Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Journey to the Edge of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan- by Louis-Ferdinand Celine- 1936 - translated from the French by Ralph Manheim

Journey to the Edge of the Night - 1932- and Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine- 1936 - both translated from the French by Ralph Manheim 

"An Immense hatred keeps me alive... i would live for a thousand years if i were certain of seeing the whole world croak" - Louis Ferdinand Céline

Works Read so for Paris in July 2019

  1. At the Existentialist Cafe:Freedom, Being and Apricot  Cocktails by Sarah Blackwell.  2016 - An exploration of the Parisian origins of French post World War Two Existentialism 
  2. Suzanne's Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris by Anne Nelson. 2017- an important addition to French Holocaust Literature
  3. Journey to the Edge of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine -1932
  4. Death on The Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine - 1936

Please consider participating in Paris in July 2019, hosted by Thyme for Tea.  

These two classic works by Celine begin in trenches of France in World War One. It was the type of experiences depicted in the vitrolic prose of Celine that created a culture in which French philosophers like Jean Paul Sarte turned to Existentialism as shown in At the Existentialist Cafe:Freedom, Being and Apricot  Cocktails by Sarah Blackwell.   There are other responses to France’s defeat in World War One by German’s and to the millions of deaths in the war but a plunge in depravity and hatred of society was Celine's way, accepting that people are intrinsically evil.  From this many were lead to the placement of blame.  From this many, including Celine, adopted the 
view that the Jews were to blame for the corruption of European culture.  Many in France tactily welcomed the attempt of the Nazis to purge France of Jews.
Thankfully there was resistance.  One account of a better side of humanity is illustrated in Suzanne's Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris by Anne Nelson. 

Today I will talk about two classics of between wars French literature, Journey to the Edge of the Night - 1932- and Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine- 1936 - both translated from the French by Ralph Manheim.

Journey to the End of the Night is an amazing, very influential novel by a great writer whose legacy has been damaged by his support during the German occupation of Paris of vicious anti-Semitic policies including the removal of all Jews to concentration camps.  Celine (1894 to 1861, born just outside of Paris) wrote shameful  hate-filled pamphlets for collaborationist organizations.  He was part of an organization that rounded up Jews for deportation.  After Germany's defeat he fled to Norway.  He was convicted in absentia as a collaborator but was given amnesty in 1950 and returned to France.  This being said, Journey to the End of the Night is a powerful precursor to rough traveling on the road styles of writing focusing on the darkest underside of society and the most venal side of humanity  that became and is still very popular throughout the world.  

The narrator begins Journey to the End of the Night  .in the trenches in WW One, in the French Army.  He went into the army because, as he tells it, he was suckered in by patriotic rhetoric designed to make millions of poor men in Germany and France kill each other for the ends of their rulers, the hyper rich who care nothing for them.  Celine's account of the trenches in WW One is brilliant.  After the war, he moves from one adventure to another by happenstance encounters, he goes French Colonial Africa to work for a company involved in brutal capriciously cruel exploitation of their workers, rubber tappers.  There is a scene where a rubber tapper seeking his meager pay is totally humiliated that is masterful.  Our narrator seems to regard the Africans as near subhuman.  He does not like it there, in fact he hates pretty much everything, and makes it to New York City which he depicts as an incredibly awful place.  From there he travels to Detroit and works for a while in an automobile manufacturing plant.  He sees the workers as totally dehumanized, little more than just another machine to the factory owners.  He finds one decent person, a woman and of course she works in a brothel.  She falls in love with him and he exploits and then abandons her to go back to Paris.  Once there he goes to medical school (as did Celine), becomes a doctor, works in the slums and fails miserably, making very little money and helping almost no one.  He likes sex, women only, but mostly as a distraction, he forms almost no real bonds. Physically he finds his patients disgusting. He finds little worthwhile in the human condition, the poor are exploited, the middle class idiots and the rich are no more than sanctified criminals.

This is a work full of bitterness and pain. I think part of the influence is in the way Celine sees through the multifarious shams of society.  There is nothing he is afraid to say. 

Death on the Installment Plan is a prequel to Journey to The End of the Night. It is a presentation of the years of the life of the narrator, growing up in a city he hates almost as much as he does his fellow Parisians, seen from his adult perspective.

Death on The Installment Plan (sometimes translated as Death on Credit) is set in the slums of Paris.  In it we can follow the first 18 years of the narrator’s life. His parents were merchants, small time shop keepers constantly struggling to survive.  He hates seeing the constant degredation of his parents.  He has all sorts of childhood fantasies, some violent, some sexual, some scatological.  

Our narrator develops a great sexual appetite.  He bonds with other boys through sex, with each other, mostly, limited to mutual madturbation and blow jobs.  (The language in both books seems designed at first to shock then to kind of numb you out by constant repitition of adolescent expressions for sex acts).  He also prostitutes himself to pedophiles.  His mother sells sex once and a while.  He lives in a horrible tenament.  He and his friends learn to spy on women getting dressed and couples having sex.  As he gets older he vividly describes his sexual encounters with girls his age and adult women.  His father constantly tells him he will amount to nothing.  His father is an insurance clerk, maybe a frustrated intellectual.  He secures various jobs and expands his hatred for the adult world.  He steals what he can.

In a very darkly funny episode his parents send him to boarding school in England, hoping he will learn English.

These two works are not for everyone.  Hatred and disgust for women is a constant.  That being said, they are very powerful portraits of French society between the wars.  I would expect the narrator to support the extermination of French Jews and to be fine with the Germans winning the war.

If nothing else, these are honest books.


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