Civilized society is portrayed as a constant threat to individual freedom in this savage text—the previously untranslated first half of a two-part novel the perversely great French author (1894–1961) published in 1952.
This confrontational “novel in which invention is grafted onto a presumed autobiography” followed the pseudonymous Céline’s early masterpieces (Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan) and preceded his hallucinatory WWII trilogy (North, Castle to Castle, Rigadoon). Composed while its author, indicted by his government for treasonable praises of anti-Semitism and Nazism, was imprisoned in Copenhagen awaiting extradition to France for trial, it’s a bitter howl of protest expressed in Céline’s characteristically fragmented style. Run-on sentences, angry accusations, imaginary conversations with an implied reader (who’s as abusive as the narrator) create a kaleidoscopic impression of terror, resentment, and psychic unbalance. The narrator (referred to by several names, each of which identifies the author) vilifies his tormentors and demands the respect denied both his literary accomplishments and his heroic military service (during WWI). Céline spares nobody, dwelling luridly on details of prison life, mocking the hypocrisies of nationalism and literary convention (critics, translators, and censors are favored targets), indulging a coprophiliac obsession with bodily processes and malfunctions (“Nature, you’re a pile of shit!”), and woolgathering about such remembered figures as a beautiful dancer who excited his lust, a legless artist friend who took seductive advantage of female pity, and his intemperate housecat Bébert (which creature seems to have been Céline’s beloved doppelgänger). The energy and rhythm of the narrator’s voice are intoxicating, but the content is so off-putting, you may hate yourself for not tossing it into the trash.
Exactly the effect intended, we imagine, by one of the 20th century’s most eloquent and incorrigible misanthropes.