Unremittingly bleak, this novel from the 30’s by an infamous author (fascist tendencies) is held up as a masterpiece of the time. It does read as frightfully modern, a kind of a horribly bleak and gritty Catcher in the Rye, two decades before Salinger’s novel, 1932 to 1951. Thus speaks the Guardian: “Doctor, linguist, shagger of showgirls and noted antisemite, Céline is now widely acknowledged as the greatest French prose stylist of the 20th century, despite, or perhaps partly because of, the controversy that still dogs the man and his work…” speaking of French people who “point-blank refuse to read Céline because of the antisemitism, but there is a strong tradition in France of not just indulging, but almost demanding bad behaviour and outrage from its writers (I refer you to Houellebecq, Gide, Cocteau, Colette, Genet and Baudelaire). It tells you a lot about France, in terms of both literature and politics, that after disgracing himself during the Hitler years, Céline was back on the shelves in 1949. Céline has always had a loyal if small, following in the US with the beats and other beardy counterculture intellectuals (they like to skip over the Jew-bashing, but hey, Ezra Pound got away with it too).”
So why is he famous and well regarded? The Guardian goes on… “His popularity was based on two opposing elements in his work. The often colloquial, coarse and simple vocabulary he employed (his man-of-the-people credentials, the telling-it-like-it-is, although Céline also has a Captain Haddock-like talent for recherché invective) is heightened by the absence of long, aristocratic, Proustian sentences. But the straightforward language is coupled, especially in the mid-period work, with a modernist disdain for clear exposition and holding the loathsome bourgeois reader’s hand. So, boosted by his antiwar spleen and snarling at authority, Céline pulls off the trick of being Henry Miller, John Steinbeck and James Joyce all at the same time.”
What’s the novel like? “It has a huge scope, full of pent-up experience and dark lyricism, starting off with the first world war (where Céline served as a professional soldier), encompassing the French African colonies and the industrial might of Detroit (again drawing on the author’s own travels). It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front, Heart of Darkness and The Grapes of Wrath squeezed into one budget edition. All this is served up with Céline’s wit and cynicism, although his characteristic slangy style isn’t operating at full power, and there is a stab at a plot.
“For all the vulgarity and argot present in Journey, the most striking aspect of the book is the energy and industry involved. In some of his later interviews Céline suggested that he wrote for money. There’s no doubt that, in common with many individuals with little money, Céline was concerned with cash, but Journey wasn’t an attempt to produce a bestseller; it was an attempt to be number one, to take over, to kill everyone else in the room.”
And why is it considered great? “The book’s triumph is in its tone. Writers had used it before, but …Céline’s great contribution to modern literature is the elevation of sarcasm, of a mordant, sneering cynicism (what the French call narquois) to an art form, a tone that would become a staple of late-20th-century writing, through to Johnny Rotten gurning at his audience.
The Guardian goes on…
The dozen or so pages out of the 400 which maybe make the book worth reading is his surreal voyage to Africa on a shit where everyone loathes him and wants him dead.