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Journey to the End of the Night (L.-F. Céline)

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

celine - journey to the end of the night

Trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York : New Directions, 1983)
Copyright 1952 by Ferdinand Céline.
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10 pages extract from Journey to the End of the Night by L.-F. Céline

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.

Wherever you may be, the moment you draw the attention of the authorities, the best thing you can do is disappear in a hurry. Don't try to explain. Sink into the earth! I said to myself.

It so happened that just to one side of my bench there was a big hole in the sidewalk, something like the Métro at home. That hole seemed propitious, so vast, with a stairway all of pink marble inside it. I'd seen quite a few people from the street disappear into it and come out again. It was in that underground vault that they answered the call of nature. I caught on right away. The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking feces with barbarous noises in front of everybody.

Men among men, all free and easy, they laughed and joked and cheered one another on, it made me think of a football game. The first thing you did when you got there was to take off your jacket, as if in preparation for strenuous exercise. This was a rite and shirtsleeves were the uniform.

In that state of undress, belching and worse, gesticulating like lunatics, they settled down in the fecal grotto. The new arrivals were assailed with a thousand revolting jokes while descending the stairs from the street, but they all seemed delighted.

The morose aloofness of the men on the street above was equated only by the air of liberation and rejoicing that came over them at the prospect of emptying their bowels in tumultuous company.

The splotched and spotted doors to the cabins hung loose, wrenched from their hinges. Some customers went from one cell to another for a little chat, those waiting for an empty seat smoked heavy cigars and slapped the backs of the obstinately toiling occupants, who sat there straining with their heads between their hands. Some groaned like wounded men or women in labor. The constipated were threatened with ingenious tortures.

When a gush of water announced a vacancy, the clamor around the free compartment redoubled, and as often as not a coin would be tossed for its possession. No sooner read, newspapers, though as thick as pillows, were dismembered by the horde of rectal toilers. The smoke made it hard to distinguish faces, and the smells deterred me from going too close.

To a foreigner the contrast was disconcerting. Such free-and-easy intimacy, such extraordinary intestinal familiarity, and up on the street such perfect restraint. It left me stunned.

I returned to the light of day by the same stairway and went back to the same bench to rest. Sudden outburst of digestive vulgarity. Discovery of a joyous shitting communism. I ignored both these disconcerting aspects of the same adventure. I hadn't the strength for analysis or synthesis. My pressing desire was to sleep. O rare, delicious frenzy!

So I joined the line of pedestrians entering one of the neighboring streets. We progressed by fits and starts because of the shopwindows, which fragmented the crowd. At one point, the door of a hotel created a great eddy. People poured out on to the sidewalk through a big revolving door. I was caught up and poured the other way, into the big lobby inside.

Instant amazement... You had to divine, to imagine the majesty of the edifice, the generous proportions, because the lights were so veiled that it took you some time to know what you were looking at.

Lots of young women in the half-light, plunged in deep armchairs as in jewel cases. Around them attentive men, moving silently, with timid curiosity, to and fro, just offshore from the row of crossed legs and magnificent silk-encased thighs. Those miraculous beings seemed to be waiting for grave and costly events. Obviously they weren't giving me a thought. So, ever so furtively, I in my turn passed that long and palpable temptation.

Since at least a hundred of those divine leg owners were sitting in a single row of chairs, I reached the reception desk in so dreamy a condition, having absorbed a ration of beauty so much too strong for my constitution that I was reeling.

At the desk, a pomaded clerk violently offered me a room. I asked for the smallest in the hotel. I can't have had more than fifty dollars at the time. Also, I was pretty well out of ideas and self-assurance.

I hoped the room the clerk was giving me was really the smallest, because his hotel, the Laugh Calvin, was advertised as the most luxurious and sumptuously furnished on the whole North American continent!

Over my head, what an infinity of furnished roomsl And all around me, in those chairs, what inducements to multiple rape! What abysses! What perils! Is the poor man's aesthetic torment to have no end? Is it to be even more long-lasting than his hunger? But there was no time to succumb; before I knew it, the clerk had thrust a heavy key into my hand. I was afraid to move.

A sharp youngster, dressed like a juvenile brigadier general, stepped, imperious and commanding, out of the gloom. The smooth reception clerk rang his metallic bell three times, and the little boy started whistling. That was my send-off. Time to go. And away we went.

As black and resolute as a subway train, we raced down a corridor. The youngster in the lead. A twist, a turn, another. We didn't dawdle. We veered a bit to the left. Here we go. The elevator. Stitch in my side. Is this it? No. Another corridor. Even darker. Ebony pancling, it looks like, all along the walls. No time to examine it. The kid's whistling. He's carrying my frail valise. I don't dare ask him questions. My job was to keep walking, that was clear to me. In the darkness here and there, as we passed, a red-and-green light flashed a command. Long lines of gold marked the doors. We had passed the 1800s long ago and then the 3000s, and still we were on our way, drawn by our invincible destiny. As though driven by instinct, the little bellhop in his braid and stripes pursued the Nameless in the darkness. Nothing in this cavern seemed to take him unawares. His whistling modulated plaintively when we passed a black man and a black chambermaid. And that was all.

Struggling to walk faster in those corridors, I lost what little self-assurance I had left when I escaped from quarantine. I was falling apart, just as I had seen my shack fall apart in the African wind and the floods of warm water. Here I was attacked by a torrent of unfamiliar sensations. There's a moment between two brands of humanity when you find yourself thrashing around in a vacuum.

Suddenly, without warning, the youngster pivoted. We had arrived. I bumped into a chair, it was my room, a big box with ebony walls. The only light was a faint ring surrounding the bashful greenish lamp on the table. The manager of the Laugh Calvin Hotel begged the visitor to look upon him as a friend and assured him that he, the manager, would make a special point of keeping him, the visitor, cheerful throughout his stay in New York. Reading this notice, which was displayed where no one could possibly miss it, added if possible to my depression.

Once I was left alone, it deepened. All America had followed me to my room, and was asking me enormous questions, reviving awful forebodings.

Reclining anxiously on the bed, I tried to adjust to the darkness of my cubbyhole. At regular intervals the walls on the window side trembled. An Elevated Railway train was passing. It bounded between two streets like a cannonball filled with quivering flesh, jolting from section to section of this lunatic city. You could see it far away, its carcass trembling as it passed over a torrent of steel girders, which went on echoing from rampart to rampart long after the train had roared by at seventy miles an hour. Dinnertime passed as I lay thus prostrate, and bedtime as well.

What had horrified me most of all was that Elevated Railway. On the other side of the court, which was more like a well shaft, the wall began to light up, first one, then two rooms, then dozens. I could see what was going on in some of them. Couples going to bed. These Americans seemed as worn out as our own people after their vertical hours. The women had very full, very pale thighs, at least the ones I was able to get a good look at. Before going to bed, most of the men shaved without taking the cigars out of their mouths.

In bed they first took off their glasses, then put their false teeth in a glass of water, which they left in evidence. Same as in the street, the sexes didn't seem to talk to each other. They impressed me as fat, docile animals, used to being bored. In all, I only saw two couples engaging, with the light on, in the kind of thing I'd expected, and not at all violently. The other women ate chocolates in bed, while waiting for their husbands to finish shaving. And then they all put their lights out.

There's something sad about people going to bed. You can see they don't give a damn whether they're getting what they want out of life or not, you can see they don't even try to understand what we're here for. They just don't care. Americans or not, they sleep no matter what, they're bloated mollusks, no sensibility, no trouble with their conscience.

I'd seen too many puzzling things to be easy in my mind. I knew too much and not enough. I'd better go out, I said to myself, I'd better go out again. Maybe I'll meet Robinson. Naturally that was an idiotic idea, but I dreamed it up as an excuse for going out again, because no matter how much I tossed and turned on my narrow bed, I couldn't snatch the tiniest scrap of sleep. Even masturbation, at times like that, provides neither comfort nor entertainment. Then you're really in despair.

The worst part is wondering how you'll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you'll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.

And maybe it's treacherous old age coming on, threatening the worst. 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.

I'd better go out into the street, a partial suicide. Everyone has his little knacks, his ways of getting sleep and food. I'd need to sleep if I wanted to recover the strength I'd need to go to work next day. Get back the zip it would take to find a job in the morning, and in the meantime force my way into the unknown realm of sleep. Don't go thinking it's easy to fall asleep when you've started doubting everything, mostly because of the awful fears people have given you.

I dressed and somehow found my way to the elevator, but feeling kind of foggy. I still had to cross the lobby, to pass more rows of ravishing enigmas with legs so tempting, faces so delicate and severe. Goddesses, in short, hustling goddesses. We might have tried to make an arrangement. But I was afraid of being arrested. Complications. Nearly all a poor bastard's desires are punishable by jail. So there I was on the street again. It wasn't the same crowd as before. This one billowed over the sidewalks and showed a little more life, as if it had landed in a country less arid, the land of entertainment, of night life.

The people surged in the direction of lights suspended far off in the darkness, writhing multicolored snakes. They flowed in from all the neighboring streets. A crowd like that, I said to myself, adds up to a lot of dollars in handkerchiefs alone or silk stockings! Or just in cigarettes for that matter! And to think that you can go out among all that money, and nobody'll give you a single penny, not even to go and eat with! It's heartbreaking to think how people shut themselves off from one another, like houses.

I, too, dragged myself toward the lights, a movie house, and then another right next to it, and another, all along the street. We lost big chunks of crowd to each of them. I picked a movie house with posters of women in slips, and what legs! Boyohboy! Heavy! Ample! Shapely! And pretty faces on top, as though drawn for the contrast, no need of retouching, not a blemish, not a flaw, perfect I tell you, delicate but firm and concise. Life can engender no greater peril than these incautious beauties, these indiscreet variations on perfect divine harmony.

It was warm and cozy in the movie house. An enormous organ, as mellow as in a cathedral, a heated cathedral I mean, organ pipes like thighs. They don't waste a moment. Before you know it, you're bathing in an all-forgiving warmth. Just let yourself go and you'll begin to think the world has been converted to loving-kindness. I almost was myself.

Dreams rise in the darkness and catch fire from the mirage of moving light. What happens on the screen isn't quite real; it leaves open a vague cloudy space for the poor, for dreams and the dead. Hurry hurry, cram yourself full of dreams to carry you through the life that's waiting for you outside, when you leave here, to help you last a few days more in that nightmare of things and people. Among the dreams, choose the ones most likely to warm your soul. I have to confess that I picked the sexy ones. No point in being proud; when it comes to miracles, take the ones that will stay with you. A blonde with unforgettable tits and shoulders saw fit to break the silence of the screen with a song about her loneliness. I'd have been glad to cry about it with her.

There's nothing like it! What a lift it gives you! After that, I knew I'd have courage enough in my guts to last me at least two days. I didn't even wait for the lights to go on. Once I'd absorbed a small dose of that admirable ecstasy, I knew I'd sleep, my mind was made up.

When I got back to the Laugh Calvin, the night clerk, despite my greeting, neglected to say good evening the way they do at home. But his contempt didn't mean a thing to me anymore. An intense inner life suffices to itself, it can melt an icepack that has been building up for twenty years. That's a fact.

In my room I'd barely closed my eyes when the blonde from the movie house came along and sang her whole song of sorrow just for me. I helped her put me to sleep, so to speak, and succeeded pretty well... I wasn't entirely alone... It's not possible to sleep alone...

From Journey to the End of the Night, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 1932