Upon his return to Paris Ferdinand Bardamu trains to become a doctor and his life after years of restless wandering settles into a mundane routine. As a doctor in a poor suburb Bardamu continues to see the most hopeless and desperate of humanity, the impoverished, the sick and the dying. Death is ever present, lurking always throughout the entire narrative, death and the fear of living. Journey… is a classically French existential novel.
One other character besides the narrator is in attendance throughout the book, appearing uncannily wherever the narrator goes. He is Leon Robinson. Celine hides his apparent honesty behind several layers of pretence: first there is the pen name Celine, the authors’ real name being Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Destouches; secondly the narrator Ferdinand Bardamu; and finally Leon Robinson. Robinson is Bardamu’s alter ego, the Hyde to his Jeckyl. Through Robinson Celine can act out the fantasies his narrator is too restrained, by class or social standing, to act out. He (Bardamu) despises all that Robinson is, even though he is his closest ally and clearly recognises himself in the character, but he is jealous of Robinson’s freedom. He speaks and acts as the narrator would like to, but is afraid to, and he suffers for him.
Once Bardamu has escaped the war the book begins proper with him as an inmate in an asylum, and it ends with Bardamu running a very similar asylum. This is the cycle of inescapable madness the narrative depicts. Celine is saying, like many writers who experienced the First World War, that the world is mad, as are all those who don’t see this inevitable fact.
The second half of the book centres round a murder plot, first bungled with consequences (Robinson is blinded by his own explosive device as he sets a trap to kill an old woman. He then has to live with the woman running an ossuary as a tourist attraction. Robinson’s only motive for the attempted crime is money) and then opportunistically successful (the second murder attempt has nothing to do with money, more to assuage Robinson’s wounded pride at his initial failure and for the love of a woman) with, eventually, consequences even more dire (he is hounded and shot by his lover). With this we have finally reached the end of the night, and as dawn breaks on the bloody corpse of a man murdered by love, the journey ends.
(Post Script: there is of course a crucial difference between Celine and Henry Miller, a writer who shares similarities of style and language. Whereas Celine’s writing is full of bile and disgust at humanity, Miller’s is full of exuberant joy. Celine is revolted by life whereas Miller embraces all, especially those parts literature had previously tended to avoid.)