness and corruption. His cousin, a doctor at a venereal disease clinic, is dying of cirrhosis of the liver, and his typist wants to be an abortionist. Ferdinand is gravely ill when the novel begins. His mother comes to visit him, and it is a vicious quarrel with her, not warm maternal-filial feelings, which conjures up his childhood memories and initiates the flashback that constitutes the novel.

It is a grim childhood, as one after another of the numerous recalled incidents and episodes of his childhood evocatively indicate. He grew up in a filthy apartment in a glass-encased passage in Paris, to which the action turns: There is no warmth, no love in his home. Ferdinand is constantly beaten and abused by his father, Auguste, an insurance clerk who, a failure himself, belittles his son. His mother, Clemence, runs a clothing shop, and though she has aspirations for her son and is solicitous of his welfare, she provides little emotional or material comfort and constantly nags him. His grandmother, Caroline, is one of two family members who show him any affection or kindness, but she soon dies. She secretly buys for him a copy of Illustrated Adventure Stories, of which his father disapproves. In it, he discovers the story of King Krogold, which inspires him to create his own King Krogold stories, set in a fictional world into which, as a child and later as an adult, he often escapes. Uncle Edouard, whose joviality and optimism contrast sharply with the gloom of this household, displays some interest in young Ferdinand. The other uncles and aunts, a grotesque bunch, care little for him. The neighbors, generally repulsive, are no warmer than Ferdinand’s relatives, and their harsh treatment of him makes him more withdrawn. There are many instances in which his painful, negative experiences cause him to vomit, to defecate in his pants, and to...

(The entire section is 961 words.)