(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novelistic production can be divided into three principal phases, which are usually linked to developments in the author’s life. Thus, one can discern an initial period consisting of the novels written before he fled to Denmark, which concludes with the publication of Guignol’s Band. The two volumes of Fable for Another Time constitute a second phase in Céline’s literary production, for they mark the resumption of his literary career after his return to France and the controversial resolution of his political difficulties. In both novels, there is an increasing confusion—literally and figuratively—among protagonist, narrator, and author, as Céline proclaims his innocence as the scapegoat for a guilt-ridden French nation. The final phase of his literary production, consisting of the wartime trilogy Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon, continues the self-justification begun in Fable for Another Time, though in far less strident terms, as the character Ferdinand describes his perilous journey to Denmark.

Céline’s novels are linked by the role and character of their respective protagonists, all of whom, except for the Bardamu of Journey to the End of the Night, are named Ferdinand and constitute variations on the same personality. The early novels emphasize the ironic interplay between the naïve protagonist being initiated into life and the protagonist as the older narrator endowed with greater insight than his younger incarnation. Protagonist and narrator approach each other in time, space, and knowledge, but they never coincide. The distance between them is considerably reduced in Fable for Another Time and the later novels as Céline’s own political difficulties shape the consciousness of his character, Ferdinand.

Although the theme of the victim assumes specific political connotations in Céline’s later fiction, all of his protagonists see themselves as caught up in a universal conspiracy. One aspect of that conspiracy is the inevitable biological degeneration to which the body falls heir; another is the natural human penchant for destruction. This tendency may assume various forms, among them pettiness, greed, malice, and exploitation of others. Its most blatant and dangerous form, however, is the aggression unleashed by war. The specter of war haunts Céline’s novels, and in the face of its menace, cowardice, fear, sickness, and insanity are positively valorized as legitimate means of evasion. War accelerates the natural disintegration of those institutions that have been erected by society as barriers to the natural chaos of existence. In his last novel, Rigadoon, Céline prophesies the submersion of the white race by yellow hordes from the East, who, in their turn, will be subject to the same decline that brought about the collapse of the civilization of their Caucasian predecessors.

Given the generally execrable nature of existence, most individuals, according to Céline, are content to indulge in self-delusion. As Céline’s protagonists discover, love, sexual fulfillment, and the pursuit of social and financial success are merely idle dreams that must eventually be shattered. In his later novels, Céline denounces the cinema, the automobile, and the French preoccupation with good food and fine wine as equally delusory. Across the otherwise bleak landscape of Céline’s novels, one finds occasional moments of love, compassion, and tenderness. Two categories of creatures that elicit particularly sympathetic treatment are animals and children. Céline views the latter, metaphorically, in terms of a reverse metamorphosis: the butterfly becoming the larva as the child turns into an adult.

In Castle to Castle, the narrator describes himself as a super-seer, as blessed with a vision that penetrates to the core of reality and beyond. That vision is inseparable from the particular style by which it is conveyed. Céline rejected traditional French writing as having become too abstract to convey the nature of the experiences he was relating or the response he wished to elicit from his readers. He developed an art that, by intermingling various modes of perception and tonal registers, would embrace the diversity of existence, reveal its essential nature, and jolt the reader into awareness through anger, revulsion, or laughter. Moreover, such an approach to the novel perforce emphasizes the writer’s claim to artistic autonomy, as opposed to his conforming to the external criteria of “proper” writing.

Céline also refused to accept the divorce between written French and spoken French. By introducing many elements of the spoken language into his novels, he believed that he could draw upon its greater directness and concreteness while at the same time maintaining the structured elaboration inherent in the written text. Indeed, although Céline’s novels often have the appearance of a spontaneous first draft, they are the product of laborious craftsmanship.

Journey to the End of the Night

Journey to the End of the Night brought Céline immediate critical attention upon its publication, and it continues to be the best known of his novels. The journey of the young and innocent Bardamu is one of discovery and initiation. Bardamu’s illusions about human existence in general and his own possibilities in particular are progressively stripped away as he confronts the sordidness of the human condition. His limited perspective is counterbalanced by the cynicism of the novel’s narrator, an older and wiser Bardamu. The voyage ultimately becomes a conscious project—to confront the darker side of life so that, with the lucidity he acquires, he can one day transmit his knowledge to others by means of his writings.

Having enlisted in the army in a burst of patriotic fervor, Bardamu, as a soldier at the front, discovers the realities of the war. Despite their puzzlement about the politics of their situation, the men involved in the conflict have a natural penchant for killing and are generally fascinated by death. The most trenchant image of the war can be found in Bardamu’s perception of a field abattoir, where the disemboweled animals, their blood and viscera spread on the grass, mirror the slaughter of human victims that is taking place. Given the insanity of war, the asylum and the hospital become places of refuge, and fear and cowardice are positively valorized. After Bardamu is wounded in the head and arm, any means to avoid returning to the front becomes valid.

Bardamu finally succeeds in having himself demobilized. He travels to the Cameroons to run a trading post in the bush. Through Bardamu, Céline denounces the inhumanity and corruption of the French colonial administration. More important, however, is the lesson in biology that Africa furnishes Bardamu. The moral decay of the European settlers manifests itself in their physical debilitation as they disintegrate in the oppressive heat and humidity and as they succumb to poor diet and disease. The African climate “stews” the white colonialists and thereby brings forth their inherent viciousness. In more temperate regions, Céline indicates, it requires a phenomenon such as war to expose humankind so quickly for what it is. Unable to tolerate the climate or his job, Bardamu burns his trading post to the ground and, delirious with malarial fever, embarks on a ship bound for New York.

Bardamu believes that America will provide him with the opportunity for a better life. He considers his journey to the New World a sort of pilgrimage, inspired by Lola, an American girlfriend in Paris. His New York is characterized by rigid verticality and the unyielding hardness of stone and steel; it bears no resemblance to the soft, supine, compliant body that Lola had offered him. As a “pilgrim” in New York, he discovers many “shrines,” but access to them is open only to the wealthy. Bardamu is no more successful in Detroit than he was in New York. His work at a Ford motor assembly plant recalls the Charles Chaplin film Modern Times (1936). The noise of the machinery and the automatonlike motions Bardamu must perform eventually cause him to take refuge in the arms of Molly, a prostitute with a heart of gold. Molly has the legs of a dancer; Céline’s protagonists, like Céline himself, are great admirers of the dance and particularly of the female dancer, who is able to combine Apollonian form with Dionysian rhythms in movements that defy the body’s inherent corruption.

In Detroit, Bardamu encounters an old acquaintance named Léon Robinson. Hitherto, Robinson had been functioning as Bardamu’s alter ego, anticipating, if not implementing, Bardamu’s desires. They first met during the war, when Robinson, disgusted by the killing, wished to surrender to the Germans. Robinson preceded Bardamu to Africa, where he served as the manager of the trading post that Bardamu would later head. When Bardamu learns that the resourceful Robinson has taken a job as a night janitor, he concludes that he, too, will not succeed in America. He decides that his only true mistress can be life itself, that he must return to France to continue his journey into the night.

Bardamu completes his medical studies and establishes his practice in a shabby Parisian suburb. Reluctant to request his fee from his impoverished patients, Bardamu is finally obliged to close his office and take a position in an asylum. Bardamu envies his patients. They have achieved an absolute form of self-delusion and are protected from life’s insanity by the walls that imprison them.

Robinson reappears in Bardamu’s life. In his desperate attempt to escape his poverty and its attendant humiliation, Robinson joins a conspiracy to murder an old woman. The plot backfires, literally, and Robinson is temporarily blinded when he receives a shotgun blast in the face. His “darkness,” however, does not bring him enlightenment; his disgust with life simply increases. Bardamu realizes that he is bearing witness to an exemplary journey that must end in death. Robinson finally dies at the hands of his irate fiancé, whom he goads into shooting him. His “suicide” terminates his own journey to the end of the night and Bardamu’s as well.

Journey to the End of the Night proffers a vision of the human condition that serves as the basis of all of Céline’s literary production. Concomitant with this vision is the elaboration of a particular style that, with certain modifications in later works, afforded, according to Céline, a means of revitalizing French literature, by freeing it from the abstractions of classical writing. The most salient stylistic effect in Journey to the End of the Night is Céline’s use of the vocabulary, syntax, and rhythms of popular speech as a vehicle for communicating the concrete, emotional impact of Bardamu’s experience.

Death on the Installment Plan

Céline’s second novel,...

(The entire section is 4522 words.)