travel

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

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THE MOON AND THE BONFIRES BY CESARE PAVESE

Some years ago I decided that I wanted to go back to the place where I had been raised. Just for the day. Or for an hour or two, at least. I had been away at university, and although that had changed me, had helped me to come to terms with many of my childhood experiences, I was still aware of it – my home town – creeping around, spider-like, in the corners of my mind. I arrived by bus around midday, and I stood at the bottom of the hill, gazing up at the gloomy council estate in which I had spent so many unhappy years, and something unexpected happened: although I had come to say goodbye, to bear witness, I actually felt as though I was reacquainting myself with an old, much-missed friend. How peculiar nostalgia is; it is like an amiable old cleaning lady who is able to remove the most stubborn, unpleasant stains.

“One needs a town, if only for the pleasure of leaving it.”

The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese begins with a similar scenario, which is to say that the nameless narrator has returned to the place where he grew up after a period of living elsewhere. He is, therefore, obviously trying to reconnect with the past, or with his past self; yet, crucially, he doesn’t know whether he was born in the region, being a bastard who was left on the steps of a cathedral as a baby and later taken in by a local couple. In this way, what he is actually searching for is a home; he is wanting to claim a piece of land for himself, despite an overriding feeling of rootlessness; he wants to feel part of something, and yet, simultaneously, feels alienated, or distant, from almost everything.

This sense of rootlessness pervades the novel. As a young man, the narrator moved to America, a land, he says, where everyone is a bastard. It is, moreover, a land of opportunity, and yet, despite making his fortune, he didn’t fit in, or feel at home, there either. It is only when another Italian enters the restaurant where he is working that he feels a connection to something. They talk, critically, about the lack of good wine, and about American women, and the narrator points out that it isn’t their  – the Americans’ – fault; this is their home, he says, indicating, of course, that isn’t his. Ironically, on his return to his home town, the locals call him the American, which only further emphases his exclusion. To them, he is a foreigner, a stranger. Even the dogs mistrust him, and bark and pull at their leashes when he passes by.

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As he wanders around Gaminella, the Belbo, and the Mora, the narrator is on the look out for the familiar, while, at the same time, acknowledging that he will not find it. Things change. The past cannot be recreated. The people that he knew in his youth – Padrino, Giulia, etc – have died, or moved on [if not literally then symbolically]; they have got married, had new experiences, become different people. Even the ‘pine tree by the fence’ has been cut down. One of the locals that he does reconnect with is an old friend, Nuto. Indeed, one of his functions in the novel is to contrast the narrator, for Nuto stuck around, stayed in the town. But he too has changed, of course. He was once a musician – an activity that suggests freedom – but gave that up in order to concentrate on being a carpenter, a steadier occupation for someone with responsibilities.

“What use is this valley to a family that comes from across the sea and knows nothing about the moon and the bonfires? You must have grown up there and have in in your bones, like wine and polenta, and then you know it without needing to speak about it.”

At one stage the narrator says to Nuto that he too ought to leave; and he says the same thing about Cinto, a lame boy he attempts to befriend. It is an interesting psychological quirk that he appears to want the locals to behave as he did, although one gets the impression that it is not necessarily because he thinks it is the best thing for them, rather because he wants them to be like him, to mirror him; it is further evidence of the narrator trying to find himself in a place. Indeed, his relationship with Cinto is fascinating. On one level he is used by Pavese to point the finger at Italy and the way that it mistreats its poor, in the same way that Dickens used his chimney sweeps, etc; he is an innocent victim of his circumstances, for his condition is credited to a mother with bad milk, who didn’t eat enough and worked too hard.

However, he is also the person with whom the narrator most intensely identifies, who he sees himself in. This results in one of the novel’s finest passages, which is when the two first meet. Cinto looks at him ‘in the sunlight, holding a dried rabbit skin in one hand, closing his thin eyelids to gain time.’ He is barefoot, with ‘a scab under one eye and bony shoulders.’ This vision, this vulnerable boy, reminds the narrator of ‘how often I had chillblains, scabs on my knees and cracked lips.’ It is a strangely tender, touching piece of writing, as, for the narrator, it is almost like a meeting with himself, like looking at and speaking to himself as a child. Indeed, he tries to convince Cinto that he was once a child himself, a child just like him, as though he needs the boy’s recognition.

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As always, there is more that could be discussed; war plays a part in the narrative, as does politics; there is, furthermore, the dual, repeated symbolism of the moon and fire, one of which represents home and the other faraway places. But, in all honesty, I don’t find any of that particularly stimulating, and I am sure other people have, or will, labour over it in my stead. One thing I do want to acknowledge, however, is the number of lukewarm reviews the book has garnered; from those floating around the internet it seems as though very few people fall in love with Pavese’s most famous work; it is, they often state, plotless and tedious. Well, for what it is worth, I loved it the first time I read it, and I appreciated it even more the second time around. Yes, it is unceasingly ruminative, and therefore low on high octane thrills; but I have never chased after that kind of thing, myself. What I want from a book is quality writing, insight, and an emotional punch; and this one has each of those things in abundance. In short, The Moon and the Bonfires is, for me, a masterpiece; it is a powerful, near-flawless novel, that so resonated with me that, appropriately, reading it felt like finding a part of myself, it felt like home.

INVISIBLE CITIES BY ITALO CALVINO

You: What is Invisible Cities?

[P]: A short Borgesian novel by Italo Calvino in which the traveller Marco Polo describes a series of [mostly fantastical] cities for the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan.

You: What’s it all about?

[P]: I just told you.

You: No, you gave me a synopsis. What’s it really about? What was this Calvino guy trying to say?

[P]: Ah, shit.

You: You don’t know?

[P]: I’m not sure. It’s hard to explain. Marcel Proust once wrote, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

You: Is that relevant?

[P]: Yes, of course.

You: How so?

[P]: Ah, shit.

You: How many times have you read the book?

[P]: Twice

You: And you still can’t say anything meaningful about it?

[P]: Well, one man’s meaningful is another man’s rambling incoherent bullshit. I’m wary of rambling.

You: It has never worried you before.

[P]: That’s a good point.

You: So proceed.

[P]: Well, the reader is told in one of the linking narrative sections that the two men don’t speak the same language, that they actually communicate via signs and objects. One imagines that as a consequence of speaking different languages, and the subsequent miscommunication between them, that both have a different conception/understanding of the cities being ‘described.’ The cities of Kublai Khan’s mind, then, could be the invisible [non-existent] cities of the title, as he, unlike Polo, has never seen them but only ‘heard’ of them from someone else.

Yet while this idea of an elaborate Chinese whispers appeals to me, I am not certain that there is enough evidence to support a claim that it was Calvino’s intention to explore it. Indeed, that something, like a city, can exist in two different forms in the imaginations of two different men, that it can change in appearance as it passes from the mind of one person to the mind of another, throws up interesting questions about the nature and reliability of knowledge, and also, if one ignores for a moment the claim that the two men are communicating via signs etc, touches on the merits and otherwise of oral storytelling. Yet, it is Polo’s descriptions that are fantastical, we are not privy to Kublai’s interpretations. To give weight to the idea that this is really a book about communication, about building images in one’s mind, there would need to be some sense that Polo’s descriptions are at odds with his listener’s understanding of what he is told, and there isn’t.

You: So you’ve told me what you don’t think the book is about?

[P]: Yes.

You: Are you always like this?

[P]: No, but…

You: If someone asks you for directions to the supermarket do you tell them how to get to the library?

[P]: No, but Invisible Cities suggests many interpretations.

You: Does it? On the reverse of the novel itself there is a quote by Paul Bailey who claims that it is a paean to Venice, that the descriptions of seemingly distinct places are actually descriptions of that one city.

[P]: I’m aware of that. But doesn’t that indicate that knowledge of Venice would be necessary in order to understand or fully appreciate Calvino’s work?.

You: I guess so.

[P]: I just don’t quite buy that, as it seems extraordinarily cheeky of a writer to expect his readership to hop on a plane to Italy in order to be able to make sense of his book.

You: You’re not much of a traveller, then?

[P]: I…well…the thing is, whenever I go anywhere I find that the place was more romantic, more beautiful, more special in my mind, in anticipation, than it is in reality. I am always disappointed whenever I go anywhere.

You: Life must be a real bitch for you.

[P]: Yes, but I think that might be what Calvino was getting at. My favourite interpretation of Invisible Cities would be that Kublai Khan knows that Polo is not telling the truth when he recounts his tales of marvellous places, but prefers these wonderful imaginative cities to the actual cities over which he rules, that like Don Quixote this magical world is more appealing to him than the real thing.

You: So there you are, you do know what the book is about.

[P]: No. Because I am not totally convinced of this interpretation either. Indeed, the thought that struck me with the most vehemence whilst reading it was that this is a novel about understanding the essence of cities, rather than their purely physical appearance. I wrote something about myself…

You: Ah, shit.

[P]: Is that objectionable to you?

You: [Sighing deeply] No, no. Go on then, what did you write…[almost indistinctly} about yourself?

[P]: I wrote…

To understand my home city I have to understand another, to see it I have to see another, for it is that other city that gives this one, my home, existence; it is that other city that brought me here, that made here possible. That other city is London. When I try to see London, I see:

A photobooth in Paddington station, that might not exist anymore, that might never have existed in Paddington station, for maybe it was in Marylebone station. Or Kings Cross. But for me it is there in Paddington station, forever.

A girl in a red coat, fairytale-like, emerging out of the crowd on Camden High Street; opposite, across the road, is a megastore, the name of which is obscured; behind me is Camden tube station.

The girl: Jemmia, two weeks before she tried to kill herself for the first time. Or three weeks. Or maybe even four. And who is to say her coat was red? And yet I see it with the same kind of certainty and assurance as if the image of her in it is tattooed on my arm.

My London is an imaginary London, it exists only within me. I trace it not with my feet or my hands or my eyes, but ghost-like through my memories. And yet this dream of London has a pull and an influence on me stronger than the four walls that will keep me tonight or the street I’ll tread tomorrow.

It is times like this that you start to realise that your whole life is a dream, an unmanageable and complex web of dreams and imaginings.

You: Y’know, that’s not half as bad as I feared.

[P]: Thanks, I guess.

You: But still you’re mostly just stalling for time.

[P]: Maybe. Thing is, we could do this forever and I will still probably be unable to adequately describe, sum up, or understand Invisible Cities. In fact, it occurs to me now all I have done is to essentially outline a series of Invisible Novels. At the very least, I hope one of them inspires you to read to Calvino’s.

You: I’ll get back to you on that.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH BY JOHN STEINBECK

Doing a Steinbeck

Definition: when someone does something that is incongruously, or unexpectedly, stupid

See also: brainfart, blonde moment.

Plotting a novel, I have often said, is a bit like top-level sport, in that it is, more than anything, about making the right choices at the right time. Some writers appear, or appeared, to have a natural flair for it, and their novels are the most satisfying and exciting plot-wise. This talent has nothing to do with prose style; there are some wonderful prose stylists that probably couldn’t plot a novel if the fate of the entire human race depended upon it; William Gass, for example, I believe, has admitted that story-writing isn’t his forte. The problem for those who rely more on plotting than prose [we’re going to ignore characterisation, although obviously this is important too] is that it is far more noticeable when things go wrong, it is far easier to derail your novel with a false move than with a bad metaphor.

To illustrate this point, consider, briefly, the notorious [to my mind, anyway] literary mis-steps found in The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles and The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. While the prose is strong in these two novels, it is the story that is king, and the allure, more than anything, is in the excitement engendered by wondering just where it is going next. Unfortunately, both novels take disastrous turns [The Sheltering Sky in particular] which almost manage to completely alter one’s perception of the books in question.

In Llosa’s novel it is the moment when one of the characters blesses himself with his leader’s watery waste. Yeah, you read that right. One of the characters, a man involved in a kind of religious cult, takes some of his leader’s thin faecal matter and blesses himself with it. And, uh, yeah, I get it, y’know, I understand that it is meant to show just how passionately he believes in his ‘prophet,’ that he sees him as saintly to the point that his waste is no longer something human and disgusting. But, er, it is disgusting, which is even sort of ok, but it is comically disgusting. And that’s a real problem. What is most frustrating about the scene is that there are a million other ways Mario could have made the same point[s], which wouldn’t have involved one having to trundle down the scatological route. Furthermore, there is another scene, which takes place some 500 pages into the book, which is, by the way, long after I think the novel ought to have ended [this is another plotting issue: writers who don’t know when to stop; tantric writers, i call them], when a man who has been, throughout the book, clearly in love with his wife suddenly decides to engage in some near-rape of his housekeeper. Uh? Why, Mario?

My issues with The Sheltering Sky are centred around the abrupt change in tone and atmosphere about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the central female character takes to the desert and gets involved in a lot of ridiculous bollocks [and some more rape. Ugh] that wouldn’t have been out of place in Carry On…Follow That Camel. Some of the choices in the final third of Bowles’ novel are so spectacularly bad that it could almost have been written by someone or something else, his dog perhaps or the proverbial monkey at the typewriter.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath suffers a similar fate to that of both novels previously discussed; only the point at which Steinbeck makes his false move is so close to the end, his choice so utterly bats, so out of character in relation to the rest of the book, that one cannot help but do a double-take. Did he really go there? Oh yeah, he did, he did go there. Wow. All this will seem a bit vague, but I don’t know whether I want to spoil it for you, whether I want you to experience it for yourself. In any case, I think that what I’m talking about can possibly best be represented with an image:

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You have been warned.