During the Christmas break I rediscovered Bukowski, not that he was lost, he just hadn’t been read by me since I read Factotum 23 years ago. On Christmas Eve I was wandering around the second hand bookshops on Bangkok’s Khao San Road when I stumbled across Bukowski’s novel Women, such are the backpackery type books much loved of Backpackery type bookshops for backpackery type people, like me. I read Women (the novel) in a little more than a day, it was fittingly fairly compulsive stuff. I loved Factotum 20 yrs ago, and today I loved Women (couldn’t resist that line).
So, I was left with the usual thought – how much of this is autobiographical ?, which led me to start reading about Bukowski. Which in turn led me to Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of The Night. Bukowski was a huge fan of Celine, In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Bukowski wrote
“’first of all read Céline; the greatest writer of 2,000 years”
Bukowski makes numerous references to Journey to the End of the Night in his works. As such, I immediately sought out a copy of this 1932 text. Plunging into the world of our protagonist, Bardamu, brought me to a wryly funny, if often dark place.
Bardamu is like the elder father of Holden Caulfield, Billy Pilgram, and Harry Haller. These are people for whom disagreeing with the mainstream is easy when they perceive that people in the mainstream live in a simulacra of the authentic. At what point do we start trying to convince ourselves that we are right, that our created world is the right world ? Is it at the level of initial experience ? or maybe a little later, at the point of interpretation. Or in the refuge of defensive self serving bias ? How frightening to imagine that we didn’t have such comforting retreats.
The story of this text trots along, we swiftly move across continents, contexts, and emotional states. The story moves from the Belgian battlefields of the First World War to colonial Africa, onto industrial-booming USA, back to France. This is a great insight into a personal view of history as Bardamu is a very believable character, albeit a very angry one. And a very cynical one – oh how very cynical Bardamu is. If you feel a little ‘peed-off’ with the world then just enter Bardamu’s head to feel what real discord is!
Journey to the End of The Night is possibly the most influential novel of the late 20th Century critical genre, yet it receives very little appraisal. Published in 1932 it’s influence has sounded down the ages, with writers such as Bukowski and Heller citing it as their major influence. It’s anti-establishment, anti-institutional, misanthropic voice which gives this text it’s distinctive flavour. I loved this book, I loved the sideways swipe that Bardamu takes at the world in his bitterness. It gave me a sense that my worst of thoughts were really not all that bad, afterall.
As we commemorate the beginning of The First World War many are reading Brooke, Sassoon and Owen. We should all read Celine’s account of that brutality.
There’s a shop in the UK called “Olden Times’, or something like that. It peddles a sepia-tinted version of a happier and gentler past. Sentimentalists who shop there should have a quick read of Journey to the End of the Night – it would soon dissolve any notion of a sugary yesteryear that any of them hold.