Reading Céline

by Chris Bertram on November 6, 2022

I’ve been reading more in French this year. In fact, my last four novels have been in French, which I’m kind-of retrospectively surprised about. Naturally, they come in various degrees of difficulty for someone whose conversational French is good but not perfect. Happily, a good deal of mine was picked up in argot-laden Parisian interactions in the 1970s, and that has definitely helped with some of my more recent choices, and particularly with Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), which is widely thought of as one of the great 20th-century novels in the language, but it little-known in the anglophone world, perhaps because neither of its clunky English translations is available from a mass-market house like Penguin. I wonder also whether Céline’s deplorable personal history (anti-semitism, Nazi collaboration etc) don’t make the prospect of reading him unappealing to an anglophone audience. (Oliver Kamm once wrote to insist on the importance of his enduring cancellation.)

Voyage is a pretty strange book, with an extraordinarily implausible plot, which nevetheless redeems itself through the the penetration of its grimly misanthropic vision, its rush of quotable aphorisms, and its striking conversational language and idiosyncratic vocabulary. We follow the central character, Bardamu, through a quick sequence of different episodes from the First World War, to colonial Africa, to New York and then the Ford Motor Company in Detroit before the novel settles down to a slower-paced telling of the story of the impoverished doctor in the suburbs of Paris he becomes and the murder plot he becomes entwined with. He’s a miserable selfish character, but knows himself to be one, so acts without self-regard while pitilessly dissecting the egoism and brutality of those around him and concluding that pleasure alone can make life bearable in the time before sickness and death. In all of this, he intersects with the mysterious Robinson, whom he first meets in the First World War, then again in Africa, in Detroit and back in the suburbs. The book contains many episodes of stunning description and psychological insight. To name but two, on the Western Front Bardamu is sent on a reconnaisance mission to see if a small town has been occupied by the Germans. The eerie description of him leading a clip-clopping horse through the deserted streets, accompanied by a deserter (Robinson) he has met, would, just on its own, give the book a place in literature. Much later, out on a boating trip with Robinson and his fiancée Madelon, he is invited to a birthday party on a barge and feels acute discomfort and resentment at being treated with generosity by people he knows to be better than he is: his self-hatred feeds his dislike of those who are kind to him. Céline evocation of this sense of resentful underservingness is wonderfully done.

Definitely worth your time, even if Céline was a horrible character, and a book worthy of revived attention. Why don’t Penguin or Oxford World Classics issue a new translation? I’m planning to read Mort à credit over Christmas.

Sunday photoblogging: Marseillan

by Chris Bertram on November 6, 2022