This book by Louis-Ferdinand Celine is the first part of a couple of autobiographical works that according to the dust jacket shocked readers, particularly in the US, because of the gritty portrayal of life. Presumably what they were interested by was the sexual elements of the story but there is something deeper going on here and it is a typical French literary experience because what you come away with is not necessarily a story but a mood. To experience Celine is like Camus and Sartre something that makes you think about how you feel rather than just empathising with how people acted.
The story follows a medical student who enlists in the first world war, discovers he is a bit of a coward and then opts out of the conflict by going through a series of asylums and then in the end meets and breaks off a relationship with a woman. That then becomes a pattern for the book that even when things appear to be going well he has a pessimistic outlook on life and sure enough things go wrong, mainly because he ensures they do. Throughout the multiple locations of the book, France, Africa and the USA, the main character Ferdinand is ghosted by Leon Robinson who keeps turning up. Although Ferdinand starts to fear and hate him in the end with Robinson gone he is at a loss to know what to do next with his life.
is it well written?
it is not an easy read, but that is not necessarily because of the style, it is more about the reaction a reader used to experiencing a straight forward narrative might have to these wandering series of events. It is obviously a foreign book that has been translated and that probably has an influence on the text. It is a book that does not have the power of something like the Outsider by Camus or Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre because the mood is sometimes obviously broken by the leading character rather than there being a consistent environment that leads to a breaking/changing point. This reminds you if anything of The Fall by Camus with someone talking about different anecdotes to tell a life story. It is hard to judge if it is well written but it is certainly not something that can be easily read.
Is it worth reading?
Not an instant answer to this one. Certainly it links into other works of literature and the Africa that Celine describes is echoed in the Africa of Conrad in The Heart of Darkness (my next weeks reading choice) and for that reason it should be a stepping stone as part of a process of reading the classics. One of the problems with a book like this that includes a character with relatively loose sexual morals is that for its time it was probably disturbing and provocative but now it is no longer shocking and rather seedy and disappointing and you end up agreeing with Madelone when she describes Ferdinand as a dirty beast. The story doesn’t necessarily translate across the decades as well as some others.
In my case because of the power of the images of colonial rule that part of the tale is going to lead to reading more about Africa in the form of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s A burnt-out case. It should also lead to other French writers including as already mentioned in particular Albert Camus.
Version read – New Directions paperbook