“His real self as you saw it in a war,” says the narrator and antihero of this novel, of another of its characters. This phrase is central to a long, rambling, and rather improbable account of one man’s life during and after World War I. The narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, has a life out of a picaresque novel. He goes from one scrape to another, his narrow escapes as often as not taking him from the frying pan into the fire. By the same token, by using his wits, he sometimes is blessed with good luck. Chance and luck rule this novel and, by implication, the world.
Bardamu may often be confused and stunned in the many crises of his life, but in the telling of them, he is never at a loss. He is a man who has reflected intensely upon his experiences and has come to these conclusions regarding them. Readers may not like these conclusions—Bardamu is an incurable cynic—but readers can recognize, enjoy, and even honor them. Actually, Bardamu is less cynic than misanthrope, and one recalls the provocative definition of a misanthrope as someone who thinks too well of people. Bardamu has been deeply wounded in his idealism. One day, he is marching off to glory, awash in patriotic fervor; the next, he finds himself in the thick of horrendous war. What makes this betrayal all the more bitter is that he knew better even before he joined up. Having found that his sardonic armor does not protect him from a passing fit of patriotism, Bardamu has two choices: to allow emotions to deafen the voice of calculation or to redouble his efforts to guard against unpleasant surprises. The novel shows Bardamu, in the second mode, surrounded by people rendered dangerous by the first. The presence of one lone fleck of humanity in a sea of madness is not without its comic aspect.
In the slaughter of World War I, many notions of proper conduct perished. Louis-Ferdinand Céline was among the first to announce this staggering change of heart, and he found a generation ready to listen to it. This novel’s immediate success testifies to its currency, and its continuing appeal speaks of Céline’s genius. Bardamu is crippled, emotionally and spiritually, by the war, but the resolution and the alacrity with which he continues to show what he learned about survival inspire as well as entertain. He lies, he cheats, he steals, but there is an inevitability about his every act. No one else is any better; he is not born rich; and he is of military age when the war breaks out. To Céline, the blame needs to be placed squarely where it belongs: on society, or humanity as a species, but certainly not upon the shoulders of an individual.
Bardamu has a way of interspersing his narrative with lectures on the meaning of the latest episode. He seems to be telling his story in order to help readers realize the way things really are. There is no way out, no exit from the insanity. It is appropriate that Bardamu finds employment in a mental hospital. His journey may take him to the end of night, but it cannot carry him beyond. Metaphorically, night is always falling, and nightmares always loom. There is no dawn for humanity that is not false. Bardamu’s only light is the light of the truth, always present even as one or another character is lying.
While being absolutely in tune with its times, Journey to the End of the Night also has a place in tradition. Literature has many other works of war and bitter disillusionment. Unfriendly critics of Céline object to the hatefulness of his characters and the narrowness of his vision, but, within the limitations he set himself, he works as a master.