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
A sense of resigned depression has started to seep through the story with the monotony of being a dirt cheap doctor undermining Ferdinand’s ability to make firm decisions like dropping Robinson and leaving Rancy.
Bullet points from pages 291 – 395
* Robinson is very much back on the scene but Ferdinand is desperate for him to leave
* His patient Bebert dies and his involvement with the Henrouille family drags on with the old woman boasting of how her son and daughter-in-law failed to get her sent to a convent or asylum
* Robinson hooks up with the Henrouilles and they build a rabbit hutch and then plan to put a bomb on the hutch and wait for the old woman to open it. The bomb is triggered by a rabbit as Robinson is fitting it and it blinds him
* Laid up in the top floor of the Henrouille’s house eventually they hire the services of a priest who gets him a job in a church crypt in Toulouse and so Robinson heads South
* With Robinson gone Ferdinand expects an improvement in fortunes but when it doesn’?t come he decides to depart once and for all from Rancy and head off for new pastures
* It seems that everyone Ferdinand treats as a doctor ends up dying with Mr Henrouille dying of heart failure joining Bebert abd several other former patients. There is a beautifully described moment when Ferdinand sees some of these dead patients as ghosts floating as angels
* Having quit Rancy he drifts around, striking up a relationship with a Polish actress, but after meeting the priest who set Robinson and Senior Mrs Henrouille up with jobs in Toulouse he gets 1,500 francs and promises to go and see them
* Robinson is getting married and although Ferdinand has a bit of fun with his fiance he admits to himself he is jealous
With Robinson settling down and the ties in Rancy well and truly cut you wonder where is Ferdinand going next?
After having the first couple of hundred pages shared between a couple of locations – France and Africa – things change more rapidly and Ferdinand goes across America and back to France much more quickly.
Bullet points from pages 192 – 290
Having arrived in New York and escaped from his obligations on Ellis Island he drifts around the town looking for Lola and Robinson
He eventually finds Lola and in a bitter exchange manages to get $100 off her but at the cost of their friendship
Armed with the money he boards a train for Detroit and gets a job at the Ford factory
After regularly visting a brothel he strikes up a relationship with a prostitute who loves him but accepts that he is a wandering soul and can’t keep him from going back to France
Robinson turns up again wanted by the Police for using dodgy papers and he is also upset when Ferdinand heads back to France
Once back in France he completes his studies and qualifies as a doctor and sets up a practice in a poor suburb where he rarely gets paid and ends up giving out free advice
Things start to fall apart as a young patient, Bebert, catches typhoid and as he worsens so Ferdinand starts to plan to leave Rancy and move on
Robinson, or at least the fear of meeting him, causes Ferdinand great anxiety and is the cause of his change of mind and disgust with his situation
You are left wondering where he will go next of Bebert dies and he leaves Rancy. It has crept up on you but all of a sudden you care about this character and wonder what will happen next…
As you get deeper into the book the differences between this and other works starts to become more apparent. The relationship between the main character and his environment is one thing that is different because he drifts from the battlefields to various hospitals and then out to Africa without ever seeming to change his pessimistic outlook. The war can end and Africa beckon but it seems to have a low impact on him personally.
Bullet points between 94 – 191
* Around page 100 the main character leaves Paris and heads for the French colonies.
* On the boat Ferdinand is discovered to be the only fee paying passenger and suspected of being a spy and is almost thrown overboard until he sacrifices his self respect to suck up to the soldiers attacking him
* Once in Africa he is given the job of going into the jungle to replace a man who is being recalled for failing to send the colonial trading company his accounts
* Before leaving the port to head up the river Ferdinand vows to get ill confiding that he knows how to pick up something that will be bad enough to get him sent home
* The man he is replacing is Robinson who he met in the war, again in Paris and now in the jungle. Only for a long time he can’t remember him then when he does Robinson disappears
* Four weeks later after being ill he burns down the shack and heads into the bush and ends up the Spanish run port of Santa Tapeta
* While ill he ends up being bought by a captain of a galley and ends up sailing across the Atlantic to New York
* He escapes from the boat and gets caught and ends up counting fleas at the immigrant landing station at Ellis Island. Then when asked to take some statistics across to New York he bolts for freedom
Still not an easy read and the fact that even as a pessimist he can’t seem to enjoy some of his good luck starts to grate after a while.
Throughout the African experience the natives are treated terribly by the French and there is a moment when he reaches a staging post and comes across Lieutenant Grappa, who is responsible for looking after a large patch of jungle and comes to the conclusion it all looks the same, that you understand why the French suffered in Vietnam.
Bearing that in mind I will post a review of The Last Valley by Martin Windrow tomorrow, which is about the demise of the French in Vietnam.
This is one of those books that starts and doesn’t immediately grab you. Like an album that needs repeated listening to ‘grow on you’ the Journey to the end of the night starts and goes straight into the action of war without really establishing much of a relationship between the main character Ferdinand Bardamu and the reader.
Sometimes that jerky fell can be as a result of it being a translated work but here you get the feeling it is more a deliberate style.
Bullet points between pages 3 – 94
* The story starts with Ferdinand and a friend arguing in a café about patriotism. In a fit of provocation he runs after a marching troop of soldiers and ends up joining up
* The story moves to the First World War where he discovers that he is a coward and afraid and his dislike and distrust of generals and authority figures emerges
* After being given a medal and sent back for some time to recuperate to Paris he meets an American Red Cross worker Lola who stirs and interest for him in the States
* After walking in a park and seeing a deserted shooting gallery Ferdinand had a fit of fear and starts shouting that everybody is going to be shot and ends up in a mental hospital
* Lola decides after a conversation about the war that he is a coward and that seems to be the end of that
* As the war starts to slip towards its end Ferdinand ends up in a relationship with a young prostitute, Musyne, who sings for the troops and as his jealousy mounts she leaves him
* He fails to get recalled because he is still below par and is sent to another hospital and there comes across a patriotic and confident doctor who thinks he is improving and allows him a visit from his mother who disappoints him with her complete belief in the doctors diagnosis
If you get the feeling that this is all stops and starts, just from my bullet points, then that is the way the book is flowing at the moment. There are no chapter headings and there is no contents panel to chart the development of the story. I’m hoping that things will improve a bit tomorrow…