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The Tribulations of Ferdinand Bardamu
on 22 January 2013
Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night is an outrageously misanthropic novel. A repugnance for humanity bleeds through its pages, an utter disbelief at the stupidity of the world and its people. Originally published in 1932, the novel predates Celine's anti-Semitic pamphlets of the Second World War, so the book should not be read with these horrific wartime errors in mind. It should be viewed, rather, as an extension of the great European Nihilists, for this is a novel that hates everything and everyone equally. It may be shocking, but there are some exquisite sentiments amidst the verbiage and bluster.
The novel follows the tribulations of Ferdinand Bardamu, Celine's slightly-fictionalised alter ego, a figure who glumly describes existence as 'a bit of light that ends in darkness'. Bardamu's unlikely odyssey is a protracted narrative of escape. He escapes the trenches of World War One, the convalescence home, the horrors of colonial Africa (but only as a slave himself), the squalor of American industrialism, the dead-end doctoring for the Parisian poor. The pages are filled with ennui and vitriol, delirium and destitution, the contents flowing like an unstoppable torrent of revulsion.
It is, however, a very funny book, as Bardamu's voice is ferociously unique. The colloquial and sprightly prose matches the insane drift of his mind, its multiple digressions and salacious impulses. There is a strange and beautiful poetry to his imagery, and the snippets saved from the profane scrapheap redeem the book: the African sunset, 'As tragic every time as a monumental murder of the sun', or the Parisian sky, that 'vast lake of suburban smoke'. The humour is dry, and nothing is sacred. A soldier, destroyed by a shell, is described as disappearing 'like a fart'. Childish, yes, but as a veteran of the war himself, Celine knew the aptness of this puerile simile.
Nevertheless, it can all become a little tedious. The book is too long, and Bardamu's incessant ranting and existential anguish give the impression of a stroppy teenager. As a perennial adolescent, he cannot excuse the loss of innocence, yet it is a situation he revels in. An inveterate frequenter of the whorehouse and a caperer among the poor, his self-loathing brings a yearning for redemption and a lamenting need to remould the world. Bardamu, however, cannot muster the effort, and, after reading this masterpiece of moaning and mediocrity, neither can we.