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.



SusanC 11.06.22 at 1:12 pm

Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror is, among other things, literary criticism of zcéline’s works.

(Cf. The feminist fascination with de Sade … Simone de Beauvoire, Angela Carter, Luce Irigaray, etc.)


Greg Eow 11.06.22 at 2:43 pm

The chapter on Céline in Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons is a helpful and humane guide to how one might appreciate Céline’s work while taking into account the ugliness of his character.


Chris Bertram 11.06.22 at 3:36 pm

@Greg, thanks. There’s a nice review of that book here (as I deduced from your link). It looks an interesting read:


John Quiggin 11.06.22 at 6:28 pm

I’ve been using Duolingo in an attempt to get my French from high school level to the point where I can actually read real books. I just read L’Autre Fille by Annie Ernaux, which takes the form of a letter to the author’s sister, who died before she was born, but whose absence overshadows the family. I oscillated between using Google Translate for words and phrases I didn’t know and just letting the flow of the writing carry me along.

I started during the pandemic, but that wasn’t really the reason. In fact, living in Queensland, we lived more or less normally behind a closed border, until the attempt to suppress Covid was abandoned a year or so ago. It’s more of a replacement for the time I had been allocating to my book on the Economic Consequences of the Pandemic on which I gave on as events moved too fast for me.


Arnaud 11.06.22 at 7:02 pm

“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.”
I can tell you that it doesn’t make him very palatable to this French reader either…


Arnaud 11.06.22 at 7:17 pm

John Quiggin, from my personal experience of learning foreign languages my advice to anybody would be: trust quantity over quality! Just read; as long as you pick up the general gist of a sentence with help from the context you’re doing fine and you’re learning more, in my opinion, than when obsessing over the exact translation of each word.
It’s also a question of enjoyment: there is not much pleasure to be had in reading if one has to pick up the dictionary every other paragraph! And if there’s no pleasure…


engels 11.06.22 at 7:42 pm

I’ve been trying to improve my French by watching French programmes on Netflix with French subtitles; not sure if it’s paying off yet but it’s relatively painless.


LFC 11.06.22 at 9:48 pm

engels @7

What you mean, more precisely, is that you’ve been trying to improve your French speaking. (Reading and speaking are two different things/skills.) However, if you can follow French programs with French subtitles, even to some substantial extent, my guess is that your French reading is probably pretty good. (In my case, reading = so-so (not terrible but not as good as I’d like ); speaking = pretty terrible [except for decent accent, which standing alone doesn’t matter unless it’s allied with other things]; ability to understand fast and heavily colloquial speech = close to zero.)


Will Uspal 11.06.22 at 10:22 pm

I find that using Kindle loaded with a foreign language dictionary can be helpful: when you don’t know a word, highlight it and the English definition will pop up. No distraction of having to navigate to Google Translate or reach for a paper dictionary.


Andrew 11.07.22 at 1:56 am

I’ve read lots and lots of French writing over the years, for one reason or another, from medieval poetry to government documents, with varying comprehension. I’m here to tell moderate to advanced learners that if you want to read a good book in French and understand it, try Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. I forget why, but it was a wonderful book about good people, easy to follow. I’ve recommended it to a few people with moderate French and they agree.

Another French writer fairly accessible to anglophones was General DeGaulle, his memoires. For spoken French, low-level civil court cases are pretty easy to follow, if you can find videos.


Chris Bertram 11.07.22 at 8:25 am

Since this has turned into a general discussion about learning/reading French.

@LFC “ability to understand fast and heavily colloquial speech”. This is an area where Brexit really is a disaster, since it makes exchange programmes for teenagers really hard to do, and ideally you need to get your ear trained at an age where there’s still some brain plasticity. I was fortunate enough to spend weeks at a time in a French family over several years when I was a teenager and then worked in Paris over several months. A fair amount atrophied over years when I was raising a family etc, but it is all basically there and just needs a bit of exposure to get the right neurons firing. What does change and changes fast is French argot. I had no idea what a “keuf” was when I first encountered the word, and ditto for quite a lot of verlan (slang formed by reversal), but watch 10% or Spiral/Engrenages and those gaps will start being filled. I read a Virginie Despentes novel recently (Apocalypse bébé) and it is full of this stuff. (“Keuf”, by the way is a reversal of “flic”, itself a slang term for police officer, so flic > cifl > keuf.)

If people want easy stuff to read, I just started (as relief/contrast from Céline), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, gentleman cambrioleur, which requires, for me, hardly any looking up and is light and entertaining. The one thing that I would say about any oldish French books is that the contain extensive use of the past historic (passé simple) which is ordinarily absent in modern spoken French (at least in France). Generally, the gap between the informal and the formal register and between the spoken and the written is much larger than in English.


KT2 11.07.22 at 9:06 am

En vogue.
Andrew Gelman says:
“Don’t get me wrong—I’m still reading lots of stuff in English, not even counting almost everything I read on the internet—it’s just that I’ve been using my fiction reading to work on my French. Which is still pretty bad. So when I read a book in English, it’s kinda stunning how fast it goes and how I can actually follow everything that’s happening.”


engels 11.08.22 at 8:58 am

my guess is that your French reading is probably pretty good

Oh not really, I just have a high tolerance for dramatic ambiguity.


HoL 11.08.22 at 3:18 pm

Death on Credit is a significantly different book. Chimerical, surreal, the misery originates in the characters around Celine and not within Celine himself.

It would make a fantastic mini-series but, as mentioned, Celine’s reputation will never allow it to happen.


HoL 11.08.22 at 3:28 pm


He’s a miserable selfish character, but knows himself to be one

Celine didn’t comment much in his post war years about his behavior during the occupation. He did make the occasional comment about playing some type of “role” or “character” within society.


AnthonyB 11.09.22 at 4:01 am

The simple past was hardly dwelt upon in 2nd year college French, but reading Julien Green (noted for his use of that tense) one quickly absorbs it. Terre lointaine, a recollection of his visit to America and of his American relatives in the South, is a good place to start.


ThM 11.16.22 at 4:19 pm

Non-French readers might not be aware that Jacques Tardi illustrated both le Voyage and Mort à Crédit. and they are definitely worth checking out.

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