I am writing this about a book I am barely half way through. The book is Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the Centre of the Night. It is a modern masterpiece, and, although I am new to Celine, it is in many ways very familiar. In it can be plainly seen amongst others Henry Miller, and William Burroughs. Celine is the opposite of Miller who as a citizen of Brooklyn, New York, was drawn to the romance and decadence of bohemian Paris. Journey... (as far as I have read) is the story of a Parisian drawn to the romance of bohemian New York. Miller and Celine were contemporaries. Their paths could easily have crossed on the Atlantic heading in opposite directions. (This is a romantic image and unlikely, but maybe their ships did cross paths and Miller and Celine, stood on their respective decks, saw each other and recognised a fellow traveller, a kindred spirit.) With Burroughs, who admitted to being a fan, Celine delights in creating appalling characters, drawing out the worst traits of humanity: officers, generals, diplomatic attaches, doctors, all of the professional classes on the make, weak people who, having established themselves positions of authority within the cultural hierarchy, are all out for their own selfish ends. Their characters share a lack of sentiment, seeing the naked nature of the human beast.
In the first half of Journey… we have so far five settings: the trenches of the First World War, a mental asylum in Paris, the jungles of colonial Africa, New York, and Detroit. All five are the same, filled with a sprawling alienated mass fighting for survival in hostile surroundings. It is the same battle but with different enemies: mud, madness, disease, poverty, and mechanisation. It is an unflinching take on the fine line between life and death, where the fragile former is maintained only by the fear and inevitability of the latter. And, I have to say, it is all such terribly good fun.