Okay… I’ve spared you all long enough. Communal racist that he was, Louis-Ferdinand Celine remains one the 20th century’s fire-breathing heavyweights. His Journey to the End of the Night, translated by Ralph Manheim, is a terrifyingly hilarious uproar that takes him from the ghettos of France to African jungles to… Detroit(!) where he worked for Ford Motor Company, to Manhattan, back to France. His Death on the Installment Plan is well, probably just a little too familiar while at the same probingly fitful and clairvoyant.
The following is from Journey, just as he arrives in New York the first time.
As if I knew where I was going, I put on an air of choosing and hanged my direction, taking a different street on my right, one that was better lit. “Broadway” it was called. I read the name on a sign. High up, far above the uppermost stories, there was still a bit of daylight, with sea gulls and patches of sky. We moved in the lower light, a sick sort of jungle light, so gray that the street seemed to be full of grimy cotton waste.
That street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world.
There were no cars or carriages, only people and more people.
This was the priceless district, I was told later, the gold district : Manhattan.You can enter it only on foot, like a church. It’s the banking heart and center of the present-day world. Yet some of those people spit on the sidewalk as they pass. You’ve got to have your nerve with you.
It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.
I found time to go and see them, I even went in and spoke to the employees who guard the cash. They’re sad and underpaid.
When the faithful enter their bank, don’t go thinking they can help themselves as they please. Far from it. In speaking to Dollar, they mumble words through a little grill; that’s their confessional. Not much sound, dim light, a tiny wicket between high arches, that’s all. They don’t swallow the Host, they put it on their hearts. I couldn’t stay there long admiring them. I had to follow the crowd in the street, between those walls of smooth shadow.
Suddenly our street widened, like a crevasse opening out into a bright clearing. Up ahead of us we saw a great pool of sea-green light, wedged between hordes of monstrous buildings. And in the middle of the clearing stood a rather countrified-looking house, surrounded by woebegone lawns.
I asked several people in the crowd what this edifice was, but most of them pretended not to hear me. They couldn’t spare the time. But one young fellow right next to me was kind enough to tell me it was City Hall, adding that it was an ancient monument dating back to colonial times, ever so historical… so they’d left it there… The fringes of this oasis formed a kind of park with benches, where you could sit comfortably enough and look at the building. When I got there, there was hardly anything else to see.
I waited more than an hour in the same place, and then toward noon, from the half-light, from the shuffling, discontinuous, dismal crowd, there erupted a sudden avalanche of absolutely and undeniably beautiful women.
What a discovery! What an America! What ecstasy! I thought of Lola… Her promises had not deceived me! It was true.
I had come to the heart of my pilgrimage. And if my appetite hadn’t kept calling itself to my attention, that would have struck me as one of those moments of supernatural aesthetic revelation. If I’d been a little more comfortable and confident, the incessant beauties I was discovering might have ravished me from my base human condition. In short, all I needed was a sandwich to make me believe in miracles. But how I needed that sandwich!
And yet, what supple grace! What incredible delicacy of form and feature! What inspired harmonies! What perilous nuances! Triumphant where the danger is greatest! Every conceivable promise of face and figure fulfilled! Those blondes! Those brunettes! Those Titian redheads! And more and more kept coming! Maybe, I thought, this is Greece starting all over again. Looks like I got here just in time.
What made those apparitions all the more divine in my eyes was that they seemed totally unaware of my existence as I sat on a bench close by, slap-happy, drooling with erotico-mystical admiration and quinine, but also, I have to admit, with hunger. If it were possible for a man to jump out of his skin, I’d have done it then, once and for all. There was nothing to hold me back.
Those unlikely midinettes could have wafted me away, sublimated me; a gesture, a word would have sufficed, and in that moment I’d have been transported, all of me, into the world of dreams. But I suppose they had other fish to fry.
I sat there for an hour, two hours, in that state of stupefaction. I had nothing more in the world to hope for.
You know about innards? The trick they play on tramps in the country? They stuff an old wallet with putrid chicken innards. Well, take it from me, a man is just like that, except that he’s fatter and hungrier and can move around, and inside there’s a dream.
I had to look at the practical side of things and not dip into my small supply of money right away. I didn’t have much. I was even afraid to count it. I couldn’t have anyway, because I was seeing double. I could only feel those thin, bashful banknotes through the material of my pocket, side by side with my phony statistics.
Men were passing, too, mostly young ones with faces that seemed to be made of pink wood, with a dry, monotonous expression, and jowls so wide and coarse they were hard to get used to… Well, maybe that was the kind of jowls their womenfolk wanted. The sexes seemed to stay on different sides of the street. The women looked only at the shopwindows, their whole attention was taken by the handbags, scarves, and little silk doodads, displayed very little at a time, but with precision and authority. You didn’t see many old people in that crowd. Not many couples either. Nobody seemed to find it strange that I should sit on that bench for hours all by myself, watching the people pass. But all at once the policeman standing like an inkwell in the middle of the street seemed to suspect me of sinister intentions. I could tell.
And big congratulations, Mr. President.